Responding to reader criticism

Policing, the Arkansas bill and media bias.
Isaac Saul Apr 15, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here. Today’s newsletter is a special edition addressing some reader feedback.

Today’s read: Longer than usual.

We’re digging into some reader feedback from the last week: on Tuesday’s issue about Daunte Wright, on media bias, and on the newsletter about the Arkansas bill.

Photo: Tony Webster

As many of you know, I love to share reader criticism in Tangle. One of my primary goals in the newsletter is to expose people to a wide range of perspectives, and since I am just one person, sharing feedback is a good way to do it.

I frequently share reader feedback and just leave it on its own. Today, I wanted to try something a little new: I wanted to share some reader criticisms and then try to respond to a few of them.

Anyone who has written into Tangle knows this, but these exchanges often happen in private emails. I try to reply to anyone who writes, which can sometimes take an hour or sometimes take a week (right now, for instance, I am still replying to emails I got seven days ago — please be patient!).

Regardless, I thought it would be a good exercise to address some of the criticisms I’ve received in the last week publicly. It’ll both force me to be more critical of my own writing and give you some insight into the kinds of things people write to Tangle.

At the end of the newsletter, I will include some quick hits on the news you need to know.

Tuesday’s issue on Daunte Wright drew the most responses of any newsletter this week, so let’s start there.

On policing.

Matty from Los Angeles, California, said,

“I understand trying to find a middle ground, but I can't imagine this is it. More money for training? More police to reduce prison populations? I can't help but think that this is the exact kind of backward thinking that has led us to where we are.

Last summer, LAPD racked up 50 million dollars in overtime pay alone during the George Floyd protests while they arrested over 4,000 people. You say that police violence against unarmed people is going down, but you don't mention that police are the ones keeping track of these incidents and someone with a hammer/stapler/nail is considered ‘armed.’ The police were literally created to bust unions and catch slaves.

Regardless of what the majority of Americans think at the moment (not a historically great way to determine if something is right or wrong), it's pretty tough to argue that law enforcement has fundamentally changed for the better and that giving them more money or adding more officers will do anything to improve things. I mean... here in LA, there are about 18 gangs within the LA Sheriff's Department… You say that there are a lot of police officers willing to embrace those changes, but I see them flying a blue lives matter flag, fighting tooth and nail against [eliminating] qualified immunity, and pouring millions of dollars into political races to support pro-police candidates who don't want to change a thing. They might want more money for training and less responsibilities, but that is about it.”

My thoughts: First, that story about the Los Angeles cops being in gangs is one of the most unsettling things I’ve read in a while, and I had not seen that before. Second, I think if I could go back and re-write Tuesday’s edition, one of the big changes I would make would be around how broadly I wrote about funding.

When people talk about “defunding the police,” most of us think about a place like the New York City Police Department. And, in a lot of ways, I agree: the NYPD costs about $10 billion a year, and they are spending their $5.9 billion budget on things like robot dogs and armored vehicles. We know that courses in implicit bias training don't seem to change behavior and might even have a negative impact on police officers' attitudes towards people of color — so “more training” or “more of what we have now” is not the answer. If you ask me if I think we should cut or re-allocate the NYPD’s funding, my answer is yes. I don’t think the money is being well spent, and I think those billions could be more effectively spent elsewhere (yesterday, I mentioned the STAR program in Denver, which is sending mental health professionals to certain emergency calls. I’d love to see that piloted here in New York City as well).

My counter-argument here is twofold: One, I want to note that I did mention poor data collection practices, the impracticality of police tracking their own uses of force, and the need to nationalize, share and make that data mandatory.

Second, I think it’s worth noting that there are plenty of police departments that are underfunded, especially in more rural communities. The difficulty of writing about this as a national politics issue is that there are 18,000 police departments in America, so there is no “one size fits all” solution. But as with teachers or doctors or any other profession, I think there’s a reasonable case that in some towns better pay would attract better and more highly trained people to policing. Even more, we’re seeing certain training reforms work in large cities that could be implemented in smaller communities, and as counter-intuitive as it is, that may actually require more money going to certain departments. Every department is different, so it’s hard to talk about in a concrete way at the national level. I wish I had clarified this in Tuesday’s edition, as it was one of the things that drew the most criticism.

Trent from Seattle, Washington, said,

“I'm reflecting on whether I want to continue recommending Tangle to others. Not because I don't think people should be reading Tangle, but because I don't feel that my opinion and perspective (primarily in terms of ideology, but also in terms of identity) on the issues you write about are often well-represented. I think I could do a better job of identifying and sharing political analysis that better represents and contextualizes my opinions among others.

In this case, I think that the abolitionist perspective and argument is a harsh omission… You mentioned ‘ACAB,’ and although you made no explicit connection to abolition, the connotation is perceptible and most definitely not an example of ‘elevating the best arguments of a given side,’ as Tangle claims to do.

I understand you only have so much space, but you prioritized establishing the goodness of cops and the difficulty of the profession above even mentioning abolition, as if the most relevant or best arguments are whether cops are good/bad or the profession is/isn't difficult. The abolitionist argument is representative of many (of course not all!) Black and people of color's opinions on this event and conversation. Omitting this argument is effectively omitting a chunk of people who have been (and will continue to be for the foreseeable decades) most impacted by and involved in addressing police violence. It's omitting a significant chunk of a marginalized demographic that's outnumbered both in your readership and more broadly throughout society.”

My thoughts: One of the things I often say about the standard Tangle format is that it’s designed to make sure a wide range of views is represented. If readers feel that they are not seeing their own perspectives, that probably means that I’m missing the mark. Yesterday, a few readers wrote in with disappointment that the case for abolishing or defunding the police and the perspective of people of color on this issue was not clearly addressed — and I think that’s a good gut check. In part, I think it happened because it wasn’t the standard Tangle format and because I haven’t embraced abolition as a realistic solution. That’s not a fair standard for the omission, though.

We don’t have great polling on abolishing or defunding the police, but one of the best pieces we do have was a Gallup survey of over 30,000 people taken at the height of the George Floyd protests last summer. It showed at the time that police abolition was supported by 15% of Americans and 22% of Black Americans and that it was most popular amongst younger voters (33% under the age of 35 support it). Those figures may have moved somewhat since then, but the breadth of the survey makes it a reliable indicator. At the same time, the survey found that 58% of Americans and 88% of Black Americans felt that “major changes” were needed in police departments. 70% of Black Americans strongly or somewhat supported reducing police department budgets. Finally, half of all Americans strongly or somewhat supported eliminating police enforcement of nonviolent crimes, which — more on this below — is also something I would love to see.

To that point: I don't think ACAB was my “perceptible connection to abolition.” I made a direct connection between “all cops are bastards” and “if you resist arrest you are going to get killed” as two refrains from the left and right that reduce the discourse to nothingness. I think my “perceptible connection to abolition” is my writing about reducing the roles police play in society, demilitarizing the police, and citing a direct example of a city successfully reducing the number of places police are involved in interactions with citizens — that and the one excerpt from a Libertarian writer at Reason arguing that cops don't need to ever be involved in traffic stops. Those are actual examples of removing police from certain types of emergency calls, mental health episodes, and traffic stops, as well as moving toward disarming departments. I think all of those are elements of the abolition movement that I support and that were referenced in the story.

All that being said, I regret not explicitly describing the abolitionist movement and giving it more space. Given that it drew support from 1 in 7 people, 1 in 5 Black people, and 1 in 3 young people in the Gallup survey, not including or exploring that viewpoint explicitly is a good callout — and is a good reason for a future deep dive or edition.

Thanks to another Tangle reader, I read Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing last year, which is probably the most often cited police abolition book on the planet. If you are interested in that argument, I encourage you to start there. Mariame Kaba, a famous abolitionist, writes that Black Americans are faced with the choice of suffering from violent crime or suffering violence from police. She argues for a third option: redirecting the billions that go to police departments into housing, education, and good jobs, thus making the need for police obsolete.

Finally, I will just note that I have written about this issue from a few different angles — the racial angle, the legislative angle, and I thought (in this case) a solutions-oriented angle. Trent is right, there is limited space, and we do our best, and sometimes we don’t provide the holistic picture we aim to.

More generally, I’ve heard from many progressives who feel the progressive left has been underrepresented in Tangle in the last couple weeks, and I’m trying to course-correct by including more of that writing in the “What the left is saying” section in my daily newsletters. That feedback is always appreciated, no matter which side of the spectrum it comes from.

Trent got a reply to an extended version of the response above back to me before this newsletter went out, so I’d also like to include that:

“I think that my observation that you made a stronger abolitionist argument in the context of Trump's pardons than in this coverage is my most effective criticism/feedback… Your description of demilitarizing police and supplanting officer responsibilities within the newsletter are arguments in favor of curtailing our police state, not abolition. You could have used these observations as a springboard into an abolitionist rationale and vision, but this wasn't present in your article and devoid of this extension, these arguments are just as much anti-abolition arguments as they are pro-abolition arguments…

Who knows what the data is on who abolitionists are? It's not a bad question to ask. I will say that many of my Black role models (just off the cuff—local: Shaun Scott, Nikkita Oliver, national: Chenjerai Kumyanika, and historical: Angela Davis) regularly present abolitionist ideas.

At what point do you include an argument not because it's representative of a chunk of people, but simply because it's a damn good argument? When I read or listen to stuff written by Scott, Kumyanika and Davis, I end up feeling like these are just sound, incredibly well sourced and read perspectives. Their analysis is so much more interesting, cogent and relevant than discussing the goodness or difficulty of being a police officer, for example…

I don't think it's viable in the near-term (20-30 years). But I don't think it will be viable in the long-term either if we aren't having genuine conversations of abolition as a viable long-term option. What's the end game with police brutality? You noted that the trends are declining since 2013. Only a fool would think that we can follow this trend and nip tuck our way down to a handful of police killings per year, let alone strip out the racism in policing, without abolitionist ideas. Our country is going to need to engage with and utilize abolitionist ideologies to get ourselves out of the dark on this. I think this will take decades and that we should start now.”

Sally from upstate New York said,

“You said roughly 1,200 people died as a result of a police interaction. How many everyday Americans killed someone else using their vehicle? Gov. Cuomo killed thousands of people in nursing homes during Covid and the state still can't get rid of him. Maybe he belongs to a union? Nowhere in your article do you hold people accountable for their choices and stupid mistakes. Why are only police and laws at fault in your story? When are people going to start to take a look at their own actions and how they can change and make our society safer? It's nice that you tried to write and put out some of this information, but people need to be more accountable for their own choices.”

My response: Ultimately, my frame of reference is that police should exist to protect and serve communities, so anytime we see these kinds of killings it’s a sign the system isn’t working. I think I gave significant space in this story to the difficulty of policing, the fact that the vast majority of police interactions are safe, that the odds of a police officer making a deadly mistake go up when someone resists arrest, and that many police officers are themselves experiencing mental health issues from their day-to-day work. As the feedback above illustrates, some people felt I gave it too much space.

I agree that people need to be held accountable for their actions. In this case: Daunte Wright was killed. So what’s going to happen to the officer? And that’s really my point. Our current imbalance is one where police are not being held accountable the way they should be, while people are dying or being imprisoned who should not be. Much of that, from my perspective, is thanks to various protections for police in the laws and the systems of policing we have. If we want real accountability, those things are going to need to be overhauled.

As for Gov. Cuomo, my feelings on him are no secret.

On media bias.

Mark from New York, New York, said,

“I think that as a journalist, it is your natural inclination to prescribe good intentions to your fellows. For example: ‘As a result, mistakes made by these outlets (like this 60 Minutes one) often seem to go in one direction (against Republicans).’ I really fail to see how the 60 Minutes piece could be framed as anything other than a hit job. Editing DeSantis's words to such an extent, and purposely avoiding investigating the story fully do not seem to be a mistake.

I appreciate the faith you have in your fellow journalists as being well-intentioned (which, for their own purposes, they are.) But the fact that there is a liberal bias in the media is not something that can simply be written off as it seems you sometimes do.”

My response: This is another spot I could take a mulligan. I agree that the 60 Minutes piece on DeSantis could be fairly described as a hit job. I also agree that I am naturally inclined to assume the best of others in the media world, many of whom I’ve worked with, interacted with, or ostensibly know. I also don’t think I am arguing that members of the media don’t have a liberal bias — I think a lot of them do. More precisely, my contention is that “the media” is not a monolith, and that if we’re discussing it as if it is one, I think it has to include YouTube, Facebook, talk radio, podcasts, and all the other platforms where people consume news. Taking all of those things together, I think the divide in media is fairly even.

That being said, I’ll go to bat briefly for journalists (because why not?) just to note that most reporters are really working-class people trying to do a bang-up job. Some newsrooms suck, and some news outlets are tough places to work, where incentives are bad (hence my impetus for starting Tangle), yet reporters are often framed as elite and out-of-touch. I think that’s fair to say about many folks you see on television. And I do think we need better small-town and broader racial representation in national newsrooms. But I don’t think reporters are nearly as out of touch, and certainly not nearly as evil, as many people seem to think.

Jeff from Aston, Pennsylvania, argued that the media is biased — but in favor of conservatives.

“So much of how the ‘liberal’ media adopts right-wing framing is more objective-sounding, making it far more effective in pushing right-wing talking points.

There are substantive examples tied to policy implications, like the NYT Metro section flat out lying to amplify fears around violent crime in cities. Or the AP talking about Trump's campaign strategy to act as though the pandemic was over in September of 2020 vs Biden's campaign talking about the actual issues facing America as simply "Dueling versions of reality." Then there's the flat-out insane obfuscation -- after Trump gassed peaceful protesters in DC, rather than talking about this unprecedented offensive against peaceful citizens to achieve a photo-op, the NYT ran the headline "As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End it Now.’"

CNN literally creates panel after panel of Republican operatives and then acts like they're impartial voters just straight-shooting to tacitly defend right-wing personalities, like this one they convened to support Brett Kavanaugh. Even complaints from journalists about Presidential Administrations being mean to the press get both-sidesed with Democrats somehow being framed more violently. Like when Ken Dilanian of NBC accused Biden's press secretary's of "press-bashing" for her use of the word "irresponsible" **as he is simultaneously saying** that being called "the enemy of the people" by the Trump administration was simply "wacky".

Thankfully, there are outlets that have noticed this ridiculous trend, with some even putting together "Best of the Worst" rundowns with clear, traceable instances of outlets like the NYT carrying water for Republicans.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the never-ending breathless outrage that comes out of right-wing media drives clicks, prompting the "liberal" media to cover it with credence as well.

I mean, why the hell does everyone know about the most minute publishing decisions of Seuss Enterprises? Because substanceless right-wing talking points get more coverage than meaningful left-wing policy solutions. That endemic sensationalist bias is much more consequential against Democrats than any benefit of the doubt Democrats may occasionally get due to the personal political leanings of some mainstream journalists.”

My response: I think there is some common ground with the argument I’m making here. The "mainstream" outlets often reply and work within the boundaries of parameters set by the right, which colors the things they are giving attention to. I agree that The New York Times covering Dr. Seuss book bans is a silly waste of time, and that it's only happening because the right has successfully spun up faux outrage about it by falsely characterizing it as something the “cancel culture” instigated when it was the publisher’s decision alone. But to me, that just speaks to the influence the "right" has in "alternative" news outlets outside this mainstream bubble, which fits into my larger point (above) that "the media" is this giant network of all these places and, in that context, the right still has at least as much influence and power as the left.

Still, I don’t think that changes the fact that most journalists at most of the most-watched news outlets are liberal, that most mistakes or corrections I see at legacy media outlets were errors that made the right look worse, and that the coverage of conservative politicians is overwhelmingly negative in the mainstream press. Is that bias or reality? We all have to navigate on a case-by-case basis. But I think it's clear liberal language dominates at news publications. I also still think the country would be better served if the right (and for that matter, the progressive left!) had better representation at institutions like The New York Times, which are still dominated by more moderate, centrist Democrats.

Arkansas trans bill.

Paul from Minnesota said,

“The government prohibits or regulates all sorts of things—that's what it means to have a government—but that doesn't mean that the human beings subject to such governance aren't really human beings who are capable of making choices. Of course we are capable of making choices. But not all of our choices are good, healthy, or just, and not all of the things we want to do should be permitted by law.

You suggest that conservatives contradict themselves when they support the bill in question. It might conflict with Libertarianism (or some versions of it), but not with a traditional understanding of conservatism. Conservatives do support a limited role for government, but that limited role is still important, and it includes things like protecting the welfare of children (and given the understanding of human nature and human flourishing that traditional conservatives tend to hold, the prohibited transgender procedures would likely be precisely the kind of harmful thing the state ought to protect against). They certainly do not contradict themselves when, consistent with that standard conservative worldview, they oppose transgender procedures on children.”

My response: What I'm arguing is not that the government can't or shouldn't regulate things. As another reader smartly pointed out, I probably wouldn’t advocate against the government banning conversion therapy, which is a good retort to “the government shouldn’t get to prohibit medical interventions for people.”

More precisely, I’m arguing that these lawmakers are ignoring the advice of the medical community and the wishes of trans children and their parents. This bill amounts to telling them that the Arkansas Legislature knows better — better than the doctors, better than the parents, better than the kids. Such a broad declaration and outright prohibition is not, in my opinion, upholding conservative values — many of which I admire myself. Instead, it's expanding the role of government to police a space that many conservatives, and especially these lawmakers, have no intimate knowledge or experience with. Institutions like the Endocrine Society have laid out guidelines on how to handle these interventions on a case-by-case basis.

That's not to say these treatments cannot sometimes be dangerous. They can. I think the jury, in some ways, is still out. I’m not a parent and I can’t speculate on how I’d handle my child wanting to go on puberty blockers or getting sex reassignment surgery. But that’s precisely my point: what I want is the freedom to talk to my child, talk to my child’s doctors, and make that choice as a parent. And while I agree that conservatives broadly want the government to protect us from ourselves, my understanding of limited government doesn’t include an intervention as broad and overarching as this.

It wasn’t all bad…

One reader wrote in about the story on the Arkansas bill and said “I just wanted to reach out and say thank you for covering the Arkansas law. As the father to a trans boy, it's a subject near and dear to my heart. At the end of the day, despite the fact that I don't understand at all the feelings my son has, it doesn't obviate the need to help my son, work closely with his care team and help him become the person that he is meant to be.  My understanding is orthogonal to the issue. My support and love are not. Anyway, thank you for all the great work you do.”

Another reader from Minneapolis wrote in about the Daunte Wright story and said, “I've never written in before, but I just wanted to express my gratitude for the way you handle these issues of policing with such nuance and sensitivity, as well as honesty. We live in a really broken world and it is encouraging to know that it is not just people here, in the Twin Cities, [who] are hurting and grieving but also seeing the flaws in extreme language on both sides of a situation like this. It's heartbreaking to even acknowledge that there are people out there who don't see a problem; who place the blame on those resisting arrest or struggling in an altercation with an officer.”

Erica from Minnesota wrote in about the vaccine passport edition to say “Loved your take on this; I completely agree. It’s a tricky thing, because people have argued that businesses should be able to require masks, so why can’t they require vaccines? But a vaccine is a *much* more personal decision than wearing a mask, and it’s something that goes into your medical record. Our medical privacy has been protected by HIPAA since 1996...  There are definitely exceptions, like you mentioned, like traveling and kids in public school, but this can’t fall into that category until the pandemic has been declared officially over. I wish there were some way to reward people who get vaccinated because anti-vaxxers make me super upset, and I think they legitimately pose a danger to our society’s well-being, but we can’t sideline the vaccine-hesitant with legitimate questions or those who don’t have access to the vaccine yet.”

Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration imposed significant economic sanctions on Russia over cyberspying and efforts to influence the election. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. Retail sales jumped 9.8% last month, the largest monthly gain since May. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  3. The United States House panel passed a bill to study reparations. (The New York Times, subscription)
  4. Politico published an excerpt from a new book on the “war” between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the progressive wing of the Democratic. (Politico)
  5. The number of coronavirus cases has continued to steadily rise, creating new fears that a quick, clean end to the pandemic may not be in the cards. (Axios)

See you tomorrow?

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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