NPR’s Racial Profiling

A friend of mine, who is a life-long Democrat, likes to joke that the reason left-wing talk radio has never caught on is that they don’t need it – they’ve got NPR.

That’s not so funny given the extended coverage out of Ferguson, Mo.

NPR’s reporting of a police officer – a WHITE police officer – shooting a young man – a BLACK man – has been over the top.

It’s a textbook example of pack journalists piling on.

Listening to NPR in the past couple of weeks, I was reminded of an historic newspaper headline often cited as an example of lynch-mob journalism: “Quit Stalling – Bring Him In.” 

That 1954 Cleveland Press headline was prompted by the frenzy over Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was presumed guilty of killing his wife.

Now it’s Officer Darren Wilson who is presumed guilty.

NPR has been providing generous airtime to everyone from adjudicated liar Al Sharpton and angry citizens to various academicians and experts, who push the same agenda: American blacks have always been treated unfairly, and if they behave badly it’s history’s fault; the police need to make special allowances when dealing with blacks.

For all its resources, NPR has not approached this story with any probing questions or fresh insights. From the beginning it reduced this story to race, white-cop-shoots-unarmed-black-man. Never mind that it was two particular individuals, at a specific time and place, under its own unique circumstances.

Michael Brown is not Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant or Jonathan Ferrell or Rodney King.

Those names roll off the tongues of NPR reporters.

These names do not: Mark Dunakin, Ervin Romans, Daniel Sakai, John Hege, Mark Renninger, Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards. Neither does this name: Sgt. Gary Wolfley.

The first four are Oakland police officers gunned down in a single day by black ex-con Lovelle Mixon. The latter four are Tacoma-area police officers gunned down in a single day by black ex-con Maurice Clemmons.

And Wolfley was the first cop killing I covered as a young reporter in Rialto, Calif. Wolfley was shot dead with his own gun, wrestled from him by an “unarmed” black man. (Wolfley was responding to a call made by another black man who thought two other blacks were trying to kill him.)

Nobody at NPR would try to link Officer Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown to those nine cops killed by blacks. Yet, NPR treats all blacks who have ever been shot or beaten by police as part of a single, giant outrage. There is no room for individual differences – or individual responsibility.

Among NPR’s low points in the coverage out of Ferguson:

John Hockenberry’s “The Takeaway” devoted an entire show to Ferguson (some public stations broadcast it twice they thought it was so important). What new ground did “The Takeaway” cover?

One segment was devoted to a black father and young son talking about how to deal with police, what the media now refer to as “the talk.” Hockenberry (who sounds like he knows the answer before he asks the question) wanted to know how many times the son has feared being shot. The boy answered, “five.”

Hockenberry’s follow-up statements assumed that the boy means being shot by police. He did not ask the boy, “How many times do you fear being shot by another black?” It’s a fact that far more blacks are killed by other blacks than by police.

Was Hockenberry afraid to ask, “Do you worry more about getting shot by police or by other black males” for fear of what the answer might be?

Considering that even Jesse Jackson feels safer if he sees a white man walking behind him instead of a black, is it unreasonable for a police officer to think that a young black man behaving in an agitated manner could be armed?

Hockenberry introduced a Harvard professor, who recycled some familiar assumptions about the history of American slavery, namely that black Americans “would never forget the wrongs done to them in slavery and the white majority would never overcome its ‘deep rooted prejudices.’”

Hockenberry accepted this and did not ask why other countries that have had slavery haven’t suffered from this curse.

Slavery is certainly not unique to the U.S. or to whites. It has existed in most parts of the world (and still does in some places) and has not always been defined by race or skin color. The word “slave” derives from the many Slavic people enslaved in the Dark Ages.

Could it be that what makes America’s history of slavery different is that we have people who make a living from picking at 200-year-old wounds and reviving grievances? It’s a business and a way of life for some folks – even highly educated professionals. Who benefits from this? Has it contributed to the infantilism of black Americans?

Not surprisingly, Hockenberry accepted white privilege as a fact. Has he ever considered black swagger? Could that have something to do with why a cop might be more anxious when dealing with blacks? A Brooklyn man posted this comment on The Takeaway’s website: “African Americans are very proud and macho … Respect the swagger of my Brothers!”

NPR’s “Here and Now” also had a black professor talk about the link between Ferguson and Missouri slave Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom in 1857 and lost.

Dred Scott and Michael Brown were both black. That’s where the parallel ends. Scott was a slave; Brown was not. But this gave NPR another chance to remind blacks that their ancestors were slaves. (Their black ancestors may also have owned slaves or been free men, but that didn’t fit NPR’s angle on this story.)

And, of course, NPR used Ferguson to revisit once again the subject of racial profiling. NPR trod familiar ground. Nothing new. Yes, police engage in racial profiling – often for good reason.

When the number of black males who commit crimes drops, racial profiling will drop.

Racial profiling is merely the law enforcement version of journalistic stereotyping. And as NPR’s Ferguson coverage shows, old stereotypes die reluctantly.

That’s why NPR reaches back 200 years in history to reinforce its racial stereotypes. Daily crime news across the U.S. would challenge NPR’s preferred racial profiles – sympathetic portrayals, whenever possible, of a helpless black who has been shot or in some way hurt by a white.

Even NPR’s “On the Media” offered no check on this bias. Co-host Brooke Gladstone contributed to the Ferguson pile-on when she interviewed black journalist Trymaine Lee who had been reporting from Ferguson. Gladstone steered the conversation to the significance of Lee being black and covering this story.

Lee started to say that his race did not make him an expert on black people, when Gladstone interrupted him.

“Yes, it does,” she said in her oh-what-a-good-girl-am-I voice.

No, it doesn’t.

Are only white people allowed to be treated as individuals? Are all black people alike? If Trymaine Lee is an expert on blacks because he’s black, well, would NPR have regarded Juan Williams as an expert on blacks if he were still employed there? Or did he turn out to be the wrong kind of black?

A journalist’s skin color says nothing about the quality of his or her reporting.

Michel Martin, one of NPR’s most prominent NPR black reporters, rarely veered from the usual script on her recently canceled show, “Tell Me More.” She is still with NPR and will be providing special reports. Let’s hope she learns to tell more than she did last year when she brought in two black college students and asked them for their “wish list” on how they would like to change education. One of them, Elijah Miles, said:

“If I could wave a wand and fix one thing it would be drugs in neighborhoods, ‘cause I feel like … drugs – drug, drug-dealing and drug-using takes a lot away from, like, the education part. Because kids in low-income communities they don’t – they see hope on a nearest corner. So they look at the fast money and they’re not around role models that are making money, like, the positive way. So they don’t really believe in the whole education line that this can lead me to success.”

Did Martin follow up and ask Miles what he thought of Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to free drug dealers from prison, which had recently been in the news? No, she did not. Perhaps a young black man complaining about drug dealers destroying his neighborhood didn’t fit the stereotypes Martin brought to the story.

If NPR staffers think they can change America with their own racial profiling, they are mistaken. If they think that Americans – police and civilians – are going to sacrifice their personal safety to satisfy a 200-year-old grudge, they are mistaken.

What NPR’s Peabody Award-winning journalists are more likely to do is increase the racial divide between blacks and non-blacks. In order to push their portrayal of downtrodden blacks, somebody has to play the role of evil slaveholder.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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