We have previously discussed how some media organizations told their journalists not to call violence after the death of George Floyd “riots,” including the recently much mocked headline of CNN calling the looting and violence in Kenosha “fiery but mostly peaceful.” Now, Chris Cillizza, an editor-at-large for CNN, is under fire for criticizing President Donald Trump for labeling the violence in places like Kenoska as “riots.” Critics have noted that the picture posted by Cillizza with his tweet shows a building engulfed in flames. Lawyers notoriously parse terms in ways that often deny their obvious meaning but this effort by some in the media would make a Philadelphia lawyer blush.
Cillizza tweeted “Trump’s efforts to label what is happening in major cities as ‘riots’ speaks at least somewhat to his desperation, politically speaking, at the moment.”
I do not deny that both sides are using these riots for political purposes. Trump is using the violence to reinforce a law-and-order theme while Democratic politicians are blaming him for the violence and calling for the 2020 election to be a referendum on racial justice.
It is the parsing of the term that intrigues me. In Portland, the Portland police have reportedly declared 13 riots in 80 days. Newspapers in these cities have referred to rioting from Portland to Minneapolis to Kenosa. David Brown, the Chicago Police superintendent, said, “This was not an organized protest, rather, this was an incident of pure criminality.”
The coverage of recent looting and rioting has been uneven with networks like CNN spending comparatively limited time reporting on the violence while Fox is covering it exhaustively. Other outlets like NPR have run segments on how the word “rioting” has racist roots. Whether there are riots depends on what news outlet you use. It is the new reality of echo-journalism.
Of course, this dispute turns on a noun that is clearly defined as “public violence, tumult, or disorder.”
The law often turns on subtle distinctions as discussed by Blackstone in his famous account of a case where English court interpreted a 1547 statute criminalizing the stealing of “horses” to be inapplicable when a defendant stole just one horse. William M. Blackstone, 1 Commentaries * 88. The Parliament had to enact a new statute to cover one-horse thieves.
Such arguments often lead to frustrating moments in courts or depositions like this exchange:
D: When you say “photocopying machine,” what do you mean?
PL: Let me be clear. The term “photocopying machine” is so ambiguous that you can’t picture in your mind what a photocopying machine is in an office setting?
It would seem that rioting is equally difficult to picture in one’s mind even with a picture of a burning building in the background.
Courts often apply a plain meaning rule to such terms. Justice Antonin Scalia once opined in a dissenting opinion that “the acid test of whether a word can reasonably bear a particular meaning is whether you could use the word in that sense at a cocktail party without having people look at you funny.” He noted that in that case, “[t]he Court‘s assigned meaning would surely fail that test, even late in the evening.” Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694, 718 (2000) (Scalia, J., dissenting). Since “no dictionary we have examined defines ‘device’ to encompass an animal,” the court concluded ruled out a DUI involving a “vehicle” that turned out to be a horse.
Nevertheless, courts continue to grapple over issues like whether a horse is a “device.” In one case, the court explored a DUI case on the basis of the definition of a vehicles as defined in Utah as “every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway.” State v. Blowers, 717 P.2d 1321 (Utah 1986).
Just as “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in Shakespeare, a riot by any other name would seem just as violent.
We have been discussing the concern by many that networks like CNN shape the news to fit a narrative. Fox and MSNBC have been accused of the same practice. Many in the public do not know where to turn for unbiased reporting on the left or the right, according to various polls. Even in acknowledging the importance of the media to our system, the majority of citizens believe that the media actively misrepresents facts. Roughly half view the media as biased.
This is why.
Of course, this is looting and rioting. Ironically, the effort to call its “fiery protesting” only undermines the majority of peaceful protesters. It is not that difficult. You acknowledge the looting and rioting while saying that the majority of protesters remain peaceful. While it does not fit any particular narrative, it has the added benefit of being true.