BROOKE GLADSTONE News outlets have always relied on police sources for scoops and info, but what happens when those sources are wrong?
NEWS REPORT Local news in New York City, they're just being told cops are intentionally poisoned at a Shake Shack. I mean, that story tells itself. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shame it didn't also fact check itself. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. One newspaper that did pause on quoting police records, got blow back from readers and from within its own newsroom.
KEVIN RILEY People interpreted what we were doing as somehow withholding information. People are used to media that wraps things up in a half hour. And we're not comfortable saying, well, let's wait a second.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, with the systemic firing of government watchdogs, we ask, what are we missing?
NEWS REPORT The White House today doubling down on President Trump's claim that Republicans who oppose him are, quote, "human scum." [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 Bob Garfield. They seemed like unrelated stories this week. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is suddenly fired.
NEWS REPORT Geoffrey Berman, the powerful U.S. attorney in Manhattan who had investigated many Trump associates, has been fired. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD A Trump appointee heads to the Voice of America and cleans house.
NEWS REPORT Pack's first step was to force out Amanda Bennett, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, as the top editor at VOA. Then within 48 hours, he fired all the network heads and their advisory boards. Is this part of President Trump's plan to gain control over an independent and federally funded media organization? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And a Justice Department lawyer testifies in Congress about Attorney General Bill Barr's meddling in the Roger Stone sentencing.
AARON ZELINSKY I was repeatedly told the department's actions were not based on the law or the facts, but rather on political considerations. Mr. Stone's political relationships, and that the acting U.S. attorney was afraid of the president. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD These nominally disparate events are essentially the same story. The ongoing tale of efforts by the Trump administration to undermine, rig or simply nullify the mechanisms designed to hold it and every administration accountable for its actions. Consider the serial removals of agency inspectors general.
NEWS REPORT Trump has removed at least four watchdogs in the past six weeks. Including Health and Human Services watchdog Christi Grimm after her office reported shortages in testing and personal protective equipment at hospitals. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT President Trump replaced the acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine on Monday night, a move that removes Fine as the top watchdog for the COVID 19 emergency stimulus program. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT CBS News has learned that Steve Linick, the inspector general of the State Department, was dismissed after starting an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Appointed specifically to root out misconduct within their agencies, such watchdogs were cashiered while investigating, variously, the Ukraine political extortion affair, a fishy, fast tracked arms deal with the Saudis, and the allegation that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was using federal employees for personal errands.
At Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm's fate was sealed when a reporter confronted Trump with Grimm's report of COVID equipment and supply shortages.
REPORTER And the number one complaint from those hospitals were severe shortages of testing supplies, and a really long wait time. I mean a week or longer.
PRESIDENT TRUMP It's just wrong. Did I hear the word Inspector General? Really? It's wrong. And they'll talk to you about it. It's wrong.
REPORTER But this is your own government [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The administration has also dealt harshly with whistleblowers and law enforcement daring to question his activities.
NEWS REPORT The White House today, doubling down on President Trump's claim that Republicans who oppose him are, quote, "human scum." Hear, hear Mr. President! [END CLIP]
PRESIDENT TRUMP The top of the FBI was scum, and what they did to General Flynn, and you know it, and everybody knows it, was a disgrace. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Or simply those who furnished testimony damaging to the president. Such as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who witnessed the "perfect call" with the Ukrainian president.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Well, I'm not happy with it. You think I'm supposed to be happy with it. I'm not. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who testified in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, was fired from his White House job and marched off the White House grounds today. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD From Vindman to Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to James Comey, administration officials who offend the president by performing their duties independent of politics, are quickly punished. Meantime, Trump aide Michael Flynn gets his charges dropped after pleading guilty. And Trump allies Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D'Souza and media baron Conrad Black, among other pals and convenient political props, get their court convictions overturned by presidential commutations or pardons. This includes right wing activist convicts Dwight and Steve Hammond and a number of war criminals.
NEWS REPORT President Trump is pardoning two cattle ranchers convicted of arson in the case that gained national attention and triggered the armed occupation of the National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. [END CLIP]
REPRESENTATIVE TED LIEU Earlier this year, Army First Lieutenant Michael Behanna was pardoned by Donald Trump. He was convicted by a military jury for driving an unarmed Iraqi prisoner into the desert, stripping him naked and shooting him in the head and chest. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And then when it comes to the dismantling of the accountability state, there is the big daddy of them all. A U.S. Senate, faced with its most solemn constitutional oversight role, declining its prerogative to call witnesses in the president's impeachment.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM I don't need any witnesses at all. OK. And then I am ready to go. And my goal is to end this as soon as possible for the good of the country. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They haven't drained the swamp, they've just paved it over to construct a theme park called Impunity Land. According to Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, even more troubling than the removals of the inspectors general at Defense and HHS is who the president is appointing as temporary inspectors general elsewhere.
LIZ HEMPOWICZ The president made the decision to replace both the State Department inspector general and the Department of Transportation inspector general with individuals that will simultaneously continue their other roles at the agency in their political appointment positions to huge conflict of interest. But it's also incredibly damaging for the ability of inspectors general to work with whistleblowers. No whistleblower in the federal government is safe coming forward to an inspectors general office, if the threat looms over that the president can immediately remove the person leading that office and replace them with a purely political actor.
BOB GARFIELD Can you tell me, please, about Dr. Rick Bright?
LIZ HEMPOWICZ Doctor Bright was within the Department of Health and Human Services, and he raised concerns internally about how decision makers and scientists leading research into treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus were ignoring science, really to kind of placate the president's ego and were pushing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus. After Dr. Bright raised those concerns internally, he was reassigned to another role, which he saw as diminishing his ability to impact the government response here. And so, in addition to raising those concerns, he's also filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel claiming that he was retaliated against as a whistleblower for exercising his, not only legal right to blow the whistle, but really moral responsibility.
BOB GARFIELD If you were to ask me, I would say that the most brazen display of the systematic dismantling of the oversight infrastructure would be with congressional oversight. When Congress passed the CARES Act dedicating a trillion some dollars to the pandemic fight, it included explicit accountability mechanisms for the administration to follow. And Trump said, meh, we're not going to do that. Do I have that right?
LIZ HEMPOWICZ You do that right. He used something called a signing statement, which I would say does not have the force of law, but it does give an indication to where the president's mind is. And his signing statement explicitly singled out a few of those oversight mechanisms built into the law. And he basically said, you know, to the extent that I disagree with the law that I just signed, I'm not going to follow it. That, again, should be incredibly concerning to people, regardless of their political persuasion. These were oversight mechanisms that were negotiated in good faith with the Congress and with representatives of the administration.
The president, yes, is an elected individual, but is tasked with the faithful execution of the laws passed by Congress. And the president is obstructing congressional oversight left and right, meaning Congress has less information to legislate.
BOB GARFIELD Not only is Congress unable to track how the hundreds of billions of dollars from the CARES Act are being spent, the agencies themselves are not keeping track because the administration told them not to. Do I have that right?
LIZ HEMPOWICZ Yeah. Recipients are required under the law to report how many jobs they're able to save or create based on whatever federal funding they receive in response to coronavirus. But a few weeks after the CARES Act was signed into law, the Office of Management and Budget, which is within the White House, issued guidance that told agencies that they didn't need to create any new reporting structures for recipients to meet their reporting requirements under the law. Problem there is that existing reporting mechanisms don't get at the information that Congress explicitly said it wanted to see from those recipients. If you think about the fact that one of the major impacts that the coronavirus has had on our country is large scale job loss and unemployment. And without that data being collected by agencies, inspectors general are not going to have it to look at. And Congress isn't going to have that data to look at to see if the programs that we've passed and are funded by taxpayer dollars are even effective. Never mind whether they're going to the right people in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD And then we get to the final major mechanism for executive accountability, the Freedom of Information Act, which permits the public and the press to file requests for documents, data, correspondence and so on from relevant federal agencies, which, of course, agencies can refuse, not respond to redact, slow roll. What kinds of information has Trump succeeded in keeping from the public during the pandemic?
LIZ HEMPOWICZ We at the Project on Government Oversight recently submitted FOIA requests to the Small Business Administration asking for information about the Paycheck Protection Program loans that the agency has issued. Now that loan program has over six hundred billion dollars in it. But Secretary Mnuchin decided that that information would be proprietary and confidential. Now, that just doesn't make sense because the SBA has been able to release all that information dating back to 1991 for very similar loans. But also the loan application itself, when a small business applies for a PPP loan, includes a disclaimer that information collected on that loan application will be automatically released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. This is exactly the kind of information that FOIA is built to get out of government, and into the public hands. And journalists have played such a crucial role in uncovering some of the more scandalous loans given by the PPP program. You know, like the 4 million dollars to the Lakers, despite the fact that they're the most profitable basketball team in the NBA. Journalists are the ones that have been uncovering those examples.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So your job is to be an oversight of oversight. And I wonder if there is any form of oversight that the Trump administration has not, you know, impinged or purged. Is there anything left?
LIZ HEMPOWICZ Yeah, it's a tough question to answer. But I think even these individual kind of pillars of oversight as we talk about them, they interact with each other. And so the effect of kind of attacking all of them at the same time poses an exponential problem for accountability and transparency here, in a way that I think we don't often think about as we look at one off instances of undermining those accountability mechanisms and systems within the government.
BOB GARFIELD Liz, thank you so much.
LIZ HEMPOWICZ My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Liz Hempowicz is director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, why were reporters so quick to swallow the milkshake story?
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Let's hold on to this accountability thread and use it to tie in law enforcement and the news media too. Clearly police accountability has been one of the summer's dominant themes. And just as clearly, media accountability always is. But we've had some recent examples that serve them up together, deliciously.
NEWS REPORT Three NYPD officers poisoned at a Manhattan Shake Shack. That's according to law enforcement officials. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT It appears bleach was poured into their milkshake. Shake Shack releasing a statement tonight saying they are horrified. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT And then overnight, NYPD detective said that they determined there was no criminality by Shake Shack employees. The company says it is cooperating with the investigation and the officers are OK. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Media critic Eric Boehlert followed this story, aghast, in his newsletter, Press Run.Media. Eric, welcome to the show.
ERIC BOEHLERT Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me how the milkshake story unraveled. And begin on Monday, June 15th at 7:30 p.m. in Lower Manhattan.
ERIC BOEHLERT Three police officers in Lower Manhattan decided to order three milkshakes via their app.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Two different orders, right?
ERIC BOEHLERT Two different orders. And when they arrived at the Shake Shack, the milkshakes were on the counter. Nobody knew who the milkshakes were for. All of them took a sip and thought something was wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's hear the organ chord.
ERIC BOEHLERT And they tossed it in the trash, told the manager. Manager gave a new milkshake. Everything's fine. They leave. At some point one of them decides to just kind of call it in. Obviously, the whole context here is against the backdrop of widespread protests in New York City. NYPD had been under extraordinary pressure and criticism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The officer calls in and says, by the way, my milkshake tasted funny.
ERIC BOEHLERT Yeah, they immediately dispatched, you know, a team of detectives and cop cars. Lights are flashing everywhere. These officers are sent to the hospital. Fast forward to when things really escalate. It's about 10 minutes before 11:00, before the local news, and two New York police associations, not the NYPD itself, they put out press releases, tweets saying our officers were intentionally poisoned. They were targeted at the Shake Shack. Our officers can't even enjoy some time off getting fast food.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They said fortunately, they were not seriously harmed. But it just shows we can never let down our guard. And the two organizations you're talking about are the Detectives Endowment Association and the Police Benevolent Association. Why is that significant?
ERIC BOEHLERT It's significant because they don't have the same responsibilities as a police department. It's confusing for the news consumer because it sounds like it's the police department. Also, particularly the Benevolent Association has a history of being very inflammatory, very partisan, very anti-police critic. They don't operate under the same umbrella as a police department. So, they obviously felt free to make these kind of wild allegations. News organizations, particularly the local news in New York City, don't really have time to check this story, they're just being told cops were intentionally poisoned, at a Shake Shack. I mean, that headline tells itself. It just ricocheted around the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From New York to Philadelphia to Jacksonville to Phoenix.
ERIC BOEHLERT Everywhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you described it as a kind of game of telephone.
ERIC BOEHLERT Yeah. Because originally the New York reports, some of them, to their credit, kind of pointed out, hey, these are allegations made by a police association, not the NYPD. Within a few hours, all that nuance evaporated. And in fact, in reports across the country, they were reporting that these police officers said they were intentionally poisoned. These police officers never spoke to anybody. We still don't know their names. And a couple days later, we understand why they didn't give any interviews, because all of it turned out to be plainly false. And again, just incredibly dangerous, in this environment, to have a story like this make the rounds, and have the press act as a megaphone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, the New York Post reported that detectives easily closed the case, interviewing five employees and reviewing surveillance footage showing that the shakes were normally made. The machine was cleaned before the officers ordered. It had been cleaned with some kind of Dairy machine solution that was acidic. Oops, my bad.
ERIC BOEHLERT Oops. So finally, the NYPD itself steps forward about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Tuesday morning and says no criminality, we're basically closing the case. But statements put out at 4:00 a.m. don't quite resonate like the ones that are put out at 10:45. This is a classic case of, you know, the correction never really catching up to the story. And it plays into this kind of right wing media caricature of police critics, sort of lurking in the dark, waiting to poison officers when they go to the Shake Shack. I mean, Fox News was so determined to spread this story, they were spreading it after the NYPD said, oh, by the way, there's no story.
NEWS REPORT Now, just minutes ago, the NYPD said there was no criminality by Shake Shack employees as they continue to investigate. But the question is, you know, where's the disconnect? How did respect for police get this low? [END CLIP]
ERIC BOEHLERT Mike Huckabee, former governor, Fox News contributor, he was tweeting out after the story's debunked that employees at Shake Shack should be arrested for murder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's say spreading the milkshake story was politically expedient for some. It also may have reinforced real paranoia among police officers. Two days after the NYPD incident, an officer in Georgia went viral after she made a video discussing her own poison scare at a McDonald's.
OFFICER Please just give us a break. I've been in this for 15 years, and I've never, ever had such anxiety about waiting for McDonald's drive through food. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was the thought of being poisoned that upset her, that McDonald's staff apologized for being slow in preparing her food. And there was no actual allegation of wrongdoing.
ERIC BOEHLERT Yeah, she tearfully talked about how she didn't feel safe eating McDonald's if she couldn't watch the employees prepare the food. She never mentioned the Shake Shack story, but I guarantee you within the police circles around the country, that story resonated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, Eric, I was wondering, there's a history of these fast food scares involving the cops prematurely spread by the press.
Last year, a police officer in Kansas resigned after writing, well for the radio, effing pig on his own McDonald's cop and then sending it up to his police chief who posted it on social media as proof of growing anti cop bias.
NEWS REPORT The fast food chain trying to make amends by offering a free lunch to the officer. And the police chief who posted the shocking picture on Facebook says: A free Big Mac and fries isn't going to make up for it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last July, a cop accused a McDonald's employee of taking a bite out of his chicken sandwich.
NEWS REPORT D.J. told Eyewitness News he suspects someone at McDonald's took a bite from his sandwich before he completed the sale. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then admitted later that he may of forgot he'd already taken a couple of bites before stashing it away.
2017, a police officer complained of feeling strange after sipping a drink from Subway.
NEWS REPORT That something had taken hold of the officer behind the wheel as he tried to make it back to the PD.
OFFICER He was having a hard time maintaining his body. His body was jerking. The drink tested positive for THC and methamphetamine.
NEWS REPORT According to investigators, this 18-year-old subway employee is the one who slipped him the drugs. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It later turned out that the test result was wrong. The kid was innocent, though not, of course, before the story was picked up by local media in Utah. Aside from the fact that cops, like many of us, like to patronize fast food. What do you make of these stories?
ERIC BOEHLERT Who works at fast food restaurants? These are people who don't make a lot of money. They're often people of color. They don't have power. They kind of single them out over and over as being these vigilantes who hate the police and are plotting their revenge. It's very peculiar that they keep picking the same target over and over and the stories turn out to be not true, over and over. And I don't know what the press is supposed to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, stop right there, because they couldn't do it without the press. There is an unhealthy symbiosis between the police and the press, wouldn't you say?
ERIC BOEHLERT There absolutely is. I mean, talk about local TV coverage. Crime is their number one story, day in and day out. If you lose a connection with the local police department, what are you going to put at the top of the telecast each night? There is an overreliance. Over time it becomes a partnership. Hey, tell us what's happening. Hey, can you give us behind the scenes? But there has to be a skepticism. There has to be when something comes across the transom like this milkshake allegation, there has to be an ability to hit the pause and say "What? Wait, who? No." But just another quick point in terms of the journalism, if you get lied to as badly as you just got lied to with the Shake Shack story, if you are told us officers were intentionally poisoned when they'd never even had symptoms, as we found out later, you should never quote those people again,.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not the Police Benevolent Association, not the Detectives Endowment Association, not the union. You stick with the force, and even then - trust but verify?
ERIC BOEHLERT Yeah, I mean, if you're in the business beat, if you're from the sports beat, if you're in the metro beat and someone lied to you, as egregiously as those associations lied to you, those people would never appear in your newspaper again. I mean, how would you possibly trust them? I don't think those associations are going to be banned, particularly the Benevolent Association is a very powerful force. The associations who made those allegations, they, you know, conveniently went back and deleted their tweets and said, oh, well, it's still important to be vigilant. Yeah. But it's also important not just to make stuff up against a backdrop of social unrest and demands for the police to do a better job with their community relations. Accusing fast food workers of essentially murder, that's not how you improve your community relations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eric, thank you so much.
ERIC BOEHLERT My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eric Boehlert is a media critic and the creator of Press Run.Media.
The longstanding bonds between police and local media may be approaching something of an inflection point. As news media is largely comfortable history with the police, clashes with increasing mistreatment of journalists, not to mention the murders of Black Americans captured on video.
Members of the Atlanta Police Department, now fired, killed Rayshard Brooks on June 12th. His family and his community laid him to rest on Tuesday.
ROCHELLE GOODEN I look at my grandbaby right there. She looks just like him. And when I look at her, I know that he's not gone. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Among the media covering his death has been the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where Kevin Riley is editor. Welcome to On the Media.
KEVIN RILEY Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In a recent column, you observed that one of the rules of thumb for journalists has been to print what you know once you find out something. But last week, we broke that rule. You were referring to your newspaper's reporting on the murder of Rayshard Brooks. How did you break the rule?
KEVIN RILEY As soon as we start working on a story, we use every resource we can to find out something about the person. And in this case, we had initial information that Mr. Brooks had a criminal record, and that criminal record included some very serious charges. You know, average people can go online and find those same things out. You don't have to be a journalist. But our experience told us that we should pause for a moment and find out what was behind those charges. Members of the AJC staff pointed out that there is an impulse to criminalize the people who become victims of these situations. We stopped and asked ourselves: what's relevant here? We needed to know a lot more than what it looked like at first glance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's the story you might have told if you moved immediately? And what's the story you ended up telling with deeper reporting?
KEVIN RILEY Of course, if you portray Mr. Brooks, in this confrontation at the Wendy's in Atlanta, as a convicted felon on parole, he becomes almost a one-dimensional person. So instead, we sent reporters to local courthouses and said, let's find the actual detailed records of what happened.
And here's what appears to have happened. He had an argument with his wife. He apparently grabbed his wife's wrist; that turned into a battery charge, he pulled her into another room; that turned into the false imprisonment charge. And he did this in front of her seven-year-old son; that turned into the child cruelty charge. I wouldn't minimize a difficult family argument, but false imprisonment sounds pretty serious. And it turned out that the story was just different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that some in your newsroom disagreed with your decision. How come?
KEVIN RILEY Some of the objections were really to the old report what you have, when you have it. Others pointed out, well, if we put this out there, then it helps explain perhaps how he reacted when the officers attempted to handcuff him and maybe that will give people a deeper understanding.
I think in the end, the objections to waiting really come down to the sense of urgency that we all feel as journalists. It's hard not to give in to that. It is hard to be patient, especially when we started hearing from people in the public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did you hear?
KEVIN RILEY People who could find that information online initially were saying, "where is it? Why aren't you reporting this? It's not up to you to decide what we should know." I think people interpreted what we were doing as somehow withholding information. I understand that. I mean, people are used to media that wraps things up in a half hour. You know, they watch a episode of some crime show and in a half hour, everything's neatly figured out. And we're not comfortable in the media or as a society saying, well, let's wait a second. This sounds complicated. Maybe we need to know more. That's just not the answer we seem to be looking for in these kinds of cases.
I did hear from a number of people who believed we had done the right thing. You tend, mostly, to hear from people who were upset or disagree with what you're doing, and to hear from a significant number of people who said, I appreciate it. That was heartening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Law enforcement, whether the local police or the FBI, sometimes have their own agenda when it comes to feeding stuff to the press. They may want to flush out a suspect or something else. Do you feel that maybe the manipulation that comes with the deal of getting stories from the police can't be tolerated anymore?
KEVIN RILEY I think police are under the same pressure that we find ourselves under in the media, which is the public wants answers and they want them like right now. There's not an acceptance of a investigator, a police chief, the D.A. stands up at a news conference and says, I'm really sorry, everyone, this is going to take some time. I think that's at the core of this. How many mistakes have we seen in rushes to judgment? It happens over and over again. At some point, we have got to stop doing that to ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Absolutely. But I noticed you sidestepped part of my question, which was about the potential for being used.
KEVIN RILEY I think it's a simple answer. We have to be skeptical of what law enforcement tells us and check on it and not always take it at face value. And I do think there's a danger in the traditions of journalism to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement because they've got things on paper. They have made an official announcement. They have filed a report. So, there is a seriousness to that that I think we take into account. But just as with any information, it’s the journalist's job to check it out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When the criminal justice system approaches African Americans, it often behaves differently. Charges more, imprisons more, treats more disrespectfully African Americans than whites.
KEVIN RILEY And many white people have not been aware of that. Neither the facts nor the feelings. And until we can come to terms with both of those things, I think it will be very hard to look at things like reforming police or really coming to an understanding of how the system works for Black people versus white people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So for as long as you're at the AJC, they'll be some reporting before the victims encounters with the police hit the paper.
KEVIN RILEY I think we owe it to our community to tell the most complete stories that we can. That's what we'll try to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kevin Riley is the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Kevin, thank you so much.
KEVIN RILEY Well, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the unreality of the reality TV show COPS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Two weeks ago, we noted the cancellation after 31 years of the police so-called reality program COPS. It had begun to lose steam in the ratings, but also it represented a version of policing that at once idealized law enforcement and distorted the racial balance of the alleged culprit class. But oh, how the audience loved it.
It was a three-decade ride along filled with traffic stops; foot chases; drug busts; shirtless, drunken ravings on porches; dazed suspects sitting on curbs; and a lot, a lot, a lot of sirens.
Long before defund the police became the slogan of the moment, podcaster Dan Taberski became obsessed with the show and its tropes, which he came to believe misrepresented not only the ugly reality of law enforcement, but the law itself. Also, as he told me last year, he just couldn't get enough of the action.
DAN TABERSKI Now, 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 as 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 have told me that usually it breaks down a little bit more specifically, that the first segment is usually the most exciting one, like a chase. The second one is usually something that might be a little more comedic or interesting.
WOMAN Sir, I might have a knife, but that's it.
OFFICER Don't reach for your knife. Is it in your bra?
WOMAN 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 the things that they're doing. And the third is the one that they say is the thinkiest. Like it's supposed to make you think.
OFFICER It's an eerie feeling when you hear the call come out: officer shot, officer shot, you know. But luckily, I think he's gonna be all right. 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, ten times the amount of prostitution. Those things together make up 58 percent of what's on the show. It's basically on the show 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.
DAN TABERSKI Yup
BOB GARFIELD And so what's the average in the untelevised real world?
DAN TABERSKI Two percent.
BOB GARFIELD And then you mentioned drugs.
DAN TABERSKI Yeah, drugs. 35 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 this certain type of policing that went with the War on Drugs.
BOB GARFIELD And how's that compared to overall drug arrests?
DAN TABERSKI In real life, 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. In 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 it's because of what they have seen on cops year after 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 he witnessed was basically he would effectuate an arrest.
INTERVIEW JOE PETROCELLI I was making my arrests in like two or three minutes. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI A COPS segment is seven minutes long.
INTERVIEW 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.
OFFICER PETROCELLI CLIP Step out bud. You look nervous as hell, man. Crying? What's your name?
INTERVIEW 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 we talked to him 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 departments sign a contract with the producers of COPS and the producers of COPS are obligated to give the police departments rough cuts of the show, of what's going to air, a couple 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.
BOB GARFIELD Which begins to raise the question of: are you watching reality, or are you watching propaganda?
DAN TABERSKI Yeah, propaganda is a strong word, but I think after 18 months of looking into the show, I would absolutely use it. It's the police department 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 Mm. 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 have 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.
OFFICER Yeah, he's got a cracked windshield, so we're going to be able to stop 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.
OFFICER Spit it out. I'm telling you right now, you're going to you're going to spit it out, OK? 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.
OFFICER If you bite me, we're gonna have some serious problems. You understand me? Do you understand me? [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI To get the drugs out of his mouth. Which one you bring to a use of 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, Rochin vs. California, that says that, which deal almost deal with the same specific thing. And 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, it's just completely wrong. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI But it remains in the show. Another example in Glendale, Arizona. 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 tries to tase him in the back. That in itself, tasing a man in the back to effectuate an arrest is a violation of that police department'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:
OFFICER If that's what he's going to swallow, it probably saved his life. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI So it has a way of normalizing behavior that you assume because you're seeing 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 you'll lock.
DAN TABERSKI If you sit down at seven o'clock on Friday morning with a cup 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 of its spinoffs on the network A&E. It is on all the time. It's basically like COPS meets ESPN.
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 the guy tries to run. Exactly. Run away. He tries to run. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI It's a studio-based show, 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 100 percent. Yeah, I mean, regardless of what you think about policing your police officers right now, it cannot be easy to be a police officer, and 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 talk to who have been on the show and not being 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 framed 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 Dan Taberski, hosted Head Long: Running from COPS, which is now about all that's left of that television franchise.
That's it for this week's show on the media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Fedder, John Hanrahan, Xandra, Ellin and Eloise Blondiau with more help from Eleanor Nash. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer, Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.