Fighting Words

Bloomberg Is Not Kanye West

 @EllenKilloran
on April 30 2013 11:11 PM

At a news conference Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused the New York Times of having racial bias in its crime reporting, criticizing “our paper of record” for ignoring the murder of  17-year-old Alphonza Bryant, who was gunned down in the Bronx last week, believed to have been caught in the crossfire of ongoing gang violence.

Bryant was “just a victim of too many guns on our streets,” Bloomberg said.

But after his murder, no outrage from the Center for Constitutional Rights, or the New York Civil Liberties Union, or NYCLU. There was not a mention of his murder in our papers, namely the New York Times. "All the news that's fit to print" did not print the Bryan'ts murder. If a white 17-year-old prep student from Manhattan had been murdered, do you think the Times would have ignored it? Neither do I.

Bloomberg’s comments were picked up by numerous media outlets, with most offering a straightforward account of the conflict between the mayor and the Grey Lady (the Times has been critical of the city’s “stop and frisk” policy, arguing that it disproportionately targets racial minorities). But New York Magazine added some baffling commentary, likening Bloomberg to Kanye West in a blog post on the Daily Intelligencer, titled “Mayor Bloomberg Says the New York Times Doesn’t Care About Black People.”

In 2006, West went off-script during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, blaming the government’s slow disaster response on the fact that Katrina’s victims were largely poor minorities. “Bush doesn’t care about black people,” the rapper said, just before his mic cut out.

Yes, Bloomberg was obviously retaliating against the New York Times for its stop and frisk criticism, and yes, he never misses an opportunity to invoke his gun control agenda. Still, he has a point: The New York Times (along with most any other NYC newspaper) would surely not let the murder of a privileged white teenager go unreported. (Though the Times did in fact mention Bryant's murder in a roundup, but with no dedicated story.)

New York Magazine usually gets it right, but forcing a comparison between the mayor and the outspoken rapper feels like a misfire -- even more so now that Mother Jones has used it as a launching pad for an enormous leap:  Characterizing Bloomberg’s comments as being directed toward individual racial minorities themselves, when he was primarily talking about the Times, and only briefly mentioned institutionalized criticism of stop and frisk. He certainly didn’t say minorities opposed to stop and frisk are “racist against themselves.”

Even if you think Bloomberg is ridiculous, and even if you’re (understandably) troubled by stop and frisk statistics, drawing inane parellels isn't going to solve any problems. The racial bias in the American newsroom is no joke, and New York is no exception. A 2012 American Society of News Editors survey showed that the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms has been on the decline since 2006.

New America New York City, which hosts a weekly panel discussion in Soho on Mondays, held a talk this week about the ethical challenges facing journalists reporting on tragedy.  During the audience Q&A, someone asked the panelists to discuss the role that ethnicity plays in their journalistic approach.  For a long moment, the panel was silent, until the moderator (the Atavist’s Charles Homans) gently prodded a response. It was New York Magazine contributing editor Jennifer Gonnerman who jumped in, and while she didn’t quite answer the question head-on, her recollections of covering the criminal justice system in the late 1990s in New York included observations about how the underserved beat might have been given more thorough coverage if people in power in the media had firsthand experience with loved ones circulating in the criminal justice system.

Another panelist said more diversity in the newsroom would help ensure that important stories don’t fall through the cracks.

As they were talking, I looked around the packed room, which I knew was occupied by journalists and other media types. I didn't see a single person I could confidently identify as black or Hispanic. And I wondered how much we were missing.

On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times responded to the mayor’s accusations, in an email published by Politico.

Bloomberg is trying to deflect criticism of the City’s stop-and-frisk practice by accusing The New York Times of bias. Among those critical of the practice is The New York Times editorial board, which is separate from the news side of the newspaper. The Times aggressively covers violence in the city's neighborhoods, and to select one murder as evidence to the contrary is disingenuous. His claim of racial bias is absurd.

But is it so absurd? The thing about bias is that you usually don't see your own until someone else points it out.

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