One thing you might wonder about in connection with the whole Sephora Davis matter is: why wouldn’t the press be all over this?
It’s complicated. Rochester does have a local newspaper, though it isn’t much. But they have a reporter, Gary Craig, who generally does a very good job in “investigative reporting” and often writes quite insightful in-depth pieces. And he writes well, too.
So where was Gary Craig in all this? I talked to him frequently while it was all going on, but aside from a couple of articles run on the back pages of the paper nothing appeared. Since aside from this it wasn’t covered locally, nobody else picked up on it either.
You learn as you go along, I guess. In theory one of the chief functions of the press is to expose official wrongdoing. The practice, in almost every case, is quite different. The press relies upon the favor of officials for much of the information that makes the day to day stories they like to run: fires, crimes, crashes, disasters. This is their bread and butter. So the truth is, they cross public officials rarely and reluctantly. The criterion for when they might on rare occasions is largely mysterious, even to them I think.
Let me paint with a broad brush for a minute, looking back to ancient press history and the US presidency. The press largely toadied for FDR. They didn’t particularly like Truman, but they never attacked. Ike, the quasi military but more political hero of WWII was untouchable during his presidency, so almost no criticism was even heard, other than the affectionate kind where they sometimes implied that he played golf and took it easy too much. They were utterly star struck by JFK. Like almost every normal human being, they disliked LBJ, but he sucked up to them in everything he said and did so they left him alone.
Then came Nixon.
Nixon was one of those politicians that you sometimes marvel at: he was not likeable, yet wanted to be elected all the time. By the time he became president after the 1968 election he had been vanquished, and then re-made and recast as a mainstream “moderate” Republican. But his history prior to that had been as a conservative firebrand, a darling of the Republican right. In fact, it was this quality which forced Ike to pick him as Vice President in 1952, to shore up a conservative base in the Republican party that had no enthusiasm whatever for Ike; that would have preferred someone like Patton.
In any case, Nixon had achieved this stature owing to one episode: he was the man who nailed Alger Hiss.
But this victory for the otherwise obscure California congressman festered and the eastern liberal establishment – which included the mainstream press – bore a grudge. Hiss was a favorite son. So forever after, they didn’t like Nixon. They didn’t like the fact that he came back and got himself elected president. They didn’t like the way he did it.
So there were powerful forces ready to pounce if Nixon slipped up, and the press knew that even if they went at a sitting president they had lots of powerful cover. Lots and lots. The Alger Hiss thing was very bitter and reverberated throughout American politics for the rest of the 20th century. In fact, its echo has not yet completely faded.
In a nutshell, then, the press is fearful for its own position and will not lightly jeopardize it. They will not take up the story of one, lone, unsupported individual against powerful interests, not matter how compelling that story might be.
And criminal defendants are, by the very fact of being criminal defendants, almost always lone and unsupported and against powerful interests.
And that is why the “wrongful conviction” narrative is disfavored in the press, which is not to say that it never, ever appears. There is a small and relatively quite weak constituency – Amnesty International, The Innocence Project – that might weigh in and a story with some profile will appear. It helps if there is some additional drama, like the death penalty. But aside from these rare and haphazard events, the American press has no narrative about wrongful convictions, which I can assert with some confidence occur about a third of the time, and outrageously so as much as twenty percent of the time.
Glenn Greenwald at Salon exposes this deficiency in a very pointed way in covering the recently released American “hikers” from Iran. I think Greenwald makes the point very well, and so does Radley Balko. The wrongful conviction counter-narrative – that at the same time the Iranian “regime” was releasing these two youngsters the US was executing Troy Davis – escaped the attention of the press entirely. It doesn’t fit inside their brain, evidently.
In fact, I think the American press overall is just not up to this type of issue at all. The ongoing failure of an entire branch of the government is something they are not prepared to consider, much less accept as part of a legitimate narrative that would regularly receive news coverage. Human rights abuses and crimes against humanity are not committed in or by the United States. Only others do those horrible things.
So maybe that is why the American press reaction to Sephora Davis’ plight has been, well, no reaction. Silence. Suppression, even.
And maybe that is one reason the aid and assistance of another country has to be sought out and solicited: because the failure of the press aids and abets the failure of the government, and vice versa.
If the powerless are not to be raped, imprisoned and silenced in a country that has gone dangerously awry, other countries will have to raise their voices. If that applies to Libya, or Iran, it applies to the US, or any other country.
We’ll be testing that theory in Toronto, Ontario Canada tomorrow morning.