In the thread to my first Jamail Hussein post below, commenter Andrew Lazarus says:
A.L., you seem to be seizing on this fire incident as an indication that the MSM coverage of Iraq is way off. But at the same time, neither you nor anyone else is suggesting that the counts of maimed corpses, or dead soldiers, or explosions is in any way exaggerated. The impression of Iraq as some sort of hell on earth really doesn’t depend on this one gruesome story…any more than our perception of the Holocaust depends on the discredited story of Jews turned into soap.
I happen to think that this particular story – and the other stories – coming out of Iraq matter a lot because our policies on the war will be driven by our perceptions which are in turn driven by – the stories we read.
My reply to Andrew started this way (with some amendations):
The problem, Andrew, is [we don’t know] whether [Iraq is] hell on earth or heck (or Beaumont, Texas); that’s the point I keep trying to raise and that keeps getting slapped aside.
I spoke with Greg Sergeant today about all this, and we had a friendly chat in which I tried to explain why it is that one reported tragedy like this matters so much (and why the aggregation of small tragedies matters so much) and I asked if he’d ever heard of Karen Toshima.
He hadn’t so let me explain here.
I did a fast experiment – someone with Lexis-Nexis could do better – and searched the LA Times website archive (which has stories searchable since 1/1/1985) and looked for some word combinations…Mentions of ‘gang murder’ in the L.A. Times in 1987: 297
Mentions of ‘gang killing’ in the L.A. Times in 1987: 192
Mentions of ‘gang murder’ in the L.A. Times in 1989: 649
Mentions of ‘gang killing’ in the L.A. Times in 1989: 435
Annual increase (both terms summed) from 1987 to 1989: 121.68%
Mentions of ‘murder’ in 1987: 3,893
Mentions of ‘killing’ in 1987: 3,585
Mentions of ‘murder’ in 1989: 5,686
Mentions of ‘killing’ in 1989: 5,117
Annual increase (terms summed): 44.46%
The underlying numbers look like this:
Overall Homicides in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in 1987: 975
Overall Homicides in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in 1989: 1,053
Annual Increase: 4.0%
Gang Homicides in Los Angeles County in 1987: 387
Gang Homicides in Los Angeles County in 1989: 554
Annual Increase: 21.5%
Note that the increase in gang homicides – 167 – is greater than the increase in the number of total homicides – 78. This suggests the possibility that some homicides that would otherwise have been classified as ‘normal’ were instead classified as ‘gang’ – something I’ll take up with my law-enforcement friends.
What changed? Why did the coverage go up so much more than the underlying numbers?
Karen Toshima was murdered, that’s what changed.
In 1988 in Westwood Village, then the ‘Third Street’ of Los Angeles, where young upper middle class people went to dine and catch a movie or listen to some music or dance, two gangs opened fire on each other and Long Beach resident Karen Toshima died.
Suddenly in the consciousness of the upper-middle-class of Los Angeles – the class that produces TV news and newspaper columns – gang murders, which had been confined to streetcorners and alleys in South Central and East Los Angeles were vividly real.
And if you lived in Los Angeles then, you locked your doors and bought guns. I must have taken half a dozen friends to the shooting range and then the gun store that year.
For most of the next decade, as gang crime rose, peaked in 1995, and then fell dramatically, the narrative of life in Los Angeles was the omnipresent fear of gang violence.
That fear was fed by sensational media – first news, then movies and television – and it defined and limited life in Los Angeles.
Was gang violence a real issue in Los Angeles before 1988? Of course. Was it something worth spending significant resources on and attempting to suppress? Yes.
But the monomaniacal focus on Los Angeles as the “Gang Capital of the World” created a false impression that Crips and Bloods ruled the streets. Where did that perception come from? From reporting the, like a hip-hop drumbeat, regularly pounded home the point
In a few small pockets, for a few years, yes. But the vast majority of people in Los Angeles – people like me – drove throughout the city, ate in restaurants throughout the city (three of my favorites are in South Central and two in East LA).
But the perception of the city changed. Policies changed as a result – policies that may or may not have been good ones.
In Iraq the stakes are much higher. But the mechanisms we’re using to sort them out really are no different. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were?