Mainstream Media’s Mendacity vs. Independent Journalism’s Dogged Pursuit of the Truth
Let me begin by first rehearsing the basic facts surrounding Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of Laquan McDonald before moving on to discuss how the Chicago media covered – or failed to cover — the original incident, how they reported on the case in the months following the incident and how they’ve covered the wave of protests that followed the release of the notorious dashcam videos.
On the evening of October 20, 2014, Chicago police received a 911 call about someone breaking into cars in the Archer Heights neighborhood. When they arrived on the scene, officers found 17-year-old Laquan McDonald carrying a 3-inch knife which he allegedly used to puncture a squad car’s front tires. When they ordered him to drop the weapon, McDonald turned and began walking away. At that point, Van Dyke opened fire and the teen collapsed to the ground. Van Dyke continued firing even after McDonald had fallen and was laying motionless on the street, shooting him some 16 times in the space of 15 seconds. McDonald was pronounced dead an hour later.
The mainstream Chicago media’s initial reporting on the McDonald shooting was utterly typical of the way the press reports most such episodes of police violence: it accepted without question the framing of the incident – by police and their advocates – as a regrettable but legitimate use of force. For instance, CBS local news carried a package on the shooting that featured Pat Camden, spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police, claiming that McDonald had had a “crazed” look about him and labeling him “a very serious threat” who gave officers “no choice… but to defend themselves.” The Chicago Tribune’s initial story also relied on Camden as a key source, quoting him as saying that McDonald was “staring blankly” when confronted by police. The Tribune story also repeated Van Dyke’s allegation that the teenager had “lunged” at him, a claim later debunked by dashboard camera footage. In her report, NBC 5 News correspondent Susan Carlson relayed that the police called the shooting “a clear-cut case of self-defense” and said that, when police first encountered him, McDonald was “in a dazed condition, swinging a knife.” Strikingly, the mainstream local media made no effort whatsoever to tie the McDonald case to the very similar police killing of African American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which had occurred only a few months before, even though at the time Brown’s death and the Ferguson protests were still very much in the national media spotlight and the focus of an intense debate about tensions between law enforcement and the black community. Nor did the establishment press make mention of the fact that the Chicago police from 2010 to 2014 fatally shot more people than any other police force in the country. In its immediate, rather scant reporting on the McDonald incident, the Chicago media acted as if the larger political and social context of the shooting simply didn’t exist.
While the mainstream media quickly lost interest in what really happened to Laquan McDonald, some local independent journalists insisted on digging deeper. Chief among these was Jamie Kalven, a Chicago-based writer who has a history of using Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain documents concerning police misconduct and human rights violations. In early December 2014, Kalven and University of Chicago Law School professor Craig Futterman issued a statement demanding that the city of Chicago release the dashcam videos from the squad cars present at the McDonald incident. Crain’s Chicago Business ran a short article publicizing Kalven and Futterman’s demands. In early February 2015, Kalven used a FOIA request obtain the official autopsy report and published a scathing expose in Slate revealing publicly for the first time that McDonald had been shot 16 times.1Kalven was awarded the prestigious 2015 George Polk Award for local journalism for his coverage of the Laquan McDonald case.
Interestingly, even Kalven’s meticulous investigative reporting was not enough to rekindle the mainstream Chicago media’s interest in the case. It was only when the Chicago City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald, on April 15, 2015, that corporate news organizations once again became interested in the case. Commentators thought it was odd that the settlement was approved suddenly and with little debate or discussion. Also suspicious was the fact that the city and McDonald’s family agreed that the dashboard video recordings of the killing would remain sealed pending the conclusion of all investigations into the incident. There was a brief flurry of commentary in the mainstream media at this stage, most of it focused on the high cost to the city of settlements for police misconduct.
Of course, what happened next is, as the saying goes, history. Throughout the summer and into the fall, more and more news organizations began investigating the story and public curiosity about the case mounted. On August 5, 2015, freelance journalist and occasional Chicago Reader contributor Brandon Smith brought a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department seeking the release of dashboard camera videos showing Van Dyke fatally shooting McDonald. Reporters from other, larger media outlets, notably The Chicago Tribune, filed FOIA requests for the video that were promptly ignored. Finally, on November 19, the Cook County judge in the Brandon Smith lawsuit ordered the Police Department to release the videos and Mayor Emanuel announced that the city would comply with the order. The dashboard videos were released within a week and at roughly the same time Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced charges of first degree murder against Officer Van Dyke.
The release of the videos famously sparked a wave of demonstrations that continued for nearly two months. Organized by a new generation of youth-led African American activist groups like Black Youth Project and the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter, hundreds of protestors marched day after day through the downtown demanding the firing of Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Emanuel’s resignation. On Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, the protestors marched through the Michigan Avenue “Magnificent Mile” shopping district, disrupting traffic and blocking access to stores. The protests ultimately forced Emanuel to fire McCarthy.
The mainstream media gave extensive coverage to these marches. While some of this coverage did in fact highlight organizers’ demands, much of it emphasized arrests and confrontations between protestors and police, dwelt on the inconvenience to shoppers caused by the marches, and emphasized the revenue lost by retailers. Predictably, the protestors’ perspectives and demands were presented on local TV news and in the big daily newspapers mostly via short soundbites and slogans (e.g. “16 Shots. Stop the cover-up!,” “Rahm Resign!”). One had to turn to alternative media sources such as Labor Beat, a long-running cable access TV show produced by local, rank-and-file union activists, to find coverage that featured lengthy (or at least lengthier) interviews with protestors and extended excepts of speeches made at the rallies. Local African American newspaper The Chicago Defender and black-owned radio station WVON also provided in-depth coverage and analysis of the protests and the protestors’ concerns.
I think one can argue the size and intensity of the protests caught the mainstream media by surprise and forced them to look more closely at the pattern of police violence against Chicago’s black community. Mainstream outlets began running feature stories on Chicago’s dismal record of police shootings of black suspects. The normally conservative, establishmentarian Chicago Tribune even ran an editorial slamming the Police Department for its handling of the McDonald case, hinting at a possible cover-up and calling for an independent investigation. That said, now that the protests have simmered down, the number of stories in the establishment press about police misconduct and the racism of the criminal justice system has declined markedly.
By way of conclusion, I’d like to make two observations:
First, as Brendan suggested in his introduction, there is copious evidence to suggest that suppression of the dashcam recordings was coordinated at the highest levels of the mayor’s office. Chicago has a long tradition of these sorts of cover-ups. Mayors as far back as Richard J. Daley have engaged in “government by public relations” and have zealously managed the city’s image by attempting to control the press as well as by producing their own reports and, in some cases, commissioning their own “advocacy films” in an effort to manage or spin burgeoning scandals. I hope to explore some of that sordid history in a future post for this roundtable. As concerns the Laquan McDonald killing, the mayor’s office had immediate political reasons wanting to postpone a full inquest into the facts of the case. Emmanuel failed to secure a majority of the vote in the February 24, 2015 mayoral election, forcing him into a hotly contested and by Chicago-standard very close April 7 runoff election with another Democrat, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. It is entirely plausible that people in his office attempted to keep the McDonald case under wraps until after the April 7 election for reasons of political expediency. The $5 million settlement, remember, was approved by the City Council just one week after Emanuel won reelection. That can’t be a coincidence.
Second, contrary to the implication of at least one of Brendan’s framing questions, the saga I’ve outlined above points not to the obsolescence but rather to the continued centrality of the news reporter as a mediator between important information and news events, on the one hand, and news consumers, on the other. The autopsy report and the dashcam video which sparked months of public protest simply would not have come to light without the dedicated work of independent, critically-minded journalists like Jamie Kalven and Brandon Smith. Granted, the circulation of the video footage of the shooting and the autopsy report via social media effectively discredited the version of events promoted for several months by Chicago’s mainstream news outlets. Having access to the footage allowed people to make up their own mind about whether McDonald “lunged” at police and whether or not Van Dyke’s actions were a reasonable response to a “crazed” suspect. But the fact is that “media objects” like the dashboard video did not materialize out of nowhere. Someone had to wage a battle in the courts – via FOIA requests and lawsuits – to gain access to them. And that is something good reporters – whether affiliated with mainstream news organizations or with the “alternative” media – have always done.
Steve Macek is Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College in Naperville, IL, where teaches courses on media studies, urban studies and the First Amendment. He is the author of Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), a critical analysis of media representations of American cities and the urban poor during the 1980s and 90s.