When a journalist in a news article refers to a woman as “strident,” you know what you’re reading is a hit piece, not a dispassionate report, and that’s what the New York Times offered up to readers in today’s piece about a court appearance yesterday by Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan.
The Times reporter, Monique O. Madan, as a professional journalist, surely knows that the meaning of “strident” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “loud, harsh and grating” and that it implies the slanted presentation of a point of view in an “unpleasantly forceful way.” If she somehow didn’t know this, her editors certainly do, and yet they were okay with her disparaging and loaded word choice.
Supposedly Madan was writing a news report on McMillan’s appearance in a Manhattan criminal court on a misdemeanor charge of “obstructing governmental administration.” This related to an incident in 2013 in which she allegedly advised two people being ordered to show their identification to a Transit Police officer in the Union Square subway station that they did not have to comply.
Madan referred to McMillan as a “cause célèbre” because of her earlier arrest at a March 2012 rally in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park commemorating the months-long Occupy Wall Street action that had begun six months earlier in September, 2011. McMillan, in that earlier arrest, had been charged with second degree felony assault of a police officer and, following a trial earlier this year, was convicted and sentenced to three months in jail at Rikers Island plus five year’s probation.
Not mentioned by the reporter was the reality that McMillan’s fame and notoriety is deserved (she received thousands of letters of support from around the world, and even a supportive jailhouse visit by two recently freed members of the celebrated Russian protest rock group Pussy Riot). Not only was McMillan grotesquely overcharged by Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. She was also treated by both prosecutor and judge throughout the trial as though she were a dangerous menace, not even being granted bail after the verdict was rendered and she was awaiting her sentence hearing (a courtesy routinely granted to first offenders and to the powerful and well-to-do). The reporter might also have noted that, once convicted, McMillan’s incredibly short felony sentence (the charge carried a maximum term of seven years!) and her subsequent release from jail after serving just under two months’ time at Rikers, probably rank among the shortest punishments for someone convicted of “felony assault” of a cop in the history of US jurisprudence.
Unless one believes that Judge Ronald Zwiebel caved under the pressure of all those letters of support and the daily rallies outside the courthouse (I doubt it), the conclusion has to be that the judge’s sentencing decision reflected an admission that McMillan in fact never posed any threat to either society or to the police. The point of her prosecution then was not about protecting the police, but rather about sending a message to all New Yorkers about the high personal cost of political protest — and that message was sent by simply saddling her with a permanent felony record. Regarding the incident in question, it was evident from video images and from testimony at the trial that she had been grappled and groped from behind by the officer, who grabbed her right breast so hard that it caused clearly visible bruising. It was also clear that the cop’s action caused McMillan to involuntarily throw back her arms, elbowing the officer in an eye (that is to say, she didn’t even know who had grabbed her when she involuntarily struck out in self-defense). Even the jurors who convicted her expressed shock that she was jailed for this “offense,” with nine of the twelve, once they learned that she would be facing jail time as a result of their decision, writing the judge to ask that she not be jailed.
The Times article leaves readers thinking that McMillan is some kind of a cop-hating whacko, with reporter Madan relying entirely on the comments of the arresting officer in the complaint filed in the latest misdemeanor case.
At no point in her article does Madan bother to give McMillan’s side of the case. She evidently didn’t even ask McMillan or her attorney for their position on the charge, or on the allegations made by the officer in the complaint (of if she did, she didn’t include their answers). There’s no sign of any “no comment” reported in what is about as one-sided a piece of journalism as one could write.
I’ve taught journalism classes, and this is an article that would have received at best a D from me.
Given that McMillan, now out of Rikers confinement — at least pending the outcome of this latest case — has been using her high visibility and her recent experience to condemn the violence and abuse that she observed and personally experienced while locked up, it’s ironic that the Times would trash her on its pages in this manner on the very day that it was also running an editorial condemning an epidemic of prison guard violence in the city’s jails.
In that editorial, headlined “Violence in New York City Jails,” the paper describes a culture of violence against prisoners by jail guards, who particularly abuse the mentally ill, a group that constitutes nearly half of the city’s incarcerated inmate population. Citing the investigative work of its own reporters, the paper says jail authorities have covered up the problem for years, that guards often remove inmates to remote locations without video monitors in order to conduct their beatings, and concludes:
“…the problem of brutality may be too deeply entrenched for the city itself to cure. If rapid improvements cannot be made, the Justice Department, which is already investigating the treatment of juveniles at Rikers, should step in to remedy what is clearly a barbaric situation.”
This is exactly what McMillan, who rejected on principle a plea bargain offer from the DA at her first trial which would have kept her out of jail in return for accepting a felony conviction, has been saying she saw going on during her two months’ incarceration on Rikers Island. Surely her courage in speaking out about conditions there, even as she faces the possibility of being sent back to Rikers at her coming trial, clearly deserved a paragraph or two in Madan’s and the Times’ hatchet job.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).