Jewish World Review April 25, 2000 /20 Nissan, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS DISCUSSED HERE last week, reporters often depend heavily on familiar story lines when they bring us the news. But strategic shifts in the narratives do occur. Take the shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond in New York City. Both were unarmed and innocent black men shot by plainclothes police in botched operations. But the coverage was very different. In the Diallo shooting, news media and protesters focused sharply on alleged police bias and racism. The four white cops involved were subject to withering analysis of their characters and motives. "Bullets of Bias," the headline on the Boston Globe's outraged editorial, was a shorthand summary of media attitudes.
But when Dorismond was shot, news media downplayed the theme of prejudice. The shooter faded quickly from coverage, and the spotlight shifted to the police commissioner and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Instead of talk about "killer cops" and police racism, the media focused on police procedures. No bullets of bias were detected. Why not? Because the shooter was a Hispanic cop. Conventional "police are racist" coverage requires a white perpetrator. Nobody blew a whistle and said, "Let's all change the focus of our stories," but it pretty much worked out that way. A database search of the first four weeks of reporting of each incident showed three times as many references to racism in the Diallo case as in the Dorismond case. (Some of this disparity is because the Dorismond case faded fast, but then it faded fast because the shooter upset the script by being Hispanic.)
Caucus coverage. The Elián González case involves another notable deviation from standard journalistic practice. The media try hard to see each story from the point of view of the weakest ethnic group involved. It's the easiest way to frame a story, get your editor's attention, and demonstrate social conscience. Michael Janeway, former editor in chief of the Boston Globe, adds another factor: Race and gender lobbies in the newsroom now monitor stories that affect their groups' interests. In his book Republic of Denial, Janeway writes: "The politics of the street came into the newsroom. . . . Suddenly newsrooms had de facto caucuses organized by gender, race, and ethnicity. Suddenly coverage of controversial stories had to be negotiated within the newsroom as well as outside." Having interest groups on the staff tends to generate homogenized, protective, and predictable coverage of each established group.
The González case is a remarkable exception to this rule. Possibly for the first time, the national news media felt free to shower contempt on a non-Caucasian ethnic minority. An indignant front-page story in the New York Times suggested that the Cuban-Americans of Miami have in effect seceded from the United States. Other reports talk about Miami as a Cuban-run "banana republic." Time magazine attacked Cuban-Americans as a "privileged, imperious elite." Some behavior of some Cuban-Americans in the González case has been extreme, but no more so than behavior of members of other minority groups that the media always treat gently. But the Cubans are different. They are outside the umbrella of newsroom protection, and the reason is obvious. As John O'Sullivan wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, "Since it is well-known that these are right-wing anti-Communists who vote Republican, they do not benefit from the conventional tenderness of liberal opinion toward minority groups." It isn't just communism or Fidel Castro. Cuban-Americans are generally conservative on social issues and seem unusually allergic to political correctness and victim politics. No wonder the media are appalled.
Media critic William Powers, writing in the National Journal, notes another deviation in a familiar media story line: the new respect journalists are showing for great wealth. "Celebratory coverage of the wired rich is everywhere these days," Powers writes. "Journalists now identify with the rich in a way they perhaps never have before." It's not like the Reagan era, aka the "decade of greed," when immense wealth and excess drew scorn and contempt from journalists on all sides. Those rich folks were older, country-club types in three-piece suits who voted Republican. The new rich include a lot of liberal-leaning, younger, hip, dot-com people in jeans who are members in good standing of the educated information class, just like reporters. If great wealth was obscene in the 1980s, it ought to be 10 times more obscene today, when the big dollars are piling up higher and faster. But at the major media outlets, at least, journalists can't bring themselves to see it that way. A lot of writing still warns about the dangers of rising economic inequality, but that is oddly combined with softball coverage of the newly rich. After all, these are the people whom reporters went to school with and who share their cultural and social attitudes. Powers says, "It's all about the shared style preferences of the post-yuppie journalists and the newly digital moneyed."
The news business frets a lot about its sins. But it
doesn't fret much about class attitudes and the
homogenization of opinion in the newsroom. It
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge