Peter Gelderloos looks critically at the media response to the eruption of rebellion in Ohio youth prisons.
On the weekend of the 22nd and 23rd of October, at least two protests broke out at the Indian River youth prison in Massillon, Ohio. In one protest, a guard was struck in the head and beaten down with a radio, and in another a dozen kids broke out of their cells, armed themselves, and set up barricades, which they defended until the following morning. Other protests and fights have occurred over the previous months.
In response to the riot, local media responded with systematic spins and manipulations to help spread calls by the guards for more physical violence against the children.
Two area papers, the Columbus Dispatch and the Canton Repository, as well as the local TV station, WKYC, referred to the children locked up at Indian River as “inmates,” “criminals,” or at best, “juveniles.”
They referred to their cells as “rooms.” They never referred to the prison as a prison, and they refused to interview any of the kids locked up there or any of their friends or family members.
They also refused to investigate or describe conditions at the youth prison, and they refused to do any fact-checking on any of the claims coming from guards or the family members of guards, while frequently repeating those claims.
These claims included the dubious assertion that guards at the facility are not allowed to use physical force, and that the kids were rioting and protesting “for fun.”
Media coverage was heavily focused on the family members of guards, humanizing them and also shielding them from legal consequences, as most of their more extreme statements came filtered through spouses who are not state employees.
With a perspective firmly and exclusively anchored on the side of the guards, multiple articles repeated claims coming from guards that the children locked up at the facility were not actually children but hardened criminals.
The purpose of this coverage was clearly to encourage and normalize the use of violence against imprisoned children, and to win more budget money for hiring more prison guards and buying them more weapons.
The coverage is also helping to normalize the practice of charging kids as adults, as is now happening with several of the young people who clashed with guards.
Relevant context these journalists refused to mention was that when it comes to youth incarceration, the prison system disproportionately targets Black and other racialized children; the dehumanization of racialized children is a common trope among white supremacists; and the Ohio youth detention system has the highest rates in the country of sexual violence against the children it locks up.
Youth at a detention center in OH have rioted three times in 6 months, including last night which involved a barricade & negotiations. None of the coverage talks about their complaints/demands, just quote ppl who say “these aren’t kids, they’re criminals.”
In other words, there is a good chance that at least one of the guards that reporters were quoting, platforming, and humanizing, had sexually assaulted children under their control or had stood by while other guards did so.
There is a reason I’m focusing on the media while talking about the repression these young people at Indian River are facing. We all know the nature of prison guards and all other variety of cops. They will never stop killing, torturing, and raping as long as they exist. That is their function in society.
Journalists also have a clear function in capitalist society, but they are vulnerable to pressure in a way the police are not.
For the media to fulfill their function, they need to be able to convince people to adopt certain stories about the world, and they need to be able to deliver those same people as an audience to their advertisers.
A reporter or media outlet that loses its credibility can no longer perform these functions. To get it back, they will begin to engage more in the kinds of activities that are a major part of journalistic mythology: that of fearless truth-seekers not afraid to defy powerful institutions.
Of course, we know this is bullshit.
The minority of occasions when professional journalists do engage in critical coverage, it is to fix the system, to make it stronger, rather than to challenge it at its roots.
But when media institutions are forced to not walk the exact same line as the cops, the military, the major corporations, there is more conflict within the system, the system has less capacity to move in a reactionary direction, and the rest of us are a little bit safer, as are more marginalized groups often used as scapegoats, like incarcerated children.
The following four journalists, working for the four above-mentioned outlets, are responsible for some of the most dehumanizing, harmful coverage while covering the clashes at Indian River: Laura Bischoff, Amy Knapp, Benjamin Duer, and Emma Henderson.
Their contact information is available on their profile pages with their respective employers (the Dispatch, the Repository, and WKYC).
They also have left themselves particularly open to criticism and protest. No matter what your thoughts are on racism, crime, and imprisonment, no one can deny that in their coverage they have violated journalistic ethics by failing to fact check or to get both sides of the story.
(Of course, every story has more than two sides, but when the only side represented is that of the authorities, US pretensions of being a free country, another important bit of mythology, are left looking pretty ridiculous.)
The fact that they threw their ethics out the window to call for violence against children who are already exposed to systemic sexual abuse should be repulsive to anyone who is not a goose-stepping, unapologetic racist.
Over the past decade, the movement has shown how effective it is at doxxing. Usually, that practice is carried out against fascists. However, I think that these four journalists are more effective and more relevant agents of white supremacy than your average Proud Boy. They’re less inclined to get their own hands dirty, but they are capable of exposing a much larger number of racialized people to violence while maintaining their social legitimacy.
The US doesn’t need fascists to be a murderously white supremacist country. I think we need to spend a little less time measuring how far from the center someone is, and more time thinking what their function is in this society, and what strategic capacities we have to keep them from doing harm.
Here’s a problem that is beyond my resources, but that I bet we as a movement could figure out. The four journalists refused to respond to criticisms of their breach of ethics and abhorrent mistreatment of children. What would it take to get at least one of them, or their editors, fired?
A media company’s weak point is in their finances. All three of these companies outsource their advertising to third parties, LocaliQ and Tegna, but they also have repeat advertisers that might not want their brand associated with journalists who call for violence against children, and they also participate in charitable programs, symposia, charities, and award programs. All of these might want to cut their links in the face of pressure and bad press.
As with public campaigns against fascists, even if they don’t succeed in getting someone fired or getting them to stop what they’re doing, they can be effective at getting ideas and critiques out there. If these four reporters keep doing what they’re doing, even if they convince a hardcore audience of racists and cop-lovers that they’re the victims, it will be worthwhile if more people begin to see how the mainstream media are connected to some of the worst abuses in our society, and the patterns they use to manipulate and misinform people.
Another thing we know from past experience is that supporting prisoners, especially when they’re already rising up, makes our movement stronger on the inside and on the outside.
Are we able to recognize another front in the war against white supremacy and against the State, protect ourselves and others from a simmering reactionary offensive, and maybe even gain some ground? I hope so.
photo: Grant Durr via Unsplash