Media Coverage of Protests Is Amplifying Injustice
NBC News reporter Carl Quintanilla thought he was making a powerful point, and though Twitter metrics are a dubious measure of public opinion, over 21,000 people agreed. He observed that on May 1, President Trump tweeted, “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” However, on June 1, Trump was telling a group of Democratic governors, “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again."
The two protests, and Trump’s reaction to them, weren’t really comparable despite the inflammatory racial overtones of the comparison. If Quintanilla was trying to be fair, some context is required. The anti-lockdown protests Trump tweeted about on May 1 were inadvisable due to the threat of spreading the coronavirus, and the visuals of people strolling near the capitol carrying rifles disturbed some people. Most Americans disapproved of them. These protests were also small, took place in only a handful of states, and involved very few disturbances of the peace. The second Trump tweet came after days of violence and looting in scores of American cities that resulted in several deaths.
The double standard in perceptions of these two protests is pervasive and discrediting to the media. Even worse, this naked partisanship prevents the media from acknowledging clear threats to the vulnerable American communities they profess to care about. Right-of-center writer and podcaster Matt Walsh surveyed the media coverage of the anti-lockdown protests a month ago, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that much of the media coverage of the current protests and riots looks duplicitous and overtly political.
Vox decried the “whiteness of anti-lockdown protests” and noted that “ignorance, privilege, and anti-black racism is driving white protesters to risk their lives.” The Guardian warned “US lockdown protests may have spread virus widely, cellphone data suggests.” The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News published a widely circulated op-ed by three medical ethics professors arguing, “Lockdown protesters have a moral duty to forgo medical care in favor of those who followed the rules.” A Washington Post editor opined, “Lockdown protesters don’t care about lives.” USA Today’s editorial board concluded, “Coronavirus lockdown protests risk your health and slow the reopening of U.S. economy.” And so on.
In the last week, however, the media abruptly abandoned its obsession with public health orders, and did so just days after the media noted with great fanfare that a 100,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.
Walsh concluded his survey of the media coverage by saying, “So what we've learned is that if you want to protest during a pandemic, do it safely by burning down buildings and beating the hell out of random bystanders. That way you'll escape criticism from the media.”
Perhaps his observation was too flippant, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Throughout the lockdown, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pressured Jewish communities flouting the restriction orders. On Tuesday, following an incredibly destructive night of looting across the city, a reporter asked de Blasio why he was continuing to allow masses of people to be out and about protesting even as church services in the city are still forbidden.
“Four hundred years of American racism. I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services,” de Blasio retorted. There’s either a public health threat or there’s not. De Blasio can’t curb one First Amendment right in the name of public health while allowing large groups to flout the rules in the name of exercising another.
Furthermore, his response is scientifically illiterate. A lethal virus couldn’t possibly care about why protesters are out in the street in close quarters. And just who does de Blasio think will suffer if the coronavirus infections flare up as a result of the second – and vastly more populous – spate of demonstrations? If the current protests and riots spawn future outbreaks, it will be especially damaging to poor Americans and the black populations in America’s cities who were already at increased risk. Either de Blasio isn’t actually concerned about the pandemic or he feels empowered to embrace this hypocrisy because he knows the media won’t hold him accountable for it.
The double standard in coverage of the two protests has also manifested itself when it comes to the economy. Anti-lockdown protesters were considered selfish because they argued in favor of reopening the economy, despite the health risks. “I don’t think you can separate the vehemence of anti-lockdown protesters from their whiteness, nor do I think we can divorce their demands to ‘reopen’ the economy from the knowledge that many of those most affected belong to other racial groups,” wrote New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie on May 8.
But three weeks later, Bouie’s colleagues at the Times, Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley, had a different focus: “Black Workers, Already Lagging, Face Big Economic Risks” was the headline on the paper’s June 1 story. This might be the understatement of the year. According to data marshaled by Smialek and Tankersley, over half of all black adults in America are currently unemployed as a result of the pandemic shutdowns. Last fall, black unemployment was at an all-time low.
This surely had a terrible effect on recent protests. “Locking the country down filled the room with gas,” observed radio host Vincent Coglianese. “Killing George Floyd lit the match.” Of course, we can’t say the economic warnings of anti-lockdown protesters have been vindicated. Opening up the country a month ago might have been a public health disaster.
Unfortunately, the nuanced, good-faith discussions necessary to solve the big, complicated problems we’re facing right now have been displaced by the media’s confidence that it knows who’s wrong and who’s right. Such certitude would be problematic in any context, but when tainted by partisanship it actually poses a danger to the very people reporters and commentators claim to care about.