American media likes to envision itself as check on unchecked power, yet time and time again, they prove themselves to be complicit in state-sanctioned violence. The Trump administration is a perfect example of this. For nearly three straight months, we have received a steady stream of stories from the mainstream media that operate from one of three assumptions with Donald Trump:
1. He’s incompetent
2. He’s dangerous
3. He may be under Russian influence
Yet the moment he orders a bombing raid in another country—poof—all those narratives go out the door so the media can put on their Very Serious faces and cheerlead yet another war in the Middle East. This reveals their true nature: too much of the media does not view the fourth rail as one existing outside government, but one working in tandem with it. We saw this yet again today, as Trump dropped a MOAB that literally writes its own headline—as MOAB stands for “Mother of All Bombs.” New revelations about Carter Page and Paul Manafort dominated the news right up until the media learned of an explosion in a faraway land that gave them the warm and fuzzies.
This trait extends to domestic state-sanctioned violence, as the saga of Dr. David Dao getting dragged off a United flight has proven. The day after the stomach-churning video invaded every crevasse of the internet, American media’s super sleuths set out to get to the bottom of the real question: how can David Dao’s past inherently justify this present use of force?
Backlash quickly ensued, and the anger over Fletcher’s picture is exemplified in the ratio of replies to her tweet versus retweets and favorites.
Fletcher soon deleted this tweet and went on the defensive.
Side note: hey people (men), stop making violent threats against women. It's insane that we still have to communicate that this is not OK. If you're one of the people who does this, just know that you're a fundamentally sick person and civilized society has no room for you at the table.
No matter what she says, it's irrefutable that Fletcher's tweet implied that Dao is the guilty party in all of this. Despite her assertions that this was above board and she wasn't perpetrating a character assassination, her segment has yet to run. Sadly, Fletcher was far from the only member of the media who jumped at the opportunity to connect unrelated events in a reflexive march towards justifying state-sanctioned violence. The Telegraph wrote a story about Dao's past, and MSN aggregated their piece. The Daily Mail, The Washington Times, and The New York Post all published hit-pieces that had nothing to do with the event in question.
The first outlet to dig into Dao's past was the Courier-Journal in what was at best, an unconscious attempt to justify United's actions in a conscious attempt to provide context to their local audience. They wrote:
Dao had surrendered his medical license in February 2005 after being convicted of drug-related offenses, according to documents filed with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure last June.
24 hours before this story dropped, the reporter who wrote it tweeted this.
So Morgan Watkins wanted to contact David Dao to get his version of events, and she wound up writing about something that happened 12 years ago without his input that had absolutely nothing to do with the tale that has engulfed United in a PR nightmare. What changed?
CNN interviewed the executive editor of the Courier-Journal, Joel Christopher, and he said the idea that they were helping United was a “ridiculous criticism.” Which is a ridiculous assertion, because by taking the focus away from United’s actions and putting them on ones that cast Dao in a negative light, he clearly was helping United’s PR effort—regardless of whether it was a conscious attempt or not. Christopher went on to admit that “We didn’t do a good enough job of explaining that context,” and that “Morgan was assigned this story, and the decision on what to publish and what not to publish is out of her hands. Any criticism should be directed my way.”
Morgan Watkins clearly demonstrated that she wanted to write a piece from Dao’s angle, and Christopher assigned her a story that was nearly the opposite of that. It’s difficult to not see United’s shadow hanging over this decision. It’s either that, or Christopher is engaging in the same reflexive nonsense that so much of traditional media follows. They envision themselves as challengers to state power, yet the minute that power is exercised through force, they show deference to the decision, and reverse-engineer a narrative to justify the motive of the actors they claim to oversee.
It doesn’t matter the context—war, police shootings, United enlisting state agents to enforce their corporate agenda—the media’s instinct is to justify state violence. Marie Lee described this pattern of character assassination perfectly at Paste this week:
But when our corporate police state maims or kills people of color, the machinery immediately began to grind out to narratives to divert our gaze. Sure, Michael Brown was shot in cold blood and his body was left out in the open for hours—but (look over here!), somebody said he’s no angel! Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker who memorized all the allergies of his 500 students, was previously stopped by the police multiple times, he must have done something to deserve being shot. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice had a gun. Well, a toy gun, but a gun! No angel! Trayvon Martin looked scary, therefore George Zimmerman needed to shoot him. Eric Garner may have been selling “loosie” cigarettes and therefore needed to be choked to death. No angel!
Why isn’t the media digging into the records of the officers involved? Or whomever made the decision at United to pull them off the plane? Why is Dao getting the investigative reporter treatment? Don’t give me this bullshit that reporters are just “covering all sides of the story” because they’re not—at least not proportionally. The reflexive focus on Dao is emblematic of a deeper sickness inherent in our media, as the motivation behind state violence is automatically assumed as just—especially if the victim is a minority. This saga with United and David Dao demonstrates that yet again, many in our media simply enforce the tyranny that they claim to oppose.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.