Few subjects need more facts, and have fewer, than police shootings of civilians. As then FBI Director James Comey lamented in 2015 after the Ferguson, Missouri unrest, his Bureau “didn’t know whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, one a year, or one a century.” If the Black Lives Matter movement gets one thing right, it’s this: counting matters. Until recently, no one even counted police shootings of civilians. As Berkeley professor Franklin Zimring chronicled in When Police Kill, few in law enforcement wanted data on police killings of civilians, let alone black civilians, to see the light of day.
Academia should jump in, but on touchy subjects like race, conservative social scientists are rare and moderates have fled the field so as to avoid being labeled “racist” if their empirical findings question progressive assumptions. This retreat of social scientists largely leaves the academic study of racism to postmodernists interested in only the most esoteric and radical aspects relating to Black Lives Matter—not mundane empirical questions like how many people police kill and how to save some of those lives, as one of us detailed in The Wall Street Journal. Into the data void have come activists, often funded, and always from the left. After all, writing blue lives matter one hundred times will not get you admitted to Stanford, whereas writing Black Lives Matter a hundred times already has. Unfortunately, activists do not build their reputations through accuracy.
So what happens when, for elite media, support for activism becomes the definition of good journalism? Suppose those who question an activist agenda or activist groups risk rebuke, even unemployment? This seems unlikely to foster truth, but is where we now find ourselves, in academia and increasingly in media.
Philadelphia Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski had to resign for approving the title “Buildings Matter Too” for a commentary supporting those peacefully protesting racism, but decrying rioters’ destruction of historic buildings. Likewise, staffers forced New York Times opinion editor James Bennet to resign after he permitted U.S. Senator Tom Cotton to write a commentary urging the federal government to consider using troops to quell riots. Cotton cited past presidents’ deploying troops to keep order, including to stop racist violence in 1957 Little Rock. Albeit controversial, Cotton’s op-ed is the sort of thing newspapers normally publish. The Times insisted that Bennet had not properly fact-checked Cotton’s piece, but no journalists believe that—indeed, Cotton’s staff detailed the fact-checking process for the National Review. In fact, radical staffers played the race card to punish free speech they found offensive, and The New York Times, supposedly the nation’s leading newspaper, caved. The clear message is that, just as criticizing President Trump might get you criticized at Fox News, offending Black Lives Matter will cost you a job in elite media. How does privileging elite orthodoxy in this way further the pursuit of truth?
If regarding Black Lives Matter, and on such matters as The New York Times’ 1619 Project redefining American history as primarily about slavery, we already know all the facts, then the role of the media shifts from inquiry to indoctrination, which justifies excommunicating apostates. (For historians’ fact-based critiques of The 1619 Project, see the following articles from James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.)
One fact completely left out of current discussions is that very few cops kill, by our calculations about one in 669 in a given year. When cops do kill, is it really rarely justified? While African Americans are overrepresented among those killed by cops, does this prove widespread racist policing, or reflect the fact that violent criminals are disproportionately African American? Or both? Just raising these questions is risky in academia and the media.
Not all the facts on police violence will comfort the right. Only about one in a thousand cops who kills gets a felony conviction, raising serious questions about whether local law enforcement bureaucrats hold other local law enforcement bureaucrats accountable. On this, and some other matters, conservatives might support Black Lives Matter.
You cannot find these facts, or even questions, raised anywhere in the elite media—at least we haven’t. On matters of race, the elite media has joined academia in being post-factual.
Can a post-factual media and academia build better policing and save black lives? Can it rebuild public trust in institutions? We don’t see how.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and with others has authored or edited 15 books including The Politically Correct University.
Martha Bradley-Dorsey is a PhD candidate in the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform and a Bastiat Research Sequence Fellow with the Mercatus Center. She previously served as a legislative research analyst in the Arizona State Senate and the Kansas Legislature.
Image: Roman Koester