Police Violence and Media Coverage – How Not To Advocate

Thesis: If you genuinely want to increase coverage of an issue, start with your own community and work outward. Anything else is just an attempt to play one group off another.
This will be a little rambling, as I’m working through my ideas. That’s why this is on my blog and not formalized and submitted somewhere. Also, I need to get back to other work (syllabus, presentation at NARPA on police violence and disability, an essay on higher ed, an essay on TV, and my book. It’s gonna be a 5000 word day). 
The other day, two photos of a 7 and 9 year old having killed lions went viral. Here’s what the Dad said:

Tarpley deleted the images and deleted his Twitter account, but defended the hunt to the Daily Mail, saying critics “don’t understand it.”
They don’t care about human beings and babies being slaughtered and body parts being sold for Planned Parenthood but they care about one animal,” he told the website. “There was no media hype about Planned Parenthood selling baby parts but one lion gets killed and everyone goes crazy.”
He also said that his family has given up hunting as they can no longer afford it.

There was no media hype about Planned Parenthood? On what planet was there no media hype? It was one of the most hyped stories of the month, like it or not. Tarpley is not actually interested in media coverage, but in deflecting and de-emphasizing.

I’m opening with this story to talk about a piece that Matt Hennessey wrote for the National Review. Hennessey, in his essay, is complaining that there isn’t enough coverage about discrimination against people with Down Syndrome. Here is a DoNotLink to the essay. The author and his wife, on Twitter, were mad that I used a DoNotLink, but if one writes for a partisan publication like NRO, that’s the price you pay.

They are parents of a child with Down syndrome and like me, I think they just want to make the world better for their kids. But instead of working on that, Matt wrote to complain about the culture wars. His essay, summarized, says: Why are people worried about gay and black people, and not about (white) kids with Down syndrome?

Here’s some excerpts:

Have you heard about the Christian bakers who refused to make wedding cakes for gay couples? Of course you have. But I’ll bet you didn’t hear about the dance studio that refused service to a little girl with Down syndrome.

I have actually heard about the dance studio. It was all over the news, including in Cosmo, which has a pretty vast readership.  In fact, the news media loves stories of discrimination against cute kids with Down syndrome. They eat it up, publish pieces that generate clicks through outrage, and then nothing happens. There’s no action item that follows, there’s no attempt to engage in the systemic problem of a lack of inclusive recreation opportunities for children (something I’ve written about), but rather a kind of Outrage Porn. You’re supposed to say – “Oh my god, it’s so awful,” and click share/tweet, to increase clicks for the publication. This dance studio story is right center in the meaningless outrage pornographic news media wheelhouse.

So first problem with this NRO piece: It complains that a viral story isn’t viral enough. As evidence, the author cites a lack of coverage at the NYT and CNN.

Then he turns to Ethan Saylor. I’ve written 5 or 6 articles about Ethan over the last few years, so suffice it to say that I agree Saylor’s story needs more coverage.

You’ve heard of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Both died after interactions with law enforcement went tragically wrong. You’ve probably never heard of Robert Ethan Saylor.

The second problem with the NRO piece is that he claims a lack of coverage for Saylor, but either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that reforms are underway.  Maryland passed Ethan’s law. It took a lot of work to get attention for his story and 18 months ago there was good cause to fight for basic media coverage. Now, though, it’s worth pausing to consider the overview. Ethan’s death was unusual. For all that police killings of people with disabilities are common, deaths of people with Down syndrome are are. There’s no clearly defined cultural pattern in which people could talk about his death (my work has been focused on changing that), as opposed to the quotidian killings of black Americans by police, for which the cultural pattern goes back centuries.

But once we – mostly Patti Saylor and her close allies – got attention for Ethan’s death, they also effected real change. Ethan’s Law is really important. The new trainings they are doing actually include people with developmental disabilities interacting with law enforcement, rather than actors (also providing jobs for people with DD). It’s powerful stuff. So yes, it didn’t get the national attention it deserved (other than my articles for CNN, The Nation, The Atlantic, and Al Jazeera – all of which are pretty national), but it also didn’t go unanswered. Structural reforms are on their way.

Hennessy concludes with a lament that the news story on the dance studio didn’t name the offending studio, while anti-gay bakeries and pizzerias did.

I don’t mean to single out News4, WIVB. I really know nothing about it. But in refusing to broadcast the name of the dance studio that turned away a little girl with Down syndrome, it is not being journalistically neutral, it is playing the same old liberal media game of granting special privileges to preferred classes. All lives matter, but some evidently matter more than others.

So if the parents wanted the dance studio named, that could happen. I feel the author should respect the parents’ wishes, though I share his frustration at the discrimination. There’s a bigger issue here though – The third problem is that Hennessy evidently feels that in order to get attention for his issues he has to complain about attention that other issues are receiving. That’s not the way to do it. Last year, I wrote about the intersections between race and disability, to show that when we talk about Eric Garner, we need to think about him as a disabled man and as a black man, and that there are links between Saylor’s death and Garner’s, even if they are not the same thing.

I don’t know Hennessy’s real motives. He didn’t seem inclined to engage on Twitter (I didn’t link to him or @mention him when tweeting yesterday, but he jumped in, angry at the criticism). But here’s the thing – If he really cared about coverage of discrimination against people with disabilities, the best thing an NRO author could do was not complain about NYT/CNN, but about Fox News, which also didn’t cover the dance studio story. We are at our most powerful not when screaming across the partisan void, but when helping people within our communities see connections, see why issues matter, and think about how to act beyond the outrage-of-the week.

Here are some of our tweets:

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