Saturday, December 16, 2017

Journalists failing to call out official lies in Austin police contract debate

Local, mainstream media coverage of the Austin police union contract - which was rejected Wednesday night after a dramatic, 8-hour special-called city-council meeting - has been disturbingly bad. People whom I've considered good reporters on other topics have written pablum-filled junk on this one. For the most part, journalists appeared to go out of their way to avoid reporting factual information when it was provided by advocates or movement leaders, and instead chose to report spin and outright falsehoods from the police union and (to a slightly lesser extent) police department management.

With the exception of Michael Barajas at the Texas Observer, most reporters leading up to the council vote portrayed opposition to the contract as coming from only a handful of critics, often suggesting Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore was the sole, vocal opponent.

The Austin Statesman at one point estimated that "several" activists opposed the contract, and after the council vote, a local TV station said "dozens of community members" opposed it. In reality 20 different organizations signed on against it - including Travis County Democratic Party precinct chairs voting unanimously to recommend rejecting it - and more than 220 people signed up to speak against the contract Wednesday night, with 54 police officers and their family members signed up for it, the Mayor announced at end of the meeting. (The total actually speaking was lower on both sides in the end because many people donated their time to others or had to leave before their name was called.)

Beyond simply downplaying the size of the movement, a lot of false information has been  propagated because reporters simply accept official sources uncritically and do not seek out alternative sources or views. Sometimes these official sources lie, but the reporters aren't performing even the most basic legwork to fact check those falsehoods.

To take the most immediate example, Chief Brian Manley and the police union have been saying - and the Statesman repeated the line as the top news about the contract - that up to 300 veteran officers could retire if the contract was rejected. These were official falsehoods being promoted as a scare tactic.

And now that the contract has been rejected? Reported KXAN-TV, police union president Ken Casaday said, “We’re expecting somewhere between 25 and 50 to leave.” So between 1/12 and 1/6 of the number he was estimating a week before. While KXAN reported the new, much smaller estimate, the headline did not not say, "Far fewer officers will retire than expected." Instead, they doubled down on the original falsehood with the scary headline, "Some APD officers already putting in for retirement after contract was stalled." Not one media outlet has called out police management or union officials on their earlier misrepresentations. Instead, they're collaborating in a spin campaign.

So, since we can't expect local reporters to do it, let's go ahead and answer the question, "Is 25-50 retirements significant?" It turns out, according to the annual report from the Austin police officer retirement system (p. 133), 56 officers retired in 2016, and 71 retired in 2015. So even minimalist reporting, checking the most basic facts about the topic in easily accessible public sources, would show that these numbers of retirements aren't really a big deal at all. Austin cops with enough years in to make them eligible for retirement make upwards of $120K per year, including overtime - among the highest paid in the nation. There aren't other jobs, anywhere, where they can make that much, so most will stay put.

Reporters should aspire to be more than stenographers. These are the sorts of failures by the journalism profession which, on the macro level, brought us Donald Trump: Quoting public figures without fact checking their comments, refusing to report factual information because it doesn't come from a preferred source (usually the government), and focusing on personalities instead of issues.

Austin journalists who've covered the police contract for the most part should be embarrassed. They never provided the public with a meaningful assessment of the issues at stake, despite ample documentation, numerous community meetings, public forums and other opportunities to cover them. A massive, city-wide debate has taken place on this topic over the last six months, and it has occurred almost entirely without the MSM playing any meaningful role.

You could read everything written in the MSM about the contract before Wednesday's vote and have at most a minimalist understanding of the issues contract critics raised. Only one Statesman article, in October, even listed the eight accountability measures demanded by AJC and its allies. From that story, here's the most detailed MSM discussion Austinites ever got of the policy questions that ultimately caused the police-union contract to be shot down:
The resolution suggested, as Austin activists have for months, eight different reforms to the police contract: reforming the department’s 180-day rule, which limits the amount of time the police chief has to discipline officers; eliminating automatically downgraded suspensions; giving subpoena power to current oversight bodies; allowing misconduct to be considered equitably in promotions; allowing citizens to make complaints online or over the phone; allow the police monitor to initiate investigations even without a citizen complaint; stop permanently sealing records related to police misconduct; and releasing records without removing content.
And I should give those reporters credit: No one else except Barajas ever even listed them. However, each of these amounts to a complex debate into which the general public cannot meaningfully enter without much more detail and context than what's being provided. No media outlet ever discussed them at length, much less linked them thematically to the various cases which inspired the recommendations in the first place. Police union positions, however, were quoted over and over again.

As a result, Statesman readers, and consumers of all other local MSM, were essentially shut out of the real conversation. Instead, the most important debates took place online, in hundreds of one-on-one conversations behind the scenes, and in numerous public forums to which our journalist friends had access, but of which they chose not to avail themselves. Most reporters took the lazy way out, filling their stories with quotes from the police union and the city and using their authority to marginalize critics.

At times, it almost seemed intentional. More than a few of these reporters have shown they're better than that in other settings. In this instance, though, the local Austin press corps chose to serve as shills and propagandists for the powers-that-be, missing the story about an eruption of public discontent over a major public policy issue until after the fact. It was a sad and disappointing display.


Anonymous said...

Grits, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to lazy reporting but it is not a local phenomenon, it is seen all over the world. The core story, according to journalists I've talked to, would include city officials and the police union as they are the sources most journalists are going to "need" moving forth. If the story strays too far from their narrative, even if both are on opposite sides of an issue, the displeasure will be felt in many small ways for a prolonged period of time.

And not to split hairs, but it isn't a "lie" to report that XXX number of officers COULD retire, that would only be a lie if it stated said number WOULD retire, but even then without a time frame, such numbers are meaningless. Ask probing questions about the time frame for those retirements and you might be told how many of them had suggested they would leave a few years earlier, not necessarily immediately after the contract was rejected. Many would presumably hold out hope that behind the scenes negotiations would yield better results on the second try, only when a doomsday scenario included massive cuts for those who stayed would there be a faster result. For example, in Houston, a deal was passed via the state legislature to lower pension benefits and certain people would lose a great deal by staying past July 1. The result was that hundreds of additional police did in fact retire, much like the time their pensions were cut in the past; all of which was documented endlessly.

A real reporter would ask those questions and also inquire from more stakeholders but modern media relies on soundbites, not detailed, accurate reporting. It should also be noted that there are indeed jobs paying better than APD, many are in the private sector (such as the 200k+ some used to make via Halliburton) but cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and other major metropolitan areas easily clear more than one would get at APD. Depending on one's skill set, that 120k + overtime is modest, even the motorcycle cops in Dallas clear far more as one example or the hazmat trained professionals or even the truck enforcement trained as they are snatched up by trucking firms seeking better compliance.

In any case, journalists tend to follow the lead of their editors and publishers, not straying too far from timelines and protocols lest they be next on the chopping block, the nuances will always be better covered by dedicated bloggers and "outsiders". Just look around at how many newspapers have gone under, changed personnel in a drastic manner, or been absorbed by other media; the continual cuts putting pressure on those who remain.

Pat Hartwell said...

Thanks,GRITS,for calling out the dereliction of duty in the mass media. Unfortunately, all too often, mass media reporters fail to do even basic homework with important topics, especially in the criminal justice system of any kind. Surely this was not a conspiracy, led by the rightwing faction of the government? One-sided reporting serves the purpose of "dumbing down" the public.

Pat Hartwell said...

Thanks,GRITS,for calling out the dereliction of duty in the mass media. Unfortunately, all too often, mass media reporters fail to do even basic homework with important topics, especially in the criminal justice system of any kind. Surely this was not a conspiracy, led by the rightwing faction of the government? One-sided reporting serves the purpose of "dumbing down" the public.

Steven Seys said...

Is this mere sloth on the part of the reporters, or does the management of the various MSM institutions have an agenda that brings them to pressure journalists to concentrate on the spin? Whenever I see such apparent collusion between competitors, I look for underlying conspiracy. I don't accept The coincidence theory.

Anonymous said...

Steven, I doubt there's a big media-wide conspiracy taking place. According to a few reporters I know, they are typically assigned stories to write with the general direction given by their editor. With the level of reduced staffing, the amount of time allowed per story is much less than in years past. So unless a smoking gun is found, they are on to the next story without a thought, few editors really wanting to deviate from the practice of giving the most ink to the official sources.

And nothing about Austin city government is considered "right wing" so the idea that such a conspiracy exists to redirect media coverage in a case where Council voted something down just smacks of tinfoil hat material. Every news organization has their general approach to local government stories and it rarely deviates from paper to paper, all too many practically allowing the city or county to write the story via a press release so they can move to the next story. Never look for answers in conspiracies when simple laziness is more likely, conspiracies require too much intelligence and cooperation most of the time.

Steven Seys said...

So basically, what we have is a MSM so understaffed that journalism is replaced by regurgitation of official press releases. IMHO this is a cop out from the MSM to at best cover their sloth and reluctance to report any official wrong doing.