The Copaganda of the New York Times Metro Section

I don't understand why the paper of record is carrying water for the PBA.

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The New York Times Metro crime reporting continues to be trash.

People love to complain about the New York Post, but everybody knows that’s a pro-police rag, so their copaganda bothers me less than NYT Metro, which is often just as bad in a more buttoned up tone. The paper of record prints unsubstantiated garbage from the NYPD on an almost daily basis, and is rarely criticized for it.

The Times prides itself on having a wall between “news” (facts) and “opinion,” and lives in fear that some conservative on Twitter will cry “bias” in its political coverage. As a former journalist, this is dumb. Every reporter and every news story is obviously biased. The opinions of writers and editors seep into a news story from inception: choices about what to write about, choices about what sources to rely on, choices about framing the story.

In Metro’s crime reporting, the bias almost always skews in favor of the cops.

A recent article about gun violence in New York City has a dek that reads, “More than a dozen people have been fatally shot, including a teenager at her college graduation party and a clothing designer who was washing his car.”

Before the article even starts, it fails to identify a timeframe that would put those dozen deaths in context.

Tangentially, as of 1pm today, July 6th, New York City has identified 11 new Covid-related deaths for the day. In the grand scheme of the last four months, that’s a great day. (Still significantly higher than the number of gun deaths today, and higher than some countries have seen throughout the pandemic.)

We later find out they mean a dozen deaths in the first three weeks of June. Okay, so gun violence is no Covid, but it’s also pretty serious.

Three paragraphs in, the first quote of the story is from Michael LiPetri, the “chief of crime control strategies.” The what? What crime? What control? What strategies? LiPetri is NYPD, though he is not identified as such, and his job is to oversee CompStat, a computer program that is at best controversial and at worst a major driver of racist policing. (Reply All has a great two part episode on CompStat if you’re interested, tl;dr here.) LiPetri says this is the worst June since 1996, although no one clarifies whether this means the worst June for shootings, fatal shootings, “violent” crime, or whether LiPetri himself is just having a bad month.

The Times then moves to framing the racist rantings of the city’s police union as legitimate critique of protests against police violence. This is the heart of the story’s argument:

The rising toll of gun violence has become part of a contentious debate over the future of policing in the wake of mass protests against police brutality. Police unions and their supporters have issued shrill warnings that the city was slipping into a high-crime era reminiscent of the early 1990s.

For context, “police unions and their supporters” also held a press conference earlier in June in which union leaders stood in front of an enormous crowd of white men and suggested that people getting killed by the police “doesn’t happen” and that the media treats police officers like “animals and thugs.”

The story then moves on to a quote from the Mayor in which he says nothing at all, then provides details on several more shootings that happened the previous weekend.

Ten or so paragraphs in, the story finally gets to some data, and quotes analysis from some researchers. Turns out, this is neither a New York-specific issue, nor is it a phenomenon that has emerged because of the protests. In fact, the story says that “homicide rates were already rising in 64 large American cities for the first three months of 2020 over the previous three years…” according to Richard Rosenfeld, who is a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The story again cites police data (166 murders through June 21, up from 134 in the same period in 2019) before making another wild claim with absolutely no evidence (emphasis mine, emphasizing the claim that the writers seem to have made up):

Some of that increase can be attributed to both the strain of the pandemic and the recent unrest, although the primary reason cited by criminologists was the advent of summer — traditionally a high-crime season because people are outside for longer and tempers flare in the heat.

Then, it’s back to copaganda. The following paragraph makes my blood boil:

In New York, the police have linked the rise in gun violence to a bail law enacted this year, which limited judges’ ability to keep people in jail before trial if they had been arrested on certain charges, as well as the release of thousands of people from jail and prison to help curb coronavirus. Chief LiPetri said 17 percent of shootings involved people on probation or parole.

It’s hard to know where to start here, but let’s go with this wild claim that the rise in gun violence (again, see above, happening in 64 U.S. cities at the same time!!) has anything to do with New York’s bail reforms. There is little evidence for it, and certainly none given in this story. In fact, when police claimed crime was up back in February, their arrest numbers didn’t match up with arraignment numbers (arrests that actually make it into court), suggesting they were making a ton of bad arrests that prosecutors didn’t go forward with in early 2020 to fabricate crime statistics to make it seem like the bail laws were increasing crime! (That in itself should have been a major scandal.)

Further, the new bail laws largely banned cash bail for misdemeanors and low-level felonies like grand larceny. No judge was kept from setting bail on gun crimes because of the new bail law! This is some real Willie Horton shit.

The number of people released because of coronavirus, meanwhile, involved only a select few who were just released on a writ of habeas corpus. Most were released because coronavirus was dangerous, so they agreed to plead guilty to something to get out of jail. Their cases were resolved in the same way that cases get resolved on a daily basis in normal times: with a guilty plea.

FINALLY, the last sentence of that paragraph is outrageous. “Chief LiPetri said 17 percent of shootings involved people on probation or parole.” It’s written like it’s data to back up the extreme claims in the rest of the paragraph, but it isn’t related at all! People on probation and parole are not even in the realm of “people out on bail” or “people who got out of Rikers during coronavirus.” Also, given the way the system is structured, and the enormous role probation and parole plays in the lives of people who have been previously convicted of felonies, this statistic undercuts all of the fearmongering above it. More than 80 percent of people arrested for shootings (assuming, generously, that the NYPD means “arrestees” when they say “involved,” and are not probing the backgrounds of victims and witnesses) are NOT on probation or parole, and thus—given how prevalent those two statuses are in felony sentencing—aren’t terribly likely to have been convicted of a serious felony recently, and have not been in jail in the last few years.

The NYPD is clearly trying to paint a picture of “superpredators” here, and the Times is regurgitating their rhetoric, despite evidence to the contrary within the statements themselves, without any skepticism.

Moving on, a criminologist who used to work for the NYPD tells the Times that, “the spike in shootings likely stemmed from a ‘combination of warmer weather, Covid cabin fever and the traditional gun violence that we see in June, July and August.’”

In the next paragraph, despite no suggestion that the recent protests have anything to do with the spike in shootings, the Times writes that “some criminologists” think protests are to blame. The closest they get is a quote from Rosenfeld, who says it’s possible that in the future, protests could create an increase in violent crime.

Then, we get this wild paraphrasing, which absolutely reads like editorializing, since if someone actually said this why wouldn’t you quote it:

Eugene O’Donnell, who is also a professor at John Jay, said that while the rise in shootings signaled a collapse in public safety in New York neighborhoods most affected by violence, it was too soon to predict a doomsday scenario.

A collapse in public safety! This is racist dog whistling through and through. Meanwhile, speaking of the collapse in public safety, the story moves on to mention that “police have solved just 28 percent of shootings with an arrest, Chief LiPetri said, even though that proportion is normally around half.”

No expert is asked for comment on whether the collapse in public safety might be because the NYPD constantly engages in baseless fearmongering while being terrible at its actual job of, you know, solving crimes.

The reasons for this are given as sometimes witnesses refuse to cooperate for fear of retaliation (true), and “investigators know who is responsible for a shooting but lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest.” The story moves on to making baseless and unsubstantiated claims about the role of the new bail laws, which I suppose attempts to back up this first problem of uncooperative witnesses, but fails to dig into the passive and offhand remark that investigators “lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest.”

Whose fault is that?!?! Let me tell you, in my experience, people are not good at committing crimes without leaving evidence. The NYPD is terrible at collecting that evidence! CSI they are not. Detectives often do the bare minimum investigation, which leads to no arrest or no conviction. That’s no one’s fault but their own.

The story then prints this claim, without a fact check:

Chief LiPetri said a slowdown in court proceedings because of the virus has also stymied the efforts to curb violence. Although police arrested more people for gun possession this year, he said many were released because their cases could not be presented to a grand jury within six days, the statutory limit for holding people in custody without an indictment.

WHAT. The actual effect of the slowdown in court proceedings is that people are languishing in jail, NOT that people are being released. This is a complete lie. The six day requirement was suspended by the governor back in March. Instead, people are getting preliminary hearings, and those are NOT happening within six days. The result is that people are in jail, not that they are getting released. (The mayor repeated this ignorant crap about courts releasing people today, and I am concerned that no reporter has bothered to fact check any of these clowns.)

I’m exhausted by how this terrible story somehow is yet longer, but here I am pressing on. THIS paragraph laments the loss of the incredibly violent anti-crime unit:

In the past the New York police have relied on plainclothes “anti-crime units” to proactively hunt for people believed to be carrying illegal guns on the streets, but their aggressive tactics had led to many complaints and several police shootings. Commissioner Dermot F. Shea disbanded the units last week.

You wouldn’t know this from the Times, but the anti-crime unit was disbanded in part because its officers had a predilection for shooting people. Although, I suppose, the Times’ use of the verb “hunt for people” is apt.

The article ends by highlighting that there are some nonprofits that work in communities to try to stop violence before it starts. The Times fail to give them the time of day. One of the two sources literally gets quoted as saying “we are completely overwhelmed,” without any more context.

And then it ends.

The problem with this story and its heavy reliance on the police is that it fails to treat the police like they have an interest in the outcome. The police are not neutral parties. They, like any other sources, are pushing an agenda. Unlike with other kinds of sources, reporters in general, and in New York Times crime reporting specifically, fail to recognize and grapple with that agenda.

The big story right now is that people are out in the streets demanding that cities slash police budgets and protesting the state monopoly on violence. People are literally threatening the money and the power at the heart of this enormous government agency. At the same time, the police suddenly want to talk to reporters about wild spikes in crime and a “collapse in public safety.” It’s all rather convenient. You’d think that the paper of record would notice.

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