The New York Times' latest false equivalence: The Gray Lady blows it on the "Ferguson effect"

A report on an increase of murders is blemished by a shamefully craven attempt at "balance"

Published September 2, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

                    (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

After dropping “precipitously” on a national level for much of the past 25 years, the murder rate in some of America’s biggest cities may be on the rise. And as the saying goes, the New York Times is on it:

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

This is, of course, bad news. Fewer people being murdered is a self-evident, absolute good. And not just for those people and their loved ones, but for society on the whole. The safer people feel, the less likely they are to embrace a draconian approach to law enforcement. Before people will allow themselves to care about abstract (but essential) values like civil liberties or equality, they need to feel safe. Opposing murder, in other words, is the rare issue where you really don’t need to hear the other side.

But pantomiming “objectivity” through superficial gestures toward “both sides” is seemingly part of the New York Times’ raison d’être. So a story about early signs of a rising murder rate put the Times in an awkward position. How can the Gray Lady show everyone how fair and objective she is unless she has two positions to occupy the middle ground between? How can she burnish her self-image as the dispenser of facts — and facts, alone — without having a debate to report on from a comfortable remove?

For the Times, this is a problem bordering on the existential. Thankfully, however, an uptick in murders cannot be the whole story. There must be at least some speculation as to its proximate cause, too. And since few will disagree that it’s bad when more people are being killed, it’s during the debate over the why of the thing when the Times’s famed objectivity has its best chance to shine. Which brings us to the next paragraph of the Times report, in all its sickly, pallid and morally bankrupt glory:

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

There’s no proof that mainstream America’s newfound concern over police brutality has anything to do with more murders. And the Times says that “experts” in the field of law enforcement find the theory to be without evidence. It’s no more supported by facts than the idea that the breakup of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner has sent an untold number of Americans into a state of violent, nihilistic depression. Yet for some reason, the Times — to its shame — decides to throw the idea into the mix nevertheless.

As pointless and icky as the Times’ including that conjecture was, however, the attempt to substantiate it that comes later in the report is even worse:

Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

“The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

Now, it’s conceivable that someone might read the above and think my criticism is overwrought. After all, doesn’t the Times not-so-subtly suggest that the so-called Ferguson effect is all so much bullshit? Yes, it does. But the point is that the Times shouldn’t bother to include such dangerous nonsense in the first place, regardless of whether or not it ultimately attempts to undermine it. You don’t get credit for disputing a conspiracy theory if you’re the one who raised it in the first place.

As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in his response to the Times piece, the writing here is, among other things, “vague” — something journalism should never be. It’s worse than that, though. It’s the kind of writing that leaves the unsophisticated reader less-informed. It is the worst possible form of false equivalence, the kind that, in Coates’ words, “obscures where journalists are charged with clarifying.” It’s what happens when you care more about avoiding the criticism of partisans — namely, police apologists and foes of Black Lives Matter — than informing your readers.

And if you think the Times would feel obligated, in the name of balance, to elevate such inane garbage if the story were about something other than policy brutality and African-Americans’ civil rights? Please contact me immediately, because I would like to sell you a bridge.

Ferguson Remembers: One Year Since the Death of Michael Brown

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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