About a week and a half ago in Minneapolis, a man and a woman posed for a picture together, as men and women do all across this great land of ours. But what began as a thoroughly commonplace event in our society ended in a Charlie Foxtrot of garbage journalism, courtesy of the local Minneapolis ABC affiliate, KSTP.
In the photo above, you see Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and a man named Navell Gordon. Gordon is a convicted felon who is currently on supervised probation. He works for an organization called Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. He does so because, having lost his voter privileges to a criminal past he regrets, he now spends time teaching others the hard lesson his mistakes taught him, about how the precious right to vote was part of the cost he paid. Hodges, along with Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, are supporters of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. (Here is a picture of Harteau posing with Gordon, one piece of information among many that didn't make KSTP's report.)
Speaking of that report, here is how KSTP covered this "man and woman pose for a picture" story:
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has obtained a photo of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges posing with a convicted felon while flashing a known gang sign.
Wait wait wait wait, hold on ... gang signs?
Yes, apparently the fact that Gordon and Hodges pointed at one another somehow ended up being characterized as throwing gang signs. KSTP's report goes on:
The photo was taken a week before the November election while the mayor canvassed neighborhoods with a nonprofit group in a get-out-the-vote event. Hodges declined repeated requests for interviews. But, her spokesperson told us the mayor enjoys meeting with many people who are organizing on the North side.
The spokesperson also says the man in the photo is well regarded by the nonprofit that employs him and the mayor is simply "pointing at him" in the photo. Retired Minneapolis Police officer, Michael Quinn, who also managed the department's Internal Affairs Unit, says the photo is "disappointing because it puts police officers at risk."
When asked to respond to the mayor's statement that she is just "pointing at him." He said, "she can't be that naive. I cannot imagine."
"She is legitimizing these people. She is legitimizing gangs who are killing our children in Minneapolis and I just can't believe it. It hurts," Quinn said.
Quinn says law enforcement agencies are "going to be pissed about this. They're going to be angry and they should be."
The two main problems with this report are that it is wrong, and the sources for the report are also wrong. No one in this story belongs to a gang, and no one is repping a gang with some complicated hand gestures. People are allowed to point at one another in photographs. And even if there is some gang out there that uses "pointing at someone" as a gang sign, it does not delegitimize pointing. The story becomes, "Area Gang So Basic That They Can't Even Come Up With A Good Gang Sign, #SMH." The story is wrong and bad and the people who facilitated its creation should feel bad.
Earlier today, KSTP released a statement in response to the torrent of criticism. Suffice it to say, its response was not, "The entire premise of the story we produced was 100 percent garbage. We apologize for this ridiculous journalistic pratfall and we humbly submit ourselves to the righteous beatdown that we have earned with our disgraceful actions."
Instead, it went like this:
Law enforcement sources alerted KSTP-TV to a photo they believed could jeopardize public safety and put their officers at risk, especially given the recent increase in gang violence. Multiple sources from several law enforcement agencies told 5 Eyewitness News the photo had the potential for undermining the work they are doing on the streets. 5 Eyewitness News blurred the individual's face and did not name the group he was working for because police called into question only the judgment of Mayor Betsy Hodges.
KSTP's statement, far from being clarifying, is a classic in the "raises more questions than it answers" genre. One big one is this: Why does KSTP insist that the assertion has merit after other journalists did the due diligence that KSTP failed to do, and found the footage that absolves all parties of "throwing gang signs," which we'll leave right here:
But that's not where the questions end. Let's focus for a minute on this part of KSTP's statement: "5 Eyewitness News blurred the individual's face and did not name the group he was working for because police called into question only the judgment of Mayor Betsy Hodges."
There are two things worth mentioning here. First, that when KSTP describes the steps it actively took in reporting this story -- the blurring of Gordon's face and the omission of the fact that he works for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change -- they are admitting that they purposefully occluded two vital pieces of information that might have allowed the public to come to a more informed judgment about this story. This was a man, after all, working for a nonprofit on an effort to get out the vote. Which is why he was with the mayor. Oh, and the chief of police. We nearly forgot that she was there, too, and she hasn't expressed any outrage about purported gang signs flashed in her presence.
Second, if the station is really concerned about gang activity, why only call Hodge's judgment "into question"? Surely if the station genuinely believes Gordon was in a gang, it would be worth calling his judgment into question, as well. If Gordon is, in fact, a gang member, that calls into question not just his own rehabilitation but the judgment of the nonprofit that employs him. Now that we think of it, it would also call into question the judgment of the police chief for palling around with him.
But they didn't call Gordon's judgment into question. And that's a far more pernicious admission from KSTP: that in its estimation, a white woman interacting with a black man with a criminal record is a de facto display of "poor judgment." The black man, in this instance, comes to this story pre-judged. The station treats as a given that Gordon is a man of irredeemable low character, serving in this instance only as a vehicle for criticism of Hodges. We're no lawyers, but how it has chosen to represent Gordon sounds like it showed a reckless disregard for the truth.
The bottom line here is that this is a story with no content (though it is inadvertently more revealing than many things you'll see this year). There are no gang members in this story. There are no gang signs in this story. What you see here is nothing more than a woman and a man posing for a picture together. Absent KSTP's journalistic malpractice, there is no other fair and plausible interpretation of the event you see depicted above.
The story here is that KSTP blew this story badly, and needs to admit it and take its lumps. Then the people at KSTP need to ask themselves how they'd like to live in the kind of world they have constructed for Gordon.
We called KSTP for comment and here's what its recorded answering service advised us: "If you have a tip and suspect welfare fraud, press 4."
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