Sunday, August 11, 2013

#JusticeForEthan and the Media Narrative

Two new essays on Ethan Saylor caught my eye this morning:

First - Debra Alfarone, a reporter for W-USA 9 News in D.C., wrote a good short piece on the state of the Ethan Saylor case. The best reporting on the case has all come out of the D.C. area, even as the story has struggled to reach beyond the local area.

Speaking of that struggle, Nick Cull - like me an academic and father of a boy with Down syndrome, applied his expertise (he's in a Communication department) to think about the lack of coverage. He writes that he is particularly "troubled that so many people seem not to have heard about the case more than six months after Saylor’s death."

I'm troubled by that too. When I submitted my essay on the case to The Nation, it was championed (to the extent I understand these things) by an editor (Liliana Segura) who writes more broadly on police brutality and prison culture. She knew about the case, but told me that others had missed it. If some of the staff at The Nation missed it, some of the smartest and most plugged in people around after all, then Cull is definitely right that the absence of focus on Saylor's case is odd. Cull writes:

Part of the problem is the fragmentation that has come with social media. In our wired world, some stories stay within closed loops of people directly concerned with an issue by virtue of shared race, location or other marker of identity. That is understandable. Yet Saylor’s story has been reported in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Huffington Post. It’s also attracted notice on some right-wing websites and the libertarian Cato Institute’s blog that keep an eye out for violations of individual liberty. But the trail of mainstream media commentary soon runs cold. WTOP news in Washington, D.C., did a story on the case, but NPR has not mentioned it and neither, it would seem, have its local affiliates. There has been nothing in The Daily Beast. Sources with a track record of sound coverage in the civil rights domain such as Mother Jones and Truthdig (until this piece) have also passed over the story. Some parents in the Down syndrome community began an email campaign to try to get journalist George Will, whose son Jon has the genetic condition, to say something about Saylor in a column but he hasn’t done so.
He concludes:
One thing that those who have been following the story detect is an underlying lack of empathy for someone with special needs, on the part of the management and the deputies who seem to have exacerbated the situation and perhaps on behalf of the wider society. The Down syndrome support community is well aware that other categories of people who have been mistreated by the police have attracted national coverage; other names have become causes célèbres. One of the troubling things about Saylor’s case is the nagging fear that the silence is not a response to careful consideration of the available evidence but a symptom that in the last analysis in the America of 2013, people with an intellectual disability simply do not count.
I'm not sure, as I ponder the subject, about "not counting." At least I don't want that to be true.

I think the issue is that people with disabilities don't fit neatly into narrative categories that drive media attention, except as "inspiration porn" (a category worth exploring here and here, for starters). It's unclear how to write about a 300-lb man with Down syndrome who was swearing at police and watching a movie about torture and assassination ("Zero Dark Thirty"). How does that fit our models? He doesn't tie into the stories of race and class that permeate our national discourse about urban violence and police brutality. He wasn't tased, or I think the anti-taser movement would have picked up on it (I have another essay on tasers out for consideration right now). And without an obvious hook or fit, why should readers in other parts of the country worry about Ethan Saylor?

That's part of why my essay in The Nation tried to link Saylor into a bigger pattern and to provide a framework for analysis going forward. Because while I'm focused on Justice for Ethan (this is the Facebook group), I also fear that there are going to be more Ethan's in the future, and I don't want their stories to be buried.