This great awakening we’ve come to collectively about the nefarious tendencies of our police have mostly been focused on race. But beyond race, there is an even more fundamental ignorance we — especially we in the media — been all too happy to live with.
It has to stop, and so far, there are signs that it may be.
Last week, the show COPS was canceled after a more-than 30 year run on TV that could have gone on another 30 years were it not for the killing of George Floyd and the uproar that followed.
Most of us watched the show, bookended by its abominable reggae theme ‘Bad Boys’, as a guilty pleasure. It scratched that itch that makes us all, not want so much to be better people, but to at least be better than that fuckin’ shirtless loser huffing spray paint.
Maybe it’s that we got so caught up in feeling guilty for the schadenfreude aspect of the show that we missed the much bigger problem with the show right in front of our eyes; namely, that the content existed purely at the pleasure of the police, who controlled everything that was filmed and crafted the narrative completely to their liking.
It took the George Floyd incident and protests in every American city to finally get COPS off the air, but it’s not the only disgrace of that sort in the media.
One such disgrace exists on our own website. That is to say it existed until this week when I crumpled it into the same wastebasket of history where COPS now resides.
Here at the Anchorage Press our editorial team is made up entirely of citizen journalists and professional freelance journalists. Other than me, we have no full-time or part-time editorial staff, and my time is split between content and general manager duties.
But, I receive emails all day long from law enforcement and over a year ago, I got the idea of putting a tab on our website called “Busted”, wherein we would take press releases and Nixle feeds from law enforcement agencies and post them online more or less as is.
These made for great click bait. At any given moment it was likely that one of these feeds would appear in our top 10 trending stories list.
To be fair to us, these reports were nothing worse than what you’d find at any other news outlet craving pageviews. In fact, you could argue, ours were more honest because we never made a pretense that they were anything other than one-sided mouthpieces for the cops. The cops themselves occupied the byline.
Before coming to Anchorage I worked at a number of daily and community newspapers, where you would typically have one reporter — often your lowest-paid cub reporter — who would go down to the courthouse each morning and take notes on the arrest records put together by the authorities. That reporter would then sit down and write a story under their own byline, regurgitating the account of police, seldom bothering to ask the police any follow-up questions and almost never asking the accused or their representation to give their side of the story.
Those stories would go into print under the banner of a publication that prides itself on giving the community the straight dope, speaking truth to power and yet police propaganda is all they’re reporting.
For me, the decision to repent of ‘Busted’ became a clear one last Wednesday when I got a call from a woman in Soldotna whose ex-husband had recently been arrested by U.S. Marshals on outstanding warrants and a parole violation. She said his children were seeing the link from our story on Facebook and it was upsetting them. I told her it came from a press release from the U.S. Marshals’ Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force, who don’t send those out very often. She pointed out that her ex-husband had had drug problems that caused his past run-ins with the law, but that authorities had treated him with unnecessary aggression that included shooting his finger off in an arrest that happened four years earlier — an event that was recounted in the press release.
I don’t know whether there was validity to her claim, but it struck me strange that the U.S. Marshals, in conjunction with the Anchorage Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security would send out a press release congratulating themselves on bringing such a violent scofflaw to justice and retelling the details — from their side of the story — about an incident that happened four years ago.
Maybe this individual is as dangerous as he sounds. Maybe we’re all safer that he’s off the streets. The point is, if we as news agencies can’t do our due diligence to do follow-up to not just look at the police report and regurgitate the company line, we shouldn’t use such content to drive audience.
This goes for the Anchorage Press as well as news sources that do have the resources to report on these cases independently.
If the George Floyd episode and its fallout have taught us in the media anything, it should be that taking the words of police and appending them with obligatory and meaningless platitudes like ‘allegedly’, or ‘according to court documents’, or ‘police said’ or ‘reportedly’ can no longer be acceptable.
The police are not bad. Community policing needs to be reexamined from a holistic level, but the police should not be ‘defunded.’ When all this rage and fury wears off, hopefully we’ll be able to see that.
At the same time, we have to get over the idea of treating the statements of police as gospel.
Taking the place of ‘Busted’ at anchoragepress.com is the tab labeled ‘Staycation’. Inspired by our 48-page glossy section aimed at Alaskans looking for recreation now that we finally have a summer where we’re not overrun by tourists, this will be an ongoing feature celebrating all the cool things there are for Alaskans to do in Alaska.
This magazine is at the printer’s now and will be distributed this weekend all around Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and parts of the Kenai Peninsula.
In celebration, we’re hosting a sweepstakes on anchoragepress.com where readers can take a quick poll about their preferred types of recreation and be entered to win one of 12 Alaska TourSaver coupon books. This book, valued at $100, has more than $15,000 worth of coupons inside, providing great deals on fishing, rafting, lodging and more.
The contest closes June 30, so log on now, and explore Alaska like never before!