Like many conscientious, law-abiding Americans, I thought I’d reached my limit when it came to tolerating violent riots weeks ago. But then I saw a horrifyingly graphic video of “protesters” in New York last week chasing a scared raccoon out from underneath a car and clubbing it to death in the middle of the street. Are there people out there who really believe that helpless animals are tools of white supremacy? Or can we finally admit the violence that’s been raging since the police killing of George Floyd has become completely wanton and unmoored from notions of justice?
Maybe raccoon lives don’t matter much, but the fate of the poor critter proved to be a very bad omen. Tuesday, two people were killed after attacking an armed 17-year-old who was running away from a mob in Kenosha. A high school kid may have had no business carrying a gun in the middle of a riot, but the various videos also show he may have had valid reasons to fear for his life. The New York Times, to its credit, has a good breakdown of what happened, but the young gunman is now charged with first-degree murder.
How bad were things in Kenosha? Well, this is the week CNN finally began fretting about the rioting sweeping the country for months. Unfortunately, it’s not that the news channel suddenly noticed dozens of people are dead and damage to property may cost billions. If you want a near perfect tableau of cable news in the Trump era, it’s hard to top what happened on CNN Tuesday night. Reporter Oscar Jimenez stood in front of an inferno of burning vehicles and the chyron underneath him read, “Fiery But Mostly Peaceful Protests After Police Shooting.”
The real problem for CNN is that Kenosha happens to be one of the swingiest districts in a swing state and, well, the Republican National Convention was going on. “The rioting has to stop. ... It’s showing up in the polling, it’s showing up in focus groups. It is the only thing right now that is sticking [for Republicans],” host Don Lemon told his colleague Chris Cuomo, who nodded along sympathetically. This is certainly a change in tone at CNN. Back in June, Cuomo asked viewers to "please, show me where it says protesters are supposed to be polite and peaceful." (The pride of Fordham Law School must have momentarily forgotten about the First Amendment.)
Incredibly, Lemon went on to urge Joe Biden to give a speech denouncing the riots and blaming Trump for violence that has been most directly enabled by Democratic governance. Exhibit A is progressive Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who on Wednesday took a look at the polls and tweeted, “It’s time for the violence and vandalism to end so Portland can focus on the important work to be done to achieve real change for racial justice. Those who have committed acts of violence will be held accountable.”
This also represents a big change in rhetoric for Brown. Throughout July, she publicly blamed the city’s riots on the increased federal law enforcement presence at the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. The city had already stood down when rioters burned a police building to the ground a few blocks away from the courthouse, so the governor’s argument was curious at best.
Still, Brown got away with scapegoating the feds because the media credulously adopted the false narrative that Portland didn’t have a law and order problem until the feds arrived. Just this past the weekend, The New York Times ran a puffy profile of Portland’s young district attorney, who has dismissed charges against half of the 600 people arrested for rioting in the city since May.
However, the feds secured a protection agreement from the city and drew down their presence weeks ago. On July 31, the Washington Post headline was “Trump ordered federal forces to quell Portland protests. But the chaos ended as soon as they left.” Not only has the chaos in Portland not ended, it has ramped up. Portland police have declared riots 12 times so far in August, compared to 10 times from the end of May through the end of July. Brown and the Washington Post don’t have Trump to blame for the violence this month. But when a police union building was subsequently torched, the Post switched tacks. It published a piece essentially cheering the arsonists on.
Portland’s neighbors to the north in Seattle are undergoing a similar reckoning. During the RNC Wednesday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow broke away from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s speech to do an urgent “fact check” on Noem’s contention Democratic-led cities are overrun with crime. Maddow brought Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on the air to rebut Noem – Durkan dutifully pronounced Noem “purposefully wrong” and blamed “the president and Fox News” for creating a false impression of violence in her city.
Back on planet Earth, Durkan ordered police to abandon a precinct building earlier this summer and let protesters set up a lawless zone of the city where two people were murdered. Things haven’t really improved since then. Last week, Durkan held a press conference about “significant concerns regarding an increase in arsons, homicides, and shots fired.” This week rioters tried to seal up the doors to Seattle’s east precinct police station with quick-dry cement and then set the building on fire. Federal police are now coming in whether Durkan wants them or not – the incident has triggered an ATF investigation. So far, there has been next to no national media coverage of the attempted mass murder of Seattle cops.
But in order to cover the riots properly, journalists would have to take time out from participating in them. On Tuesday, angry mobs charged down the streets of D.C. – a town where Donald Trump captured a whopping 4% of the vote in 2016 – and confronted diners in restaurants and demanded that they raise their fists and affirmatively express agreement with the Black Lives Matter movement. They angrily confronted and menaced those few patrons who refused to bow to the mob. According to a Washington Post reporter present, one of the leaders of this cultural revolution-in-a-teacup was a journalist – a writer for the sports website Deadspin, which not that long ago was considered a reasonably mainstream publication.
Obviously, very few journalists are in the streets acting like Maoist thugs, but after months of violence with no end in sight, it’s worth reviewing whether major media coverage of the upheaval following the killing George Floyd has at least been helpful or accurate. In June, Astead W. Herndon and Dionne Searcey wrote in the Times that polling showed Americans were broadly supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a development that would likely benefit Biden in November. “Just 37 percent [in battleground states] said rioting was a bigger problem,” they wrote, “though Mr. Trump and his allies have tried to discredit the protests by focusing on some isolated incidents of violence.”
That “some isolated incidents of violence” line was insulting to readers two months ago, and looks even worse now as Biden supporters freak out about his sudden vulnerability due to the continuing cycle of riots. And after that brief embrace of Black Lives Matter following Floyd’s killing, polling now shows it’s returned to being as polarizing as it was before his death.
Whether the complicity in downplaying months of violence means Trump has a real shot at overtaking Biden or will merely get a dead raccoon bounce in the polls, remains to be seen. But the lesson for the media is obvious enough: When you put politics before the facts, the facts have unexpected ways of reshaping politics.