Mainstream media follows right-wing framing in Lee Zeldin keychain incident
National outlets reflexively foreground a supposedly tough-on-crime approach. Criminal justice advocates are nowhere to be found.
Mainstream media outlets have largely followed conservative media’s framing after a man allegedly attempted to injure Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) with a small self-defense-style keychain tool at a July 21 speech. Right-wing media, often quoting Zeldin or people associated with his campaign, have used the event to attack New York state’s modest bail reform laws. Several mainstream outlets adopted this basic template, further spreading the incorrect idea that the reforms were to blame for the alleged assailant’s release from custody.
There are two key pieces of information that have been almost entirely ignored in the mainstream national press but were reported in local media. First, the initial prosecutor in the case, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley, was listed publicly as Zeldin’s campaign co-chair as recently as July 25. The Times Union reported Doorley’s connection with the campaign in its coverage, but was given conflicting responses by the various parties as to whether Doorley was in fact an active campaign co-chair. (Doorley has recused herself from the case.)
Second, as the Times Union also reported, Doorley’s office charged the alleged perpetrator, David G. Jakubonis, with second degree attempted assault on Friday, July 22. That nonviolent charge – which was not eligible for bail – was a surprise to many, the Times Union reported, because “law enforcement in Monroe County is known for pressing heavier charges than prosecutors in many other counties.” The previous year, Monroe prosecutors had only brought that charge one time, instead usually pursuing far harsher penalties that would include bail. (Jakubonis was separately arrested and charged in federal court, and is in custody pending a hearing scheduled for July 27.)
Initial reporting from The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Politico, and CNN all failed to mention Doorley’s close ties to the Zeldin campaign. However, each one similarly mentioned New York’s bail reform laws, either implicitly or explicitly in a negative light. The AP, for example, twice referenced calls to “toughen” the laws. None of those stories included direct quotes from any proponents of bail reform.
Additionally, Politico included an absurd quote from GOP congressional candidate and New York State Assembly Member Mike Lawler, who said the bail reforms had an “Attempted Assassination Loophole.” The piece’s headline adopted conservative talking points wholesale.
A follow-up story from CNN had only one subheading, capturing the tenor of almost all the mainstream coverage:
The New York Times didn’t mention Doorley’s links to Zeldin until the 24th paragraph of its story. Instead, the paper foregrounded Zeldin’s position in the second paragraph, paraphrasing his argument “that the episode viscerally drove home the need to increase policing and tighten New York’s bail laws to make it easier for judges to hold people charged with certain crimes.”
The unusually lenient charge from an office known for pursuing harsher penalties led some bail reform advocates to speculate whether Doorley’s office’s decision virtually to ensure that Jakubonis would be released quickly was deliberate.
New York lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 eliminating cash bail “for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felony charges,” according to the NYCLU, which argued the change was “an overdue recognition that a person’s wealth should not determine their liberty.”
Then, in 2020, police, prosecutors, and reactionary politicians from both parties used misleading data and deliberate misinformation campaigns to blame the reforms for the increase in some – but not all – categories of crime. There is in fact no evidence linking these issues. Nonetheless, the reforms were rolled back and “two dozen crimes [were added] to the list of serious charges for which a judge could impose cash bail,” according to The New York Times. “They included sex trafficking, grand larceny, second-degree burglary, vehicular assault and any crime that results in a death.”
Conservative media outlets are pushing to weaken the reforms even further. Mainstream media shouldn’t adopt their misleading framing to help them in that campaign.