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Spiking the Punch 

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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Last Friday night on Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor turned its two-fisted gaze on the week‘s most incendiary news footage -- the video of Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse roughing up 16-year-old Donovan Jackson. The great O’Reilly was taking the day off, but fill-in (and former Republican congressman) John Kasich had clearly been studying the master‘s techniques of supercilious pugnacity. Interviewing an African-American civil rights lawyer, Leo Terrell, he asked, ”Why is it that every time there is an incident that involves a black man, a white man, or a black and white, why is it that we always say racism? Why can’t we just say this is a human being who‘s been abusive to another human being? Why do we always have to scream racism?“

Quick as a whip, Terrell snapped back, ”I thought this was the No Spin Zone.“

Fat chance. Once Mitchell Crooks’ videotape hit the L.A. local news early last week, everyone involved was busy spinning the Jackson story like a burning top -- a few hoping to fan the flames, most hoping to put them out. Before you could say ”Rodney King“ -- and everybody did -- Inglewood‘s unnerved mayor declared that Officer Morse should be fired, Morse’s lawyer John Barnett spoke of his client‘s ”restraint“ on any show that would have him (I can now identify Barnett’s bad haircut at 15 paces), and attorney Ralph Harrison II told Connie Chung Tonight that, after Crooks‘ arrest, he’d seen him tethered and handcuffed to a gurney ”like Hannibal Lecter“ -- a lurid accusation that promptly vanished into the ether.

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Although our local newscasters are notorious for sensationalism -- ”If only the cop could have beaten the kid after a nice long car chase,“ you imagine them thinking -- they seemed cowed by memories of the riots a decade ago. Naturally, they replayed Crooks‘ tape until the abuse of a handcuffed boy felt almost routine, but they soon shifted focus to the torture killings in Whittier (ah, an uncontroversial crime). Even the arrival of Al Sharpton couldn’t rouse their interest. There was slimmed-down Al with his dark suit, red tie and huge, self-satisfied head -- he looks eerily like the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Bros. cartoons -- giving the sermon at Power of Love Christian Fellowship Church. But his rabble-rouser act didn‘t rattle the cages as it does in New York. He’s their civil rights hustler, not ours.

With no print equivalent to the Crooks footage, newspapers were more muted. The New York Times quickly dropped the story -- after all, the Big Apple has cops who sodomize men with plungers -- and while Newsweek knocked off a desultory piece on the Jackson case, Time didn‘t bother. (The ever-jaunty Economist headlined its article ”Inspector Morse Strikes Again.“) In newspaper terms, the Jackson case remains a local story, and the Los Angeles Times gave it predictably stolid treatment. Perhaps hoping to cool things down, it pushed most of its coverage back to the California section (though Monday’s paper ran a good front-page article on other a instances of police brutality in Inglewood). As usual, the Times‘ only memorable writing came from Steve Lopez, who woke from hibernation to write columns that, without bashing the police, firmly pointed out that what happened to Jackson was undeniably racial: Would six cops show up to deal with a lapsed license plate if the driver were a white suburbanite?

While local coverage of the Jackson case was self-consciously ”responsible“ -- a term you kept hearing over and over -- the same wasn’t true of the national cable networks, which, safely headquartered elsewhere, clearly looked on Crooks‘ tape as salvation from the monotony of the Elizabeth Smart video loop: play, recital, beach, play, recital, beach . . . CNN milked Morse’s punch as if it were a low-budget version of the twin-towers collapse, and once the shrieking Crooks was arrested outside the network‘s offices, it belabored that footage, too. Such disproportionate coverage served no hidden political agenda -- for all their supposed liberalism, the media don’t exactly revel in tales of police brutality -- but merely exploited inflammatory footage to keep people tuned in. Ratings trump ideology every time. Which may be why the cable networks‘ coverage was so contradictory: Even as they pumped up the story to the size of a dirigible, they lectured Donovan Jackson’s supporters not to make too big a deal of things. Fox‘s Geraldo Rivera interviewed the Jackson family’s lawyer Joe Hopkins, a sharp guy whose misguided decision to wear shades during the interview made him look shifty (did Rivera‘s producers deliberately have him sit facing the sun?). Rivera began riffing about how he’d been in L.A. during the ‘92 riots and how they were a calamity, and shouldn’t Jackson‘s supporters be worried about stirring up trouble? Hopkins coolly noted that he was sitting in front of a Methodist church in which people were congregating peacefully. Days later, I’m still impressed that Rivera, the same reporter who had a prime-time special to open ”Al Capone‘s Secret Vault,“ has the chutzpah to accuse anyone of trying to wind people up.

You normally don’t expect such nonsense from CNN‘s lovably addled Connie Chung, who’d flown into L.A. from her home in 1955 and, as usual, appeared to be auditioning for the Betty White role in a new version of The Golden Girls. Although she did browbeat some poor retired cop about whether he thought Morse had abused Jackson (naturally, he didn‘t), Chung ultimately seemed to care less about police brutality than the possibility that protests might lead to trouble. Talking to comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory, Chung rudely cut him off whenever he tried to talk about the larger context of the Jackson case. ”Let’s get to the issue at hand, Mr. Gregory,“ she interjected. ”In this particular case, the question is protests have been held and . . . don‘t you think you have a responsibility to make sure there is no rioting?“

Why this was Gregory’s responsibility more than hers, or ours, Connie didn‘t say. But her words did point to a key cultural divide revealed by the tale of the videotape. When some people see the police abusing Donovan Jackson, they also see the long shadow of the Rodney King beating and our nation’s tortured racial past -- an ongoing wrong that must be put right if we‘re to have a just society. When others see exactly the same footage, they see only the long shadow of the ’92 riots -- and care less about what may have set them off than quashing anything that might lead to the fire next time.

Even John Ashcroft, whose previous commitment to racial justice was largely limited to having Clarence Thomas anoint him with oil during his swearing-in (really), sent his chief civil rights lawyer out to L.A. Of course, it‘s not clear whether the attorney general was genuinely worried about injustice or simply agonized at the thought of an L.A. riot on his watch.

In the end, the hypnotic quality of these tapes underscored how thoroughly amateur video now shapes our sense of news (Walter Benjamin smiles). These days we’re all jaded about the pseudo-events that dominate the airwaves -- staged productions like Bush‘s Wall Street speech in front of wallpaper reading ”Corporate Responsibility“ -- and we’ve come to crave the apparent authenticity of raw footage. The most powerful recent images have been captured by amateurs: the planes hitting the World Trade Center, the bin Laden tapes, the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Smart family home videos. They seem ”real“ in a way that professional news footage usually does not.

And they‘ve become the new standard of proof. I can only imagine the blend of horror and grim satisfaction with which African-Americans viewed Crooks’ tape, for, like the Rodney King video, it reconfirms what they‘ve been saying for decades. The accusation that the police routinely harass and abuse African-Americans often reminds me of a philosophy question -- if a black man is beaten by the cops and nobody tapes it, did he really get beaten? In America today, the answer is nearly always ”No.“

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