Contrast in coverage shows how mainstream media trivializes big issues

This week both the New York Times and Nation magazine covered the continued ill will that the New York police department has been directing at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio since His Honor joined most New Yorkers in questioning police tactics and procedures after the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner.

The Times article details the missteps that it believes de Blasio has made in his interactions with the police department and police unions. For example, the Times claims that the rank-and-file felt that de Blasio displayed disrespect towards them by embracing the Reverend Al Sharpton, a critic of the police. Then they got pissed when de Blasio hired Sharpton’s former spokesperson as an aide; the cops supposedly didn’t like that her significant other (whom the Times chooses to label as a “live-in boyfriend”) was convicted of murder.

By contrast, Nation takes the long view, recounting the bad blood that the New York police had with past New York mayors going all the way back to Fiorello La Guardia, and including Robert Wagner, John Lindsay, David Dinkins and rightwing idol Rudy Guiliani. The Nation also demonstrates with solid numbers that none of these mayors suffered any vote loss in elections after having public spats with the NYPD rank and file. Nation examines the broader issue of the relationship between the police and the rest of government as a minor dynamic in New York City history

In the Times article, de Blasio comes across as stunned and dismayed by the rift. Nation decides not to characterize the mayor’s current state of mind, instead reminding both the mayor and all of us that New Yorkers appreciate and re-elect strong New York mayors who stick to their principles.

The Times reduces the story to personalities to inflate its significance. Nation places it into the broader context of history to demonstrate its inherent triviality. Both approaches to journalism and history go back a long way. Thucydides used the great man idea—this notion that the actions of a few individuals determines history—when depicting the Peloponnesian War in ancient times, and Victorian Thomas Carlyle proposed it as the explanation of all of history. Karl Marx and the Annales school of historians led by Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and others took a broader look at long-lasting trends and the movement, beliefs and actions of groups more than individuals.

Maybe it’s my leftwing bias, but I’m inclined to side with the Nation on this issue, both in its conclusions and the way it covered the story.

Unfortunately, the Times circulation is more than 1.8 million, approximately 14 times the 125,500 readership of Nation, plus Times articles are routinely published ubiquitously in hard copy and over the Internet, whereas mainstream media aggregators and reprinters assiduously avoid Nation’s articles. Thus many more people will read the Times sensationalized version of the relationship between the mayor and the police than the Nation’s studied analysis.

In a coda to this tale of dueling points of views—the personal versus the historical—Mayor de Blasio has subsequently said that he would veto a City Council law criminalizing the police use of chokeholds. It doesn’t mean that de Blasio is now capitulating to the police to curry their favor. De Blasio’s point is that chokeholds are already against NYPD regulations, so a law is not needed. Instead of seeking to wreak vengeance on a police department that has shown him uncalled-for disrespect, de Blasio is behaving like an adult and expecting the police department to behave in the same way. New York City doesn’t need a law if the department enforces regulations.

The key, of course, is to enforce the regulation and go after any offenders.

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