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|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
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HOW BLACK LIVES MAT TER MADE THE NEWS
It was barely August, and I was doing early morning shifts as a radio host. That meant getting up right around sunrise and biking a few blocks through thick summer shadows to WYSO, the small radio station on the campus of Antioch College. Our newsroom was bare bones. A clunky PC glowed from one of the two desks, wire copy popping up on the screen in a steady stream. It was still called wire copy, as if it comes to us through an old telegraph wire, but it was actually the Associated Press sending dispatches over the internet. Every morning I'd sit in the dark, drink coffee, and run my eyes over tornados and fires and kidnappings and infanticides and voter turnout and political play-by-plays, the occasional "human interest" story. Once in a while there'd be some bit of humor or joy, usually on a slow news day.
On this particular morning shift, the story that jumped out at me was a police story, or rather a story about a man and the police, a quick AP dispatch about an event in Beavercreek, Ohio, a suburb ten miles from where I was sitting in the air-conditioned dark, with my face lit by the virtual wire. It opened something like this:
A man in a southwest Ohio Wal-Mart store waved a rifle at customers, including children, and was fatally shot by police when he wouldn't drop the weapon, according to police and a recorded 911 call from a witness.
Authorities say a customer also died after suffering a medical problem during the evacuation of the store Tuesday. Police identified her as Angela Williams, 37, of Fairborn.
Police identified the man shot Tuesday night at a Wal-Mart in the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek as 22-year-old John Crawford of Cincinnati. He died at a hospital.
He waved a rifle. He wouldn't drop the weapon. Did I revise the wording, knowing even then to be skeptical of police narratives? I might have added another "police say" to qualify, aware that a man who is dead cannot tell his side of the story. I had, after all, been an activist around this stuff for years; before I was a journalist, I co-created and ran a website full of young people of color's stories about harassment and violence at the hands of police in Chicago. Growing up, my dad, an attorney, had told me, "Cops always lie." So I knew enough to know that a police statement does not a true story make. What I didn't know was that this was the beginning of the end of my faith in the whole system of news-making into which I'd been trained. That August, everything was about to change — the way the news covered policing, the way I thought about the news, and the relationship between activism and the news. It was a tipping point, but I couldn't see that yet.
Of course I couldn't. It was 5:30 a.m.; I was alone in the so-called newsroom, rushed because I was prepping for a 6 a.m. hard start, when I'd have to be ready with a four-minute newscast, the weather for today and this week, and traffic updates, saying all this into a mic while operating the soundboard and not making mistakes of any kind, or at least not making the kind of mistakes people catch: a mispronunciation, a wrong name, a verbal stumble, running over my time. With an audience of several thousand even that early, people notice when you mess up.
So that morning, in a mix of other sad stories, I read the copy about that death in Beavercreek and didn't think too much of it — another shitty news day. Beavercreek is an almost-entirely white suburb of Dayton, Ohio. I didn't think much about who the man might be who'd been killed, but I pictured some wacked-out white dude, waving that gun at some kids. Incidents with white dudes and guns seemed to happen every day somewhere, so, sure as I was that journalists shouldn't trust police, I figured they'd stopped some shit from going down that could have been national news, could have dominated my day: "Shooter kills four children in Ohio Walmart," Lewis Wallace reports from Dayton. Instead it was just a "police-involved shooting," a blip. One life, which can begin to seem like nothing when you're reading out death every day. This is horrible, but I'm saying it because it's true and it can become part of how you think when you're doing daily news.
There are lots of true stories in the world. Daily news is where they are first pared down, selected out in a process called "news judgment": the split-second decisions about what is a story, and just how big and new that story is, how much airtime or word count it deserves. The decisions about which truths get told can have a ripple effect — sometimes a protest that gets news coverage becomes a larger protest; an act of violence or terrorism gains imitators and followers; a radical ideology propagates in the mainstream in part because it's been talked about on the news. I was astounded and humbled most days by the fact that I had this kind of power to choose what would become news. There I was, a weird transgender punk, alone in a dark room with my cup of coffee, making decisions that would, in small or large ways, shape what people believed their world was made up of, what was important and possible. I was also acutely aware of the stories that didn't get told, the dispatches that came through the wire and went nowhere. At the time, it was rare that a story about a police shooting got told in much depth. These deaths were covered like poverty or cancer: a thing that happens, too routine to highlight every time in a headline.
If you were one of the people reading newswires in the morning, it was obvious what stories and events were being left out. But for the people listening, it was like they never happened.
The day brightened. People came in and filled up the cheerful old gray-carpeted science building that the radio station was now housed in, after years in a moldy basement under the student center. WYSO was the NPR station for the cities of Dayton and Springfield, but still remained in its founding spot on a college campus, and a strange college campus at that. Antioch is known for its anarchist leanings and frequent closures due to budget problems. Even with the closures, the station had been thriving there consistently since the 1950s, and it had become a mainstay. We had a membership who trusted us, a relatively diverse staff, a robust community outreach program. We were proud that we aired voices from all over the region talking about the problems that affected our listening area, like the still-lingering recession and water pollution and abandoned homes, gas prices and troubled charter schools and closed-up strip malls. We covered immigration, welfare, health care, and the sprawling US Air Force base, the jobs that came and went with each federal budget. Dayton is in many ways the epicenter of Middle America, a perfect microcosm of every Rust Belt problem and every hopeful story about overcoming it. I loved this job.
So I moved on from the miserable wire copy that morning. The on-air shift ran from 6 to 9 a.m. and then I'd prerecord and mix some stuff for the next day, stick some stories up online that I'd aired that morning, eat something real quick, drink more coffee, and start reporting, which could mean anything: working phones, running out the door to meet the latest subject for a story, who might be city official downtown, or a farmer talking about property taxes, or a group of kids hanging out in a park in a run-down part of town, sharing their dreams of getting out. That day I went to an interview in downtown Dayton and drove back home alone through the quiet suburbs, radio humming WYSO's afternoon music into my ears. Just after 1, 2, and 3 p.m., I'd listen carefully to the five-minute NPR newscast. It was a quiet summer. No big stories going on.
On Friday, August 8, there was an update to this wire story.
A man who was fatally shot by police in a Wal-Mart store in a Dayton suburb after officers say he waved a weapon at customers was carrying an air rifle, Ohio's attorney general said Thursday. Attorney General Mike DeWine released a brief statement after the state's crime bureau said it had taken over the investigation of the shooting at the request of Beavercreek police. Police had said John Crawford, 22, waved a rifle at customers Tuesday night and was fatally shot when he wouldn't drop the weapon. DeWine said the man had a "variable pump air rifle" made by Crosman Corp.
It had emerged that the weapon John Crawford was holding in the store was an air rifle, a BB gun — a kind that's sold at Walmart. There was more to the story, and this line further down stood out to me: "Family members and friends of Crawford had said earlier that he didn't have a real gun and suggested that the purported rifle was a toy."
We read this new copy on air, kept going with our busy day. In the days that followed, the headlines began to morph. It became clear that Crawford had picked up an unloaded BB gun/air rifle that was on display in the Walmart, and he was still on the phone with his children's mother when he was shot; the officer who had shot Crawford had been involved in the only other fatal police shooting in the department's history, five years before. An open box was found on a Walmart display. The Beavercreek Police Department declined comment, and the case was passed on to the state's attorney general.
On Saturday, August 9, a local lawyer, Michael Wright, announced he would be holding a press conference with John Crawford III's parents, saying they were skeptical of police accounts of his death. "The family wants answers," Wright said to the local TV station. "We just want to get answers. We are seeking video, witness statements and investigatory items." The radio station was quiet that day, volunteer DJs going in and out the glass doors. I was at home, cooking and gardening, glancing at my phone. No one from the station attended Monday's press conference: not enough staff to cover it.
Saturday, August 9, 2014. It flicked across my phone sometime that night, maybe the next morning. Something had happened in a place called Ferguson. That day, a baby-faced eighteen-year-old named Michael Brown had been shot and killed by police outside St. Louis, Missouri, and his neighbors and family members had watched and tweeted as his body lay crumpled and bloodied on the sidewalk for hours. That night, the police in Ferguson held a press conference, but by then, the protests had already started. Ferguson, Missouri, was opening up to the rage and sadness of Michael Brown's death, and it was happening quickly; there were rumors of rioting, property destruction. The sense that something larger was about to jump off had spread across social media. This day, this moment, would begin weeks of daily national coverage that came to be referred to just as "Ferguson" ("Did you cover Ferguson?"; "I went to Ferguson"), but Ferguson was shorthand for "Black people are dying at the hands of police, and there is now a giant and growing protest movement to stop it."
As I took it all in on Monday morning, I felt a flush of shame. Just days before Brown's death became the biggest story in the country, I had overlooked our own local version of that story. I had seen it flash by on the screen, read some lines about it on air, and assumed it was a blip. I had gone along with it as John Crawford, unarmed and now dead, was first defined in the public eye as a "suspect." I'd done something I knew better than to do: repeated an official narrative without looking any further. Suddenly the whole country was watching this same dynamic play out in another midwestern city. Activists in the street were asking: Why do the police keep killing young Black people, particularly those who are unarmed? How many, how often, how disproportionately? They were demanding that the news media cover these deaths. Twitter was on fire; Facebook was on fire; Ferguson was on fire.
What would happen in the weeks and months to follow would change not only my own approach to reporting, but the way my entire industry approached stories about police violence and race. Black Lives Matter, the movement and the organizations and people involved in it, would do what their predecessors in the civil rights movement had done decades before: pose a protracted challenge to news judgment, to which stories get told and why. This change didn't happen because white reporters like me sat in newsrooms somewhere and realized what we'd done wrong, that we'd criminalized the victims or idealized the perpetrators, and it didn't happen because there was a white awakening in the United States about what Black Americans were living through, or because there were more Black reporters in newsrooms than ever before (unfortunately, there weren't). It happened because a hashtag and a movement took hold, and part of that movement's strategy was to shift the frame, to put all Black people's deaths at the hands of the police into the sphere of legitimate controversy. Journalistic ideas about news judgment and balance would be pushed to a breaking point. "Police-involved shooting," the terminology preferred by law enforcement, would become a pointedly non-neutral phrase. Black Lives Matter functioned, in a way, as a news organization, shifting the frame by using Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat to tell the stories being left out of the news.
* * *
Suddenly everyone was talking about Ferguson. The national media focused on property destruction and conflicts between police and protesters; local media looked for "local angles" like protesters traveling to Missouri or holding similar protests in their own towns. And my busy, harried self knew that we had just had a police shooting in our coverage area, that the man had died, that he'd been holding an air rifle that police initially said was a firearm. But what I didn't realize until August 9, 2014, the day of Michael Brown's death, was that John Crawford III was Black and his shooter was white. The man who'd called the police on Crawford, Ronald Ritchie, was also white.
About two weeks after Brown's death, a group of Antioch students called a protest as part of the national #HandsUpWalkOut event. The students and a handful of community members were going to speak the names of Black people killed by police and hold blown-up printouts of their portraits. Michael Brown. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. These students, along with a group called the Ohio Student Association, were determined to get Crawford's name and face into the news. Another local group organized a protest for Crawford at the federal courthouse, responding in part to requests by his parents in Cincinnati — they were crushed, and convinced that racism had killed their son. They were also determined to find out what had happened: Why had a man holding a product sold in the Walmart been shot and killed? Who were the officers involved, and were they facing any consequences? Was there surveillance video showing these events? Why couldn't the public see those tapes? In that terrible moment, another person had also died — a woman who was inside the Walmart had a heart attack on her way to the door after hearing the police gunshots.
Pretty soon, the Ohio Student Association was demanding that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine release the surveillance video from Walmart. And suddenly John Crawford went from a few lines off the wire to the most important story we were covering: activists had come from other states to demonstrate in front of the Greene County Courthouse. Crawford's aggrieved parents were in BuzzFeed. DeWine held a press conference to announce a grand jury investigation into the case. While no new details about the shooting itself were coming out, our station covered its ripple effects: the voices of the young activists, the attorney general's restrained attempts to project empathy for the family, the occasional blustering white person dismissing the protesters as angry about nothing. At the end of September, the attorney general's office released a limited section of surveillance video from that evening. Because activists had been demanding its release, the video itself was news. The footage was immediately plastered across the internet: Black man shot by police in cold blood in a Walmart, and so on. During this time period, I had become the managing editor at WYSO, and I was tasked with sitting down with our web editor and afternoon host to decide both how to report this development and whether to post the video to our site.
That meant watching the video, multiple times, hunched over someone's laptop in the common space outside our broadcast studio. There was no sound, and our station kept blaring music through the speakers while we watched the grainy video of Crawford, with tiny twists in his hair, baggy jeans, and a T-shirt, walking distractedly through the aisle, talking on his phone. You don't see the moment when he scoops up the unloaded BB gun, but suddenly he has it. He's not apparently pointing it at anyone; he's on the phone, talking in an animated way, the BB gun hanging at his side. He's visibly distracted and does not, to me, look threatening. The moment when he gets shot is surprising even when you know it's coming: his body suddenly goes stiff with fear, he looks down the aisle toward someone, and, seemingly immediately, he drops to the floor and dips out of sight of the camera, crawling as if in the trenches of a war zone. He stands briefly and reappears, then collapses again as two police officers rush toward him, guns drawn.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The View From Somewhere"
Copyright © 2019 Lewis Wallace.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction 1. How Black Lives Matter Made the News 2. The Deviants: Race, Lynching, and the Origins of “Objectivity” 3. The Agitators: Journalists as Labor Leaders 4. Drowning in Facts: “Objectivity,” Ambiguity, and Vietnam 5. “Public Radio Voice” 6. Straight News, Gay Media, and the AIDS Crisis 7. Journalism’s Purity Ritual 8. “Can’t You Find Any More Women to Attack?”: What Happens When Facts Don’t Matter 9. Truth and the Lost Cause 10. The “Assault on Reality”: Trans People and Subjectivity 11. The View from Somewhere Conclusion: The End of Journalism
Acknowledgments Further Reading Index