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Media and the War on Crime

Updated: Jun 5

by Alex Zambito

In a previous essay, I gave a brief history of the U.S. Government’s “War on Crime” and how this led the “Land of the Free” to be the world’s number-one prison state. The success of “law and order” narratives from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton, were not the work of these administrations alone. They were bolstered by media representations amplifying the threat of crime and portraying it in a racialized fashion. Here I will explain how the media has developed a symbiotic relationship with “law and order” centers of power which produces high ratings but also misrepresents the reality of crime.


Richard Nixon, who declared the “War on Crime” after his “Southern Strategy” propelled him to the presidency in 1968, was largely successful due to his ability to capitalize on media reports depicting broad societal disorder with “race-riots” and crime reports taking center stage. A similar media framework was used to characterize Civil Rights movements and left-wing political groups as a unique threat to America. (There’s a reason the Black Panthers made Nixon’s enemies list and J. Edgar Hoover labeled them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”) The net effect of this was to intensify white peoples’ fears of crime and black militancy making a “law and order” narrative more palatable for the general public.


This sort of sensationalized, hysteria-inducing reporting can be seen again during the mid-1980s media panic over the “Crack Baby Epidemic”. Amid the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs” news outlets across the nation seized on case studies showing a potential link between prenatal exposure to crack cocaine and birth defects among newborns. News reports often characterized crack babies as permanently damaged, who, as future adults, would be unable to care for themselves, thus, creating people who are, at best, burdens to society and, at worst, extremely dangerous. This may be best exemplified by Charles Krauthammer writing in the Washington Post, “the inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth” comparing them to “a race of (sub)human drones” whose “future is closed to them from day one. Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority. At best, a menial life of severe deprivation.” He finally concludes, “the dead babies may be the lucky ones.” Other “Crack Baby” headlines include: “Drug Babies Invade Schools” (San Diego Union Tribune, 2/2/92), “Crack Babies Born to a Life of Suffering” (USA Today, 6/8/89), and “Crack’s Tiniest, costliest Victims” (New York Times, 8/7/89). This was common fare for those who consumed main-stream news outlets at the time.


Unfortunately, the story was bullshit. As the New York Times itself reported in 2009 (around thirty years too late) medical researchers who followed many “Crack Babies” found “the long-term effects of such exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small” and are “less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco.” Even Dr. Ira Chasnoff, whose research inspired much of the “Crack Baby” reporting, insisted from the very beginning that his results were qualified and limited and, in 1992, lamented that his research was misused saying, “It’s interesting, it sells newspapers, and it perpetuates the us-vs-them idea.” And as we have seen Chasnoff’s fears were warranted. Much of the reporting depicted black people as uniquely prone to drug addiction and shamed the mothers with headlines such as “For Pregnant Addict, Crack Comes First” in the Washington Post (12/18/89). Additionally, it is telling that news outlets focused their attention on crack instead of other forms of cocaine. Even the original “Crack Baby” research showed similar effects on children prenatally exposed to powdered cocaine. But the media ignored this, choosing to isolate crack, which, conveniently enough, helped legitimize the Reagan administration’s scaremongering over a “crack epidemic” destroying American cities and justified the militarization of police forces as well as the increasingly punitive measures taken against drug use.


You might expect the media to have learned to avoid credulously repeating narratives from “law and order” politicians and academics, but you’d be giving them way too much credit. Only a few years after the “Crack Baby” phenomenon, the media was back to reporting “law and order” propaganda. This time the public needed to be afraid of “super-predators”- a term many associate with Hillary Clinton. During a rally in 2016, Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters about her statements from 1996 promoting the “super-predator” narrative at a New Hampshire event for her husband’s reelection campaign. In her speech, Clinton touted the “Tough on Crime” policies of Bill Clinton’s administration and spoke of a new type of predator warning, “We also have to have an organized effort against gangs…. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel, and the president has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere.”


Much of this sort of “super-predator” rhetoric was based on the theories of a conservative criminologist at the Brookings Institution, John Dilulio. Dilulio coined the term “super-predator” in a piece he wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s magazine, the Weekly Standard, positing that due to America’s moral decline, youth are growing more prone to violence and crime with each succeeding generation. Dilulio proposed- and much of the media reported as fact- that “Americans are sitting atop a demographic crime bomb…. What is really frightening everyone…is not what’s happening now but what’s just around the corner—namely, a sharp increase in the number of super crime-prone young males.” These young males would come from the growing number of “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “those kids who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future... big trouble that hasn’t even begun to crest.” Many of Dilulio’s theories were reflected in news headlines of the time with gems such as: “A Teenage Time Bomb” (Time, 1/15/96), “Wild in the Streets” (Newsweek, 8/2/92), and “Killer Kids” (Reader’s Digest, 6/93).


The fact that youth crime rates had been dropping for years and would continue to do so for years to come did not change the perception that youth were committing an exorbitant amount of crimes. A Gallup Poll (Gallup Poll Monthly, 9/94) found that Americans had a drastically inflated view of the amount of violent crimes committed by people under 18 years old with the average American adult believing young people committed 43 percent of all violent crimes in the U.S. while they actually only accounted for 13 percent of all violent crimes. As Gallup claims, this is largely a result of news coverage regarding youth violence. For instance, a study by the Berkeley Media Studies Group found that more than half of local news stories on youth included violence, and that more than two-thirds of all stories concerning violence involved people under 25 years old. These inflated perceptions of crime allowed the Clinton administration to pass its own “Tough on Crime” legislation in an attempt to break the Republican party’s monopoly on “Law and Order” politics.


A more recent example of media outlets’ PR work for law enforcement is the “gang raid” narrative. One of the most blatant examples of this is the “Bronx 120”. Before dawn on April 27th of 2016, 700 officers from the NYPD, ATF, DEA, and Homeland Security conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Eastchester Gardens and Edenwald House housing projects, arresting on conspiracy charges what they claimed were 120 gang members who were the “worst of the worst.” Even before the raid had occurred law-enforcement officials predicted news outlets would uncritically reprint the official narrative and run tabloid headlines about “urban gangs” and “violent thugs”. And how did the media respond? By doing exactly fucking that. On the day after the raid, the Daily News ran the headline, “87 Bronx Gang Members Responsible for Nine Years of Murders and Drug-Dealing Charged in Largest Takedown in NYC History”. The reporters not only repeated official claims that all these people were gang members, but they also posted several photos of those arrested, going on to describe them as “hoodlums” and “unrepentant gangbangers”. These may have been the wrong descriptors to use as a recent study out of CUNY has shown that the majority of those arrested in the raid were never even alleged by officials to be gang members. These were mainly people who lived in public housing being swept up in the dragnet of a massive raid, held without bail as gang members, and forced to accept plea-deals instead of face notoriously unfair conspiracy trials. But the actual consequences for these people do not matter. As Adam Johnson, contributor for FAIR, put it, “These high profile “gang raids” are, above all, PR operations designed to help pad budgets and justify unusually harsh prosecutions. It’s not until years later, after trials and FOIAs and academic reports, that we learn how thin the narrative really was. But by then it’s too late.”


All these examples were major media stories with articles appearing in many national news outlets, but distortion seeps into everyday crime-reporting as well. In general, reporting on crime shows black people committing crime disproportionately compared to the share of crimes they actually commit. For example, a Color of Change study on local news crime-reporting in New York City found that black people were shown committing 75% of crime- a full 24% higher than their actual share (51%). Additionally, black suspects of a crime are shown in a more dehumanizing way as compared to white suspects. One study of the Chicago media by Robert Entman found that black people (38%) are more likely to be shown in restraints compared to white people (17%), thus conveying the message that black people are more dangerous and in greater need of restraint. Additionally, the study found that news reports were more likely to show mug shots for black subjects than white, and portray black people less as individuals, referring to black suspects by name only 39% of the time compared to 65% for white suspects. Entman argues the overall effect this has is to render black people as more violent, and de-individualizes them turning them into one homogenous group. Further, many media critics have been questioning the journalistic credibility of a large amount of crime reporting. Many local news stations get their information about crime directly from the police- some even going as far as seeming to copy-and-paste police press reports. This has the obvious effects of repeating police narratives and stoking fears of crime, but it also decontextualizes the crime and the individual’s history by acting as a glorified police blotter.


As usual, the goal is to inspire fear. People need to fear getting mugged or else they may think twice about their local police rolling down the road in a tank. A particularly egregious example of this was in the months prior to the “Bronx 120” raid, the NYPD and US Attorney’s Office released to the press war maps of the Bronx depicting alleged gang dominated areas. The Daily News went as far as to turn it into an interactive map which was linked to coverage on the raid. Many observers have questioned the veracity of this map. Adam Johnson wondered, “Who knows if the color-coded areas provided by Bharara (US Attorney) and the NYPD actually correlated with ‘gang control’? Since the majority of those arrested in the Largest Gang Takedown Everweren’t actually in a gang, one can reasonably suspect these maps were just generalized, PR-driven marketing materials.” For its part, the Daily News said, “Obviously, not everyone in these areas are in a gang.”


And here we have come full circle. The police need public support for their growing number of raids and the media needs the raids for salacious crime stores that write themselves (or taken directly from police statements). It should come as no surprise that these media panics coincided with the mass expansion of the U.S. carceral state. The “Crack Baby” panic came at the same time as the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs” which targeted crack users specifically for especially harsh punishment. Similarly, the “super predator” narrative was popular preceding the Clinton administration’s own “tough on crime” legislation, including establishing harsher penalties for juvenile offenders. This latest string of reporting on “gang raids” has essentially been a marketing campaign for RICO busts which many have criticized. Journalist Josmar Trujillo commented, “the continued use of conspiracy laws in poor communities of color like an atomic bomb is not justice. We’ve clearly over-criminalized black and Latino youth across the board, but RICO is particularly harsh and inappropriate.”


The aggregate effect of these media tendencies is to create a distorted view of crime for the public, supporting a growing police state. This distortion also promotes a racialized view of crime, portraying black and Latino people as uniquely inclined to criminality, justifying the hyper-criminalization of these communities. This has been a major contributor to the rise of a system of mass-incarceration preying on poor black and brown communities. Instead of addressing the main root cause of crime in these communities, which is poverty, media representations of crime promote strict and heavily punitive policies which exacerbate problems by removing members from their communities and placing a stigma on them that near completely ruins their future economic opportunities. In all these ways, media outlets have aided and abetted the “law and order” agenda, expanding the power of the carceral state and law-enforcement to unprecedented levels. As long as media outlets continue to promote a distorted image of crime, developing policies to best address criminality will be increasingly difficult because the public will not have an accurate understanding of the problem. We need an entirely new paradigm for talking about crime which does more than credulously regurgitate police claims, instead attempting to accurately contextualize the causes of crime in communities and endorsing a less punitive framework for dealing with those who break the law.

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