There is an interesting conflict playing out on the pages of the Chicago Tribune over the coverage of killing of Adam Toledo. We previously discussed the shooting of Toledo after police responded to a shooting and the suspension of a prosecutor who noted that Toledo was armed. In a June 18 column, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn defended his coverage in April that it “was still too soon to draw conclusions.” He specifically responded to Steven Thrasher, the Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern, who trashed him for his circumspection and insisted he was excusing the murder of a child and it’s ‘never too early’ to think they are worthy of murder.” Thrasher’s view of ethical journalism was on display in Fort Lauderdale this week when its mayor declared that a tragic accident involving an elderly driver was an act of murder and terrorism by anti-LGBT forces. He also believed that it is never too soon to declare murder.
The shooting occurred in a stronghold of the Latin Kings, a notoriously violent gang in Chicago. Many of us who grew up in Chicago are familiar with the Latin Kings, which is a huge criminal organization that often uses children to hold guns since they are subject to lower possible criminal penalties. Roman is facing felony charges of reckless discharge of a firearm and unlawful use of a weapon by a felon as well as child endangerment and violating probation.
This incident occurred around 3 a.m., when two Chicago police officers confronted the 13-year-old and Roman while investigating gunshots in Little Village. According to prosecutors, Roman had fired a gun at a passing car. Roman has been rumored to be a member of the Latin Kings. The Chicago Police Union president also alleged that Toledo was a known member of the Latin Kings.
After Zorn wrote that we need to examine the evidence, including the videotape, he “was branded a racist and a monster whose own children should be killed so I’d know how it feels.” He specifically discusses the attacks from Thrasher who tweeted that he was canceling his Tribune subscription because “there is no space in a newspaper for arguing for the murder of a child, and that it’s ‘never too early’ to think they are worthy of murder.”
When Zorn later wrote to Thrasher about the unfairness of his remarks and the calls from many that he should be fired for wanting to see the evidence, Thrasher responded: “Your words make the murder of children more likely, and I have no interest in you, your unethical nature, your cynical worldview, or in communicating with you.”
This is a journalism professor who is referring to Zorn’s “unethical nature” for wanting to wait for the facts of a story to develop before declaring that it was murder.
The column ran after a similar controversy unfolded in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where a person was killed and others injured by a Dodge Ram that crashed into a crowd at a gay pride event. Without waiting for any facts, Ft. Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis ran to the closest camera to declare a “terrorist attack against the LGBT community.” While most mayors seek to voice the need for calm and investigation, Trantalis wanted to be the first to denounce anti-gay terror.
As was quickly confirmed, the driver was a 77-year-old male who was physically unable to walk in the parade and was allowed to drive as the lead vehicle. As the parade was about to begin when the 2011 white Dodge Ram unexpectedly accelerated into the crowd.
Consider this: Trantalis, a politician, is closer to what Thrasher considers a true and ethical journalist than the Tribune’s Zorn. He did not wait for the facts and declared not just murder but terrorism was unfolding on the streets of the city. He was not willing to let a tragedy pass for even a few minutes before using it as an example of a lethal example of identity politics.
Thrasher’s view of journalism is spreading among top schools. We have been writing about the assault on foundational concepts of neutrality in journalism in academia. This includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. Likewise, the University of North Carolina recently offered an academic chair in Journalism to New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones. While Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her writing on The 1619 Project, she has been criticized for her role in purging dissenting views from the New York Times pages and embracing absurd anti-police conspiracy theories.
Thrasher is a striking example of such advocacy journalism where confirming the narrative is more important than confirming the facts. He has been in the forefront of framing violence in more redemptive or justified terms as when he argued in Slate that the “destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one.”
Woke journalism is raging among newspapers because there is little recognition of its inherent hypocrisy. Almost on the one-year anniversary of its condemning its own publication of a column by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. (and forcing out its own editor), the New York Times published an academic columnist who previously defended the killing of conservative protesters. Over at the Washington Post this week, the newspaper promoted a columnist,Karen Attiah, who last summer caused an outrage after she tweeted “White women are lucky that we are just calling them Karens. And not calling for revenge.”
What is striking about the Zorn-Thrasher controversy is that Thrasher is speaking of the standards governing not columnists but actually journalists. It appears that, just as the burning down police precincts is “quintessentially American” and “predictable,” that same is true with burning down journalistic norms like confirming facts on major stories. Fact-based journalism is no more in vogue than fact-based politics. It is rage that is the currency of our society and it is “never too early” to vent such rage as a reporter.