As a blizzard dumped more than a foot of snow on Washington, D.C., in December, a group of youngish, well-wired hipsters gathered in the city's gentrifying U Street corridor for a mass snowball fight. The idea had originated and gained momentum on the social networking site Twitter. By the time it was all over, the Snowball Fight Heard 'Round the World would demonstrate how social networking and easy access to publishing software are blowing open traditional, filtered channels of information. As a result, both government and traditional media outlets are becoming more accountable.
The December 19 snowball fight took an ugly turn when snowballers pelted a red Hummer. The driver, a D.C. detective named Mike Baylor, emerged from his vehicle in plain clothes and confronted the snowballers without identifying himself as a police officer. Baylor next unholstered his gun, exacerbating an already tense confrontation. Several people then called 911 about a man waving a gun at the intersection. That brought to the scene uniformed cops, 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 (including footage from reason.tv's Dan Hayes, who was on the scene) popped up on the Internet. 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 Baylor not only waved his gun but admitted he had waved his gun. As of this writing, he is under investigation and may lose his job.
The more interesting part of this story, however, was the initial reaction from D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) and traditional Washington media outlets. Even though video contradicting him was already available on the Web, MPDC Assistant Chief Pete Newsham initially issued a series of what were at best reckless errors, at worst bald-faced lies. He first told the Washington City Paper, "There was no police pulling guns on snowball people." In fact, there were two. According to The Washington Post, Newsham then asserted that the worst thing Baylor may have done was use some inappropriate language. Newsham then wrongly stated that witnesses must have mistaken Baylor's cell phone for a gun and said of Baylor—again inaccurately—that "he was armed but never pulls his weapon."
Newsham's rush to clear Baylor's name came before any investigation. He also started to talk up 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 were Baylor's attorney. But Newsham is in charge of the police department unit responsible for investigating officer misconduct. And here he was disseminating clear and provable falsehoods.
Forget the gun-waving Baylor. The P.R. snow job is the real scandal. You'd have to be awfully naive to think the only time Newsham has issued untrue information to defend an officer accused of misconduct was coincidentally the one time the officer's accusers were tech-savvy pranksters armed with cell phones and video cameras.
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, at the time an assistant police chief, gave the order for the arrests. The city has spent more than $15 million settling the resulting lawsuits. Newsham not only wasn't punished; he was promoted to his current position, where, perversely, he oversees investigations of misconduct by other MPDC officials.
Don't count on traditional news outlets to look into any of this. As the City Paper's Erik Wemple reported in December, the online article in which Washington Post reporters Matt Zapotosky and Martin Weil uncritically regurgitated 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 editorial assistants was 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 that featured 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, Marc Fisher chimed in. Fisher, normally one of the Post's better columnists, smugly explained that in contrast to "sketchy" summaries of the snowball fight "on the blogs," Post reporter Zapotosky engaged in some "classic reporting," "using clear, unemotional prose" as he 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. In doing so, he got the story wrong. Even Zapotosky's updates to his first account 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.
The City Paper called Newsham too. But instead of running with Newsham's denials as fact, the alternative weekly's reporters also viewed the video evidence posted around the Web and talked to eyewitnesses—including the Post's own staffer.
Instead of turning up his nose at new media, Fisher should be asking whether, if it weren't for Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and journalism upstarts such as the City Paper, the Post would have ever gotten this story right. Or whether the Post would have ever given credence to Baylor's accusers had this happened not on U Street but in D.C.'s poorer, blacker southeast quadrant, where confrontations with the police are more common yet less covered, and where we'd be less likely to have corroborating video. More to the point, if what Zapotosky did was "real journalism," how many other police misconduct stories might the Post have gotten wrong because it deferred to MPDC flacks like Newsham?
Fisher is right that emerging media outlets should be viewed cautiously. But they shouldn't be ignored. Nor should we put all of our faith in journalism's old guard to process raw information for us. Traditional news organizations have their own problems, not least of which is their tendency to take self-serving statements from public officials at face value.