These days, it’s become a national pastime to vilify law enforcement, especially in light of some egregious — but highly isolated — blunders, civil-rights violations and outright homicides on the part of a minuscule number of wayward peace officers.
On the other hand, the past few years have also highlighted a national media feeding frenzy in which some reporters and their handlers are all too ready to target police en masse, carry out character assassinations and jump to conclusions in cases where only partial videos are available or the investigation is far from complete.
Time and time again, the public has learned after a trial is over or a case is closed, when all the evidence has been introduced and witnesses have testified, that the media got it really wrong.
The rush to be first with a story has superseded the time-honored journalistic principles of being fair and accurate above all else.
And I do know what I’m talking about. From 1982 to 1996, during my tenure at various newspapers, I was a career police reporter covering law enforcement and fire departments 24/7 (one of those was the San Antonio Express-News).
Even today as an editor, I still write crime stories here and there or manage reporters who do.
Over time, I have covered every San Antonio Police Department administration in one form or fashion until the early 2000s. Same with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. I even remember when Sheriff Javier Salazar was a “boot” — a patrolman fresh out of the SAPD academy. (He was actually kind of shy).
As a crime reporter, I never pulled any punches and I never backed down when an officer tried to give me a “no comment,” but I also treated the people I wrote about with respect and the understanding the job they did was exceedingly difficult and stressful. By and far, the majority of the officers I dealt with were competent, caring professionals who enforced the law fairly and conscientiously.
In return, my motto always was (and is), “Practice fair and balanced reporting.” Because I earned their trust, many officers not only became excellent sources but lifelong friends.
As far as I know, my colleague Chris Bird and myself are the only two police reporters in the last 30 years to be honored by the men and women of the SAPD violent crimes unit, from whom we each received commemorative plaques for our professionalism and dedication to the facts.
The SAPD chief today is William McManus. I barely know him. I used to live near him, and he’d wave as he drove by in his city-issued “battle cruiser” while I was taking a walk through the neighborhood. We’ve run into each other a couple of times at H-E-B Central Market in Alamo Heights and had one brief but pleasant chat, but that’s about all.
But, it doesn’t really matter who’s the chief of police, whether it’s McManus or the next one. The days of close camaraderie between the press corps and rank-and-file officers that I and my colleagues enjoyed so many years ago is long over.
Much of that is the media’s fault.
Even when I was part of a crackerjack team of crime reporters at one of the papers where I worked, a few of my editors (many of them from the Watergate days) had nothing but naked distrust for the police. Their misgivings were off-base and wrong, but we reporters often were branded as unbiased and “too close” to our sources.
It was all rubbish, of course. We were just being fair in a climate where many editors — graduates of the free-love, flower-power and “hell no, I won’t go” movements — could only see the police as misguided at best and public enemies at worst.
They couldn’t have been more wrong, both about the department and about our reporting.
While most of these editors left the news business long ago, the mindset they promoted back then has spread and infected so many of today’s rank-and-file reporters, especially at the national level. Even worse, I’m not sure there’s a cure or any way to go back to the days of mutual respect and cooperation between press and police.
Oddly enough, both groups are supposed to do the same thing: Uphold democracy through fairness, facts and the truth.
But, it’s apparent today the media’s coverage and treatment of the police has only gotten worse and more unbalanced.
The officers I still socialize with tell me they won’t even look at the media, much less talk to them. I can’t say I blame them. Unfortunately, it’s the readers and the viewers who suffer.
Edwards is the editor of LOCAL Community News. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.