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The Media Have Lost their Minds

Through the most newsworthy year in recent memory, reporters make a habit of gaslighting America.

CNN screenshot.

“Why did police shoot my daddy?”

Now there’s an impartial heading if ever I’ve seen one. No attempts at emotional manipulation to be found. Nothing to see here, folks—just good, old-fashioned, hard-fact reporting from the good people over at CNN.

Why did police shoot my daddy?” I’d like to hear the rhetorical acrobatics necessary to convince anyone that this is serious journalism. And yet this kind of barely veiled propaganda has become the stock-in-trade of nearly every major institution of the American news media.

This particular example comes from a CNN hagiography of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times during a nasty late-August tangle with three Kenosha cops, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Notably missing from CNN’s extensive coverage—which oftentimes professes to shed light on what kind man Blake is—is nearly any mention of the warrant out for his arrest for felony sexual assault against a woman who was, at the time of the alleged assault, sharing a bed with her child. (Reporters are keen to mention that Blake’s disastrous scuffle with police occurred “in front of three of his children,” but silent on the child involved here.) According to police, the August 23rd incident ensued when they responded to a call that Blake was at the home of the victim of the alleged May 3rd assault, where he was (for obvious reasons) not supposed to be.

The police officers were aware of Blake’s outstanding warrant for a violent crime when they responded to the call; it cannot be ignored in any serious report of the event, especially for its undoubted impact on the officers’ mindsets and methods in approaching the situation. And yet a search for “jacob+blake+warrant” on CNN’s website turns up as its first result “Federal law enforcement drawn deeper into Trump’s political ambitions” (which contains no mention of the warrant), followed by “Naomi Osaka wears mask honoring Breonna Taylor before winning US Open match” (same thing).

Instead of serious reporting and investigation, we are treated to fawning stories of “a father, a son, an uncle and a brother who’s focused on his loved ones.” But they aren’t just parroting Blake’s family on matters of opinion; the family line is accepted without question on matters of fact as well.

That same report tells us: “Blake did not have a weapon in his car, said Patrick Salvi Jr., another attorney representing the family.” The source linked there is another, earlier CNN report—containing the Pulitzer-worthy “Why did police shoot my daddy?”—which actually admits that, “Blake appears to have told officers that he had a knife in his possession, the DCI [the Wisconsin DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation] said. Investigators later ‘recovered a knife from the driver’s side floorboard’ of Blake’s vehicle and no other weapons were found, the agency said.” How on earth—given (among other evidence) the actual, documented recovery of the weapon—does “did not have a weapon” become the dominant strain of the narrative in a major network’s reporting of the event?

Other outlets were more measured in their narrative-crafting—only making it more obvious by accident. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the largest newspaper in Wisconsin, initially published a report under a headline that began, “Jacob Blake had knife in car but was otherwise unarmed.” After widespread mockery and criticism, the headline was changed, but the Journal Sentinel‘s tweet with the initial phrasing remains. “Otherwise unarmed”? You’re either armed or you’re not. (He was.)

The headline is a perfect illustration of the way the spin grift is carried out: a fact is presented (“Jacob Blake had a knife”), then quickly glossed over and superseded by narrative (“otherwise unarmed”). It doesn’t matter if the narrative directly contradicts the fact, as it does here. All that matters is the appearance of objectivity that the inclusion of scattered facts allows. In time, the narrative becomes self-sufficient; facts no longer need to even accompany it. Case in point: the earlier CNN report paired the lawyer’s dubious claim with the details relayed by the DCI; the later report felt no need to include the latter, allowing the lawyer’s unsupported version of events to stand alone.

The most prominent example of this practice has become a bit of a meme in recent months: mostly peaceful protests. NBC Bay Area bent over backwards to keep up the charade, publishing a report under the headline “Group Breaks Off of Mostly Peaceful Protest, Vandalizes Police Station, Sets Courthouse on Fire”—with no evidence presented to support the implication that any such break-off occurred. A CBS News report on the “mostly peaceful” Portland protests glancingly mentioned that “someone started a small fire inside the fence” protecting the federal courthouse and “some people climbed the fence and others launched a few fireworks.” (It was, somewhat in keeping with CBS News’ spin, a far more peaceful night than Portland has grown accustomed to.) From ABC News: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.”

A few times, images from the ground have revealed the radical disconnect between the narrative and reality. A much-mocked CNN chyron on August 25th read “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.” Above this already laughable contradiction, correspondent Omar Jimenez broadcast in front of multiple burning cars, with more intense fires raging in the distance beyond the vehicles. It goes without saying that the image of rampant arson looks anything but “mostly peaceful.”

On August 31st The Point, CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza’s newsletter, ran with the headline “‘Protests’ or ‘riots?’ It makes a BIG difference.” Cillizza can’t have thought very hard about the photograph he chose to feature: two law enforcement officers in full riot gear stand by a hulking truck labelled “SHERIFF” while a building in the background goes entirely up in flames. The orange light of the fire engulfs the whole frame of the picture. It sure doesn’t look like a protest—even one that’s only mostly peaceful. Yet that’s the spin Cillizza pushes. Anything else is a vast right-wing conspiracy: “Trump’s efforts to label what is happening in major cities as ‘riots’ speaks at least somewhat to his desperation, politically speaking, at the moment,” writes Cillizza in the missive. The bad man is just trying to scare us. Everything is fine. Pay no attention to the man behind the flaming curtain.

Subjects on the right, meanwhile, receive none of the sympathy and credulity afforded to our mostly peaceful arsonists. It was apparently necessary for the CBS News report mentioned above to remind us that the left-wing protestors “include moms and veterans,” but no such human casting of right-leaning protestors can be found in any major outlet. In fact, the New York Times practically presents the last 3 months as a bit of lighthearted roughhousing between benevolent demonstrators and police. “But in recent days,” the report goes on, “the protests in Portland and in Kenosha, Wis., have taken a more perilous turn — right-wing activists have arrived, many carrying firearms, and they are bent on countering the racial justice protests with an opposing vision of America.”

There’s an implication here that runs deep—that’s never quite stated outright but nonetheless informs nearly every piece of reporting on this chaos: the left-wing protestors are offering a vision of justice; their cause is the right cause; what they’re saying is true. Anything else is merely “an opposing vision of America.” It’s the radicals’ country, the chattering classes say; the rest of us are just living in it—for now.

The same report quotes Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “The far right is now anointing themselves the only force standing between order and chaos, a dangerous step toward normalizing the political violence that they already hold a monopoly on.” It’s an insane take, given the unbroken streak of left-wing political violence across America this summer. (If there’s a monopoly to be found here, Miller is looking in the wrong direction.)

But it’s also representative of one of the media’s most obnoxious and insidious habits: present an opinion as a quote and it becomes fact. This isn’t my opinion. I’m just telling you what the experts say. It’s a convenient coincidence that the insight of experts always bolsters the left-wing view. (Remember the early campaign to convince us that BLM protests had no bearing on COVID-19 and everyone should get out on the streets with their ACAB and Fuck Trump signs—but grandma still couldn’t have a funeral?) Fact bends to narrative, so long as narrative leans left and someone with credentials stands behind it.

Some of them genuinely believe the spin—a sort of “this is water” obliviousness to the left-liberal worldview. But plenty of others are surely presenting a normative vision of America, hoping the narrative will magically come true if it’s repeated often and widely enough. Up is down, left is right, and dangerous men become great saints when “Why did police shoot my daddy?” is printed in big enough type.

about the author

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis, and elsewhere.

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