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Arguing Crime is Being Overhyped by the Media Is Not Denying the “Reality of Crime”
We routinely accept that large chunks of the public are misled about key political issues. Why is crime off limits for similar criticism?
One of the more grating aspects of being a media critic is when you’re accused of “downplaying” or “denying” a transgression because you argue said transgression is being over-emphasized, or fear-mongered, or blown out of proportion by cynical parties in power. Whether it be terrorism, an enemy state, or crime, any attempt to calibrate the reality of a potential threat, if it doesn’t align with the exact level of hysteria our media put forth, is met with accusations that one is morally indifferent to the victims of said threat. It’s a deliberately manipulative tactic, and one that asks the reader to check their brain at the door and bully people into accepting a single, maximalist posture, lest they be seen as insensitive to the selective human suffering we are told to care about at that exact moment.
Nowhere is this dynamic more common these days than discussions of “crime” and how Democrats and society in general should respond to it. Despite the full-blown post-George Floyd backlash since last year, a committed, increasingly unpopular and underfunded cohort of commentators and researchers is still trying to push back against a media-driven panic over crime and the attendant, inevitable calls for more police and caging. One recent example is the responses to a tweet by writer Radley Balko, who pointed out that actual crime rates aren’t corresponding with voter priorities.
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One can comb through the indignant responses to see how popular this posture is. If you don’t have the bandwidth for this, tedious, resident Left-Disipliner at New York Magazine Eric Levitz wrote the foundational text for this posture last July. In it, he lays out the case for why “Progressives Don’t Need to Downplay Rising Homicides” (which none were doing, but this isn’t really the point). Several others have engaged in similar handwringing.
It’s a smarmy, anti-intellectual, ahistorical mode of politics that deserves a rebuttal that I will attempt to provide here. But first, a few important qualifiers before we jump in.
(1) Murder rates have indeed increased in many major cities (as I note elsewhere), and the Left and liberals need to formulate a compelling response. But they can’t really do this if they simply accept the maximalist, most apocalyptic framing of the issue. To address a problem, it’s essential to truly understand the nature of the problem, which, as unseemly as it may be, necessarily requires political commentators to challenge the gap between the reality of crime and how it’s presented in our media.
(2) Different groups of people experience “crime” completely differently. Violent crime disproportionately impacts poor people, particularly poor black and brown communities. Those who seek to stoke fear of crime that’s targeting middle-class white voters will often launder their desire to do so through a feigned concern for the needs and wants of black voters or those actually impacted by crime. “Crime is the No 1 issue for voters of color as well,” they respond. Of course it is. Poor black and brown communities suffer the brunt of the actual rising crime rates. And polls, for years, have shown crime to be a major concern compared to whites. It’s hip to treat black voters’ concern about crime as some new political phenomenon Democrats are scrambling to deal with, but this has long been the case. Let’s take a look at polling right before the recent Crime Wave. According to a 2018 Pew poll, black adults were roughly twice as likely as whites to say crime is a major problem in their local community (38% vs. 17%). A 2017 survey found that black respondents were twice as likely as whites to say their local community is not too or not at all safe from crime (34% vs. 15%).
But—and this is important to understand—this isn’t really what’s being addressed here. The party of concern being centered isn’t black and brown voters, because if it were, the dozens of other noncarceral solutions to crime poll after poll says they support—more funding for schools, social centers, and mental health clinics, higher wages, unions—would also be elevated to the front pages of The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. But they’re not—only more police is. So, none of these people are speaking on behalf of these communities. As I explained in June, they’re selectively highlighting these legitimate and organic concerns to do the one thing rich white suburban voters and real estate donors want more than anything: pumping more money into police and prisons.
If calls for more police and longer sentences, nominally on behalf of poor black and brown voters, were truly concerned with their interests, they would be paired with calls for greater social spending, basic income, reparations, tripling funding to public schools, and stronger labor protections. But they’re not. Because this isn’t actually the party this narrative serves.
Now, on to the basic problems with this objection. First, the problem with the “we must respect the public’s perceptions as such” argument is that it’s long been conventional wisdom on the Left that large swaths of the population are being misled and lied to, thus their beliefs, while of course important to understand, aren’t per se evidence of any underlying truth. Large cohorts don't engage with the issue of crime through first- or even second-hand experience. Yes, people have their car broken into, or know someone who had a catalytic converter stolen (or, as is more often the case, simply see more Visible Poverty). But there’s absolutely no way the average voter can be expected to soberly analyze crime data and weave their personal observations into a measured and rational understanding of the nature of crime, its solutions, and its trajectory.
These impressions are largely informed by media narratives because, obviously, they are. What is even the debate here?
And we know this because liberals and centrists routinely accept the premise that millions of people on the Right believe fake, stupid, or overblown bullshit. Polls show one-third of Americans—or roughly 70 million adults—believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. A belief largely informed, not from voters’ personal experience witnessing voter fraud, but by a right-wing media echo chamber that lies to them all the time. One-fifth of Americans, or 40 million people, believe in QAnon conspiracies.
Should Democrats and The Left engage these beliefs at face value and learn how to address their concerns over the nuances of pedophilia among Democratic lawmakers? Should we humble ourselves and Take Seriously These Voters’ Concerns over ballot stuffing in Arizona? Should we not be dismissive or perceived as being smug, per Balko’s tweet and its responses, about an ill-informed, media-fueled impression of violent crime in New York? Why is everyone being so goddamn precious about all this? Are voters tender babies who must be held carefully?
Obviously, these theories aren’t on par with perceptions of crime in terms of plausibility. Crime is very real and very serious, but the scope and nature of it is being exaggerated by some very greasy actors. The general principle, though, is the same: millions of people believe wrong things all the time. In June 2003, 83 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein had developed nuclear weapons even after it was widely reported none were found. They did not do so because they were intelligence experts or had personal experience with the inner workings of Iraq’s WMD program. These ideas emerged from somewhere, and that somewhere was their TVs and newspapers.
The idea that perceptions of crime have nothing to do with the reality of crime is a fairly well documented phenomenon. Since the the late 1990’s until roughly 2017 crime dropped precipitously while perceptions of crime remained the same or steadily increased.
So what causes this gap? Media coverage, clearly—a wholly uncontroversial idea until about 10 minutes ago when a certain genre of electoral concern troll began worrying that The Left, or liberals, weren’t looking Serious Enough about the topic.
Of course, Americans believe a lot of uninformed bullshit. Have any of these people met an American before? Why are we acting like “voters” are some sacred species whose opinions and beliefs have to be per se respected and tip-toed around? We routinely don't do this for a host of misinformation, conspiracies, and overblown, half-assed internet assembled beliefs, because this isn’t the job of political commentators. It is the job of campaign managers and the head of the DCCC to care and pander to such things, but political commentators, writers, pundits—our job, at least in theory, is to try and tell people the truth, to accurately convey how public opinion is arrived at.
Hint: It’s not because the average voter stays up late night, bespectacled, poring over detailed, nuanced crime data and analysis. The reality, which I doubt many people would even contest if pressured to do so, is that the current rise of “crime” as an issue at the front of the minds of voters is a combination of (1) organic inputs (personal or second-hand experience with crime), (2) objective data about rising murder rates in certain parts of the country, and (3) nonstop media coverage about spiraling crime rates, fueled by anecdotes, class interests, mindless racism, a failure on the part of Democrats to provide any other vision of public safety, and bipartisan reactionary turn after the apparent disorder of Covid pandemic shutdowns and the 2020 George Floyd protests. We can debate the percent breakdown of these respective factors, but few would argue that these are the basic building blocks of the ideological construction at work.
Pushing back on the excesses and distortions of (3), in no way, has any bearing on (1) and (2). These are entirely different currents of discourse.
Saying we need a measured and accurate media discussion of crime concerns is not academic. Media coverage has real, material consequences. Fear-mongering coverage of crime is playing a central role in undermining and undoing the most basic reforms to our criminal legal system.
In January 2021, Illinois saw the passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act, which aimed to stop the widespread practice of jailing people before they have faced trial, or been found guilty of any crime, because they’re unable to afford bail. But from the outset, this law faced an onslaught of critical media coverage that asserted, without evidence, that such policy is a public menace, forces people to live in fear, and undermines basic safety. “From the moment the bill passed in January 2021, conservatives and law enforcement began spreading misinformation to undermine its historic policy changes,” states a report from the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. “This tactic is part of a larger national trend in which opponents of criminal legal system reforms leverage the media to amplify misinformation to scare and confuse the public about reforms that correct harms experienced by people of color and other marginalized communities.”
Right-wing pundit Dan Proft published a newspaper that was mailed to houses across Illinois sowing fears about murderers, spreading false information, and publishing a centerfold that showed numerous images of people, many of them black, who are allegedly in Cook County Jail. This came on top of previous coverage from major outlets like the Chicago Tribune, which, even before the Pretrial Fairness Act passed, were investing in “investigations” into how bail reform supposedly presents a danger to the public. Press outlets inaccurately blamed bail reform for public dangers, published misleading data about such reform, and parroted the false claims of public officials and law enforcement. Now, after a relentless attack from the press, alongside a political attack, there’s a real effort to “overhaul” this legislation, and it has a chance of succeeding.
Ask anyone who has worked to defend the Pretrial Fairness Act, and they’ll tell you that hysterical and inaccurate press coverage constitutes a core threat.
These activists have reason to be concerned. In 2019, New York passed a bail reform law that required pretrial release, with no bail, for most individuals facing misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges. But just months before this law was implemented, it was severely rolled back. Activists say that dehumanizing and inaccurate media coverage played a central role in its undoing. “In the months after these stories began appearing in news outlets across the state, public sentiment shifted against bail reform,” states one report. “In April 2019, 55% of voters supported bail reform; by January 2020, support had dropped to 37%. This decline in support could not have been driven by the impact of the new laws, as they had only been in effect for a few days at the time of the January 2020 poll. The shift in public sentiment is much more likely to have been caused by the torrent of negative articles about the reforms.”
In other words, press outlets don’t just record public sentiment—they actively shape it.
And contesting this process is essential to healthy and informed public debate. Showing how facts and reality don’t align with perceptions has profound moral utility in a world of unparalleled bullshit. Because once you accept the premise that the media curates—at least in part—voters' perceptions, then criticizing how this process works to scare the public and bolster reactionary, power-serving calls for more police and incarceration is a useful way to inform media consumers that they’re being bullshitted—which, itself, could maybe, just maybe shift public perception.
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