Matt Katz: This is On the Media, I'm Matt Katz sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. A half-century ago, a Black judge in New York City tested the constitutional premise of bail, that it should only be used to make sure a defendant shows up to court. He offered low or no bail for Black defendants who couldn't afford it. In 1972, he set $500 bail on a man accused and ultimately acquitted of attempted murder in the shooting of a police officer during a stick-up at a steakhouse. The judge's name was Bruce Wright. In post-Civil Rights Harlem, on the heels of Jim Crow Laws that criminalize Black people's existence, he was a hero.
Bruce Wright: I believe, with almost religious zeal, that I must honor the admonition of the last will and testament of Frederick Douglass, which was to all Black people in this country. Agitate, agitate, agitate. I don't think that my right to agitate stops at the courthouse door.
Matt Katz: For agitating the police unions who were allied with the dominant New York City tabloids of the era, Bruce Wright was dubbed first by The Daily News and later the New York Post, Turn 'Em Loose Bruce. That reputation was the reason he said he was banished from criminal court to civil court for four years. Here he is in 1987.
Bruce Wright: Hardly anybody understood or was willing to honor the United States Constitution, especially the eighth amendment that says very plainly that bail shall not be excessive. The public, because of the tabloid press, I suppose, and general hysteria about crime, assumed that people who were charged were automatically guilty.
Matt Katz: Bruce died in 2005, but his son is now the chairman of the New York County Democrats, basically the Manhattan democratic political boss.
Keith Wright: This is headquarters, baby.
Matt Katz: Keith Wright's political clubhouse is on 135th Street in Harlem. It's tiny, lived in with the morning papers on the table. There are folding chairs out front and Wright is finishing a cigarette when I walk up. We're here to talk about his father's fights with the newspapers, but Wright is a schmoozer with other stuff he wants to chat about first, like his ambivalence about his upcoming law school reunion.
Keith Wright: I just don't like people tapping me on my belly and [beep] "Oh, you gained a little weight, haven't you?" [beep]
Matt Katz: And about how he grew up with Jewish kids and even went to Hebrew school for a bit.
Keith Wright: My friends were going. I want to hang out with them, did it for a week, two weeks.
Matt Katz: You remember any prayers?
Matt Katz: And his work at a lobbying firm in Midtown, which he says is similar to his former job as a New York State Assemblyman.
Keith Wright: I call it constituent services for white folks. All this [beep] I used to do for free. My folks would pay for it.
Matt Katz: Wright's political clubhouse is down the block from the apartment he grew up in and still lives in. Three blocks up is a street name for his father. When the papers first called his dad Turn 'Em Loose Bruce, Wright was in high school.
Keith Wright: I remember all the white kids coming up to me, "What's wrong with your father? What's wrong with your father?" I talked to my father about it, he said, "Listen, the eighth amendment of the Constitution provides that no unreasonable bail should be set. Nobody's been tried, nobody's been convicted, and bail is just to ensure that a person returns to court. Then I started espousing my knowledge of the Constitution when I was 17 years old, and all the smart white kids was like, "Oh, damn, this Black guy must know something."
Matt Katz: But there were threats.
Keith Wright: I'll never forget when I got a envelope in the mail. I got it full of excrement with a note saying, "If your father doesn't stop doing what he's doing, this is what you and your whole family are going to look like."
Matt Katz: That was because-
Keith Wright: Because of his bail policy, absolutely.
Matt Katz: Which people would have known about because of the papers.
Keith Wright: Exactly. Nobody would have known but for the New York Post publicizing it.
Matt Katz: In Harlem in the 1970s, the community had Judge Wright's back, holding rallies to express their support.
Protestor 1: Instead of being honored for his courage, compassion, integrity, and ability, he is vilified and subjected to investigations.
Protestor 2: He's doing his job the way they do their job.
Keith Wright: We was really questioning the bedrock and the foundation of the American criminal justice system.
Matt Katz: Because it really does come down to if you have money, you can get out.
Keith Wright: If you have money, you're good, but if you don't, you're going to languish in prison.
Matt Katz: In 2019, New York State passed the bail reform law, which eliminated cash bail for most of those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. The law would keep thousands of people waiting for trial out of the notorious Rikers Island, New York's deadly jail complex known for suicides, brutal assaults, and lack of medical care.
The New York Post founded by Alexander Hamilton and owned by Rupert Murdoch saw calamity. The headline the day bail reform went into effect, Welcome to New York, the State where Criminals Go Free. The subhead, Get out of Jail Law Starts Today. Another story same day, It's The Year of The Perp. From the day the law went into effect until this past April, the New York Post has mentioned bail reform more than 400 times.
Yes, we counted and read. Almost all of the stories framed bail reform in a mostly negative light, a constant drumbeat of editorials, columns, letters to the editor, and news stories that made it seem as though bail reform was going to turn New York into something out of the horror movie, The Purge, where all crime is legal for 12 hours.
Announcer: At the siren, all emergency services will be suspended. Your government thanks you for your participation.
Matt Katz: The Post literally ran an article with a police union boss saying New York was now on the verge of the purge.
Actor: This is the American way.
Matt Katz: The Post amplified the views of the NYPD and its police unions. Bail is good because keeping bad people locked up keeps everyone safe. Of course, studies show that committing a serious offense while out waiting for a court date is rare and that sending people to dangerous jails often does more harm than good. That context is relegated to the bottom of the stories or nowhere at all. In other words, the same as it ever was.
Keith Wright: You got to look at your history, the fight hasn't changed, and all along the way, the New York Post has always been there fighting us tooth and nail.
Matt Katz: 10 days after bail reform went into effect, an alleged unarmed serial bank robber was let out supposedly due to bail reform. An unnamed police source told the Post that the suspect said upon his release, "I can't believe they let me out. What were they thinking?" The police union tweeted the article. A week later, the New York Times printed a follow-up. Turns out that since he didn't have a weapon, he might have been released even without the new law.
17 days into bail reform, the Post ran a story about a New Yorker released on bail that they nicknamed Brick Man because he allegedly smashed windows with a brick to steal packages. The defendant said he didn't have enough money to eat. His public defender said he wasn't even released due to bail reform, but the Post still called him, "The newest bail reform poster boy."
Then there's the Poop Perp nicknamed that by the post because he allegedly smeared feces on a victim in the subway and got released after his arrest which the paper attributed to bail reform. The Poop Perp, aka the Feces Fiend, said upon arrest happens, "[bleep] happens." Watchdogs noted that the judge still could have set bail under the new law because the man was arrested while out pretrial on another charge, but that nuance did not get in the way of some good alliterations.
There were 22 stories in the Post mentioning the Poop Perp. Based on his social media rants and outbursts in the courtroom, bail reform advocates speculated that he might be in need of mental health support. The Post called him a sicko. The Poop Perp story coincided with widespread coverage of an increase in the number of certain violent crimes, prompting a legislator to propose a law to make smearing feces a felony. The Post headlined, Tough Crap, but there was a larger movement afoot.
Two months ago, an anonymous source revealed to the post in a story about the Poop Perp, that the Democratic governor was considering rolling back bail reform. Governor Kathy Hochul up for reelection and facing criticism over rising crime and bail reform made a deal with fellow Democrats who control the legislature to usher in a bail reform rollback to keep more alleged offenders locked up pretrial. Hochul's plan was first leaked to the Post. Governor Hochul.
Governor Kathy Hochul: A very basic human need is to feel safe and secure for yourself, and your family, and your parents. When that evaporates, that shatters the foundation that every person needs to have in order to go forth and have a life where you can focus on your work, your family, other objectives. We have to establish that foundation of security once again, and we can do it while protecting the rights of individuals.
Keith Wright: Elected officials, in particular, were not the most deep-thinking sort of folks, and I include myself in that.
Matt Katz: "Even subliminally," says Keith Wright, "the endless stream of crime stories linked with bail reform might have made public officials think there was a political problem brewing."
Keith Wright: In not wanting to have a political headache, you had the folks that wanted to amend the bail reform, and thus the political movement to amend the bail reform.
Matt Katz: Especially in election year.
Keith Wright: Especially in an election year, absolutely.
Matt Katz: As Alec Karakatsanis identified at the top of the show, the pressure on politicians to keep pumping money into police departments doesn't materialize out of thin air. It's a coordinated messaging effort.
Scott Hechinger: First of all, we identified this issue, Copaganda, this issue of misinformation as a racial and social justice issue.
Matt Katz: Former Brooklyn public defender, Scott Hechinger heads a watchdog project called Justice Not Fear. It fact-checks media portrayals of criminal justice issues like bail reform.
Scott Hechinger: People, the general public, y'all are being lied to. You're being lied to intentionally by police, and prosecutors, and other public officials. You need to be smarter, and more informed consumers of news.
Matt Katz: Sociologists say anecdotes that provoke fear, like about people with criminal records getting released and committing terrible crimes stay in our minds longer than fact-based data. As a journalist myself who reports on crime in New York City, I know when it bleeds, it does lead.
Scott Hechinger: On the flip side, I happen to think that one horrific outlier tragedy is also not newsworthy. Part of it is the decisions that editors and journalists make, not just on what to write, but on whether to write the dang thing at all.
Matt Katz: "Judges are making calculations too," says Hechinger. "They know that if they agitate, as Bruce Wright said, they could earn their own nickname." Hechinger told me about a courtroom exchange with a judge that left him slack-jawed.
Scott Hechinger: I was representing a young woman who was accused of, I think spanking her young child and was charged with assault in the second degree, which was a Class D violent felony, mandatory minimum two years in prison, seven years maximum. The judge knew this case was not going anywhere. He called me up to the bench. The prosecution asked for bail. They come up. I'm making this valiant argument for release. He says, "Scott, I have to set some bail. I don't want to end up on the cover of the New York Post." I couldn't believe, he actually said the dang words out loud.
Matt Katz: The Post's influence isn't limited to the big apple. The paper shares an owner with Fox News, and its stories regularly go national.
News Anchor 1: Well, what do President Biden, and the New York Poop Attacker have in common? Well, they're both shameless about the crap they shove in people's faces.
News Anchor 2: We have created a society that has more empathy for the criminal than the cop, which is why New York looks the way it does. New York right now, looks like Gotham city before Batman shows up, except Batman's not coming because he is not vaccinated.
News Anchor 3: Meanwhile, as a serial pervert, he's been repeatedly exposing himself to kids, but he keeps getting released from jail thanks to New York's lax bail reform. Each time he gets arrested, he's out again in a flash. This guy spends so much time with his pants down and in broad daylight, he has to put sunscreen on his junk.
Matt Katz: While the bail reform discourse is mostly settled for the moment, the larger question of who should be in jail and how long they should stay there is an ongoing focus of the paper. After all, Manhattan has a new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who has said he doesn't want prison terms for most crimes. A Post columnist said that Bragg quote gave a green light for anarchy. Another called his policies psychotic, and the Post editorial board dipped into the archives for inspiration, saying Bragg had a Let 'Em Loose approach to crime, sound familiar, Keith Wright?
Keith Wright: What's new is old, and what's old is new. There's nothing new under the sun. It's just that these issues go in cycles.
Matt Katz: Yes. History repeats itself.
Keith Wright: History repeats itself.
Matt Katz: Crime goes up, and all the players revert to where they were in 1979.
Keith Wright: Absolutely. No question about it.
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