When Lies and False Narratives Shape Public Opinion

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  It is a truism that elites, as Karl Marx noted, shape public opinion. A century later, another German, Joseph Goebbels, remarked "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." It was another Marx who asked, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

    It is also a truism that when elites feel threatened, whether from external or internal threats, truth too often becomes a casualty. All too often the defenders of the status quo  seek to persuade the public at large that those who are entrusted to protect their safety should be given wide berth and the benefit of the doubt.

    The events surrounding the murder of the two New York Police officers and the earlier refusal of a Staten Island Grand Jury to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner have brought to the fore once again concerns about truth, equality of treatment and the purpose of public service. The other day, during CNN's coverage of the funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu, these concerns were brought into sharp focus.

    Dana Bash of CNN was interviewing Tom Verni. Mr. Verni, an outspoken critic of Mayor deBlasio, describes himself as a "Law Enforcement & Safety Consultant. Retired NYPD Detective, Police Academy Instructor, Community Affairs & Crime Prevention Specialist."

    Mr. Verni was given free rein to emote by Dana Bash. He insisted that Mayor de Blasio had somehow disrespected the NYPD by his failure to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, by calling into question their policing tactics, by offering support to the demonstrators who were outraged by the death of Eric Garner, and because the mayor had the audacity to admit that he counseled his bi-racial son on the need to react politely and obsequiously in presence of police. Not content with those calumnies, Verni, echoing the nonsense uttered by BPA President Patrick Lynch, contended that all of mayor's actions had made attacks upon the police inevitable.

    Missing from Mr. Verni's narrative of NYPD victimization and unchallenged by Dana Bash was any acknowledgment of the possibility that Verni was playing fast and loose with the truth. Unacknowledged were the facts that Mayor de Blasio had been in office for a year and that his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had failed to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association for four years.

    Verni also neglected to mention that Mayor de Blasio had been elected by more than 72% of New York City voters on a platform that explicitly proposed the need for reform of police tactics, particularly after a federal judge found that the "stop and frisk" tactics -  as applied by the NYPD - violated the constitutional rights of minorities. Verni was also unwilling to concede that the overwhelming majority of protestors, in the exercise of their first amendment rights, were aggrieved by the refusal of the Staten Island District Attorney, Dan Donovan, secure an indictment against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo and that they did not harbor any personal animus against the NYPD.
    In point of fact, it was District Attorney Donovan's failure to properly charge the grand jury that precipitated the subsequent events about which Verni and the police union's leaders now complain. Although a New York City coroner had ruled that Eric Garner's death was a homicide, and there was compelling video footage of the police using an illegal choke hold, DA Donovan allowed the grand jury to ignore the explicit instructions of the New York Grand Juror's Handbook, issued by the Unified Trial Court, that emphasizes, "The grand jury is an arm of the court. It is not an agent of the prosecutor or the police. A grand jury docs not decide whether or not a person has been proven guilty. That is the trial jury's job. The grand jury decides whether or not a person should be formally charged with a crime or other offense. The grand jury makes that decision based on evidence presented to it by the prosecutor, who also instructs the grand jury on the law. The grand jury's decision must be based on the evidence and on the law."
    Unacknowledged by Verni, and left unchallenged by Dana Bash, was even a grudging concession  by Verni that the NYPD, as a para-military force, owed a duty of respect to their civilian commander-in-chief, or  that the present "work slowdown" by certain NYPD officers imperiled  public safety and violated the oaths taht they took upon their appointments. Verni further chose to ignore the evidence suggested that Ismaaiyl Brinsley's murder of the two NYPD officers was motivated more by the latter's personal failures and his mental instability.

     Left unsaid also was any expression of concern by Verni about the ease with which Brinsley, despite his extensive criminal record, was able to secure a gun and ammunition. Rebecca Leber reported in The New Republic (December 24, 2014, "How Did NYPD Killer Get his Hands on a Gun from Georgia? Because Our Laws are Insane")  that investigators were able to trace the gun Brinsley used to a Georgia strip mall 900 miles away that describes itself as a "family-owned business dedicated to good prices, good customer service and good vibes." Leber noted that, as of 2010, that single store was the fifth largest source of guns used in crimes across the country, and the number one source for all out-of-state guns seized by the New York Police Department.
      As John Adams observed, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
    The notion that police and other law enforcement officials should be treated differently from ordinary citizens is toxic in a democratic society and anathema to principle of equal justice under the law. Equally corrosive are the factual distortions that are propagated through the media by well-educated individuals who surely must know better.

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