BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Have you noticed that Mark Zuckerberg is everywhere this week? He testified in Congress.
MARK ZUCKERBERG I think lying is bad. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He speechified at Georgetown.
MARK ZUCKERBERG I give people a voice and bring people together. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He advised Mayor Pete’s campaign and clapped back at Senator Warren. It’s Where’s Waldo with the Zuck.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also on this week’s show, prison reform isn’t a partisan issue, or even a bipartisan issue. It’s a transpartisan issue.
DAVID DAGAN The public facing conservative voice and the public facing liberal voice could often be sending distinctive messages, but they operated in an arm's length alliance that made criminal justice reform sound legitimate to all of the audiences who had to be pulled in. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It’s all coming up, after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Where in the world is Mark Zuckerberg? Well, lately, everywhere.
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BOB GARFIELD This week, he was seen facing off against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in congressional hearings.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ I mean, if you're not fact-checking political advertising, I'm just trying to understand the bounds here, what's fair game?
MARK ZUCKERBERG I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Last week, he was at Georgetown University giving a speech on free expression.
MARK ZUCKERBERG Now, I'm committed to the values that we're discussing today, But we won't always get it right. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD He has also come up in coverage of the Democratic presidential campaign.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Pete Buttigieg's campaign confirmed that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recommended staffers to the campaign. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD And he was heard, in leaked audio published by Diverge this month, offering his opinion of another presidential candidate.
MARK ZUCKERBERG Like Elizabeth Warren thinks that the right answer is to break up the company. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD With the usually elusive and mostly silent Zuckerberg front and center this week, did we learn anything new?
KATE KLONICK I mostly learned that Congress has gotten way better at asking questions, um, to, to Mark Zuckerberg then the last time they did in the Senate hearing in April of 2013.
BOB GARFIELD Kate Klonick is assistant professor at St. John's Law School, where she is researching the creation of an oversight board at Facebook. She watched most of the proceedings on the Hill and she also saw the Georgetown address where Zuckerberg articulated his views about Facebook and free speech.
KATE KLONICK I had this moment, 'why is he explaining the First Amendment and American free speech values to this crowd of American college age students, until I realized that he was explaining it to the rest of the world.' He was live streaming it on Facebook and there were hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe tuning in. And so I think that that's kind of how you have to think about his attempts at explaining freedom of expression.
BOB GARFIELD Well, putting aside his claims to Democratic nobility, there was also some revisionist history that had to be dealt with. I mean, this is a business that began with college students rating the relative hotness of other college students. But he seems to remember it as something different, the epicenter of debate about the war in Iraq.
MARK ZUCKERBERG And the toll on, on soldiers and their families and our national psyche was, was severe. Yet most of us felt like we were powerless to do anything about it. And I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, then maybe it could have gone differently. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Now it wouldn't be surprising for someone to exaggerate the origin story, except the origin story of Facebook was a hit movie that millions and millions of people have seen.
[CLIP OF “THE SOCIAL NETWORK”]
JESSE EISENBERG (AS MARK ZUCKERBERG) We're ranking girls.
ANDREW GARFEILD (AS EDUARDO SAVERIN) You mean other students?
JESSE EISENBERG (AS MARK ZUCKERBERG) Yeah.
ANDREW GARFEILD (AS EDUARDO SAVERIN) You think this is such a good idea?
JESSE EISENBERG (AS MARK ZUCKERBERG) I need the algorithm. I need the algorithm. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The Social Network where, you know, which didn't have anything to do with the free market of ideas. What's he up to?
KATE KLONICK Yeah. I mean, there was one moment in the hearing that I thought was significant. I mean, it was just kind of silly banter from a congressman. But said, 'did you ever think that you'd have started this, like back in the day?' And of course, he didn't. Because no one in their right mind imagined a world like this or very few people did. It has completely rewritten how people communicate globally. How we form community is how we speak, how we speak to our leaders, how we vote, how we shop–every aspect of our community. Right? And so it's not crazy to me that he's kind of had this revisionist history of how it all started, because he's trying to grapple with the realities of how large and how powerful the company that he created is and how powerful it is as a tool. That said, that could have been like a personal journey for him. I don't understand the point of giving a speech about it or deciding that you're going to wrap in the current events of the time. I mean, maybe that was something that was going on in the back of his head. But you're right, there have been multiple biographies, multiple movies and all of these things that involve this and they didn't involve that.
BOB GARFIELD Part of the story on the subject of reframing, his whole speech at Georgetown seemed to try to reframe his company's image from that of a cynical, highly profitable operation to the fullest expression of democratic nobility and bulwark against tyranny and evil. As Kara Swisher observed in The Times this week, he seems to be saying, you can have Facebook or you can be China. Is that how you heard it?
KATE KLONICK I didn't see it as kind of an ultimatum. Let's put it that way. But I did see him as telling people that this is part of the global. Well, that is happening right now, which is that you have giant tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google that are built out of American free speech norms, that are built out of democratic ideals, that have developed in that world view for the last 15 years. And then you have China. That part of it is kind of accurate. But I do think that he was trying to kind of put the poles in the ground of where the debate could go. And I actually think it's really great because I think people lose sight of that. I think we kind of get acculturated in the U.S. To pushing back on these platforms. And we don't realize that the global south in a lot of places, Facebook has the internet and Facebook has democratized a lot of speech and been a force sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, but certainly changed people's access to knowledge and information.
BOB GARFIELD Understood. Although as long as we're talking about places where democracy is not as firmly entrenched as it is in North America, it doesn't take too much to imagine a situation in which a policy of not fact-checking political ads and giving them even more leeway than other kinds of speech could go very, very wrong.
KATE KLONICK Oh, I couldn't agree more.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, like Myanmar, deadly pogrom wrong, right?
KATE KLONICK Oh, completely. Yep. And I think that this is probably one of the scariest points of the last few weeks has been the release by Facebook of their community standards. There are two changes. One was not particularly huge, they just announced it publicly, which was that political figures were exempted from the community standards that bind the rest of us. So they could say things like hate speech on the platform and it would stay up. That was actually not a huge departure from what they'd previously been doing, we just didn't know about it. The second thing is the AOC thing, which is the idea that political figures can publish ads. And even if things are untrue in those ads, they will stay up. The caveat of that is that it has to be a quote from the political figure. So if AOC published an ad, it would have to be in quotes her saying something like, 'my opponent euthanizes puppy dogs, end quote,' and that would stay up on the platform. So it's just these fine lines that do not make sense to people. They're not intuitive. One of the core issues and I think this is one of the most dangerous things, you mentioned Myanmar, I think this is one of the most dangerous things because I don't think when Zuckerberg is announcing this type of policy and talking about freedom expression, I don't think that he's understanding the way a platform like his completely weaponizes that kind of policy and that ability of political figures to lie to people and use this for evil.
BOB GARFIELD Now, Charlie Warzel at The New York Times noted something that's really weird about this whole conversation. And that is that Facebook makes something like $38 billion a year profit on sales of far more than $100 billion and the political ad revenue that they get is relatively trivial. Why fight this fight if in other areas of their business they can be shown to be just sort of single-mindedly focused on growth and profit. This doesn't seem to be the business sector that's going to even fulfill that strategy.
KATE KLONICK Zuckerberg's answer to that, it's up to you whether you believe him or not, but I don't understand any other justification for it is really this kind of, I would say, democratic virtue in which he really thinks that there have been so many democratic causes, so many candidates, so many issues and parties that have been helped by the ability to use and leverage Facebook as a means of cheap advertising. So there is a, they represented from Guam, I thought had a tremendous moment in which he said, 'the one thing that I want to thank you for is for continuing to run political ads, because I could never have won my election, because I could never have afforded the TV clips or the radio clips. And everyone in my constituency is on Facebook and uses Facebook every day. And I was able to, for very little money, reach a lot of constituents and fund my entire campaign.' So there's part of it that Zuckerberg isn't wrong. His platform is really helpful to a lot of democratic causes.
BOB GARFIELD We ordinarily don't see or hear from Zuckerberg in the wild as much as we have in the last couple of weeks.
KATE KLONICK Yeah, it's a huge change.
BOB GARFIELD So the question is why? One thing might be that there's a lot of talk from Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination about antitrust action against Facebook. And now I think 47 state attorneys general have joined in an antitrust investigation into Facebook. Do you think his, you know, freedom tour is related to that?
KATE KLONICK Yeah, I do. I think that there's a huge regulatory pressure happening. Now, in the U.S., it's been happening for a while in Europe, but it's definitely happening in the U.S. I think that is a response to that. Also, as I said before, when we were talking about that personal journey for him, seems like he's grappling with what he has wrought.
BOB GARFIELD Wait, are you suggesting introspection?
KATE KLONICK Well, I mean, before he had the roundtables with conservatives that have been in the news lately, right, and have gotten him a lot of heat. He spent a long time having roundtables with tech experts, social psychologists, con law professors, all types of people. He's kind of, in a lot of senses, a precocious undergraduate. He's kind of frozen in the amber of dropping out of Harvard and he has to educate himself. And I do think that there is a level of introspection into what he's doing. You know, and also he's getting called into Congress. He can't run away from the fact that there are real moments of public accountability that are happening.
BOB GARFIELD Mmm. The business of vetting for potential intrusion by hostile states was another Zuckerberg sighting this week when Facebook announced that they had taken down networks that were run by Iran and Russia. So there is indeed a lot going on, which leads me to, I think, my last question, which is with this whole Zuckerberg palooza, do we know more about him and about the company than we did, let's say, a month ago?
KATE KLONICK Not anything specific. We know nothing more really about Libra. We certainly don't know more about Facebook origin story. I know less about free expression than I did before I watched the Zuckerberg speech. But I would say that what we do know is that they are susceptible and that there is an effect the public pressure is having on them and that it's unclear yet how that's going to play out and whether it's going to result in self-regulation by them more or whether it's going to result in real regulation and anti-trust form or elsewhere.
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BOB GARFIELD Kate, thank you.
KATE KLONICK Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD Kate Klonick is assistant professor at St. John's Law School, and she's researching the creation of an oversight board at Facebook.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, prison reform–a trans-partisan issue.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Riker's Island, one of the nation's most notorious jails is set to close. The city council voted just last week.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MALE CORRESPONDENT These jails are disgusting. These jails should have been closed years ago. We are doing it today. I will proudly vote yes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE New York City's island complex has been bad, infamously bad. Rape by fellow inmates and guards, death by medical neglect or being stomped or baked in searing cells, lethal abuse of minors and the mentally ill and one of the nation's highest rates of solitary confinement, which after 15 days the U.N. defines as torture–the list of infamy is long and chilling. Of the 8,000 or so inmates housed on Rikers, about 70 percent are held sometimes for months or years before even being tried simply because they can't make bail. The Close Rikers campaign launched in April 2016 after the widely reported suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Browder was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack in the Bronx. He always maintained his innocence but was kept in prison for three years without a trial. Two of those years in solitary confinement, he was ultimately released.
KALIEF BROWDER No apology, no nothing. They just said, 'oh, case dismissed. Don't worry about nothing.' Like don't, what do you mean don't worry about nothing? I just took over three years of my life. I didn't get to go to prom, graduation, nothing. Those were the main years, I'm never going to get those years back. Never.
MALE CORRESPONDENT This past Saturday, Kalief Browder committed suicide, hanging himself out a window of his mother's home. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Three years later, Rikers is closing. Maybe. The new plan to close it is slated to take about six years and the city council voted for some costly preparations.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Four new smaller jails will now be built in the boroughs--[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It is remodeled and more humane jails in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx each with 1,100 beds, far fewer than Rikers. But likely unnecessary given the city's plummeting jail population–the lowest in 37 years. It still seemed like a victory, though, for some advocates. Not for all of them.
CROWD [CHANTING NO NEW JAILS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Those advocates continue to fight here and across the country. And sometimes they win. Last February, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to shut down its men's central jail and replace it with a jail-like mental health facility. This past August, they voted to pause plans for that after an aggressive protest campaign against the construction of any new jails. Philadelphia plans to close the notorious House of Corrections by 2020. And after protests, abandoned plans to replace it. Closures in Colorado, Illinois, the list goes on. And yet, while the incarceration rate goes down for the third year and facilities are being closed, the construction of new facilities persists–and so the protests.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT You built a jail the police will fill it.
CROWD [CHANTING THEY WILL FILL IT] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some 2.2 million Americans are locked up in jails and prisons–an incarceration rate that exceeds even China's. America's mass incarceration problem, a 40-year explosion is a bipartisan catastrophe. Politicians ran on the issue when crime was booming and when it wasn't. But no longer. Criminal justice reform has now become what political scientists call a trans-partisan issue, meaning liberals and progressives, conservatives and libertarians and evangelicals aren't meeting in the middle, but they're winding up in the same place, each for their own reasons.
DAVID DAGAN The reasons for conservative reformers included, First, the notion that prisons are a waste of tax money and that prisons are just another government bureaucracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE David Dagan is a post-doctoral scholar in political science at George Washington University and co-author of Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration. But prison reform might never have penetrated so deeply into the consciousness of the right if not for an evangelical advocate.
CHARLES COLSON Not only is it morally right, but I plead to this church, I fervently hope that this case will serve to prevent similar abuses in the future. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Charles or Chuck Colson was once known as Nixon's hatchet man, one of the Watergate seven. The year before he was indicted, he underwent a religious conversion and after serving a seven-month sentence, he founded the Prison Fellowship.
DAVID DAGAN He really made it his mission. He tried to convert people. He was interested in saving people. And he ran an organization that adhered very closely to evangelical orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy on a whole number of issues such as abortion. And it allowed him to be a bit of an outlier in saying, 'hey, prisoners are people, prisoners deserve dignity. Prisoners deserve our attention.' Those are not things that liberals or conservatives were saying in the 70s and 80s, but certainly not law and order conservatives. Chuck Colson was able to do it because he had impeccable credentials as a really a lion, as he has been described, of the evangelical movement. And for many, many years, he certainly reached a lot of people in prisons but politically, he didn't really manage to move anything until conditions turned in his favor in the late 90s and early 2000s with crime rates being down. The issue just kind of fading a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Colson began to pull in conservative heavyweights like David Keene, then chairman of the American Conservative Union, Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct mail pioneer, Grover Norquist, anti-tax crusader, Ed Meese, Reagan's former attorney general. And thus a conservative, if fringe, criminal reform network started to build. But it really took off in what was a surprising place–Texas. The top executioner in the country under a consolidated Republican government.
DAVID DAGAN In 2005, the then speaker of the Texas House, Tom Craddick, told his key committee chairperson, 'don't build more prisons, they cost too much money.' The problem was that Texas prisons were running out of room and in keeping with the protocol of the previous 20 plus years, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was going to legislature and saying, 'hey, write us a check, we want to build.' This time the differences that the legislature said no and in 2007, passed a fairly substantial reform package that was explicitly designed to make sure that fewer people were going to prison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How are they going to do that?
DAVID DAGAN It involved a lot of drug rehabilitation, some use of intermediate sanctions in which people who violate the terms of their probation aren't immediately sent right back to prison. They also reformed their probation system to keep people on probation for a shorter amount of time, but make their supervision more intensive, which is something that can actually prevent people from violating their probation, therefore going back to prison. This was not a big rollback of the prison complex. It was a tinkering but one that symbolically turned out to be very important because when the people who had been networking in Washington around this issue, the Grover Norquist and Chuck Colson's, heard about what Texas had done. They connected with those people in Texas and said, 'let's make this a movement.' And a conservative think tank in Texas called the Texas Public Policy Foundation became an evangelist for prison reform. We know that conservative think tanks in the states are very highly networked. And when one comes up with what's viewed as a good idea, it's quite easily spread to others. And it was hard to argue against them when you had the state of Texas on a team with Grover Norquist, Chuck Colson the evangelical hero and people of that stature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they had some strange bedfellows getting technical support from Pew Charitable Trusts and the left-leaning Open Society Foundation.
DAVID DAGAN But doing that very much behind the scenes. They operated in an arm's length alliance that made criminal justice reform sound legitimate to all of the audiences who had to be pulled in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Since then, Texas has closed eight of its prisons without constructing any new ones. From the perspective of Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries and board chairman of its conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation, it's not a moment too soon.
MARK HOLDEN They've saved over $3 to 4 billion in taxpayer money and they have a crime rate that hasn't been this low since the 1960s. And so once that happened, both red and blue states did criminal justice reform. And the whole idea is that you make it so people can get skills And so when they come out they can have a productive life. We like to say that legislators and governors, they come in for the savings on criminal justice reform but they stay for the salvation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Holden came to criminal justice reform in part because of what he witnessed in his own childhood. At the age of 18 in Worcester, Massachusetts, he did some dumb things but he had family support and was lucky. Some of his classmates weren't.
MARK HOLDEN These people aren't dangerous necessarily. They've had drug addiction or other issues. Yet we've locked them up and they're not getting better and when they got out, they had criminal records and couldn't get jobs and didn't have family support. So that didn't make sense to me and that stuck with me pretty much throughout my life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He says he also came to it because of his deep-rooted belief in the Bill of Rights.
MARK HOLDEN Forty percent of the Bill of Rights deals with criminal justice issues. That was a warning from the founders that the greatest threat to life, liberty, property in the pursuit of happiness was going to come to the criminal justice system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For Holden, that means, we need bail reform, full funding for lawyers, for indigent defendants, and, yes, some deep soul searching about whether we really need four new jails to replace Rikers.
MARK HOLDEN A lot of people in Rikers, as I understood it, were there because they couldn't afford cash bail. As Bryan Stevenson says, 'the rich and guilty get a better deal than everybody else. And if you don't have connections and if you don't have resources, you're gonna get run over.' And our hope is that all the prisons in the country will turn into places where when people come into prison, day one will be day one of their reentry and there'll be someone in charge making sure that individuals get the programs they need, get the skills they need, get the treatment they need. Because what we've learned is that individuals who take advantage of skills and education programs while in prison are about 50 percent less likely to recidivism when they come out. That's better for public safety. It saves lives. It saves money. Because every dollar spent on in prison education programs defers up to five to six dollars of future incarceration costs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For some, however, jails and prisons are always the wrong answer because they stand on a foundation of injustice that cannot be reformed away.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS People who are reformists say, 'we're going to reform our way out of this.' What reforming slavery have been enough?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brittany Williams is an activist with No New Jails in New York City and a prison abolitionist. It's a movement with roots in the 60s and 70s and the work of activists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and former Black Panther Angela Davis, who in 1997 founded the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance. Today, they're fighting for no new jails and no old ones either.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS We don't need incarceration to deal with how we hold people accountable, to deal with violence and poverty, crime. So when we look at people who have committed crimes, we never really ask why did they do this? Has this happened to you before? How do we intervene and disrupt this violent system?
BROOKE GLADSTONE We know the criminal justice system inflicts harm–maybe that's the point. But the harm isn't confined within prison walls. Here's Danielle Sered, founder of Common Justice on our podcast last summer.
DANIELLE SERED The core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one's economic needs. The four core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one's economic needs. And so we've baked into our central response to violence exactly the things that generate it.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS These places have killed people, Sandra Bland, Layleen Polanco. One of my friends passed away in jail. We still don't know what happened to him. His name is Tayvius Clinton. They don't keep us safe. They don't address harm in our communities. They just lock people in cages without resources and basically say survive in, in the culture of violence. I've grown up in a system of violence. I've seen some horrendous things happen. And when I walk away from seeing someone shot, I still have questions for that person who I can never see or touch again of why and how, what made him do this, this thing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE For Williams, the harms of incarceration are not worth the price of punitive justice, even when the injustice is committed by white-collar criminals, by crooked politicians. People who in our existing system often escape punishment anyway.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS Jails and prisons are not built for politicians and white-collar crimes. They have built for black and brown people, indigenous people, poor people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would you do with Harvey Weinstein?
BRITTANY WILLIAMS Harvey Weinstein has yet to be held accountable. We should be asking these women who have remained silent for so long 'what support do you need right now? How do you want us to show up in community for you?' Harvey Weinstein, he still has a life that's not necessarily mean I have the answers to what we should do with him, but I will say that's where I will begin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For Williams, the solution lies in the kind of restorative justice that indigenous people and communities ill-served by the prevailing justice system have long relied on.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS Justice is a process. If I harmed you, what are some ways or some necessary steps that I can take right now to improve this relationship, to reduce harm? I come from a history of organizing. My grandmothers actually did transformative justice work in their house.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Disputes that were happening in the community, they came to your grandmother to adjudicate.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS If interpersonal violence happened, they came to that table. So this was a practice I've seen in my community. It's not so far fetched. We can actually do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In her view, the risks of a world without prison are far outweighed by the dangers posed by them–and the possibilities are much brighter. After all, it costs from thirty to more than sixty thousand dollars to keep someone in prison for a year.
BRITTANY WILLIAMS Imagine that invested back into the community, into education, into housing, into the social net that will sustain our communities and allow it to thrive. I personally feel as if a nation without prisons is possible, but then also allows for us to reimagine how we want to thrive, live in a world that is based off of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We are a long way from abolishing prisons. But congressional adversaries did pass a modest prison reform measure last year and the president signed it. The right and the left are likely to continue on their parallel trans partisan paths to prison reform. David Dagan, co-author of Prison Break, says it'll be a long time before they have to reckon with their fundamental differences.
DAVID DAGAN The good news is that the problem is so big. There's still a lot of work we can do without having to reach those fundamental debates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm. Put it off till another day.
DAVID DAGAN I think that we can, in many cases, put it off till another day because there are so many universally recognized perversity as to our criminal justice system that are still in need of fixing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's the lesson here? Maybe it's that sometimes even the most antagonistic adversaries can unite to make a bad situation better. As long as they don't talk to each other or acknowledge that they are in fact working together.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, absolutely unreal reality TV–30 years on. This is On The Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. We just heard Brooke describe a new movement whose goal is the abolition of jails. The same people also want to abolish cops. They say there are different, less confrontational, more humane ways to deal with people who break the law. All right. The idea is, well, let's just say a conversation starter. But if you want to know what it comes in reaction to just turn on the TV.
[CLIP OF INTRO TO "COPS"]
BOB GARFIELD This year is the 30th anniversary of the TV show "Cops," which means there have been three decades of traffic stops, foot chases, drugs busts, shirtless drunken ravings on porches, dazed suspects sitting on curbs and a lot, a lot, a lotta sirens. You can look at it as a 30 year ride along, allowing the public to see what police work is really like or if you're Dan Taberski, host of the podcast "Running From Cops," you could look at it as a highly conflicted, highly distorted and highly exploitative genre that has warped our understanding of law enforcement and of the law itself. Dan, welcome to OTM.
DAN TABERSKI Oh, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD First of all, even before you undertook this podcasting project, you watched a lot of "Cops." How much exactly now?
DAN TABERSKI Oh, my gosh. I mean, I had been watching it for years. My best guesstimate is like 500 episodes. It's very often on 15, sometimes 20 times a day. So it's perfect for somebody who watches television is background noise, which is how I grew up. And I've always just found it really compelling. You know, it's hugely problematic, but it's still a look at a world that you don't see much of anywhere else on television. So, yeah, I watched a lot of it. Sorry.
BOB GARFIELD And having seen so many episodes, you've divined the formula, a pretty rigid formula that's made the show and the genre so popular from the beginning. Can you take us through what a typical episode looks like?
DAN TABERSKI Yeah, it's super simple. An episode is three segments, three different interactions between the police and real citizens. So each interaction is about seven minutes long. The producers tell me that usually it breaks down a little bit more specifically that the first segment is usually the most exciting one like a chase.
[CLIP OF "COPS"].
POLICE OFFICER Get on the ground, get on the ground [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI The second one is usually something that might be a little more comedic or interesting.
[CLIP OF "COPS"]
SUSPECT I'm sorry, I might have a knife but that's it.
POLICE OFFICER Don't reach for your knife. Is it in your bra?
SUSPECT I'm not sure where it is to be completely honest with you. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI You're supposed to potentially laugh at the people that they're arresting and, and the things that they're doing. And the third is the one that they say is the thinky-est, like it's supposed to make you think.
[CLIP OF "COPS"]
POLICE OFFICER It's an eerie feeling when you hear the call come out, 'officer shot, officer shot, office shot,' you know. But, uh, luckily, I think he's gonna be alright and we got the suspect in custody and he'll never do this again. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And there's certain tropes, certain standard elements that you can just count on. I mean, you know that because you've amassed the data.
DAN TABERSKI Yes, we watched 846 episodes of the show and broke it down by type of crime, gender, race, to see what sort of patterns you might see in a show like "Cops," not by watching it once or twice, but over the course of 30 years. It presents a world that is much more scary than the real world. It has three times the amount of drug arrests than the real world, four times the amount of violent crime, 10 times the amount of prostitution. Those things together make up 58 percent of what's on the show. It's basically on the show at the core of what police do. But in real life, it's barely 17 percent.
BOB GARFIELD So the notion that the show somehow represents routine police work or anything like routine police work is flawed from the get-go. You've calculated, among other things, that 92 percent of traffic stops on "Cops" end in an arrest. And so what's the average in the UN televised real world?
DAN TABERSKI Two percent.
BOB GARFIELD And then you mentioned drugs.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah, drugs. Thirty-five percent of arrests on "Cops" are for drugs, which makes sense. It started when the war on drugs basically ramped up and so they really sort of exploited the certain type of policing that went with the war on drugs.
BOB GARFIELD And how does that compare to overall drug arrests?
DAN TABERSKI In real life, it's, it's three times less. So overall, drug arrests are about 12 percent of all arrests made and they've been steadily declining since 2006 in this country. But on "Cops," they only get greater. So in the last season, 44 percent of all arrests on the show were for drugs.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So the producers manipulate reality. They generate storylines and they they amplify drama. So does The Bachelorette.
DAN TABERSKI I've been a reality show producer, so I've made reality shows for a living. So I understand that reality shows aren't, in fact, completely real, that the drama is often trumped up. But usually, the people who are participating in those shows understand that. And a show like "Cops," we're not talking about housewives, we're not talking about duck hunters. We're talking about something that's actually real, policing. And how the way you portray it, if it doesn't actually represent what's really happening, it can really skew not just the way citizens see policing and what they believe the police can actually do, but what police themselves believe that they can actually do. You know, you hear it on "Cops" all the time, the cops on "Cops" are becoming cops because of "Cops." It's part of the way you act. It's part of the way you interact with citizens. For a lot of the people who are becoming police officers is because of what they have seen on "Cops" year to year after year.
BOB GARFIELD And the distortion that you're describing manifests in a number of ways. One is, as you said, the world is portrayed as endless mayhem, which it actually isn't. And the cameras and the producers there on the scene to develop storylines as they're kind of playing out also distorts the very nature of police public interactions. You interview on your show an ex cop named Joe Petrocelli.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah. Joe Petrocelli was a cop in New Jersey and he was on the show maybe about 10 years ago. He was working in the projects, doing a lot of drug busts, low level users. The type of manipulation that, that he witnessed was basically he would effectuate an arrest.
JOE PETROCELLI I was making my arrests in like two or three minutes. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI A cop segment is seven minutes long.
JOE PETROCELLI So they told me basically, Joe, you have to get this guy out of the car, talk to him a little bit, see if you could, you know, maybe drag this out a little bit so we could use this episode. [END CLIP].
[CLIP OF "COPS"].
JOE PETROCELLI Step out bud. You look nervous as hell man. You crying? What's your name? [END CLIP]
JOE PETROCELLI Which is extremely rare, sir. I never do that. I would never take, for the safety of myself and the safety of the criminal actor, I would never remove him at the scene, but they wanted it done so we kind of took him out and I talked to about his drug problem. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD How explicit is the cooperation between police departments and the producers? Do those departments, for example, have veto power on segments if they don't like the way that the cops involved come off?
DAN TABERSKI Contractually, the police department signed a contract with the producers of "Cops" and the producers of "Cops" are obligated to give the police department's rough cuts of the show of what's going to air a couple of weeks before. And the police departments can say yay or nay to whatever they see on the show. So in effect, they're not just the subjects of this sort of reality show. They're partly producing it.
BOB GARFIELD Which begins to raise the question of, are you watching reality or you watch watching propaganda.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah. Propaganda is a strong word. But I think after 18 months of looking to the show, I would absolutely use it. It's the police departments who participate in the show are doing it because they want to be portrayed a certain way and the show never fails to portray them in that way.
BOB GARFIELD Well, that solves one mystery. In 30 years. I know of no case in which something truly disturbing was broadcast on a police reality show. Is this just an amazing coincidence? Is it just because everybody knows there's cameras there and they're on their best behavior? Or do you think that the producers are actually colluding in the so-called blue wall of silence?
DAN TABERSKI I think there's a few things going on here. I think the producers know that, A, the police departments get final cut. They get veto power. So they're not going to even try to put anything in the show that the police departments don't want them to put in, because it's just going to get taken out anyway by the police. And they need to maintain these relationships with the police departments who they're shooting with. "Cops" is shot with over 150 police departments around the country in the past 30 years. And some, many, many, many times. Palm Beach, Florida has been on 15 times. Vegas has been on 21 seasons of the show. They need to maintain these relationships with the officers. I will also say that there is police malfeasance. There is bad behavior about by police on the show all the time, to a lesser scale, that the police choose to leave in. In Wichita, Kansas there is a segment of "Cops" where the police officer pulls somebody over.
[CLIP OF "COPS"]
POLICE OFFICER He's got a cracked windshield, so we're going to be able to stop him here. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI Because he thinks he has drugs and he thinks the guy is hiding the drugs in his mouth. He then uses the butt end of his flashlight to pry the man's mouth open.
[CLIP OF "COPS"].
POLICE OFFICER And spit it out. I'm telling you right now, you're going to, you're going to spit it out.
POLICE OFFICER Ok, stick out your tongue. Stick out your tongue. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI And this isn't just a tiny little flashlight. It's a big flashlight. And the officer is jamming a good three inches of it into this man's mouth.
[CLIP OF "COPS"]
POLICE OFFICER If you bite me, we're gonna have some serious problems, you understand me? Do you understand me?
DAN TABERSKI To get the drugs out of his mouth. Um, which if you bring to use force expert, which we did. He'll tell you that you can't do that.
USE OF FORCE EXPERT Totally unconstitutional. That's completely bad policing. There's even a Supreme Court case Rochen v. California that says that, which you, which deal almost deal with the same specific thing in the courts have said that obtaining evidence in a manner that shocks the conscience is inadmissible in court. And to do that to an individual, you haven't even arrested him. He's not even under arrest. He's not even completely under your control. You are detaining this individual. And to do that, to put something in his mouth in order to get suspected drugs from under his tongue is just completely wrong. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI But it remains in the show. Another example in Glendale, Arizona, uh, an officer is chasing a man who was accused of loitering, just loitering. The guy runs. There's no sign that he has any weapons or anything like that. And the officer tase to take him in the back. That in itself, tasing a man in the back to effectuate an arrest, is a violation of that police fireman's own use of force policies. It stays in the show anyway. What happens is that they don't say we shouldn't have done that. In the flashlight case, that segment ends with the sergeant saying.
[CLIP OF "COPS"]
POLICE OFFICER If that's what he's going to swallow, you probably saved his life. [END CLIP].
DAN TABERSKI So it has a way of normalizing behavior that you assume because you see it on "Cops" is legal. And very often it's not.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Dan, I have at this stage asked you about 800 questions about "Cops," but I'm actually more interested in a fairly new show. Your podcast also covers called "Live PD," which makes "Cops" look like a video yule log.
DAN TABERSKI If you sit down at seven o'clock on Friday morning with a cup of coffee and put yourself in front of that television, 39 of the next 48 hours are going to be the show "Live PD" or one if it's sign offs on the network A&E. It is on all the time. It's basically like "Cops" meets ESPN.
[CLIP OF "LIVE PD"]
And right here what he's doing is, that hand on the shoulder, that's a controlling technique that he's trying to use and trying to keep the suspect up against the car.
This, now, now, the guy tries to run.
Exactly, right away. He tries to run. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI It's a studio-based but what they do is they follow six to eight police departments around the country live. And they basically cut to the different police departments showing what's going on in that precinct.
BOB GARFIELD Let's see what's happening in Spokane, Washington.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah, it's crazy. It's very pro-police. They fill arenas with fan clubs of the officers on "Live PD" because people want to get their autographs. There are trading cards for the canine officers and the officers who are on "Live PD," and kids buy them because they're fans of those officers. I think that's really an appealing thing for the police who are participating. Is it appropriate? Is it what we should be wanting from our police? I don't think so. But I think there is an appetite out there for pro policing narrative and shows like "Live PD" are delivering.
BOB GARFIELD I talked about Spokane, Washington. Tell me about Spokane, Washington.
DAN TABERSKI We went to Spokane because both "Cops" and "Live PD" had been shooting in that city and they basically had had it up to here with it. We went to watch and see whether or not they were going to pass a law to effectively kick both shows out of town.
BOB GARFIELD There was one local politician in particular, I think he was a city councilman who was trying to push this legislation through council, right?
DAN TABERSKI Yeah. The council president's name is Ben Stuckart and he was trying to make sure that "Live PD" and "Cops" couldn't shoot in his city anymore. On the one hand, he was doing it because as people often say about shows like this, you're filming people on the worst day of their life. In the case of "Live PD" very often without their permission. And he wants to protect the people in his community. But he also wants to protect their efforts to attract big business to a town like Spokane that's looking to increase their tax base. And they have pro Spokane commercials and they're trying to get people to come to this place. And a show like "Live PD" just is constantly portraying them as drug-addled, violent, scary, dark, weird, people without shirts on getting arrested over and over on "Cops" and "Live PD."
BOB GARFIELD On the other hand, you interview the local sheriff who insists that the public should see the sort of grand theft auto aspects of the community, what his deputies have to deal with every day out there on the street. And he sees it not only is civic transparency, but as a way for the police to counter what he sees as a narrative, an unfair narrative of brutality, racism and impunity that he thinks further makes targets of officers and the very people we depend on to keep us safe.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD Do you have any sympathy for that?
DAN TABERSKI One hundred percent. Yeah. I mean, I, regardless of what you think about policing or police officers right now, it cannot be easy to be a police officer, especially an honest one, and feel under attack by the people that you see yourself as helping. I'm not saying I agree with his policies. I'm not saying that I agree with the way he views police. But I do think that after talking to the many, many police officers that we talked to, that have been on the show and not been on the show, "Cops" and "Live PD," I think that one universal theme is that they feel under attack and it's challenging to do your job in that environment. That being said, it doesn't mean you make citizens props in the propaganda that's supposed to turn that image around.
BOB GARFIELD What is happening on America's sofas when we see those people getting put in handcuffs?
DAN TABERSKI It's access to the exercise of power. I think "Cops" gives you access to a world that is incredibly visceral, that promises or threatens to feel like a life and death matter every time you turn it on. So to have access to that sort of rawness, I think regardless of how you think they frame policing, regardless of the effect it has on the people who are being policed. Regardless of all of that, whether or not you think it's propaganda, I think that sort of visceral television is incredibly compelling to a huge portion of people, myself included.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, you spent a lot of time on your sofa.
DAN TABERSKI I won't be doing it anymore.
BOB GARFIELD Now, most podcasting just goes out and you know, we never see any return signal. But you are already finding out that "Running From Cops" has had an impact.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah. So far, "Cops" were scheduled to shoot Ingham County, Michigan in July. And since the podcast came out, people spoke up and they canceled their contract with "Cops." A similar thing happened in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "Cops" is not going to be shooting there anymore because of the podcast. And, you know, I'm glad people are listening and, you know, make informed choices.
BOB GARFIELD Dan, thank you.
DAN TABERSKI Thanks so much. My pleasure.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD Dan Taberski is the host of the podcast "Running From Cops," the third season of the Headlong series.
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BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. And our engineers this week were Adrian Lily and Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield.