Cherries, anyone?

From a New York Times article on a nasty “shouting match” between two New York state legislators (some of which took place on Twitter, making the “shouting” part a bit of an exaggeration):

Mr. Parker has a record of outbursts and sometimes outright violence. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with punching a traffic agent; the charges were eventually dismissed.

In 2009, he was indicted on a charge of assaulting and menacing a New York Post photographer outside the senator’s mother’s home. He was found guilty of two misdemeanor counts but acquitted of felony charges. A judge gave him three years’ probation and ordered him to attend an anger management class.

How do dismissed criminal charges furnish evidence, even in part, of a “record of…outright violence”? There may well be hard evidence of Parker’s punching the traffic agent despite the dismissal, but if so, this evidence is not mentioned, and whether or not it exists, the fact remains that it didn’t lead to criminal charges.

Granted, some reasons for dismissal are compatible with subtantively (if not legally) having committed the offense, but others are flatly incompatible with both, and the reason for the dismissal isn’t so much as mentioned, much less discussed. Nothing in the reporting excludes the possibility that the punch was thrown (if it was) in self-defense. Does self-defense count as a “record of outright violence”? In that case, a rape victim who fights off her attacker should be described as having a “record of outright violence.” But who would?

Ultimately, the reader is left to infer that the circumstances surrounding the punch (again, if it was a punch) aren’t mentioned because mentioning them would get in the way of the reporter’s attempts at cherry picking the evidence. But then the reader is left to wonder what the hell he’s reading. Is this reporting or is it propaganda? 

The circumstances surrounding the two misdemeanor counts mentioned in the second paragraph are pretty murky, but the hyperlinked report suggests, at best, that they involve Mr. Parker’s attacking a camera. That is violent, I suppose, but the same report also suggests that the person whose camera was damaged was provoking Mr. Parker by intruding on his privacy (as photographers often do with impunity, and without thereby incurring records of “downright trespassing”). Is a “record of outbursts and sometimes outright violence” quite the same as two misdemeanor counts, a decade ago, of damaging the camera of an obnoxiously provocative and intrusive cameraman whose camera was damaged in mysterious circumstances? Well, it is if what you’re trying to do is to convey a misimpression that is technically true but involves a series of misleading mental reservations. Otherwise, not really.

That’s how such incidents are commonly reported. When reporters want to emphasize police malfeasance, they cast suspicion on every move that the police make. But when they want to insinuate malfeasance in someone charged with a crime, they turn every arrest, arraignment or indictment into a conviction, ignoring the existence of insufficient evidence to convict, trumped-up charges, and overcharging. It’s not wrong to call this a fake news approach. No one reading it can ever be sure of what’s going on in it. And no determinate principles seem to govern it.

I’m going to send this post to the reporter, and invite her to comment. I mean, there are two sides to every story, even a badly written one, and in all fairness, I’m curious to hear hers.

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