Consuming Journalism: Cops in unmarked vans and Russia Russia Russia

In my last post I mentioned that I was going to resume the read by 5 people if I’m lucky Consuming Journalism series. That was short-lived. I can’t do it. It’s not worth it. Elvis said it best, even though it’s the Fine Young Cannibals version that’s in my head.

We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out
Because I love you too much, baby

Why can't you see
What you're doing to me
When you don't believe a word I say?

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds (With suspicious minds)
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds

This is going to be a short post. (Note: Turns out that was a lie.) I know I’m waffling here, but I don’t think most people will put time into thinking more critically about what they read and hear. And too many journalists keep throwing bad work our way.

It’s up to teachers and parents to teach that skill to kids. There’s little hope for us adults. We interpret most information to fit the narrative we want. I have two examples.

Example 1

Bunch of dudes in a Kia minivan grab a person off the street in New York and chuck them into a van. They wore shorts and t-shirts. One wore a weird neon orange shirt.

As expected, disagreements ensued.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes is clearly critical of the police tactics, referring to the incident as kidnapping. But consuming information through the Twitterverse is a terrible idea.

To make an informed decision about what happened, we need to seek out a more comprehensive Who What Where Why When How. I chose the New York Times and Fox News. I’ll go ahead and tell you my biases going in. That was a terrible decision by the NYPD. It looks like something you’d see in a despotic police state. We should not accept police tactics like that. What I need to be aware of about my biases - I saw a very short video. I’m pre-disposed to see evidence of excessive force or bad behavior by law enforcement officers. I don’t know all of the details.

Here’s the New York Times headline. The author of the article is Mihir Zaveri.

Video of N.Y.P.D. Pulling Protester Into Unmarked Van Draws Criticism

Zaveri provides a thorough overview and answers the 5 Ws (and the H). I think the most important information in the article is that it confirms the details about the incident.

New York City police officers, several in plain clothes, swooped into a demonstration against aggressive police tactics on Tuesday and arrested a protester they appeared to have singled out, pulling her into an unmarked minivan before driving off.

After reading that I watched the video again. “…several in plain clothes…” All of the police near the van look to be in plain clothes. Obviously, I might be mistaken, but I think most people would agree that it’s not immediately clear who they are and what they’re doing. If you watch the video, keep an eye out for the arrival of the bike cops. That will come up again in a bit.

Zaveri then goes on to provide the rest of the information I need to feel that I can make an informed decision on the issue. For example, Zaveri provides a statement from the NYPD, reactions from local leaders, and context related to general reactions.

Grade: B. Solid work. I think the “several in plain clothes” wording was substituting for a gap in details or knowledge. Were some in uniform, is it a reference to the bike cops? I don’t think it detracts much, though, and wouldn’t affect my conclusions.

FYI, here’s the NYPD’s explanation:

The NYPD has served up a class on creative PR wording.

“The arresting officers were assaulted with rocks and bottles.” Passive voice next to information about the person arrested. Is it meant to subtly imply that the person arrested did it? It’s not immediately relevant to the main question - why did officers in plain clothes snatch a person from a street and throw them into an unmarked minivan.

The second tweet in that thread shifts from unmarked van to gray NYPD minivan. The NYPD then explains that the “Warrant Squad uses unmarked vehicles to effectively locate wanted suspects.” Another interesting deflection. People aren’t upset that the police used an unmarked vehicle to locate someone. People are upset that a bunch of guys in t-shirts and shorts jumped out of an unmarked van and grabbed someone off the street.

Saved the best for last. The NYPD mentions that there were bike cops on hand to help with the arrest. That’s deceptive. If you watch the video, it’s clear the bike cops charged onto the scene towards the end of the arrest.

Now let’s go to Fox News and see their article by Nick Givas. My biases - I think Fox News routinely provides oversimplified coverage that adheres closely to a script. I also think they’re sketchy. In June Fox News used photoshopped and misleading images related to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (AKA Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). When called out they claimed it was an error.

NYPD uses unmarked van to arrest woman accused of damaging police cameras

Givas’s article isn’t as thorough as Zaveri’s. It’s probably unrealistic to expect otherwise, given the differences between the two mediums. Still, it should cover the basics.

Givas’s article doesn’t include much actual reporting or journalism. It’s essentially a collection of tweets, mainly from the NYPD. The article focuses primarily on the unmarked vehicle. I just double-checked - I don’t see any mention of officers being in plain clothes.

The article could have simply said for information about the NYPD’s use of an unmarked vehicle in an arrest, please see the NYPD’s Twitter feed. If this was my only source of information on the incident, I could have put together the basic details (from the NYPD’s perspective) and seen the footage related to the incident. But I wouldn’t have learned anything about reactions from city and state leaders. Givas briefly points to a “backlash on social media”, police tactics that “civil liberties advocates have labeled as “indefensible” and “abusive”, and online outrage.

Grade: C-.

Example 2

Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic ~ Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger in New York Times

Here we go again. America’s response to COVID-19 has been a mess. We can’t agree on science, masks, re-openings, or the seriousness of the virus. Fear not, I’m sure we can blame that all on Russia.

If I sound skeptical it’s because I am. I think the investigations into Russian activities over the past four years, including the relevant journalism and reporting, have been bad. Rachel Maddow and MSNBC’s Home for Retired MIL-INTers were the worst. Search on terms such as another bombshell report, is this the nail in the coffin for Trump, the walls are closing in - you’ll find years of results.

Disagree? Fair enough. But I recommend reading Erik Wemple’s look at the media’s handling of the Russia investigations and Matt Taibbi’s criticism of the media.

But this article should be straight-forward, right? We know that intelligence services exist and they engage in espionage abroad - recruiting spies, stealing secrets, conducting covert operations, etc. This article should explain to me what the Russians are doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it. I also expect some insight into who is claiming this and how they know.

The article doesn’t do a good job of explaining the basics or conveying substantive information. Here’s the gist of the article.

Russian intelligence services and their proxies are pushing disinformation about the pandemic, amplifying disinformation, running influence campaigns, and disseminating propaganda. The Russians are doing this to help ensure that people who might be tough on Russia are not elected and to make America’s democracy look bad. The Russians are doing it by getting English-language articles posted online and using social media. It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of their efforts. We know this because some unnamed intelligence officials described recently declassified intelligence.

The article is about 33 paragraphs long. Not so strong at math, so let’s add a give or take caveat. I did an unscientific Find search: disinformation 18x, propaganda 9x, influence 7x, amplify 3x.

The article is not going to make anyone more informed about anything. It will lead to another round of elected officials, TV journalists, and Facebookers very solemnly and lazily referring to that New York Times article about more Russian meddling. Whenever you ask anyone what that actually means or what the effect is, the answer is always vague. They’re helping get Trump elected, they’re interfering with our democracy. Why don’t you trust the intelligence?

Is Russia trying to influence our elections and make the United States look bad? Probably. But if conspiracy-laden articles and social media posts are enough to take us down, then we’ve only got ourselves to blame.

I don’t want to discount the dangers of false, misleading information. But that information will always be circulating. The only protections against it are education and solid journalism.

If Russia somehow magically didn’t exist, would we be looking more like New Zealand than Brazil? Not a chance. Uncle Wade, who is an accountant and loves G&Ts, would still be on Facebook dispensing his views on infectious diseases and claiming that requirements to wear a mask are a violation of his constitutional rights. Aunt Michelle would still be pointing out that more people die in car accidents each year than from the COVID, and yet we don’t shut down the roads. Aunt Michelle will deflect when asked if car accidents have ever overwhelmed hospitals or spread from one person to another.

The world’s most powerful, richest nation looks dysfunctional. Our national response to COVID-19 has been embarrassing. Our wealth gap, which was already bad, is going to be even worse on the other side of this pandemic. The two people we are choosing between to help lead us out of this are two old men who are obviously past their intellectual primes. (Happens to all of us. Same thing can be said of me.) We have a terrible track record of racism, and it’s on full display. We started two wars in the Middle East that we can’t seem to get out of.

The rest of the world is definitely wondering what the hell we’re doing, and it’s not because of some Russian disinformation or propaganda.

The New York Times article is bad, but it will spread fast. Here’s an example. Read the AP caption. It’s got the standard buzzwords. Russian operatives, spreading disinformation, exploiting a crisis. According to U.S. government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Grade: D

And with that, I retire the Consuming Journalism thread. I like Substack, so maybe I’ll think of something else to write about here. I hope you’re well, stay healthy, and just say NYET to the Russian brainwashing.