As a blizzard dumped more than a foot of snow on Washington, D.C. last month, a group of youngish, well-wired hipsters gathered in the city's gentrifying U-Street corridor for a mass snowball fight. The idea originated and gained momentum on the social networking site Twitter. That's significant, because by the time it was all over, the Snowball Fight Heard 'Round the World became an apt demonstration of how social networking, easy access to publishing software, and the all-around democratization of technology is blowing open the filtered, narrowly-bored traditional channels of information, helping make both government and traditional media more accountable.
The December 19 snowball fight took an ugly turn when snowballers pelted a red Hummer making its way through the snow-packed intersection of 14th and U Streets in Northwest Washington, a part of the city with some historical turbulence, including the 1968 riots. The driver, D.C. police Detective Mike Baylor, emerged from his vehicle in plain clothes, and without identifying himself as a police officer confronted the snowballers. Baylor unholstered his gun, bringing more derision and insults to an already heated confrontation (including the chant "don't bring a gun to a snowball fight"). Snowballers and observers quickly began calling 911 about a man waving a gun at the intersection. That brought uniformed cops to the scene, one of whom had also (understandably, at that point) drawn his weapon. Baylor detained one person, attorney Daniel Schramm, whom the detective falsely accused of hitting him with a snowball.
Within hours, video of the altercation popped up all over the Internet (including from Reason.tv's Dan Hayes, who was on the scene). By the morning of December 20, anyone with an Internet connection could see from multiple angles shot by multiple video cameras and cell phones that not only did Det. Baylor wave his gun, he also admitted it. Baylor is now under investigation. He's been stripped of his badge and gun, and may lose his job.
(Watch Reason.tv's video "DC Cop Waves Gun at Snowball Fight." Article continues below video.)
The more interesting part of this story, however, is the initial reaction from Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) and the traditional D.C. media. Despite the fact that video and photographic evidence of Det. Baylor drawing his gun were already widely available on the web, MPDC Assistant Chief Pete Newsham initially issued a series of what can only be called bold-faced lies. Newsham first told the Washington City Paper, "There was no police pulling guns on snowball people." In fact, there were two.
The Washington Post then reported:
Assistant Chief Pete Newsham, who leads the department's investigative services bureau, said it appears the patrol officer acted appropriately, and the worst the detective might have done is use inappropriate language in dealing with the snowball fighters…
At some point, Newsham said, the detective approached the group of snowball fighters and had "some kind of interaction" with them. He said the detective holstered a cellphone, and someone from the crowd called to report a man with a gun.
"He was armed but never pulls his weapon," Newsham said of the detective. "I think what probably happens is somebody probably saw his gun and called the police."
The patrol officer who responded to the call approached with his gun drawn, Newsham said, because he did not know the man with a gun was a D.C. detective. When he realized that, he quickly holstered his own weapon, Newsham said.
Newsham's rush to clear Baylor's name came before the slightest bit of investigation. Newsham also quickly deferred to Baylor's stellar reputation and years of service, distinguishing the noble public servant from the unruly yahoos making accusations against him. That would be fine if Newsham was Baylor's attorney. But he isn't. He's in charge of the MPDC unit responsible for investigating officer misconduct. And here he was disseminating clear and provable lies.
Forget the gun-waving Baylor. This is the real scandal. You'd be awfully naive to think the only time Newsham has publicly lied to defend a MPDC officer accused of misconduct was coincidentally the one time the officer's accusers were tech-savvy hipsters armed with cell phones and video cameras. D.C. Police Chief Kathy Lanier's investigation into the incident ought to go well beyond Baylor. From where did the false information Newsham perpetuated originate? Why was Newsham, whose position is that of a trusted liason between the department and the public, so quick to use bad information to defend a fellow officer? Shouldn't this incident call his judgment into question in other cases? Is he still fit for the job?
Perhaps he was never fit for it in the first place. Civil rights attorney Jonathan Turley noted on his blog that Newsham is one of the defendants in a lawsuit against Washington, D.C. by several students arrested without cause during the 2001 World Bank protests. According to Turley, the students—who say they were observing or covering the protests, not protesting—were arrested, hogtied, and left unattended for as long as 19 hours. Most were never charged. Newsham himself gave the order for the arrests. The city has since spent more than $15 million settling the resulting lawsuits. Newsham was then promoted to his current position—heading up investigations of misconduct by other MPDC officials.
Don't count on the traditional media to look into any of this. As the City Paper's Erik Wemple reported last month, the excerpted post above, the one where Washington Post reporters Matt Zapotosky and Martin Weil uncritically regurgitate Newsham's nonsense, came not only in the face of overwhelming video evidence to the contrary, but in spite of the fact that one of the paper's own staffers was actually at the snowball fight and told the paper that, without question, Baylor had pulled his gun. Local ABC affiliate WJLA also initially posted a news story (since pulled from the site, but linked on several Internet forums, including Fark) that ran with Newsham's denial as the authoritative narrative, adding for good measure some they-probably-deserved-it color about the snowball hurlers carrying anti-war signs and wearing black ski-masks. Ski-masks. In the middle of a snowstorm. Imagine that!
Two days later, Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher chimed in. Fisher smugly boasted that in contrast to "sketchy" summaries of the snowball fight "on the blogs," Post reporter Zapotosky engaged in some "classic reporting," and "using clear, unemotional prose," went out to "find the puzzle pieces and put them together." Except that in his initial report, all Zapotosky did was call and then unskeptically defer to an authority figure, in this case Newsham. And in doing so, he got the story wrong. Even Zapotosky's updates to his first post were hedgy. In the first, he wrote that video evidence suggested Baylor "may have unholstered his pistol." Well, no. The videos show that Baylor unquestionably did. In the second he links to more video, but still doesn't acknowledge Newsham's misinformation—or the fact that he uncritically ran with it.
For all the "and then the adults took over" anti-new media sneer in Fisher's post (and hey, Fisher did write all of this in a blog post—so maybe he has a point!), the link for his "on the blogs" condescension actually goes the City Paper, which got the story right from the outset. The City Paper called Newsham, too. But instead of running with Newsham's denials as fact, that paper's reporters also viewed the video evidence posted around the web and talked to eyewitnesses—including the Post's own staffer, whom Zapotosky ignored.
Instead of turning his nose up at new media and social networking, Fisher should be asking himself whether, if it weren't for Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and alternative weeklies like the City Paper, the Post would have ever gotten this story right. Or whether the Post would have eventually given credence to Baylor's accusers had this happened not on a busy U-Street intersection teeming with wired gentrifiers, but in D.C.'s poorer, blacker Southeast quadrant, where confrontations with the police are more common yet less covered, and where corroborating video would be less likely. More to the point, if what Zapotosky did was "real journalism," how many other police misconduct stories might the Post have gotten wrong all this time because it merely deferred to MPDC flacks like Newsham?
Fisher's right in that video sharing, social networking sites, and other emerging media outlets ought to be viewed cautiously. But they shouldn't be ignored. Nor should we put all of our faith in journalism's old guard to process all that ugly raw information for us. Traditional media has its own problems, not least of which is its tendency to take self-serving statements from government officials at face value.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.