What a whirl of news lately, at a time when I’ve been up to my neck in my own work, so I feel like a periscope. Every so often I stick my head up, look around, try to scan Twitter and then pull it back down, overwhelmed.
On the other hand, this might be the best way to absorb a breaking story. Every so often I turn on CNN, seeking news of Baltimore. The last time I did, Ben Carson (I refuse to call him Dr. when he’s not actually talking about pediatric neurosurgery) was praising some woman who smacked her son in the head. And wasn’t that story peak weirdness? I watched it the first time wondering how the hell do we even know who this woman is to this ninja-looking man? But I guess there was some direct observation of the encounter, and OK — it was his mother. And she’s chasing him, smacking his head, telling him to get his ass home, and of course the rest of America went nuts. MOTHER OF THE YEAR!
I guess there’s a time to smack your kid upside the head, but that was a very uncomfortable piece of video to watch. On the other hand, it was a great excuse to turn off CNN. It’s like they scan Twitter, no, Facebook all day and count the stupidest posts possible, then pitch their coverage directly at that demographic.
On the other hand…
I did find two interesting things in all of this.
This lengthy Q-and-A with David Simon is absolutely worth your time, as it dives deep into the dysfunction of the Baltimore police department, i.e., all urban police departments, and its relationship with the politicians and cities it’s entwined with. To wit:
It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street. The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.
And if there’s still some residual code, if there’s still some attempt at precision in the street-level enforcement, then maybe you duck most of the outrage. Maybe you’re just cutting the procedural corners with the known players on your post – assuming you actually know the corner players, that you know your business as a street cop. But at some point, when there was no code, no precision, then they didn’t know. Why would they? In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, they weren’t policing their post anymore, they weren’t policing real estate that they were protecting from crime. They weren’t nurturing informants, or learning how to properly investigate anything. There’s a real skill set to good police work. But no, they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods — which were indeed drug-saturated because that’s the only industry left — become just hunting grounds. They weren’t protecting anything. They weren’t serving anyone. They were collecting bodies, treating corner folk and citizens alike as an Israeli patrol would treat the West Bank, or as the Afrikaners would have treated Soweto back in the day. They’re an army of occupation. And once it’s that, then everybody’s the enemy. The police aren’t looking to make friends, or informants, or learning how to write clean warrants or how to testify in court without perjuring themselves unnecessarily. There’s no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There’s no reason to solve crime. In the years they were behaving this way, locking up the entire world, the clearance rate for murder dove by 30 percent. The clearance rate for aggravated assault — every felony arrest rate – took a significant hit. Think about that. If crime is going down, and crime is going down, and if we have less murders than ever before and we have more homicide detectives assigned, and better evidentiary technologies to employ how is the clearance rate for homicide now 48 percent when it used to be 70 percent, or 75 percent?
I was glad to see that bit about cameras. I think there’s a PhD dissertation on the role of cheap-but-excellent cameras we all now carry in our pockets in this story, and in many stories. Anyway, a long piece but recommended.
Here was the other smart thing I read, about Periscope, just one of the amazing live-video apps that will transform stories like this and make Wolf Blitzer’s gaping fish mouth that much more stupid and irrelevant:
In photography, the golden hour is all about timing. It’s when the subjects in an image are depicted under warm, natural light. It’s when shadows are the least visible, and the details of a scene are enhanced. Likewise, there is a window when journalists can capture the richest part of a breaking news story.
On April 27th, with nightfall approaching, several journalists, armed only with their iPhones, wandered out in Baltimore. Through a sequence of expertly-documented live footage, including on-the-ground interviews, Guardian US correspondent Paul Lewis used Periscope to “observe a community making sense of the destruction and chaos” in real-time.
In one of his first Periscope feeds, Lewis speaks with a local in front of a neighborhood corner store. The shop is being looted as they talk on camera. After a minute of conversation, he is threatened by a bystander to stop recording.
“I’m gettin’ ready to beat you” is heard in the background.
Lewis’ live Periscope feed ends abruptly. For nearly five minutes, several hundred users remain active on his feed, exchanging messages and posting shell-shocked reactions about his fate.
P.S. He was OK. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. The 40th anniversary of the Detroit riots is approaching, and I’m looking through archival material. It’s truly an archeological process that makes you wonder why any of us journalists bother — all we’re making is core samples, snapshots, Vines, whatever, and nothing close to reality.
Off to bed for now. Follow those links — you’ll be glad you did.