Columnist Malpractice On The Tamir Rice Tragedy

This is not how police saw Tamir Rice before he was shot, but never mind: the points is to horrify the public, not to accurately explain what happened.

This is not how police saw Tamir Rice before he was shot, but never mind: the objective is to inflame public opinion, not to accurately convey what happened and why.

Washington Post reporter Lonnae O’Neal found herself compelled by the Tamir Rice grand jury decision to write the kind of irresponsible column for the paper that can be written but shouldn’t be written—not by a professional journalist, not when public passions are inflamed, not when complex and entangled issues need analysis, careful words, perspective and wisdom. It is an emotional scream of pain and frustration, unleavened by objectivity, fairness or restraint. Such columns do much damage, and no good. Such columns are destructive. I hope writing it relieved her pain, but that’s not justification enough.

I was alerted to the kind of column it would be  by its first sentences:

A 12-year-old black boy walks into a Cleveland park, plays with a toy gun and, within seconds of arriving, a police officer shoots him dead. His partner tackles the boy’s 14-year-old sister as she rushes to his side, handcuffs the girl and shoves her into a squad car, helpless, as her brother lay dying.

If we want to accurately describe the event that ended  Tamir Rice’s life so prematurely from the perspective of people who loved him, and of people mourning the senseless death of a child, those who read about the boy’s death and want to cry to the skies, “Why? How can this happen?,” then that is a defensible beginning….maybe.  That is not her intent, however. The intent of her column is to indict “the system” for not indicting the officer who shot Tamir Rice. With that intent, the description is a lie, a manipulative appeal to pure emotion that willfully and negligently makes the system, which is not and must not be based on emotion, incomprehensible. 

Lonnae O’Neal is allegedly a reporter; indeed, she is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and boy am I sick of reading self-indulgent hack journalism from Pulitzer Prize winning reporters. An ethical journalist is obligated to help the public understand a difficult case like this.  All O’Neal wants to do is make them scream along with her. That’s not journalism. That’s journalism malpractice.

What she wrote is nearly irrelevant to what the system has to weigh and consider in this case. The  case involves a police dispatcher’s report that a man was brandishing a gun in a park. The police car, driven by Officer Frank Garmback, violated  proper procedure, pulled up right next to the “man,” and Timothy Loehmann, an officer who should never have been on the street due to a personnel report that identified him as a sub-par cop who tended to panic and shoot under stress, saw, or thought he saw, the “man” reach for a gun in his waistband, and shot him dead. The “man” was a boy who was man-size; the “gun” was a toy that looked like a gun.

Those are the set of facts that relates to the guilt or innocence of the shooting officer regarding a crime. That the victim was a 12-year-old boy? Irrelevant. That he was black? Irrelevant. That he was playing, that it was a toy gun—both are irrelevant.

What happened to the victim’s sister after the shooting , how old she was, and how she was treated, are all completely irrelevant…unless the intent is just to inflame public emotions like anger, horror, indignation and grief. We saw this same device in the Ferguson fiasco, when the delays in processing the shooting scene and Ferguson police incompetence resulted in Brown’s body lying in the street and in open view for hours.  What bearing did this separate incident have to officer Wilson’s guilt or innocence in shooting Brown? None whatsoever, but it was repeatedly cited by protesters and journalists as evidence for a racial motive for the shooting. All right, people are emotional and often not too astute; the public can be excused for such disconnected and flawed reasoning. From a journalist, whose job is to enlighten and explain, it is inexcusable.

Here, the journalist, after stating intentionally misleading and irrelevant features of the tragedy, immediately concludes that ” this killing of black bodies by the state, without accountability, is unsustainable to our democracy.” This, to be Trumpishly blunt, is not merely false and irresponsible, but vicious bullshit.

“This” is an improper, incompetent and misleading term to begin the sentence, for “this” shooting was an anomaly—a child believed to be an adult, a realistic toy believed to be a weapon, a mistake by the cop driving the car and a officer shooting who should not have been on the force. As the statistics recently published in the reporter’s own paper proved, “this” is not typical in any way, and thus cannot, must not and is not ethically used to make a general conclusion..

“Klling of black bodies” intentionally and falsely implies that only blacks are being killed by police—false—and that they are intentionally being killed because they are black, which is also not only false but calumny. There is no evidence, absolutely none, that Officer Loehmann intended to shoot any child with a toy, much less a black one. Even if  O’Neal’s statement was fair and accurate regarding police conduct in the United States as a whole, “this” tragedy does not support the statement, and the statement is NOT fair and accurate.

“By the state” is even worse. These are individual decisions made by individual police officers in specific and difficult scenarios. “The state” is responsible for the acts of its employees, but no state, nor “the State” of the United States, has set out to kill “black bodies,” and damn O’Neal for asserting otherwise with no evidence or argument  except the fact of this single tragedy, in which nothing suggests that the child’s color was in any way a factor in his death.

“Without accountability”? There is plenty of accountability already, and more to follow, unless by accountability O’Neal means summary punishment and revenge. That is what BlackLivesMatter means by accountability, but that is not what the word means.

“Is unsustainable to our democracy,” to close her disgusting sentence, is worthless by the time the trail of lies and characterizations reache it. Yes, indeed it would be unsustainable to our democracy if “the state” had put out a bounty on law enforcement officials shooting innocent black children, or Africa-Americans of any age. That, however, does not remotely describe reality, in Cleveland, in Ohio, or anywhere else.

What is unsustainable to our democracy is not having rule of law and undermining the motives of law enforcement necessary to ensure it.

What is unsustainable to our democracy is having a nation divided by racial distrust and hatred fanned by deliberate misrepresentations and lies.

What is unsustainable to our democracy is an incompetent journalistic establishment that chooses sensationalism and emotion over its ethical duty to inform.

Believe it or not, O’Neal’s next sentence is more outrageous that what went before, and after condemning it, I’ll let you read the rest of her verbal vomit yourself. She writes…

“To caution that urging black people to have faith in a process that continues to fail them is Orwellian. To say the hour is late and racism is like climate change — we’re running out of time to reverse it and save the world.”

Well, the process did not fail “them” in the Tamir Rice case. If it failed, and I’m not at all certain it did, it failed the public, the justice system and the nation as a whole, black, white and otherwise, which do not, Ms. O’Neal’s demented perception notwithstanding, want police officers or anyone to get away with shooting children, or blacks, or innocent citizens. The system O’Neal’s allies would like to have in place, a system where street protests and hashtags and threatened riots determine whether the power of the state will relieve a citizen of his freedom—this is the system apparently installed now in Baltimore— is toxic to democracy, and the process O’Neal libels succeeded in defeating that in Ohio. A group of citizens examining all the relevant evidence and instructed on the applicable standards determined that while there may still have been errors and negligence, no crime was committed. Blacks benefit from that process as well as whites. The black officer who may have been improperly charged in the Freddie Gray death in Baltimore was just served by that process, which has so far foiled the attempts to convict him.

O’Neal has not examined the evidence, and based on her opening sentence, she does not understand what relevant evidence is. She may not call the results Owellian unless “black is white,” that is, unless obvious guilt has been called innocence. Stating that the guilt of the officer who shot Tamir Rice is “obvious” —or black and white—is an ignorant, incompetent, biased assertion.

The only fair and accurate statement in those two reckless sentences is that racism is like climate change, a legitimate problem being distorted and hyped for political gain. That’s what O’Neal’s column is doing.

Lonnae O’Neal has a right to state her opinions, no matter how destructive and wrong, and the right to try to persuade an equally incompetent editor to allow it to be published. Such an editor should not be employed by the Washington Post however. I am certain that there are many similar columns about the Tamir Rice shooting in less acclaimed papers around the country, maybe even some by other Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. They do not provide the public with what they need to know about the death of the boy, nor do they contribute useful analysis and perspective.

What they do is show is how dismal, irresponsible and dangerously incompetent the nation’s journalism has become.

16 thoughts on “Columnist Malpractice On The Tamir Rice Tragedy

      • I think UBD was pointing out the fact that the subject of the sentence is “the police car.” Most police cars are incapable of violating police policy, at least without some help from a driver. Just a little levity.

        • Ah. So when we say that a plane violated a nation’s air space, we are similarly personifying it? I’d argue that since “driven by” was attached, it was clear who the human agency was that was causing the violation. I wonder if UBD is related to PM…

            • The police car, driven by Officer Frank Garmback, violated proper procedure, pulled up right next to the “man,”

              By driving his patrol car right up next to the “man,” Officer Frank Garmback violated proper procedure.

              Not metonymy at all. Just a less than ideal sentence. One of the very, very few among the countless other perfectly serviceable to really, really good ones. Happy New Year.

  1. “a journalist, whose job is to enlighten and explain”

    Good thing you’re not trying to feed and shelter yourself and your family by teaching ethics to journalists, Jack. It would be good for all concerned, but I doubt any schools of journalism would be buying what you’d be selling.

    • Of course, I’m sure the folks over at places like The Huffington Post and Vox (the “young adult website” as I recently saw it referred to) and even the Washington Post, come to think of it, are convinced they are “enlightening and explaining” with every word.

  2. “The state” doesn’t have to set out to kill black bodies to be responsible for their deaths at the hands of individual officers any more than a hospital has to set out to kill patients to be responsible for their deaths due to infections. Each patient death is the responsibility of whichever nurse or doctor failed to wash their hands, but the pattern of deaths is due to the hospital’s failure to implement proper infection control. If — and granted it’s an important if — if the state’s police training, staffing, and policies are resulting in a disproportionately large number of dead black bodies, then the state is responsible for those deaths.

      • When USAF crews drop bombs on ISIS fighters, is it a material distinction to say that “the United States is bombing ISIS”? If the bomber crews accidentally kill harmless civilians, is it a material distinction to say that “U.S. bombing has killed civilians”? I don’t think so.

        • Yes, warfare and capital punishment are the two instances where the State indeed kills. BLM to the contrary, the State, and no state, has declared “war” on black Americans, which is the stated contention of the column.The “war,’ society’s continuing one, is against crimes against society.

  3. If I were the driver of that police car, I would have done exactly what that officer did, driven right straight up to the “man brandishing a gun”; doing so immediately changed the focus of the man with a gun from the general public to the advancing police car thus shielding the general public from possible harm. Considering that all the officers actually knew was that a “man was brandishing a gun in a park”, the police put themselves at great personal risk to shift focus away from anyone else in the park and directly onto them, in that regard, their actions might actually be considered heroic.

    • Are you a cop? Is that what you are trained to do?

      I will say this that if I was a man in a park , brandishing a gun with the intent of hurting someone as soon as that car pulled up I would have shot them both before they could have gotten out of the car.

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