St. Louis Police Team Up with Media to Smear Black Lives Matter Protesters
On September 15th, a Missouri judge found white former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of the 2011 slaying of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith. The second the verdict was announced and activists poured into the streets to protest, local police and government officials with the help of local and national media began framing the protest narrative as one of random, irrational “violence” from “agitators” in urgent need of coordinated crackdown.
The questionable verdict at the heart of the case–in which a white police officer threatened to “kill” a “motherfucker” while carrying an AK-47 on his person–was quickly set aside, and the media in St. Louis covered the spectacle of the occasional rock throwing and broken window. A typical media pattern emerged in the days followed: context was largely stripped away, the occasional act of property destruction was centered above all else, and pro-police voices vastly outnumbered those of activists and the broader black St. Louis population.
Both local and national media routinely ran reports citing little more than government officials or Stockley himself. Articles about the initial unrest in major outlets such as CNN (23/1), Washington Post (10/2), New York Times(7/0) set the tone, featuring a total of 40 quotes from government officials (or the acquitted police officer) and only three from protesters or those representing the Smith family. Local media fared worse. Outlets such as Fox affiliate Fox 2 dedicated entire posts to trivial property damage comprised entirely of St. Louis PD press releases and tweets.
Given that the police and government officials served as the primary source for the majority of the coverage, the narrative surrounding the protests, understandably, was pro-law enforcement in nature. It would take something as egregious as an unmarked police car backing into a crowd of protesters or riot police stampeding an old lady on video to solicit negative coverage.
Meanwhile, the police departments and Missouri governor Eric Greiten used social media to publish full-blown agitprop; unlike with Ferguson in 2014, this time police were prepared with aggressive social media spin. The St. Louis police department Twitter account took the unprecedented step of doxing arrested protesters, publishing their full names and addresses in a transparent attempt to shame the arrestees before they had seen a lawyer, much less been found guilty of any crime. After immediate backlash they defended the decision by insisting “arrest records are open records” — a dubious justification since the police Twitter account had heretofore never done this.
The next day, county police tweeted out a picture of an officer holding what was clearly labeled “apple cider” (commonly used by activists to ameliorate pain from tear gas) and insisted it was “unknown chemicals used against police”. This too was mocked but not before the propaganda goal of 1,400 retweets was achieved.
Even the governor got in on the act, tweeting out a police video of a protester being dragged away and–falsely it turns out–accusing him of breaking windows. “Some criminals broke windows… Officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.” the presumably macho Governor tweeted despite the man in the video doing no such thing.
A similar phenomenon occurred during the Baltimore unrest in April 2015, when several media commentators noted the BPD Twitter account had gone from providing routine information to peddling falsehoods and hysteria. Instead of criticizing the use of government resources to propagandize against its own citizens, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave their efforts a glowing write up, playing up the us-vs-them approach:
But while activists spread their message and mastered tools such as live-streaming video and sharing photos that characterized protests and the issue of police brutality, local police departments often let the narratives go unanswered on the platforms where they were shared.
The whole premise of the article is that local and state authorities–with their sizable public relations departments and cozy relationship with the press–are somehow a scrappy underdog fighting back against Big Protestor. While the piece does briefly mock the apple cider incident, it ignores the incendiary doxing of arrestees and mostly treats aggressive social media propaganda as a long overdue corrective. (It should be noted, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has glaring diversity issues: 9 percent of their columnists and zero percent of their editorial board are black in a city that’s 49 percent African-American. 5 of the 7 members of their editorial board–which has written several hand-wringingeditorials telling the protesters to shape up–are white men.)
The uses and misuses of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Twitter account typified the incestuous relationship between local media and the police since, it turns out, the @stlcountypd account is run by former Fox 2 reporter Vera Culley — who left her job as a local reporter to work for the police at the height of the Ferguson unrest. Her powerpoint on how the police should “engage” social media with “facts” during the Mike Brown protests can be found here.
Compounding the bias is the fact that St. Louis local television news–like many local markets throughout the country–is growing increasingly concentrated and right-wing in nature. In addition to the standard issue Fox News pro-police bent on the Tribune-owned Fox 2 affiliate, the St. Louis ABC 30 affiliate is owned by Sinclair, a documented far right, pro-Trump media conglomerate (note: Tribue was recently purchased by Sinclair. Assuming the deal is approved, this would render 3 out of 5 of local TV networks in the St.Louis area Sinclair-owned).
This Sinclair-owned ABC 30 affiliate’s only news show since 2015 (they dumped straight news in 2001) is a commentary show called The Allman Report, hosted by Jamie Allman. An infotainment firehose of rightwing red meat typically ripping off the latest headlines from Breitbart and Daily Caller, The Allman Report occasionally features a liberal foil but mostly features rants and tabloid segments against “social justice warriors” and Colin Kaepernick from its titilar blowhard. Headlines include “Protests, Violence Impact On St. Louis Area Economy”, “Should Children Be Pushed To Protest?” and dispatches from Allman’s cherry-picked black anti-protester voice “Mr. White” who is, not surprisingly, “mostly on the same page” as Mr. Allman.
In the two weeks since the verdict, Allman (despite the best efforts of his seemingly earnest but dopey liberal sidekick) has worked to smear and demagogue the protests on a near daily basis. The show consistently featuresadditional commentary from the dubious Show-Me Institute, a local far right “think tank” funded by the Koch Brothers-created State Policy Network.
Another dodgy example of local media working in tandem with police was local affiliate KMOV, who “obtained” a private jailhouse phone call made by an elderly, black protester arrested and another reporter for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A report on the call, supposedly acquired through a “public information request”, propped up the police’s narrative of events, complete with random editorializing (either done by the reporter or the police, it’s unclear). Note how all the interjections mitigate charges of police misconduct:
- “In the call from jail, Frye makes it clear that she wasn’t hurt…”
- “Frye says prior to that, she did hear a dispersal order from police…”
- ”When asked what she wants the public to know, she makes does not reference the actions of law enforcement during the arrests”.
The article is of little news value other than making the police’s case for them. This ethos is consistent with KMOV’s other reporters, such as Lauren Pozen, who was bizarrely interested in discerning who at one protest (where widespread police abuse was documented) was a demonstrator and who was a shopper. While reporting live at the Galleria Mall protests she tweeted out in regards to one arrestee, “I did look (sic) the 18 year old on twitter. Profile says #blacklives matter.” The implication being that anyone with a show of support for BLM is per se worthy of arrest.
Another popular media angle played up beyond any objective news value was the theme that the protests were doing irreconcilable damage to the local economy. In addition to conservative press like Daily Caller, the story was echoed by Reuters, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and CBS 5 . All took a decidedly business-friendly tone, populating their stories with real estate developers and right-of-center economists expressing fears the protests could harm the local economy and even cause Amazon to pass up St. Louis as a location for its second headquarters.
Again and again, how the occasional broken window harmed local businesses, potential economic development, and local police was the the center of the story. What was rarely covered in real time was the rampant police abuse in response to the protest, such as the mass arrests at the Galleria Mall protest––which the American Civil Liberties Union has since filed suit over and two top city officials called “disturbing.” Police claims of self-reported injuries were repeated without question while activists claims of excessive force and arbitrary arrest were not aired, much less used as a frame, until some City Council members, the ACLU, and the Mayor called for an investigation several days later–after evidence of abuse became too great to ignore. For days, dozens of stories led off with the “Protesters in St. Louis turned violent” set up without ever entertaining the possibility it was the police sparking violence or, at the very least, helping to do so with their aggressive tactics.
It’s difficult to marshal support for police reform when so much of how the public perceives not just police killings, but the backlash against them, through a decidedly pro-state lense. Local Black Lives Matter activists–underfunded and impromptu, by definition–have a hard time competing against police Twitter accounts with sizable journalist followings, slick public relations departments, and the assumed gravitas of “officials say” talking points ready to be cut and pasted. Those covering similar events should correct for this, not give undue deference to police claims. Instead, the focus should be political context over riot porn and the rights of people over the spectacle of damaged property.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.