News Gone Wild

When local media hypes the crime angle, who benefits?

At the end of June, local TV stations WDSU and WVUE reported that the French Quarter’s Kako Gallery would be closing its doors by the end of August. Both broadcasters’ online stories quoted the gallery’s Facebook page, attributing the closure to crime and “the city’s unsafeness.” What neither report mentioned was that the gallery is owned by Vina Nguyen, who ran for mayor as a Republican last year on an anticrime platform and had already written on Facebook late last year that she planned to move to Baton Rouge and run for governor.

In addition to her political aspirations, Nguyen also hinted at another pragmatic reason for leaving New Orleans: She’s said on Facebook that she believes that God, who has appointed her “as the next Governor” and “took action when I cried for help” with “a Global Pandemic to put Satan in his place,” will destroy the city.

Nguyen’s politics and religious beliefs don’t mean that Kako’s closure isn’t newsworthy, nor do they invalidate her concerns about violence, which the gallery has said are based on some real, potentially traumatic incidents. But the TV stations’ audience likely would want to know that the gallery is owned by a politician whose platform emphasizes crime, who’s publicly stated other reasons for leaving town, and who espouses fringe beliefs such as that God responded to her cries for help by unleashing a horrific disease. “Identify sources clearly,” advises the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

Every reporter has had to leave details out of stories due to limited time and space. But the Kako stories are part of an apparent pattern in New Orleans media of promoting sources, often without question, who point to an outbreak of crime as responsible for any number of inconveniences in the city, often with heightened policing by the New Orleans Police Department and other agencies pitched as the only solution. That kind of rhetoric puts direct pressure on politicians to shift more public resources to policing and pass laws like a recently enacted City ordinance that rolled back restrictions on police use of facial recognition technology.

As in many other places across the country, official data indicates a jump in crime, including carjackings and homicides, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, though numbers are still below 1990s peaks. And homicide rates, in particular, are among the highest per capita in the country. But activists here and around the country say it’s far from evident that crime is a result of insufficient policing.

“The reason why it’s happening is because of the continuous lack, right?” says Renard Bridgewater, a member of the Eye on Surveillance coalition, which opposes the expansion of police surveillance in New Orleans (Bridgewater is also the community engagement coordinator of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which publishes a column in ANTIGRAVITY). “We are in an era or time period right now, going on three years where folks do not have adequate housing, folks are dealing with a global pandemic that has killed over a million people in this country, inequitable living wages, et cetera, et cetera.”

No Quarter for Criminals

In mid-July, WWL-TV aired a video segment and published an accompanying story on crime in the French Quarter. “Locals and business owners say crime is taking over neighborhoods” read the headline, though the story only dealt with the Quarter. The piece, which never identifies a single specific crime said to be on the rise, features Brennan’s General Manager and Louisiana Restaurant Association official Christian Pendleton, who says the French Quarter restaurant is short more than 100 staff members and struggles to hire due to crime. “They don’t feel safe, leaving work at night and having to walk to their cars wherever they parked because of the lack of police presence in the French Quarter and knowing that really nothing is happening to criminals when they are found—they are getting the proverbial detention slip,” he told WWL.

Pendleton and WWL reporters didn’t point on-air to a single instance where a Brennan’s employee was victimized or felt threatened, nor to any statistics on how those convicted of any crimes are punished. Louisiana is routinely cited for having among the highest rates of incarceration and in-custody deaths in the country—a Louisiana “detention slip” is often an order to report to Angola or some parish jail, though rhetoric about the system being unable to keep criminals behind bars and out of the Quarter has appeared in the local press for at least half a century.

“I’m talking about the out-of-town criminal element that comes into New Orleans posing as hippies,” a Bourbon Street dancer told a Times-Picayune reporter in 1971. “And the police seem powerless to do anything about them. The vagrancy law has been thrown out, and if a policeman arrests one, before it’s over it will be shown that the hippie’s constitutional rights have been violated.”

The 1971 story, at least, was part of a series exploring potential reasons for a seeming decline in Bourbon Street’s popularity and ways the City and merchants could reverse it. But in the recent story, WWL reporters failed to explore any alternative solutions to Brennan’s reported staffing issues, such as better compensation by the restaurant, improved public transportation or parking, or anything to address rising rents and vacation rental conversions making it hard for downtown workers to live near their jobs.

Indeed, the online version of the WWL story seems to make it apparent that virtually any phenomenon, or its very opposite, can be blamed on crime. Glade Bilby, a representative from a resident group called the French Quarter Citizens, is cited, without proof, as saying the city is the “most dangerous” it’s been in his 30 years here. The crime is so bad that “he and his family are driving less nowadays,” the report states. Then, it quotes Bilby saying literally the opposite.

“‘I think we’re driving more than we used to, just for the safety factor,’ Bilby said,” according to WWL.

Despite uncritically quoting Pendleton on a lack of police presence, the WWL video is full of background footage of a variety of police vehicles passing by Brennan’s, which is a stone’s throw away from the 8th District police station. It’s difficult to imagine that section of Royal Street, or the Quarter in general, being more heavily policed, short of deputizing street buskers or handing out badges to visitors upon successful completion of a ghost tour.

If the Audubon Society were to produce a field guide to Louisiana law enforcement, it would likely point to the Quarter and vicinity as a prime spot for sightings, a kind of Avery Island of cops. In addition to NOPD officers on foot, on bicycles, on horseback, on Harleys, and in sedans and SUVs, alert visitors can spot khaki-clad deputies from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, members of the Louisiana State Police in their distinctive hats, and representatives of the Federal Protective Service patrolling buildings like the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street. The Orleans Levee District Police and the Harbor Police are often out and about in one of the city’s few above-sea-level districts, and the retro all-caps italic insignia of the City’s Grounds Patrol isn’t an unfamiliar sight. A particularly eagle-eyed observer might see the occasional state fire marshal or deputy court constable—perhaps a bit more scarce after one such official was suspended for allegedly failing to respond to an eyewitness report of an ongoing rape, in a case that made national news—along with private security guards in a variety of uniforms. If there’s a French Quarter problem that can be solved by the application of police, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t already been thoroughly addressed.

Nationwide, the situation is much the same, said Scott Hechinger, a civil rights attorney and former public defender who runs an organization called Zealous, which provides media training to public defenders and people with experience with the criminal legal system.

“It’s so obvious and so transparent that our current approaches to health and safety are not working,” he said. “Investing more than any other society in the history of the world, in policing, prosecution, and prisons you’d expect that we would be the healthiest and safest society in the world, but we’re far from it. So when police come out and they talk about these data points that show that crime is up across the country, that’s a scathing indictment of the efficacy of policing—that’s a scathing indictment of the efficacy of prosecuting everything and prison.”

Eyes on Crime

But this flavor of crime coverage has a likely economic incentive. Anyone who’s spent time on local social media knows crime stories are like catnip for a certain audience, which includes a hefty share of white suburbanites who gleefully lament that, under the city’s first Black, female mayor and self-proclaimed progressive district attorney, New Orleanians can no longer even run out to Schwegmann’s or the K&B without being carjacked, pistol-whipped, or ordered to put on a COVID mask. The phenomenon is far from unique to New Orleans. Bloomberg recently ran a series of charts showing how, while crime in New York City has risen a bit since the start of the pandemic, it’s still well below the levels of the early 1990s—but, the outlet found, media reports of crime in the Big Apple have absolutely skyrocketed. And a recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, part of a series on systemic racism, pointed to decades of TV news reporting on urban crime in neighborhoods often otherwise ignored by the media. Now that audiences have migrated to smartphones and Facebook, those kinds of stories are drawing clicks and shares—here, from Metairie Republicans and eye-rolling Bywater progressives alike.

But other types of stories on the legal system can still draw audiences, Hechinger said, pointing to examples like reports of people exonerated after decades of imprisonment, people who have their records retroactively cleared and rights restored after changes in marijuana laws, and even stories of people who have died in jail. Telling those stories requires reporters to build connections with people beyond traditional police and business sources, he said.

“It’s working with sources and experts who are traditionally overlooked, so public defenders, organizers, academics, people with direct experience inside and out of prison,” he said. “It isn’t just one-off pitches. It’s about developing longer-term relationships so that both folks on the ground can gain greater trust in reporters, and reporters can get greater trust that they’re going to be able to not only get stories, but really important insight from those on the ground.”

As of now, crime reporting often has a tendency to encourage readers and viewers to sympathize with rich people and powerful institutions over those deemed criminals. A recent WDSU report on shoplifting in the French Quarter briefly mentions “inflation” and “a rise in homelessness” as causing a purported rise in retail thefts. But, just as WWL gave so much airtime to Brennan’s, the story mostly focuses on the plight of affected businesses. It especially focused on one location of Fleurty Girl, a chain of New Orleans-themed novelty stores whose owner has had multiple opulent homes featured in the press and lists at least eight vacation rentals across the Gulf region on Airbnb. The segment featured a Fleurty Girl employee who said she’s reluctant to directly confront shoplifters—a seemingly self-defeating admission to make on air—though it didn’t include any thoughts on how officials or business owners could address the issue overall or in particular instances, except for confrontation and arrest.

As Bob Murrell, a member of the Eye on Surveillance coalition who also ran unsuccessfully for City Council last year, pointed out in an interview, crime narratives benefit not only the media but politicians and industry officials who claim to offer solutions, including beefed up policing, more incarceration—“Now they’re trying to increase the jail population, and then that goes through all the prison contractors that [former Sheriff] Marlin Gusman got locked into these deals”—and high tech surveillance.

“You start going down the thread of white supremacy—how does it manifest itself in present day conditions in New Orleans?” asked Murrell. “I think it’s through the narratives being spun by mostly wealthy white people, particularly white men, that are going to benefit monetarily as well as politically from these types of narratives advancing. And I think it just ties to the whole ruling class of this city that goes back well past my lifetime.”

In May, a front page story in the Times-Picayune lamenting a rise in graffiti in the Quarter area did address the role of officials and sometimes negligent landlords in addressing unsightly markings. But the online version featured a 42-photo slideshow with examples of graffiti, including many where tagging appeared to follow other neglect by the buildings’ own landlords or the City itself. Those included a Bourbon Street building that was separately cited for “demolition by neglect,” a fenced-off and boarded-up Royal Street structure with similar citations, a collapsed streetside “road work” sign, and even the site of the deadly Hard Rock Hotel collapse. In late July, another Times-Picayune story mentioned residents “running red lights” and stop signs out of fear of crime—an example of how some illegal and potentially dangerous activity is classified under the umbrella of “crime” and some is not.

That empathy and tolerance has a tendency to disappear when the media are addressing other sorts of illegal activity. Last winter, another WDSU report excitedly recounted calling the Sheriff’s Office after receiving a tip about “homeless people” squatting in an abandoned former jail building. Deputies arrived, “machine guns were drawn,” and two alleged trespassers were arrested, according to the station. The report didn’t comment on why reporters deemed the matter newsworthy, why they felt it necessary to inform police about claims people were seeking shelter in an unused City building, whether drawn “machine guns” were an appropriate response to a trespassing claim, or what viable alternative shelter such squatters would have. But squatters being evicted from public property seems to make for good video: News stations have also recently aired footage of otherwise homeless people being ejected from the former Navy base in the Bywater.

There’s often a thin line between calling the police or other officials for comment on a crime story and trying to create a story by shaming them into taking action. New Orleans media outlets have danced around that line for decades, especially when it comes to anything that makes for lurid imagery or copy, from messy squats to sex work. And City officials aren’t immune to pressure from the press to respond to such embarrassing incidents.

This spring, a series of reports focused on young drivers doing donuts and other car tricks in New Orleans streets—and the residents who were shocked to discover young men sometimes do annoying, risky things to show off in front of their friends. A WWL-TV report referred to someone “trying to wrap his brain around why people want to participate in these illegal stunt shows”—a sentiment it’s difficult to imagine the station airing uncritically about other dangerous amusements, like the Mardi Gras parades explicitly protected from liability for injury when they block streets and throw trinkets into the crowd, the drive-through daiquiri stands whose end runs around open container laws were recently celebrated in the Acadiana Advocate, or televised SWAT team raids on buildings housing squatters. The car tricks were already generally illegal under existing laws: An editorial in the Baton Rouge Advocate (both Advocate papers share ownership with the Times-Picayune) condemned the behavior, asking “Are not car stunts an outward and visible sign of a coarsening and more dangerous society?” before celebrating that “five people, adults and juveniles, in New Orleans” could face up to 15 years in prison under existing laws banning “aggravated obstruction of a highway in commerce.”

Still, the City Council passed a new ordinance targeting vehicular stunts. The new law even threatens fines and jail time for anyone besides a police officer who is “knowingly present as a spectator” within 200 feet of “vehicular stunt shows,” seemingly giving police wide discretion to arrest anyone looking at an unexpected noisy spectacle in a public place. That, ironically, means those witnesses who provide lurid footage of the events to the media in the future could face charges.

City officials themselves know that crackdowns can make for viral videos, providing the impression that officials are doing something about issues like crime and panhandling, even if they’re not actually addressing the roots of the problem or even going after people committing serious crimes. Councilmember Oliver Thomas recently posted videos on Twitter and Facebook of himself haranguing people who appeared to be homeless, sitting on a street corner in New Orleans East. “I’ve adopted the corner of Crowder & I-10,” he wrote on social media. “I’ll keep it clean & will run those posting-up, loitering, littering, panhandling, & partaking in explicit activities, off the corner.” In the video, Thomas is telling the people on the corner that “you don’t own this spot—this is public property”—to which someone responds “we’re not the public?”—and threatening to take them to jail. (Thomas has himself spent time in prison for effectively treating public property as if it were his own, after pleading guilty in 2007 to taking a bribe related to contracts to operate a City-owned parking lot.) Thomas’ video follows a video released in January by NOPD and the City Department of Health conducting a “wellness check” at the former Navy base to the tune of jaunty instrumental synth music, presumably added after the fact.

Councilmember Oliver Thomas displays a confiscated knife during a social media video, moments before tossing it (unsecured) into a dumpster.

Facial Recognition

The Council also recently passed an ordinance allowing police access to facial recognition software. That partially reversed a 2020 law banning a technology that’s often cited as ineffective and biased against people of color, since software has been shown to have trouble telling them apart. (In a well-known case in Detroit, a Black man was arrested and held in jail for about 30 hours for a crime he didn’t commit after facial recognition software falsely identified him as a shoplifting suspect.)

Under the new ordinance, the NOPD will be able to send requests to the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, which will compare images submitted by NOPD against faces in a state criminal database. That was essentially the status quo before the 2020 ban was passed, though the City long claimed that it didn’t use facial recognition at all, until finally acknowledging to investigative reporting outlet The Lens that it did so through the state Fusion Exchange. Police officials say a face recognition match won’t immediately lead to an arrest without further investigation, but critics say the technology could still lead to police harassment and false arrests. The law also repeals a previous ban on cell site simulators—devices which pretend to be cell towers and are used to find phones’ locations and potentially extract other data from phones, like who’s being called and messaged.

Allowing facial recognition and cell site simulators drew support from a group called The NOLA Coalition, which claims as members a wide range of nonprofits, corporations, and individual figures. Those range from the hurricane-slinging bar Pat O’Brien’s to liver transplant leaders Ochsner Health, as well as the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic & Assistance Foundation, the Nieux Society (which promotes non-fungible tokens tied to New Orleans culture), NAACP New Orleans, the Junior League of New Orleans, ABC affiliate WGNO, glossy magazine producer Renaissance Publishing, developer Pres Kabacoff, Cajun Fire Brewing Company, Clinton strategist James Carville, and a business called Feel My Payne. The group calls for greater support for NOPD, including relaxing surveillance tech rules, pay raises and recruitment efforts to hire more cops, ensuring “violent offenders are held accountable, and that there is no ‘revolving door’ that is dangerous to citizens and demoralizing for NOPD”—presumably meaning sending more people to prison for longer—and says it also plans to distribute $15 million over three years to organizations working with youth.

The Coalition has gotten favorable press not just in Renaissance-owned Biz New Orleans, which generally doesn’t appear to disclose in its coverage that its parent company is a member of the coalition, but also in the Times-Picayune, which essentially rehashed all of its talking points on crime in a lengthy piece that didn’t quote any opposing voice.

But when the City Council debated the new surveillance law, public comment rules did ensure opposing voices were heard, with about “65-plus” members of the public speaking against surveillance compared to about “seven or eight” in favor, Bridgewater said.

“I think a lot of folks are starting to see… like, wait, we’ve been doing what for how long and it hasn’t been working and we’re still leading the country when it comes to murders and criminal activity,” he said. “Something’s gotta give here, like why are we still repeating and doing these same repetitive things and not achieving the decrease in criminal activity and the increase in public safety that we all desire and want?”

Similarly, the New Orleans media would do well to move away from a tired law and order narrative, and apply more skepticism to simplistic and questionable claims about crime and punishment in the city.

Illustrations by Luke Howard

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