Tuesday, July 28, 2009

HENRY LOUIS GATES AND JOURNALISM

I won’t make a habit of this. But as always, I see something larger in the ongoing events here, and I’d hate to see a good opportunity for insight and reflection wasted.

I had Posted a few days ago (on July 22nd), and then made an Addendum or two as things went on.

Yesterday, it is reported, the Cambridge Police released its tapes of the original call to 911 from a passerby and then the radio transmissions between the police dispatcher and the officers responding to the scene.

Gates and also the news-reporting are the interesting bits in all this.

Much media concern is focused on the fact that it wasn’t the passerby (who has gotten herself a high-publicity feminist-issues lawyer named Wendy Murphy) who brought up the race of the men she saw shouldering open the front door to the home. Rather, it “was the police who brought up race”. Well, yes and no and mostly no.

The 911 operator, as is standard procedure, is trying to get some description of the Suspicious Persons (“SPs” in police radio lingo) that would be of use to the responding officers in quickly identifying the SPs. The 911 operator asks if they are “black or Hispanic”, among other questions.

This isn’t ‘racial profiling’. This is a way to whittle down the possible overall looks of an SP so that the officers don’t have to waste time when they get there (and possibly overlook the actual SPs in the time it takes to check everybody nearby).

If the SP were a mime – face coated with white facepaint – then that would be useful. If a person were an albino, or had warpaint smeared over his face and arms, or lots of visible tattoos, or an unusual and distinctive haircut, or was wearing a morning-suit and a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase and an umbrella … any such distinctive characteristics would be desirable to for the purposes of an initial police size-up of the various people at or near the scene. Indeed, a cruiser responding might see – say – the person with the bowler hat and briefcase and umbrella two blocks away and stop to ‘check him out’.

So the 911 operator isn’t introducing ‘race’ as a matter of racial-profiling, but simply trying to get a clear and quick first-description out to the officers.

Imagine, if you will, that this was a child-sex-assault and the 911 operator did not ask the ‘race’ question: if the attacker were white, and there happened to be a large number of black or Asian or Hispanic or Native American males nearby, the attacker might quietly get away while the police were laboriously checking on every male they came across. You see the problems.

As it turned out, the caller could only tell the 911 operator that one of the persons may have been Hispanic (the driver, apparently). So the police arrived only with the information that one of the men may have been Hispanic. (And was Gates’s driver still on the scene when the police arrived? Somehow, his presence has been almost completely neglected in all of this ‘reporting’.)

The first radio transmission back to dispatch from the scene is that “I’m up with a gentleman who says he resides here (background voice) but uncooperative.” The officer, prudently, then informs the dispatcher – and it would have been heard by all responding units – to “keep the cars coming”. This will ensure that officers whizzing through the streets know that their presence is still needed, in the estimation of the officer already on the scene.

The officer on scene then asks for the Harvard University police to respond; this is apparently a reflection of Gates’s insistence that he is standing on Harvard University property (and not his own property, as a matter of fact and law). So the police are confronted with a man on somebody else’s property, technically, and not “in his own house”. It’s not the ultimate bit of information, but it means the cop has to now bring in representatives of the property’s owner – to wit, the police of Harvard University.

The officer then commits implicitly the egregious faux-pas of not knowing who Henry Louis Gates is: “He gave me the name Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Harvard property.” So Gates has not said that he’s in his own home – as he later claims, among so many other things.

And as the officer is making this transmission, “(background voice)” is heard on the recording. So while the cop is on his radio trying to add more details to get this thing resolved. Gates is – at the very least – talking loud enough to be picked up by the radio mike. Rawther impolite – do they do things like this at Ivy faculty dinner-parties, talking at and interrupting persons trying to make a point? Mah mah mah. How un-elite.

Thus the transcript as it’s printed in the local paper of record. It seems there should be more, and I doubt that the police cut anything relevant out. But I think the paper’s editors did.

The paper, that step-child of the “New York Times”, the “Boston Globe”, ‘reports’ that the whole set of transmissions “leave vexingly unanswered most question about the incident that has captured world-wide attention”.

Well, it certainly seems that the paper and its reporters could have picked up on just the questions that arise from what transmissions reveal. But no.

Nope. No exploration of the evidence that is actually there.

Instead, a muzzy veil of “uncertainty”. Which is the equivalent of the destroyers laying down a smoke-screen to enable the damaged battleship to make its escape.

Because the paper initially went for the ‘classic racist-cop’ stereotype, that trusty, half-century old script. And now that it seems that such was not primarily the case at all, the paper will lay down the smoke of “uncertainty” so that the battleship Gates and then the paper itself can make their escape, while continuing to utter low gibbering innuendoes about racial profiling.

Marvelously, in the accents of Pure Objective Science, the paper notes that “brief snippets of a man’s voice can be heard in the background … What he says is difficult to make out, but he is speaking loudly and emphatically. At one point he appears to say ‘I’m outraged’”. The paper makes no mention of Gates’s original assertions – which the paper dutifully printed on the day of the event – that he had throat problems that day and couldn’t have spoken above a whisper (a photo taken quietly at the scene put paid to that crap as Gates is seen standing on the porch with his mouth in the shape of a wide-open “O”).

And then, equally marvelously, “Neither police nor Gates’s lawyer would confirm that the voice belongs to the Harvard professor.” Well, OK – nobody wants to jump to conclusions without evidence. There’s been enough of that in the past several decades … and can you say Iraq War? But who else was standing near the officer making the radio transmissions? Another police officer? Abe Lincoln? Or Gates.

Nicely, Gates’s attorney, another Harvard professor, the noted black legal expert Charles Ogletree, had nothing to say except that Gates was “pleased that the [passerby’s original 911] call revealed no racial bias”. Which is nice indeed, except that it’s not really the point here.

Beneath its ‘report’ – ‘article’ is probably closer to it – the paper prints a short piece ‘revealing’ that Gates and the police officer will be meeting with Obama for beer on Thursday. They can bring their relatives – which indicates that there won’t be much serious business to transact.

And yet, at the same time, the White House spokesman – Robert Gibbs – intoned that “a big part of this is an increased dialogue between both of he individuals here and their representation of both law enforcement and minority community”. Which doesn’t really work as a sentence in English – even as the language is construed nowadays.

One might be tempted to inquire as to just what “minority community” Gates will be representing in this play – the black community or the ‘elite’ professoriate community?

Anyhoo, the whole tempest is soon to fizzle out in a beer-mug (tea-pots are so quaint, doncha know?). Or maybe Gates will swill his Beck’s straight from the bottle. The poor police officer is advised to use a glass in any case – a photo of him drinking from the bottle will start a ‘red neck’ and ‘macho’ stampede, bringing out all the usual braying and bleating suspects, and We will be off to the races again.

And We have enough running to do as it is.

The role of the ‘advocacy media’ in the past half-century, which started off decently enough with coverage of the Southern freedom-marches, has evolved – or mutated – into something else altogether. And in the process the ‘press’ has abandoned its role in the Founding vision: instead of informing The People of the facts as best they can be determined, it now doles out only the Correct ‘facts’, or whatever it can say that will manipulate –and often stampede – people into the pathways that the self-proclaimed ‘elites’ want things to go.

And having become too entrapped now to easily back away from the catastrophe of propaganda in the name of ‘advocacy’, and too fearful of upsetting its ‘consumers’, that ‘press’ has frittered away as much as the Wall Street and Beltway ‘elites’, in Finance and War respectively.

Once again, although I do not intend this as ‘the last word’, We have to recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s rueful observation about his nation in the late 1930s: “Once you have gotten on the wrong train, walking back through the cars isn’t going to help”.

God help Us all. And indeed, God save the United States.

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