Immigration, Media

Jimmy is off on #ImmigrationAction

Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s Nightly News host Brian Williams are the unlikeliest of partners, and yet they continue to collaborate and delight on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

One of the duo’s most viewed clips on YouTube is a Williams rendition of “Rapper’s Delight,” a work of genius featuring hundreds of Williams fragments from various Nightly News broadcasts and other segments, all to the beat of an American classic. It was television at its finest.

But Fallon and Williams were off Tuesday in their latest offering of another popular feature, “Slow Jam the News,” a musical bit where the pair, backed by house band The Roots, reads the news of the moment to the beat of an introspective, R&B groove.

This time, the topic was President Obama’s executive action on immigration—indeed an important subject and one deserving of a further push into the mainstream. What could go wrong?

Alas, everything. Neither Fallon nor Williams appear to have done their homework on the matter, and instead let the segment air as is—filled with misinformation, legal errors, and even damning stereotypes more befitting a Rush Limbaugh rant than something a beloved funnyman and a respected anchorman might come up with. It was a hot mess.

Here’s the clip:

Williams’s opening flow was flat-out wrong from beginning to end:

“President Obama signed an executive order that granted temporary legal status to five million undocumented workers and provided a path to citizenship for those that meet certain criteria, thus giving new immigrants a new way to enter our country.”

For one, there’s the fiction that with the stroke of a pen Obama “granted” deferred action to undocumented immigrants, as if nothing were required on their end to accede to the program’s benefits—no application process, no background check, no payment of back taxes, no fee. It assumes a work permit will magically show up on the doorsteps of five million people.

There’s also the falsity that the president’s action only benefits workers, when the universe of beneficiaries is much larger—DREAMers, the parents of American citizens and permanent residents, and others such as victims of crime and those with pending cases.

The “legal status” bit is also wrong, because legal status would mean being on equal footing with green-card holders, which Obama’s executive plan certainly does not promise. Social Security benefits may accrue and become available after 10 years of paying into the system—hopefully comprehensive immigration reform will be a reality before then—but no significant federal benefits other than a work permit will flow to beneficiaries. No federal financial aid. No welfare. No food stamps. No healthcare or housing subsidies.

Perhaps the most egregious untruth of all is that Obama’s immigration plan offers “a path to citizenship.” That would be amnesty, something the president can’t and won’t do without Congress. Feeding the notion that the plan promises naturalization only lends credence to the cries of “lawlessness” and unconstitutionality that have plagued the new policy since even before it was formally announced.

Finally, there’s the assertion that the new executive plan gives immigrants “a new way to enter our country.” This goes to the heart of the same conservative fears—long proven unfounded—that the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy somehow caused the surge of unaccompanied children at the border. That was not the case, and harping on this misleading falsehood only compounds anti-immigrant sentiment.

As if all of the above weren’t already bad, The Roots’ Tariq Trotter, the soulful partner of Fallon and Williams, gets away with a stereotypical line that doesn’t even merit serious analysis: “They’re lining up to get inside the U.S.A. . . . just like it was at Kmart on Black Friday.”

As irony would have it, we learn at the end of the slow jam that the comedy bit coincided with Williams’ 10th anniversary as host of Nightly News. What a way to celebrate.

Civil Rights, Media

The messiness of civil-rights reporting

With the worst of the Ferguson clashes behind, news outlets have begun to turn their focus to litigation stemming from the protests.

BuzzFeed portended that “many, many lawsuits” would flow out of the incidents. The Washington Post had a comprehensive rundown of pending lawsuits against the town.

Lawsuits make for exciting headlines, which explains why everyone from Reuters to Newsweek seized on the opportunity to report on a recently filed case in Missouri federal court. Damages sought: $40 million.

The reports offered no explanation on how plaintiffs arrived at that figure, but since Ferguson is still fresh on people’s minds, the amount probably seemed reasonable. Another matter altogether is whether reporting on it is good journalism.

That’s because a lawsuit, for all its formalities and legalities, only tells one side of a story. All a reporter has to go on is the lawsuit itself—the paperwork filed with the court. If the reporter is not legally trained, it is likely he or she will go through the motions of listing the allegations. In the case of a civil-rights lawsuit, these will consist of a laundry list of wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the state or state actors.

For balance and fairness, a reporter may even post a link to the lawsuit so readers may judge for themselves. But is reader prejudgment preferable to a court’s judgment?

The claims in the recent Ferguson lawsuit are as exemplary as they are shocking: A mother and child are ordered to the ground and arrested at a McDonald’s. A person attempting to visit his mother is hit by rubber bullets and pepper-sprayed. Peaceful protesters are assaulted with tear gas and stun grenades by officers in riot gear. The list goes on.

All of this is believable because we’ve seen it splashed across social media—we’ve seen the tweets, the images, the Vines. But as Nick Bilton noted in the Times, even the most technologically savvy Twitter reports suffer from credibility problems. Without proper checks, a reader can be easily led astray.

Which is why a reporter needs a bit of a lawyer’s hat when reporting on these cases. That means talking to the attorney on the other side (they’ll often say they haven’t seen the lawsuit). That means telling readers that these are only allegations and that all, some, or none of them may make it to trial. That means explaining that a number of the claims might get dismissed for a variety of technical or substantive reasons. That some of the allegations may not even have a remedy at law. That when all is said and done, $40 million may end up becoming a $1 million settlement. And that it may take years to even get there, if the claims get there at all.

Better journalism is to report on court decisions—opinions, judgments, dismissals, appeals. Even settlements. They’re not a panacea, but they’re a better source of information because they benefit from arguments from both sides. Many of them are the result of a trial, extensive discovery, or a hearing where the judge heard from everyone with an interest in the litigation. There will often be a record of the proceedings. Decisions can be a factual goldmine, and they benefit from the pruning inherent to the adversarial process.

Earlier this year, New York City settled an iconic civil-rights case: the lawsuits filed by hundreds of protesters and bystanders wrongfully arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. The $18 million settlement was called “historic” by the New York Civil Liberties Union. It took 10 years to get there.

The settlements for the RNC protests—as well as for the Central Park Five, the stop-and-frisk cases, Jabbar Collins—demonstrate that justice for vindication of constitutional rights takes time. The news media, in reporting on these cases, should take its time to get the story right as well.

Civil Rights, Media

Miranda myths, debunked

Social media exploded last week when Ferguson police detained two reporters covering the protests that erupted following the shooting death by police of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They were not held for long.

After their release and ahead of their respective stories, the reporters—Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post—took to Twitter to describe their ordeal.

A concerned user asked Lowery whether he had been read his Miranda warnings, and he said no.

Then this happened:

Lowery was thankful for the clarification, but Twitter wasn’t. People were unconvinced that an absence of Miranda posed no problems—that it is “well-settled” that police must give you the warnings or else your rights are being trampled.

In the world of Law & Order, perhaps.

In real life and under Supreme Court precedent, police do not violate your constitutional rights if you’re arrested and forget to read you Miranda. They may even purposefully skip the ritual, and there’d still be no violation. A whole trial, guilty verdict, and sentence may follow, and you’d still be out of luck.

The reason is as simple as it is unsatisfying: Miranda is not a right. You can’t sue under it. Police are not required to give it. A court will throw out your civil-rights lawsuit if you claim you weren’t read it.

Miranda only does one thing: It protects you from saying something that will be used against you in court. In the words of the Constitution, no man can be “compelled . . . to be a witness against himself.”

That is a constitutional right: the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

It is strongly recommended that police officers give the warnings because people tend to say things they later regret in the presence of law enforcement. “Somebody put that in my pocket,” for example. Any damning statement that carries the risk of putting someone in jail for a very long time cannot be used against that person.

That’s why every item on the Miranda laundry list matters. Every one of them is a check—a “prophylactic” shield, in Supreme Court language—against the possibility of self-incrimination.

None of that applies to Lowery or Reilly. They hadn’t committed a crime. They weren’t charged. At that point, the risk of self-incrimination vanished, and so did the import of Miranda. Whatever Lowery or Reilly may have said in police presence won’t ever be used against them. The government won’t threaten them with loss of liberty. No danger of a coerced confession will exist. Other claims may arise out of this incident—unlawful detention, maybe even battery—but these have nothing to do with Miranda.

Since Lowery and Reilly were detained, a number of other journalists have followed suit. But no Miranda, by itself, doesn’t give any of them a right to sue.

Civil Rights, Media

Laughing with Ferguson

A new kind of ritual has taken over Monday mornings on social media.

As if on cue, pockets of journalists and news outlets take to Twitter to extol the virtues of Sunday night’s episode of John Oliver’s acclaimed HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The reason the raves seem ritualistic is their breathlessness.

No matter the subject matter—mass incarceration, wealth disparities, net neutrality—Oliver is hailed for simply nailing whatever has dominated the weekly news cycle. Better than anyone else. In a nutshell. And he’s funny about it.

Some Twitter observers poked fun at the ritual on Monday.

And yes, he typically does. (His take on the nation’s prison problems is a must-watch—almost as good and painfully truthful as Stephen Colbert’s version.)

But last Sunday things were a bit different. It was time for Oliver to tackle Ferguson, the beleaguered Missouri town where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

Ferguson is different because the protests and civil-rights tensions haven’t abated.

The same night Oliver’s segment aired, the town and the country had just learned the result of Brown’s autopsy—he was shot at least six times, twice in the head. The town was still under a curfew, already decried as unconstitutional by civil-liberties groups. And some of the worst clashes between the Ferguson’s militarized police force and protestors broke out overnight. More journalists were detained. Brown’s character continued to be assailed. Wilson remained uncharged.

In other words, the wound was still open. Maybe even oozing. No solution seemed to be in near sight. No solution is in sight.

Which is why Oliver’s segment seemed odd. Yes, he hit many of the data points making the news: the rampant militarization of cops; the suspension of civil liberties; the racial tensions between community and police; the less-than-adequate response by Missouri authorities. In the words of the weekly ritual observers, he nailed it.

But the thing still felt off.

Maybe it was the timing. Or perhaps the cued-up laughter. Or the lack of solemnity. Or maybe there hasn’t been enough time for reflection. On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the happenings in Ferguson “a generational event [that] demands a generational response.”

Oliver’s segment wasn’t that. It was just a string of grim yet thoughtful observations about Ferguson, peppered with laughter from a live audience that just found it all hilarious. All from a comfortable HBO studio in midtown Manhattan. It felt strange—not untruthful or lacking in newsworthiness or editorial value. None of that is disputed. It just didn’t feel like something Ferguson itself would’ve cared for much.

Ferguson wouldn’t have cared because Michael Brown’s mother still mourns. It wouldn’t have cared because its history of racial issues still persists and residents want answers. Because police are still clashing with protesters and the press, the First Amendment be damned. Because the scent of tear gas still lingers in the air. And most of all, because the officer who gunned down one of Ferguson’s sons still remains at large.

None of that is laughing matter. And so long as Ferguson or Brown’s mother are not given a true reason to laugh, funny newsmen should wait a little bit before they tell the world to laugh along.