The Call is Coming From Inside the White House: Trumpism and 911 Abuse

If people are abusing 911, those folks should be spotlighted, not shielded, by the press.

They can’t possibly think it’s a form of “liberal bias,” can they?

Miranda Spencer asks a compelling question about the mainstream media’s coverage of recent incidents involving race-based abuse of 911:

In the past few weeks, major news media have been flooded with coverage of incidents of alleged racial profiling and implicit bias—from golfers reported to police for playing “too slowly,” to picnickers fingered for using the wrong type of grill at a park. This coverage was prompted by viral videos and other social media posts released by the accused or by concerned bystanders, in real time or soon after these events occurred. The characters in these stories had one thing in common: The callers and officers involved were white; the alleged offenders, black or brown…

But almost across the board [in stories about these incidents], while the accused’s names and personal details have been made public, the accusers remain unnamed. Though equally newsworthy, they were allowed to retain their anonymity…

The trend of allowing callers to retain their privacy is problematic for several reasons. First, it fails to follow one of the basic tenets of reporting, omitting the first of the proverbial 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why). Key players in these stories – the individuals who triggered the incidents by contacting authorities – remain mysterious. Confirming a caller’s identity also helps to establish that person’s credibility, as well as their motivations.

Moreover, as think pieces and op eds in these outlets pointed out in subsequent coverage, racial profiling and harassment are an ongoing problem for people of color. Such incidents can lead to loss of innocent lives at the hands of armed police, as the families of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland know all too well. Failure to attempt to explore and publicize the identity and background of people who overreact to the presence of people of color means such injustices will continue to happen—not to mention the waste of police time and resources better spent pursuing actual criminals.

Why is the Fourth Estate generally reluctant to identify those who have made 911 calls in an apparent attempt to encourage the police harassment–or worse–of people of color? Spencer suggests that press cowardice is at work:

[Mainstream-media entities] appear to allow the privacy preferences of the callers to influence the stories, implicitly giving them the benefit of the doubt. For example, NBC News’ piece on the Yale incident opened with a voiceover asking, “Racial bias or an honest mistake?”

And from the headlines and framing of certain stories, we might also surmise that some outlets felt the callers’ and cops’ actions were justifiable: “Officers in Starbucks Incident ‘Did Absolutely Nothing Wrong,’ Philadelphia Police Chief Says” (Fox, 4/12/18); “Police Chief Defends Officers’ Actions in Viral Starbucks Arrest Video” (CBS, 4/12/18). Similarly, in the Airbnb case, we saw headlines such as “Video Shows Black Airbnb Guests, Police Joking About Call” (New York Times, 5/8/18) and “California Police Release Bodycam Footage, Defend Detaining Bob Marley’s Granddaughter and Others” (San Jose Mercury News, 5/9/18)…

In this era of social media trolling, people have a right not to talk to the press. But there are ways to obtain a name beyond relying on callers to out themselves or institutions to release their identities. For example, some stories on the [Rialto, California] Airbnb incident quoted the owner of the house, Marie Rodriguez, who defended her neighbor’s actions. Surely Rodriguez knew this caller’s name. If a reporter asks and is unsuccessful, it’s customary to indicate what attempts were made, or why identities were omitted or redacted.

I’d also add that part of the reason why mainstream-media outlets are reluctant to identify the folks who make these unwarranted 911 calls is that if their names are published, social-media sleuths will quickly deduce the politics of these callers–and if too many of these callers happen to be Trumpistas, the mainstream media will inevitably be accused of “liberal bias” and allegedly smearing all Trump voters as racist. That’s one hot potato the press corps doesn’t want to pick up.

In fact, Spencer notes the role social-media sleuths played in the now-notorious Aaron Schlossberg incident. And wouldn’t you know:

Intercept columnist Shaun King posted the video of the man on Twitter on May 16 and asked his 962,000 followers to help identify him.

In the hours since, users on Twitter have identified the man as Aaron Schlossberg, a New York attorney who has touted his fluency in Spanish on the website for his law office.

Other users have uploaded videos of Trump rallies where they say the attorney was present, and a report from BuzzFeed noted that Schlossberg has been seen or recorded making racist comments at multiple points over the past two years. According to the New York Daily News, Schlossberg is a registered Republican, and several outlets have noted that Schlossberg’s law office donated to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

You don’t say!

Fear of being accused of “liberal bias” shouldn’t lead the mainstream media to shield the names of those who make obviously racially-motivated 911 calls, calls that could lead to the loss of life. If people are abusing 911 because they feel liberated by the current occupant of the Oval Office to try to inflict harm on citizens of color, those folks should be spotlighted, not shielded, by the press, no? It might make the next Trump acolyte think twice about engaging in this sort of sordid behavior.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.