The Political Nature of ‘Objectivity’

On reading last Wednesday’s Daily Hampshire Gazette

LES MACK

The Daily Hampshire Gazette is an outstanding example of the subtle politics of representation. As the local paper of record that fancies itself a historically trusted and objective news source, the organization of the paper and its allocation of space prove otherwise. The Gazette locates itself firmly in support of the status quo, which nationally trends increasingly rightward, approaching issues such as policing and race with outdated perspectives and analysis. Wednesday, March 7, 2018’s edition in particular is brimming with news from the criminal justice system, but it is arranged and depicted in a way that generates a subtle hierarchy and underscores how the Gazette chooses to arbitrate ongoing debates.

For example, the first headline, “Police make large heroin bust,” chronicles the arrest of a Latino man charged with drug trafficking, gun possession, and endangerment of children. The narration and quotes included in the piece tell a laudatory and sympathetic story of the police, whose “operation [was] another fine example of the resources and manpower that the [Northwestern District Anti-Crime] task force brings to local communities,” and who “rid our communities of this drug,” later referred to as “poison.” The article concludes with some contextualizing statistics of the lethality of heroin in Easthampton. Although not on the first page, the article even includes an image, posted on the Easthampton PD’s Facebook page, of the drug bust’s haul, surrounded by a shining border of police badges. The article perpetuates the trend of a fear-mongering press eager to demonize non-white offenders and instill terror into the community. Such a strategy serves to bolster the importance of the police in solving drug-related issues. However, as analyses show, America’s drug problem is largely a function of demand not supply, a problem which requires systemic solutions largely beyond the purview of police departments. Of course, The Gazette doesn’t mention this. Further, this one isolated case offers the reader no ability to judge whether it was an important stop, whether the drugs were intended for the local community, or whether the operation made financial sense.

Directly below this story, another highlights that Northampton “Public defenders make union push” in an effort to receive higher salaries, which start at a bleak $40,000. The photo depicts a public defender that supports the bill but was not actually present at demonstrations in Northampton, Fall River, and Boston. The debate over unionization is central to current political discourse, but The Gazette fails to address the significance of a local strike in relation to what is happening elsewhere. Local nurses in Greenfield have gone on strike, West Virginian teachers recently completed a two-week strike that has already spread to Oklahoma, and Janus v. AFSCME and NLRB vs. Murphy Oil USA are currently being debated at the Supreme Court. Another crucial piece missing from The Gazette is that public defenders are chronically underpaid and overburdened by case loads (in no small part due to the overzealousness of police). The occupational plight of public defenders hampers the functioning of justice and generates institutional bias against people who do not have the ability to afford private legal consult and representation.

In Section B of The Gazette, the hierarchy of the newspaper’s layout is further delineated. Again focusing on Easthampton, the paper reported on a debate in Easthampton’s City Council over Sanctuary City legislation. The heart of the issue is whether or not the council has the power to pass an ordinance that would have power over the local police force. Such a question is fundamental to the power structure of Easthampton. Rules subcommittee member Thomas Peake states, “I’m worried it sets a bad precedent,” referring to the inability of city council to check executive power. It also begs the question: “Who has the power to oversee the town’s police department?” But, the article does not include any context—such as the activities of ICE in Easthampton and surrounding towns, the fact that many surrounding towns have voted to become Sanctuary Cities in response to expanding federal immigration initiatives, or the organizing efforts of local, non-governmental groups.

Finally,  the notification of the resignation of Montague’s police chief is relegated to a small side column below the fold. While this was the latest in the unfurling of the long developing story of his painkiller addiction and theft of seized police supplies, the paper diminishes the importance of the issue (admittedly, they do offer more in depth exposé on the situation the next day). The Gazette describes euphemistically his “mishandling” of the drugs and gives no thought to the broader issues that the case exposes. These include the procedures and oversight of the police department, the incompatibility of police forces in dealing with drug and addiction—related problems, and the disciplinary practices of law—breaking by the police.
From police adulation to the minimization of police misconduct, with debates over police oversight and fair treatment of public defenders sandwiched in between, Wednesday, March 7, 2018’s Daily Hampshire Gazette exposes the persuasions and affiliations of dominant local media. While it is certainly important to report over a broad range of issues and highlight both sides of the debate, how this is done is of equal importance. Minimizing or emphasizing a certain story has political implications, and this should be acknowledged, just as conflicts of interest and bias are taken into account when gathering information about a story and evaluating narratives. While The Gazette shies away from politics by portraying itself as ‘objective’ or ‘neutral,’ it reifies hierarchies of power, a political position in itself.


Les Mack is a writer in Northampton.

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