The guilty verdicts in the murder trial of the three men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia bring to mind something I’ve thought about a lot: How we in the news media missed the story so many times over so many years.
I’m in my 48th year in the newspaper world. I go back to typewriters, rotary phones and cigarette smoke in newsrooms or, as they were known back in the day, “city rooms.” The phone might ring, and the caller might be someone complaining to us about how the police mistreated a brother or friend; it might be a Black person calling, or maybe a white person with a relative who’d been in trouble with the law; it might be someone with a husband or son in prison, and the claim might be one of brutality on a cell block.
We might have received a handwritten letter from prison or jail, addressed generally to the “city desk,” and the claim therein might be one of a wrongful conviction followed by a plea for help from an enterprising reporter. “Everyone in prison is innocent, don’t you know that?” I recall an assistant city editor saying from behind a newspaper once upon a time and long ago.
In the days before Watergate made investigative reporting a thing in newspapers, most of these claims of brutality by police or correctional officers as well as claims of wrongful conviction would be generally dismissed. Either newspapers did not have the staff required to flush out the facts of such claims, or editors did not want to challenge the establishment — the police, the state, the local DA — or white editors and reporters scoffed at the claims of Black people. And that’s assuming that Black people even thought to look to white-owned, establishment newspapers for help at all.
Of course, there were exceptions in the mainstream press. There were crusading newspaper editors and reporters back in the day. They would take on stories like those I describe, or they at least started to listen to the voices of the marginalized, especially after the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum.
But, in my understanding, based on recollections of conversations with editors in the 1970s and 1980s, there was generally little emphasis placed on airing the grievances of minorities and the poor.
Watergate, the investigative reporting that brought that scandal to light, and the journalism that revealed the lies of the Vietnam War opened large doors to a new era in American newspapers.
Still, proving a claim of police brutality or of a wrongful conviction was a huge challenge for the reporters who might have jumped into such stories. There were records and eyewitness accounts to go on, maybe some photographic evidence, but still they were tough cases to make, and while some newspapers published more of these stories as time went on — especially after DNA became useful in resolving claims of innocence — it wasn’t until personal video cameras (Rodney King case) and, later, cellphones that all of America was forced to pay attention to what had been earlier ignored.
That’s what I think about when cases like the Ahmaud Arbery murder come along — how, without actual video of these crimes, we might still be pretty much where we were back in the day.
Certainly, American journalism has changed; there is far greater awareness and attention given to claims of brutality and injustice today. Without videos, however, where would we be? In the Arbery case, there clearly would have been no state prosecution had his murder not been recorded and made public. And there’s another problem — downsized newsrooms and dead newspapers in communities across the country. Without video — or a DNA test — depleted local news staffs are less likely to take on investigations that might reveal brutality (by police or vigilantes) or injustice. And in too many counties, there’s no longer a newspaper to contact for help.
So I think about that a lot, and I imagine all the unnamed and long-gone victims of the past whose claims were dismissed out of hand or ignored, and not just by the press, but by prosecutors and police officers who refused to take a stand for justice. I give thanks for the technology that has opened our eyes to tragic, incontrovertible truth.