Paper That Couldn't Be Bothered To Report On Local Police Misconduct Fires Off Editorial Insulting Writer Who Actually Did
from the unearned-superiority dept
As we recently covered here, a few Aiken, South Carolina, police officers engaged in a steady procession of Constitutional violations during a traffic stop predicated on nothing more than a (fully legal) temporary plate. Shirts were lifted and breasts exposed. At least one cop spent a considerable amount of time probing the passenger’s anus. For all intents and purposes, it was a roadside raping, performed under the color of law.
The horrific traffic stop is the focus of a federal lawsuit… and a whole lot of belated scrambling by law enforcement and city officials. Radley Balko of the Washington Post, who broke the story, found himself on the receiving end of a sneering, condescending editorial by the Aiken Standard — the local paper which had no interest in covering the lawsuit until after national internet hellfire began raining down on the town it serves.
The editorial is worth reading all the way through, if only to experience the surreality of being talked down to by an editor who wouldn’t know unbiased journalism if it showed up at his desk wearing a blue uniform and told him to kill an unflattering story.
First, the editorial — even as it throws shade at Balko for being a mere “blogger” — acknowledges that it didn’t even pick up on this story until after it had been covered at Balko’s Washington Post blog. From that point, it only gets worse. These three sentences are enough to give you some idea of how underqualified the Aiken Standard editorial staff is to be entering into a heated debate over journalistic priorities or law enforcement misconduct. (It also must be noted that the paper feels perfectly fine criticizing Balko’s blogging while not providing readers a link to his post so its readers can view the source material for themselves.)
We’re not criticizing the blog writer’s assertions since we are as ardent protectors of the First Amendment as is The Washington Post.
Our point is that The Washington Post blog was rooted in opinion, which is how the blog should be regarded. It’s not a news story conveying information from a neutral perspective. The incident also didn’t happen last week or even last month. It happened 17 months ago.
First off, the First Amendment not only protects criticism, it practically demands it. This editorial — as horrendous and misguided as it is — is the “more speech” the First Amendment encourages. If you don’t like something someone wrote, write something of your own rebutting it. There’s no need to pretend the First Amendment is there to saddle up your High Horse and act as your squire during your trip down the High Road. And, for that matter, the editorial does criticize Balko’s assertions, along with taking cheap shots at his lowly blogger status (for the Bezos-owned paper serving one of the nation’s largest subscriber bases).
As for the Aiken Standard being concerned about “neutral perspectives,” it would have been nice for it to have any perspective at all prior to a mere “blogger” making public news that it should not only already have known about, but should have addressed in print months ago.
Even stupider is the idea that horrific violations have some sort of expiration date. Lawsuits take time — generally being the tail end of a process in which other, less expensive options are exhausted first. Just because it didn’t happen within the last week doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of coverage. But that’s apparently the Aiken Standard’s standard.
Towards the end of its piece, it takes time to thank law enforcement for the hard work they do when not violating citizens’ rights.
Police officers face danger every day. They’re not perfect, but they lay their lives on the line every day so we can be safe.
For a paper making the claim that “opinions” from “bloggers” are worth less than its “neutral” reporting that allows “every stakeholder” to have their say, it sure sounds like the Aiken Standard is issuing absolution before all the facts are in.
Ken White at Popehat responded to the Aiken Standard’s blog-slamming editorial with an opinionated blog post of his own. Again, his is worth reading all the way through, but for much different reasons than the Aiken Standard’s. He calls the paper out for claiming to be the arbiter of neutrality and civility with two paragraphs that should serve as a stinging rebuke for every reporter granting law enforcement officials vast amounts of deference while still claiming to be a member of the Fourth Estate.
Civility is a good thing, even when discussing controversial subjects. It’s a goal I often fall short of, but a goal nonetheless. Civility even on heated subjects is a good thing because of humility: we may be wrong about the things we are angriest about. It’s a good thing because of proportionality: our sense of what is outrageous enough to provoke incivility may be idiosyncratic. It’s a good thing because of perspective: the world is full of people ready to be uncivil to us about things we have every damn right to do, and if we encourage incivility we’ll get what we ask for.
But civility can take pernicious forms. It’s pernicious if we shy from calling out outrageous and despicable conduct. It’s pernicious when we give armed government officials the benefit of the doubt because the culture tells us they’re brave and nice. It’s pernicious when we don’t demand public explanations for conduct because the conduct is horrifying and unseemly. Most of all, it’s pernicious when we decide that civility is substantive rather than procedural. Civility weighs against gratuitous shouting, insults, and threats. But civility does not require that we let the government beg the question. It does not require that we accept, as true, the premises about government power that have been served to us since birth.
Balko’s response to the Aiken Standard editorial is just as damning, but his closing paragraph really nails everything the Aiken Standard got wrong when it started believing subservience to law enforcement was the same thing as “neutral reporting.” If you want to sling arrows of journalistic superiority, you’d best have your shit nailed down tight.
The most important function of the press is to be a watchdog on power. I’d think that when made aware an incident such as this, caught on video, a good newspaper would start digging around to see if there had been similar incidents. (Here’s a tip for the paper’s assignment editors: If it’s happened once, it’s probably happened before.) Instead, the Aiken editorial board has chosen to praise police and local officials, and to reserve its skepticism for the publication that reported the incident. For all its derision toward me (the 665-word editorial uses the word “blog” 10 times), maybe the Aiken Standard could stand to take a lesson or two from opinion journalism. Do that, and perhaps the next time there’s national news in Aiken, the town’s newspaper will be the outlet that breaks it.
Since the point the Washington Post broke the story the Aiken Standard couldn’t be bothered to cover until it became unavoidable, there’s been all sorts of attentiveness from the local paper. Multiple stories have appeared covering the fallout of these officers’ actions — which includes everything from the hasty installation of a citizen complaint review board to the city asking the FBI to open its own investigation into the incident. But nowhere in this flurry of coverage will you find the Aiken Standard walking back its petty attack on Balko and his “blogging.” I suppose now that it’s finally performing acts of journalism, it feels it’s too far above the fray to offer an apology to Balko for its snide editorial, or to its readers for its journalistic failings.