Reader mailbag: Bias in journalism, criminal justice in pop culture, and how my own politics have changed
In my last roundup, I asked you to send me your questions. So here they are — with my answers.
What TV shows or movies have done the most damage to how the public views the criminal justice system? Are there any that get it right?
I’m not sure which question is more difficult — the first because there are so many, or the second because there are so few. The Forensics Files and Cold Case Files would be top my list of the worst. Between us, my wife and I have covered more than a few cases profiled on these shows, and once you’re familiar with the details of a particular case, you see just how badly the producers distort the record to sensationalize the crime and valorize the police, prosecutors, and forensic analysts. It’s shameless.
Because these shows are so widely syndicated, they end up seeding a lot of misconceptions, particularly when it comes to quack forensics. A few years ago, I wrote about an episode that heaped praise on a bitemark analyst whose testimony send a man to prison who was later exonerated.
There’s been quite a bit written already about the myths perpetrated by shows like CSI and the various incarnations of Law & Order, and I think most of the criticism of those shows are accurate. They get some pretty basic stuff wrong (forensic analysts aren’t cops, and they don’t chase suspects down alleyways), but also vastly overstate the ability of forensics to solve crimes.
Plenty of other people have written about Cops, and how that show distorted the way an entire generation perceives policing. The spinoff and copycat versions of the show were often quite a bit worse.
These shows can also prod the police units they follow to provoke violence and confrontation to generate better footage. There’s a persuasive argument that the presence of camera from the show The First 48 contributed to the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Staley Jones. Less known is the fact that in exchange for access, reality cop shows often agree to give police veto power over what gets on the air, which of course means you aren’t going to see any footage that the policy agency considers unflattering (although what they don’t consider unflattering can also be revealing).
On a related note, here’s an interesting discussion of some of these issues with a black writer from the TV show S.W.A.T.
As for shows and movies that get it right, I’d hesitate to say that any get it perfect, because like most professions, policing and prosecution is, most of the time, pretty boring and doesn’t make for great television. Because so much pop culture glamorizes policing, I’ll focus on the handful of shows and movies that do a good job of capturing the problems in law enforcement, though it important to remember that most of these zero in on one particular corrupt or abusive incident, cop, or unit.
The most obvious answer — and an exception to the caveat I just mentioned — is of course The Wire, which two decades later still captures the perverse incentives, corruption, and institutional rot in law enforcement and the politicians who oversee it better than any other piece of pop culture. Homicide, the similar show that preceded it is also very good. Both are based on the reporting of longtime Baltimore journalist David Simon and former police officer Ed Burns. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard good things about We Own This City, the new show about the fall of the elite anti-gun police unit in Baltimore. It’s also from Simon and Burns, so I’m sure the praise is merited.
The Shield seems particularly relevant after the Tyre Nichols murder. It was based on the Rampart scandal that brought down “elite” police units in Los Angeles, and was one of the first to depict how destructive those units can be when they’re given permission to skirt the rules, provided with little oversight, implicitly instructed to knock some heads, and when their success is measured in raw arrest and seizure figures. It’s also just exceptionally well-acted and well-written. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with antiheroes, too many people — including too many police officers — came to see Vic Mackey as more hero than anti.
The first season of the ABC drama American Crime explored the inadequacies of the criminal justice system as a whole as well as any season of television I can remember. The second season was also good. I haven’t yet watched the third.
For years I’d heard great things about The Good Wife, but given how badly primetime network TV tends to be with criminal justice, I shied away from watching. I shouldn’t have. Yes, the show is more about the day-to-day lives and loves of the main characters than the legal system itself, but when the show did dip into criminal justice, the writers really did their research. There are arcs about roadside searches (which I’m fairly certain was drawn from my own reporting), police militarization, innocence, the institutional inadequacy of indigent defense, and the death penalty that are remarkably nuanced, and dig into deep-in-the-weeds problems in a way that’s both accurate and accessible.
I’ve also yet to watch the old TV show Barney Miller, but I’m told by police officers that it’s about as accurate as a sit-com about policing can be, particularly for a show that aired in the 1970s.
I’m also going to throw Reno 911! in here. Yes, the cops in the show are bumbling caricatures. But as the old adage goes, many truths are revealed in jest. And there are a lot of truths lurking in some of those bits.
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As for movies, I won’t get into the bad ones. There are just too many. But because movies haven’t traditionally had to appeal to as broad an audience as TV, there are also quite a few that tackle problems in policing. The great director Sidney Lumet did it as well as anyone, with films like Prince of the City, Q&A, and of course, Serpico.
The French Connection was one of the first wide-release films to explore the dark side of narcotics policing, though as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns once told me in an interview, as with The Shield, many in law enforcement seemed to absorb the movie more as an instruction manual than a warning.
Training Day was inspired by the same LAPD scandal as The Shield, and captures the specific but pervasive problem in which some of the worst cops are used to train new recruits, which then just perpetuates the worst of policing.
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic remains the best movie I’ve seen about the drug war.
How do you do the work you do without giving up? It seems like one would get depressed or angry and just not be able to take it any more.
Most of the time, the anger motivates me. It’s what motivated me to do this work in the first place. I’d read stories about police abuse and wrongful convictions and want to do something about it. So I’d write about them myself, and eventually I started investigating them myself. Once I was steeped enough in this stuff to understand how deep and widespread the problems are, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else.
I guess at some point I had to learn to accept that there will be more unfair outcomes than just ones, and the best I could do is use my skills and experience to try to make a dent, even if only a very small one. Journalists often measure their worth or effectiveness by how often their stories bring about real world change. You can’t really do that on this beat. It’ll wear you down and burn you out pretty quickly. Most of the time, that just isn’t going to happen.
Warning: Humble brag coming! My work has cited twice in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Which is great, and cool, and gratifying! But both were in a dissent. That put a bit of a damper on the gratification. Especially since one of those was a decision has since left a long and bloody trail of consequences.
But even when your work has no substantive, real-world impact at all, if all you’ve done is given a voice to someone wronged who hadn’t previously been heard, or given the real version of some incident that was mishandled by the courts, it’s worth doing, even if the people who have the power to do something aren’t all that interested in hearing it. It still matters.
I also had to learn how to walk away from the work — to put it aside and relax. It can be easy to feel guilty about, say, taking a vacation when have a pile of leads about possible wrongful convictions sitting in your inbox. Or getting up from writing about an innocent person rotting away in a prison cell to listen to music or have a nice meal.
But if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll burn out quickly. There’s a reason why there’s so much alcoholism, depression, and turnover in criminal defense work. The advice I give to young journalists interested in this beat: You can’t continue to tell these stories if you break yourself while trying to tell them.
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What do people outside of journalism not understand about journalism? In your experience, is the media as biased and corrupt as some claim?
In my experience, most mainstream/legacy journalists are hard-working, earnest professionals who try their best to be accurate and aren’t secretly pushing a political agenda. I was hired by both the Huffington Post and the Washington Post despite my outspoken libertarianism. I was never censored or pressured to be less libertarian by either publication. The only time either of those publications rejected my work came late in my tenure with the Post, and it was because a particular editor just didn’t seem to like me or my work. It definitely wasn’t political bias.
That said, there are definitely a lot of biases at play in journalism. But I think it’s more nuanced than just “journalists are leftists.” The biggest bias in journalism is a bias in favor of a good story. Good journalists end up not writing stories they spend a lot of time researching and reporting because they realize at some point that there’s just nothing there. Less scrutinous journalists force the story anyway, and that’s how we get a lot of crappy stories.
There’s a formula journalists typically abide by when conceiving of an article, particularly a long-form piece. You identify a trend or societal problem or emerging issue, then find a compelling story that illustrates the problem. But it can be easy to be too eager to buy into either half of that formula — either you have a great story that you try to shoehorn into a broader trend that may or may not exist, or in your eagerness to report on a trend or larger problem, you seek out a story that doesn’t quite fit the broader issue — which, again, itself may or may not actually exist.
This desire for the novel and the different can also drive publications to put out stories that otherwise wouldn’t merit much attention. The press attention itself can make a story seem more important than it otherwise would have been. I’ve read some convincing arguments that this is what happened with Trump. His primary candidacy got a lot of media attention because he was unconventional and entertaining. That undeserved attention boosted his popularity and name recognition, with then attracted more coverage.
So what about politics? There’s definitely a moderate-left slant in journalism. Journalists are more skeptical than the average person of business and free enterprise, and more supportive and less skeptical of government regulation. Journalists are far more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, are far more pro-abortion rights than anti-abortion, and are well to the left of Republicans on issues of racial justice and gay rights.
But I also think the bias toward moderation is more pronounced than the bias toward the left. Many people tend to go into journalism out of a sincere desire to help others. That can select for people who are less skeptical of well-intentioned government programs, collective action, and the motivations of the people who work in or are engaged in either.
That fondness for public service and collective action among journalists often manifests as trust in institutions and a mistrust of individualism. When it comes to something like policing, then, institutionalism can come into tension with their slant to the political left.
When some types of crime began to go up during the pandemic, we saw a rash of stories uncritically quoting police sources who blamed the new crime on bail reform, cuts to police funding, and other criminal justice reforms, despite little evidence that those policies were to blame — or in the case of cuts to police funding, that those policies that were never enacted.
I’ve written previously about how the story that got me my start in journalism — the wrongful conviction and death sentence of Cory Maye for killing a police officer during a botched drug raid — is a good example of this. The raid on Maye’s home was once featured on the cover of the NY Times. But the Times longtime crime reporter Fox Butterfield discovered the raid while reporting a story about how state and federal governments weren’t doing enough to stop the drug trade in the rural south. So he never considered — and therefore never pursued — the possibility that the police may have made a mistake, and that Maye may not have been the drug dealer the police claimed he was (he wasn’t). Butterfield later admitted to me that he had bought the police version of the raid, and so had completely dismissed the possibility that Maye might have been innocent.
Marijuana legalization is another good example. If the media were truly liberal, editorialists and columnists should have been tripping over themselves to end the prohibition of a drug far less addictive and harmful than alcohol, a drug whose continued illegality had led to massive racial disparities in arrests and convictions, and a drug that had long been an irrational trigger for drug war fearmongering on the far right.
But when California put up a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot in 2010, Reason’s Matt Welch tracked how the state’s newspaper editorials lined up on the question. There wasn’t much to track. As of the latest Welch piece on the topic I could find in the Reason archive, of the 26 California and national newspaper editorial boards who took an editorial position on the proposition, all 26 were opposed.
In recent years, we’ve also seen how the national press’s bias toward objectivity and detachment can end up presenting extremist, straight up bonkers positions as viable viewpoints. This has been particularly prevalent in the Trump era, as journalists have struggled with how to cover a movement that pushes vaccine conspiracies, Q-Anon nuttery, and election myths, but has also come to represent a sizable chunk of the Republican Party and the political right. It’s one thing to use a “here’s what one side says, and here’s what the other days” when you’re covering a debate over tax cuts or Social Security, and the dominant opposing viewpoints really are just differences of opinion. That formula starts to break down when 70 percent of one of the two major parties think the 2020 election was stolen, and a near-plurality has a favorable opinion of a cult that believes Tom Hanks and Bill Gates drink the blood of children.
As an opinion journalist, I’ve never written for a newsroom that required an objective voice. I try to be fair and accurate of course, but I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I have a point of view. My approach has always been that it’s more honest to make my point of view clear early on, and let readers evaluate what I write with that in mind.
An objective voice is fine and appropriate if you’re covering breaking news or a daily beat. But true objectivity is also an impossible standard, and making it a stated goal sets you up for failure. A journalist’s biases will always be apparent. For example, with most issues, it’s just not possible to give voice to every viewpoint. You have to choose which perspectives you decide are relevant enough or popular enough to include. That’s a form of bias. You also exhibit bias in simply choosing which stories you do and don’t pursue.
When you claim to objective but your biases inevitably slip through anyway, it only magnifies them, because now readers see bias in stories you’ve presented as objective truth. That tends to irritate people who disagree with you quite a bit more than if you had just made it clear where you were coming from at the outset. This is why conservatives get so angry about “fact-checking.” I think fact checks are important and valuable when done correctly, but when you start fact-checking opinions or subjective statements, you start to undermine the very trust you’re trying to earn.
Critics on the right often argue that while it’s understandable that journalists occasionally make mistakes, the mistakes always cut in the same direction. That is, a hugely disproportionate number of media mistakes tend be made in coverage of Republicans and conservatives, and in ways that make them look bad. That’s a fair criticism. The left-center bias in most newsrooms inevitably affects what stories do and don’t get written, how journalists process information, and which sources journalists trust and which sources they don’t. And that can lead to errors.
I would point to a couple caveats here, though. First journalism’s biggest failure so far this century was its complicity in the misinformation that built public support for the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Mainstream outlets also tended to favorably and unskeptically cover post-9/11 security measures like the creation of DHS and TSA and the PATRIOT Act. None of that was driven by liberal bias. It was driven by unearned faith in institutions.
Second, while it’s true that many mainstream outlets made some high-profile mistakes during the Trump administration, they were covering an administration that brazenly lied daily about easily disprovable things. Trump and his subordinates lied as a matter of strategy. They lied to misdirect. Sometimes, they just lied for the sake of lying. They lied like no other administration ever has, and given that lying is a skill that’s pretty essentially to being an effective politician, that’s saying something. I don’t envy the journalists who had to sort through all of that while still trying to cover the administration accurately, adversarially (as every administration should be covered), and fairly — all while the president consistently fomented anger and hatred of them, and regularly declared them the “enemy of the people.”
Everything I’ve discussed to this point has mostly applied to the national media. Local media has a whole different set of biases. Local TV news in particular tends to favor sensationalism, moral panic, and is much more deferential to police and prosecutors (I’m writing generally here — there are definitely exceptions). It also tends to be much more politically conservative, particularly in recent years. And importantly — and this is where conservatives’ complaints about liberal media gets a lot weaker — most Americans get their news from local sources, and local TV in particular.
Local newspapers are more of a mixed bag, but in my experience, the smaller the city and the less news competition there is, the more deferential reporters tend to be to local law enforcement and political leaders. I don’t think this is political bias. I think it’s more that crime and police beat reporters need police and prosecutors to cooperate with them in order to do their jobs. So there’s a strong incentive to treat them credulously. In the era of dying newspapers, the typical crime beat reporter at a small-to-medium sized paper is young, inexperienced, and doesn’t make much money. So they’re understandably trepidatious about questioning local authorities. And forget about any in-depth investigation. There likely isn’t enough money or staff for that, anyway. And unfortunately, as good reporters acquire the skills and fortitude to be more skeptical, they tend to move on to larger, better-paying publications.
But while journalism as it’s practiced today certainly has its flaws, I don’t think most journalists lie or intentionally mislead. And while political bias may affect how they chose their sources and whom they trust, it’s easily overcome by a desire to succeed. If presented with evidence of corruption, malfeasance, or abuse of power by a politician or public official — even one they admire or with whom they agree with politically — nearly every national, mainstream journalist would jump at the chance to write that story.
I do think many of us in journalism should be more aware of our own blind spots and biases — myself included. I also think that while most mainstream publications do correct mistakes when they’re made aware of them, they could do a better job of making those corrections more prominent and noticeable, particularly when they’re major mistakes that upset the general narrative of a story.
But unlike much of the right-wing media landscape, which tends to double down on errors and mistakes, most mainstream, traditional journalists want to be accurate, strive to be accurate, are embarrassed when they make mistakes.
Do you think your own politics have changed over the last 10 years? I’ve seen some suggest that you’ve moved to the left. Do you still consider yourself a libertarian?
I’ve called myself a libertarian because I’m skeptical of political power and I’m wary of the government’s monopoly on the sanctioned use of violence. All else being equal, I think we should protect voluntary action and the right of people to make their own choices over coercing people with the implied threat of violence. I think there are some collective action and common goods problems where government needs to intervene, issues like pollution and climate change, the use of antibiotics, and national defense. But my starting point is that government is made up of a politicians, that politics attracts people who crave power, and that people who crave power are, generally speaking, the last people to whom power should be given. I also think that the global movement toward freer markets, freer exchange, and freer movement have vastly and indisputably improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and that this is one of the great, miraculous successes of the modern era. (I’m deliberately avoiding the word capitalism here, because that word can sometimes connote policies that conflict with free markets, exchange, and movement).
A libertarian friend of mine often made the joke that the worst part of living in a libertarian society would be that you’d have to live with a bunch of libertarians. There’s a lot of truth there. I’ve always said I call myself a libertarian because of the ideas, not because of an affinity for or identification with other libertarians. The label is about the general concepts I tend to support, not about the movement with which I want to be associated. I guess that’s mostly still true, but goddamn, the people who have co-opted the word in in recent years seem hell-bent on destroying it.
Have I changed my positions? In a few areas, sure. I think it’s inevitable as you collect life experience and knowledge, encounter other people and learn from their experiences, and as our collective knowledge as a society continues to grow, you’ll changed your mind about some things. I’m sure I’ve also collected new biases along the way. But I don’t think my general principles have changed much.
What has definitely changed are my priorities, and who I consider to be allies on the issues I find most important. It’s probably of no surprise to anyone reading this, but I think the cruelty and destructiveness of the criminal justice system is a far more important and pressing issue than, say, lowering marginal tax rates. So while as a libertarian I have traditionally tended to side with the left on cultural issues and the right on economic issues, I find myself more sympathetic to people who prioritize the same issues I think are most important. Democrats haven’t exactly been stalwarts on civil liberties, but they’ve been better in recent years. By contrast, the right has basically abandoned criminal justice reform, is pretty awful on limited the size and scope of government, and its most ascendant movement at the moment is basically pushing for a socialist, autocratic theocracy.
But even setting aside the theocrats, much of the political right has lost its damned mind. There’s a common saying among libertarians that the two dominant choices in U.S. politics are the stupid party and the evil party. It was never clear to me which was which — maybe that was the point. But in the Trump era, the choice is now between a party that’s often wrong and occasionally stupid, or a party that’s transparently evil, intentionally stupid, and not just dangerous, but openly promising they’ll be even more dangerous if they’re ever given power again.
I used to think that as a libertarian, I should try be equally critical of both parties. That seems pretty naive these days. The most extreme elements of the national Democratic Party would probably make the U.S. economy more like Sweden’s. Not my ideal, but mostly fine. The most extreme elements of the national Republican Party tried to overturn an election, tried to forcibly install the man who lost that election in power, are openly hostile to gay and trans people, have declared the press the enemy of the people, are increasingly hostile to birth control, and and openly express admiration for autocrats and strongman dictators. I no longer feel compelled to criticize one side as often as the other because it’s abundantly clear that one side poses a much more direct and dire threat than the other.
So I suppose in that sense, I have moved to the left.
Finally, this odd series of questions . . .
(1) What is the point of your decision to humanize Mr Nichols? The officers have been charged and will likely be going to jail.
(2) I live in Detroit and grew up here. Black on black shootings/killings are a daily occurrence, yet that seems to be acceptable and is usually covered by the local news and barely makes it through a 24 hr newscycle before moving on to the next incident.
(3) Again, what is your point in this newsletter. Seems to read like a "look at me, I am such a great writer piece." (4) What do you hope to accomplish? (5) Change the world or specifically policing. (6) Have you ever been in a life or death, or fight or flight situation?
There is NO condoning what these officers did. NONE. The legal system will deal with these officers. Will it end these tragic shootings? Likely not. (7) So, again, what do you hope to change?
I added the numbers to make it easier to address these questions separately.
(1) To show that he was a real person, and not a statistic. To show that he was someone’s son, brother, grandson, and friend, and not just a guy left bruised and bleeding on the pavement. To show that he had hopes, joys, hobbies, and aspirations, and wasn’t just a guy calling out for his mother as he was kicked in the face. He was more than the man in that video. He ought to be remembered that way.
(2) It’s possible to oppose both crime and abusive policing.
But let’s talk about “black on black crime.” It’s usually touted by people pushing the idea that black culture is inherently violent or, and here we get to just naked racism, that black people are predisposed to violence.
Most crime is intra-racial. About 90 percent of black murder victims are killed by black people. About 85 percent of white murder victims are killed by white people. Yes, there are proportionately more murders of and by black people. There are lots of reasons for that. You could look at poverty, which tends to go hand in hand with crime. Why are black Americans poorer? Well, there’s historic and ongoing institutional racism. There’s over-policing, which leads to mass incarceration. There are poorly-performing schools. And there are the “urban renewal” schemes of the mid-20th century that destroyed generations of accumulated black wealth.
We could also look at police racism and violence, which breeds mistrust of police, which makes police less effective. Mistrust of police also encourages people to seek out alternative ways of protecting themselves, both of which lead to more crime.
It also just isn’t true that violence in black neighborhoods is “accepted.” Black activist groups, churches, violence interrupters, and community leaders regularly speak out against and run programs to address and mitigate violent crime in their communities.
I’d also point out again what black activists often point out — aggressive policing leads to less cooperation, which leads to more crime. Police clearance rates for murders with black victims are far lower than those with white victims, a problem that is both partially caused by and then further contributes to less trust in the police.
(3) The point of this newsletter generally is to publish analysis and original reporting about the criminal justice system. The point in that particular newsletter was to debunk the emerging, garbage narrative from the right which attempts to blame Nichols’ killing on reform, affirmative action, and “woke” policing.
(4) and (5) See my answer to the second question above. And sure. It would be wonderful if my reporting and analysis changed the world. It won’t. But my reporting has led to real change in specific cases, spurred some policy changes in specific places, and has improved the lives of at least a couple of wrongly convicted people and their families. And when it hasn’t spurred real world change, I’ve often heard from the people on the receiving end of unfair policies that they were grateful someone told their stories, even if it didn’t result in a change in their cases.
I don’t try to be a “great writer.” In fact, my approach to these stories is to be as straightforward with the narrative as possible. The facts are usually plenty outrageous to speak for themselves.
Finally, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this newsletter is my primary source of income. So that’s obviously another reason for publishing it. I could probably make a lot more money shilling for corporations or doing PR for trade organizations. I find this work more rewarding and fulfilling.
(5) I’ve been in two situations that I can recall in which I felt threatened. In both cases I was able to get away and without any physical altercation. That’s in adulthood. I did get into a few fistfights in middle school and high school. It was rural Indiana. It was how we settled stuff.
(6) If politicians and police officials stopped turning to these crime suppression units every time crime began to rise, that would be a nice start. It’s true that we’ll never aren’t going to end deaths at the hands of police entirely. But reducing them would be a good thing. As would taking the steps to prevent those deaths that are . . . well . . . preventable.
If anyone asks me who they should be following on criminal justice issues, I give them your name. Every time. I've be in DC for over 35 years now, so I've seen plenty of criminal justice reporters from multiple outlets come & go. Very damn few ever dig as deep and as thoroughly as you. If you're ever in DC, look me up & the lunch/dinner is on me.
I believe you also helped prevent dogs from getting shot given your coverage of the issue several years ago. Not long after legislatures started mandating police dog encounter training and last I checked it's had a positive impact in Texas.
I understand why people may be upset by disproportionate coverage of dog shootings relative to people shootings, but it still made a big difference. Having your beloved companion killed by cops (something that thankfully never happened to me, but did happen to other dogs I knew) is an absolute nightmare. So thanks for that.