Saturday, June 23, 2007

Austin Police Flacks Just Make Things Up

After Austin police claimed 2,000 people stood around watching as a man was beaten to death at a Juneteenth festival, their PR department adjusted their story this week to say just a few people were present and the incident happened blocks away from the festival in a housing project.

The story immediately drew international coverage; the headline in Mexico City's La Reforma had declared, "Hispanic is Lynched in Texas." You can bet the retraction won't get as much attention.

This incident confirms my long-time sense that nearly every Austin police press release put out within 24 hours of a death, whether officer involved or not, is essentially a practice in fiction writing. (Other cities, too, I'd bet, but I know Austin best.) That's a big reason I seldom comment on officer-involved shootings when they make the papers. Too often the information put out in the initial aftermath of these incidents is simply wrong, whether fabricated or just produced by talentless hacks I cannot say. Often, as in this case, there's no obvious advantage to the police to misrepresent what happened. I really don't understand it.

Usually in my experience there's about a 3-6 month cycle after one of these police spin sessions where inchoate claims are backed off and slivers of truth slowly emerge through open records or litigation, then it's possible to better judge what really occurred. This week the correction came within a couple of news cycles after the initial misrepresentations, which I suppose is an improvement, in some sense. An even better improvement would be if crime beat reporters stopped taking police press releases at face value and waited to publish until they investigated incidents on their own steam. I won't be holding my breath on that, though.


Unknown said...

It's the ole double standard. I get the third degree when I make claims based on widely known facts. I wince because I see absurd claims based on political propaganda all the time by local police. The media does this on a routine basis. Does being a police chief give you a license to lie? Or does it give you instant credibility beyond that of mere mortals?
Another tactic of mass media is to not report embarrassing truths - and when those are reported by readers they are always in the form of "letters to the editor". This allows school boards to use text books that repeat DEA propaganda verbatim in class rooms and then brazenly claim that the truth is "merely a matter of opinion". It's just a rehash of the "Big Lie" technique used in Nazi Germany. Tell a lie often enough and people believe it to be true. But instead of hauling dissenters off to secret detention centers they post the dissent in the OPED section - on days when sales are typically low and fewer readers buy their paper. I have seen "letters to the editor" highly critical of authority figures and their lies a lot during my cross country trip. I would check my watch for the day of the week and it was always on a Monday or Tuesday when these letters were published. Good strategy to lie to those who just don't pay attention.

Anonymous said...

The Austin PD has a PR department.

The fact that you've created the need for one is hilarious.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Austin PD has had a PR department for many years - long before I ever moved to town.