It never ceases to amaze me what it takes for the corporate news media to pay attention to widespread social epidemics that plague poor people and people of color in this country. Police brutality is certainly at the top of the list. Widely claimed by survivors nationwide, the stories are rarely believed and still far less commonly validated by news coverage.
But when a news organization happens to record such an incident on camera, one would expect at least a glimmer of hope that not only will the story be covered, but it will be handled somewhat appropriately.
So how, then, does the Associated Press -- whose own photographer taped the vicious, unprovoked beating of retired New Orleans school teacher Robert Davis -- manage to write a story so gushingly sympathetic to the police department that is regularly and systematically mistreating suspected criminals? And how on earth could an organization with such massive resources (and low standards for thoroughness and accuracy) fail to immediately follow up on the broader story of police brutality or the conditions of those plucked out of the New Orleans night and thrown into inhumane conditions before being railroaded into unpaid labor?
NewStandard correspondent Jessica Azulay was the first to interview Mr. Davis, who stands a chance of becoming a household name for less-than-desirable reasons. She got the scoop not because she had heard about the AP's now-famous video, but because she had heard the stories of widespread brutality and false arrest that permeate New Orleans today -- and because by her second full day in town, she believed there was something to them and decided to see what was up.
She got the real scoop on this story not for being connected, but for being willing to work hard and look where everyone said no reporter could venture (when really they meant would venture).
Instead of -- or at least before -- investigating the full story surrounding Davis's Bourbon Street episode, the AP decided to run a story placing the incident in a different kind of context. And here we see the difference between the "liberal" mainstream media and real journalism. The AP chose to encase Davis's tragedy in a shroud of pity for the officers who carried it out.
Surely there can be no doubt that the police -- like Davis and perhaps hundreds of others who have received similar treatment at their hands -- suffered as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And if a media organization wants to take the perspective of authorities in such situations, that is of course a prerogative they maintain (though it would be nice if they announced their bias).
But to prioritize sympathy for the police instead of for those suffering under their reputed nightly rampages in New Orelans's black neighborhoods is a stance that tells us a lot.
We have clearly declared our bias -- the same one that journalists for well over a century have considered paramount in any ethical practice of the trade. Our job is to keep track of those in power and to convey challenges to their authority. We should relay their circumstances -- as Jessica did in her piece, using their own words -- but we should never adopt their perspective. Otherwise there is little use for news media beyond what mainstream outlets already excell at: sports, weather, entertainment and human interest stories.
The value of journalism is to observe those who already have a voice -- institutions like courts and police, corporations and churches. It is not, as one could be forgiven for believing after prolonged exposure to the major media in this country, to be their voice.
We have tried to exemplify the best of that tradition with today's piece about the other context surrounding Robert Davis's beating, transforming what could have been the story of one man into an exposÃ© of a police department and court system gone very badly -- if not unpredictably or unintentionally -- awry.
Frankly, it never occured to us to turn it into a puff piece about the heroic New Orleans police.