Many Americans now recognize the racism at multiple junctures of the criminal punishment system. Especially now, as our leaders refuse to release the disproportionately black and brown incarcerated people from prisons and jails, despite their being sites of serious COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. But even before the pandemic, some media have played a significant role in that recognition.
Take director Ava Duvernay’s 2019 drama series When They See Us, a moving depiction of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five black and brown boys were intimidated by police into false confessions of raping and beating a young white woman nearly to death. The show quickly became Netflix’s most-watched series, and pushed more frequent usage of the “Exonerated Five” to refer to the five men who were absolved of the crime in 2002, after enduring 5–12 years in prison. (Previously, they had been dubbed the “Central Park Five.”)
But as FAIR (6/7/19) noted last year, there was an “absence of reflection” in media over their own role in real time in fabricating a racist moral panic, in New York City and beyond, around “wilding,” an ill-defined dog whistle used to propagate the criminal stereotype of black and Latinx men and boys. This lack of self-examination is evident in the widespread coverage of the December 2019 murder of Barnard College freshman Tessa Majors in Morningside Park, which separates Columbia University and Harlem.
Tabloids and other outlets were quick to draw parallels between the Central Park jogger case and Majors’ murder in the NYC park, for which one 13- and two 14-year-olds are being charged. Majors, who some early reports said was on a jog at the time, was a young white woman, and all the accused are African Americans.
What’s more, the 13-year-old was aggressively interrogated without an attorney present, by a detective who had been sued multiple times—including for breaking into a man’s home without a warrant and falsely arresting him. Internal NYPD disciplinary findings also suggest that he beat a woman in custody so severely that she needed hospitalization—a history on the force that the New York Daily News (2/25/20) ineptly described as “checkered.”
But media consistently ignored the striking similarities between their own coverage of the cases. Consider the tactics employed in each case to drum up panic and dehumanize the children who haven’t even been convicted yet.
In 1989, tabloids used racially coded and sensationalist language like “uncivilized,” “vicious” and “wolf pack” to describe the Exonerated Five. Newsday (5/5/89) published an opinion piece by prominent conservative (and African-American) economist Thomas Sowell, headlined “Society Lets Barbarians Off.” Sowell decried the “flood of sociological excuses for barbaric acts,” and a “growing tolerance of uncivilized behavior” in the face of a “re-barbarization” process in American society.
For the Majors case, outlets picked up the torch by calling the accused teens “predator[s]” (New York Post, 2/15/20) or “bandits” (Daily News, 2/15/20). One New York Post (2/2/20) report depicts one of the boys with animalistic strength:
Detectives have theorized that that desperate bid for survival enraged the mugger, who stabbed Majors multiple times — and with such ferocity that feathers flew from the lining of her winter coat.
As they did in 1989, the Post and Daily News published pre-trial photos of the two 14-year-olds numerous times, one in a media-favorite perp walk, and the other, even before charges were brought, to support the NYPD’s “manhunt in Harlem” (New York Post, 12/26/19)—language that evokes newspapers’ shameful role in catching fugitives from slavery. One Daily News (12/27/19) front-page headline dramatized the narrative when one teen was brought in for questioning: “LONG WAIT FOR JUSTICE.”
The despicable practice of publishing pre-trial photos (of children no less), as Adam Johnson has explained for FAIR (1/23/19),
leads to summary public shaming, firings, diminished social status—all before a trial has even taken place. In the age of SEO, it’s a form of extrajudicial punishment that largely harms the poor and people of color.
Though potentially less socially damaging than the photos, tabloids published each of the teen’s full names and where they live. Curiously, the Times named the 14-year-olds, but not the 13-year-old, “because he is not being charged as an adult” as the other two are. Apparently the paper of record believes that unconvicted teenage children are more deserving of public vilification if the state hopes to subject them to the violence of an adult prison (rather than an often similarly violent juvenile detention center).
And the vilification isn’t limited to the accused. A further parallel to coverage of the Central Park jogger case is media’s invasive and ostracizing examination of their families. The Post (12/29/19) thought it newsworthy to publish a story entitled, “Mom of Suspected Tessa Majors Killer Has Old Stabbing on Her Rap Sheet,” beginning her loathsome humiliation for a 13-year-old incident with “Like mother, like son?” under a headshot obtained from Facebook. One can’t help but see the old racist and misogynist trope of blaming black mothers for their children’s (alleged) criminality.
Media rightfully placed the incident in historical context—but told the wrong narrative. Majors’ murder prompted several outlets to note an increase in crime in and around Morningside Park. The New York Times’ story “A Park Shed Its Reputation. Then Came the Tessa Majors Murder” (12/14/19) found that the incident “has shattered [a prior] sense of safety and jolted [Morningside Heights and Harlem], recalling a time decades ago, when the city had more than 1,000 homicides a year.” The Post’s “Spiraling Morningside Park Crime Stats Show a Neighborhood Gripped by Violence” (12/14/19) reports:
The park was the most dangerous in the city for muggings in the first nine months of 2019, logging 11 robberies in that period, according to NYPD statistics.
By comparison, there were 10 reported muggings in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and nine in Claremont Park in the Bronx in that same period.
Reports of violent crime and sex crimes spiked 82 percent in Morningside Park and on its perimeter in the past year ending December 8, according to the NYPD.
While crime appears to have risen in and around the park, aside from a few buried reminders, such fear-mongering ignores that present crime rates are a small fraction of what they were in their height in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, the period media repeatedly reference, and they don’t necessarily suggest an upward trend. But naturally, a promising, young white woman’s murder is cause for media alarm, warranting mention even in a separate alarmist report about rising crime in Central Park (New York Post, 1/13/20).
One 1989 Daily News article about the Central Park case described the “collide” between the “crack-littered” world of Harlem and that “of a young Ivy League investment banker from Upper Saint Clair Pa. and the upper East Side.” Similarly today, we read of the division of a declining park with “roving bands of violent youths” (New York Post, 12/14/19) “considered off limits” (Daily News, 12/14/19) to prestigious Columbia and Barnard students.
Instead of sensationalizing a relatively rare tragedy and acting as police stenographers, perhaps media should spend more time magnifying why such incidents happen. Especially when neighboring Columbia University has a consistent past and present history of anti-black violence in Harlem, which includes Morningside Park, a place journalists are quick to remark—in not-so-subtle dog whistles—was “once strewn with crack vials” (New York Times, 12/14/19).
Though less extreme than in 1989, such descriptions of the park, “which slopes downward toward Harlem…demarcated by an imposing rocky wall,” evoke a wilderness occupied by dangerous predators from a predominantly African-American Harlem. More helpful would be better upward-looking reports on the university at the top of the hill that has explicit connections to American slavery, and a more recent violent history that spans a Jim Crow–era cross-burning, segregation in 1968, and the present invasion of West Harlem for a $6.3 billion expanded campus. As Columbia University’s Black Students’ Organization wrote in the Columbia Daily Spectator (1/27/20):
In order to help create a community that is truly safe for all students and all people, Columbia must recognize the want of better safety for the Harlem community and Black students on campus. It must also acknowledge its own violence and make a commitment to redressing the harm that it has caused to the historically Black community in which it resides.
The Nation’s Joan Walsh wrote a piece (5/19/20) headlined “A Murder that Threatened to Divide the Two Harlems”—though one might argue the two Harlems are already divided, seeing as there are two of them: the gentrified and the gentrifying. While Walsh grapples with her own position as a white gentrifier in Harlem, she downplays Columbia’s fundamental role in its gentrification. She rightfully mentions the devastating impact of white flight in the 1960s, but oddly, there is no further structural analysis of how and why Harlem is gentrifying—and how such factors might influence punitive responses to threats to white capital, like the NYPD’s subsequent “occupation” of the neighborhood, as Walsh accurately describes it.
Taxonimized under the tag “CRIME,” New York magazine (3/16/20) published a nearly 8,000-word piece on the murder, subtitled, “Every generation, a crime tells a new story about New York. The murder of Tessa Majors is ours.” To be fair, the article addresses some harms caused by the Columbia-driven gentrification of Harlem, the police invasions of the area and general racial tensions.
But its arc relies on dramatizing the incident: Emotional, narrative-driven retellings obscure that many of the facts are not confirmed by legal conviction; descriptions of the “overgrown,” poorly lit Morningside Park verge on dog whistles; the featured image depicting the park’s stairs, which, “in its absence, travelers would have to scale a cliff,” looks like it came straight off the cover of a pulp novel; and the author includes a quote by Columbia undergrad and Quillette columnist Coleman Hughes that belittles peoples’ legitimate fears of a racist, armed police presence in Harlem—and racially profiling, abusive security officers on Barnard’s campus—as a “dismissive attitude about proactive safety.” To top it off, the article touches on the impact of distributing one teen suspect’s headshot, but then proceeds to publish perp walk photos of the two 14-year-olds.
Media’s cartoonish crime reporting contributes to prejudiced fears and overt racism, like the violently anti-black robocalls sent to Barnard faculty and staff in response to Majors’ murder from the white supremacist group Road to Power. Or the increased presence in and around the park of police and the Guardian Angels, a volunteer vigilante organization founded by known racist Curtis Sliwa, who Liza Featherstone (Jacobin, 12/31/19) explains “played a sinister role in fanning the flames of white racism in the ’80s and has even admitted to fabricating accounts of his own kidnapping.” One New York Post report (12/21/19) lionized the group’s crime-fighting, which included putting up fliers with the same pre-trial photo of the “violent” 14-year-old “on the loose” published by media.
Though there was much praise in corporate media for When They See Us, when outlets were given a chance to show they’ve learned something these past 30 years on how to not stoke racist fears, how to not damage the lives of the uncharged and unconvicted, or how to look at blatant inequality and other forces at play in crime, they blew it. And now, the three boys wait in a Brooklyn jail—sitting ducks in the epicenter of the deadliest pandemic in a century—for unforeseeable trials. Yet, as is common after such initial pre-trial censures, we don’t hear a peep from media. But what’s to be expected of outlets that so often crave clicks over justice?Print