How the media blew reporting the Chicago cop’s shooting of a teen
The video has now been seen around the world, sparking outrage and a rare first-degree murder charge against a Chicago police officer.
The tale of Laquan McDonald, the dead teenager, is one that operates on many important social, cultural and political levels. But it also provides a window onto a frequent staple of dreary daily journalism across the country: uncritical reporting on shootings and killings that can verge on lapdog journalism.
It's thus important to know that quite apart from the editorial indignation now being expressed, key disclosures in the case did not come from mainstream media outlets. Yes, they reported on the original shooting, but in a mostly skimpy, pro forma way that proved a bulletin board for the initial claims of police.
No, the most important revelations came from an unusual species, namely a freelance writer and human rights activist who brings a cerebral approach to his penchant for investigating grimy street-level disputes.
He's Jamie Kalven, who is a product and resident of a University of Chicago universe that is often chided for being an insensitive academic oasis amid the poverty, crime and poor housing of Chicago's South Side.
His father was Harry Kalven Jr., a famous professor of law at the university who died in 1974. In 1967, he authored a report produced by a university committee set up in response to Vietnam War-era student protests at the university and nationwide. Known as the Kalven Report, it laid out a university policy of neutrality on social and political issues.
Jamie Kalven played a key role in the McDonald case because he was leaked word that the video was not the exculpatory evidence that law enforcement had suggested long before the footage saw the light of day on Tuesday. It was, he was told, something that verged on the damning as far as the cop's actions.
In addition, he was first with the autopsy report that detailed where 16 bullets were fired into McDonald.
Kalven has just started to draft a larger opus about the case. He's only a few pages into it and shared them with me Wednesday. All you need as background to understand his analysis is to be introduced to a man named Pat Camden. He's a former longtime police department spokesman who retired and then became spokesman for the city's police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
For years, Camden was a presence at police shootings and reporters' first point of contact. He was thus critical in shaping initial coverage. Often, those early reports constituted the only coverage of individual cases. There are simply too many shootings in Chicago and, of course, media resources are not what they once were.
No surprise, Camden was on the scene of the McDonald shooting last October, though he was then serving in his union role. Kalven, who founded a journalism nonprofit called the Invisible Institute, picks up the story in this previously undisclosed, yet-to-be-completed essay:
"Avuncular in manner and authoritative in tone, Camden briefed reporters at the scene of the McDonald incident, as he has at the scenes of hundreds of past 'police-involved shootings.' (At the time of his retirement from the CPD in 2008, he estimated he had performed this function 325 times. Over the last few years in his role as FOP spokesman, he has done so dozens more times.)"
He told reporters that there was no ambiguity about the incident. It was "a clear cut case of self defense." He described McDonald as having "a strange gaze about him...he's got a 100-yard stare...he's staring blankly."
Responding officers wanted to use a Taser, he said, but didn't have stun guns and so awaited the arrival of an officer who had one. When a second squad car arrived, the officers on the scene tried to box in McDonald with their cars. He proceeded to puncture a tire and damage a windshield, he said.
The teenager then lunged at them with a knife, Camden told reporters, and an officer shot him once in the chest. He would die at a nearby hospital.
"The officers are responding to somebody with a knife in a crazed condition," he said. "You obviously aren't going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. He is a serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves."
Camden is essential to understanding the journalism aspect of the debacle because he's often been the main source of information at police shootings. No surprise, the head of the city agency that is supposed to investigate police shootings has in the past voiced chagrin that a union spokesman can "shape the narrative," as Kalven puts it, before the agency has a chance to do any actual work.
A year ago, about a month after the McDonald shooting, the agency head told the Chicago Sun-Times, "It's kind of disconcerting to me that sometimes the message that gets out there is, 'We've looked at it and it's a justified shooting' when we are just there on the scene and beginning our investigation. It's unfair to us."
Perhaps that explains, says Kalven, why the agency "invariably" reaches the same conclusion as Camden's initial claims. Kalven was still tracking down numbers Wednesday, but there clearly are precious few, if any, examples of the agency concluding a shooting by an officer is unjustified.
It should not be a shock that "media coverage is equally predictable," Kalven notes.
Kalven underscored the regularity with which stories surface in Chicago media about a black person being shot by the police. "They follow a familiar recipe. Pat Camden assures the reporters that the shooting was justified. Perhaps the voice of a friend of the victim, a relative, or a witness is briefly heard. IPRA announces it is investigating. Then silence falls."
That was very much true with McDonald. In the early stages, there were no suggestions by the police department that might complicate Camden's narrative. His was the de facto accepted account — at least until somebody in the city, clearly outraged, contacted Kalven much, much later. It was about that video and what it really showed.