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Angels, demons, and videotape
What happened in Central Park last year and what it tells us about journalism (plus the usual smorgasbord of brain food).
Any Cooper, in a still from Christian Cooper’s video taken in Central Park, May 2020.
In 1986 the Guardian made an ad for itself that is regarded as one of the best ads ever made. It was made by BMP and directed by Paul Weiland, responsible for many great ads. It plays a neat trick on the viewer. We see a story unfolding and quickly make assumptions about what is going on. There is a car and a man running, so we assume he’s running from the car. Then the angle changes and you can clearly see the man is a skinhead, that he’s running at a middle-class commuter and seizing his briefcase. The skinhead triggers a stereotype – thug – and a narrative: the commuter is being mugged. Then Weiland shows us the incident from another angle, and our assumptions are overturned. The skinhead wasn’t attacking the businessman; he was trying to save him from a falling pile of rubble. The bad guy was actually a good guy. Our narrative was all wrong.
The message of the ad was that this is what the Guardian does for readers. When other newspapers are reporting an event one way, a way that plays to our lazy presumptions, we show you different angles so that you get “the whole picture”. Now, we can debate how true that is or was of the Guardian, but I see this thirty-second-Rashomon as essentially an ad for Journalism. It is a brilliant dramatisation of what is probably the most valuable function of journalists: refusing to take narratives at face value, even or especially when that’s what everyone else is doing. That’s what distinguishes journalists from tweeters or YouTube ranters. Journalists check our stories about what’s going on against the facts and give us different, more truthful angles.
I thought of Weiland’s ad when listening to Bari Weiss’s new podcast about the Central Park birdwatching incident. In May 2020, right after the George Floyd video shocked the world, another video was going viral. It showed Amy Cooper, a white woman, engaged in an argument with the man holding the camera, who, it turned out, was Christian Cooper, a black man, and a birdwatcher.
Amy is handling her dog, Christian is asking her to tether it. She says, in an agitated tone, that unless he stops filming she will call the police and tell them “an African-American man” is threatening her life. We see her call emergency services, and claim, in an increasingly distressed tone, that she is being threatened by an African-American man. Christian remains calm and keeps filming.
When the video was published it went viral. The story was obvious. Amy Cooper, a banker, was using her middle-class white privilege to incriminate an innocent black man, by inventing a threat and “performing” distress. Her action was even interpreted as a threat on Christian’s life, via the proxy of brutally racist police. This story was told, with minor variations, by the New York Times, the Guardian, and most mainstream news outlets.
The opinion columnists piled in, portraying the incident as a microcosm of America’s racial injustice. They described Amy as a “Karen”: a pushy middle-class white woman who deploys a racist system for her own ends (for more on Karenism read this account of it). They compared the incident to Emmett Till, a black boy who was brutally beaten and murdered by a KKK gang while the police turned a blind eye, after a white woman accused him of offending her.
What if any of the news organisations reporting on this video had switched the angle? They might have discovered a different story, in which the good guys and bad guys are not quite so clear cut, and there isn’t a gleaming moral to be extracted. But none of them were interested in doing so, since the story appeared to capture the cultural zeitgeist so perfectly. In the vernacular of British tabloid hacks, it was just “too good to check”.
The task of investigating it more thoroughly has fallen to Bari Weiss and Kmele Foster. Weiss is a former New York Times columnist. She’s a conservative (trigger warning: at the start of the podcast she makes a sponsored endorsement of The Spectator) who left the Times because she believed it had been taken over by woke ideologues. It’s Weiss’s show but the reporting is done by Foster, a podcaster, businessman and prominent critic of “antiracist” orthodoxy (he’s worth a follow on Twitter). Foster has done a deep dive into the background of the incident, including an interview with Amy Cooper, parts of which are played here. He turns up a whole lot of new and very pertinent information. In fact, he presents us with a version of events that plays out like Weiland’s ad – a different narrative altogether.
Amy Cooper was walking her dog early in the morning and wandered into a secluded part of Central Park, with nobody else in sight. She let her dog off the leash. Suddenly she heard a man bellowing at her. She turned around to see the man acting annoyed with her. When she failed to comply immediately with his instruction to tether her dog, he made an ambiguous threat. He said, “If you’re going to do what you want to do, then I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But you’re not going to like it.”
Amy was trying process this when the man did something weird. He took some dog treats out of his knapsack and started to call her dog over to him. In his other hand he held a bike helmet in a way that made Amy wonder if he planned to attack her dog, or her, with it. We don’t just have her word for this, by the way. Christian described himself threatening her like this, using exactly those words, in a Facebook post he wrote about the incident, prior to the video going viral.
In fact, this wasn’t the first time Christian had used such a tactic. Amy had accidentally walked into the middle of a polarised battle between dog walkers and birdwatchers that has been rumbling on for years in Central Park, and indeed other city parks across the country. In New York, Christian was known by locals as one of its most energetic combatants. Foster tracks down other dogwalkers, including a black man, who got almost exactly the same treatment from Christian, right down to the gripping of the bike helmet, and who found it intimidating for the same reasons.
Of course, for a woman alone there is an extra dimension of peril. Amy, who was a victim of a sexual assault while at college, was not “performing” distress. She was absolutely terrified. She was by herself in a secluded place with a hostile man who was acting erratically and threatening her. Put yourself in her position - how would you feel?
From this angle, the moral polarity of the story seems somewhat different. It starts to sound almost like a “Me Too” incident: a man using his superior physical power to dominate an isolated woman. If you’re going to do what you want to do, then I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But you’re not going to like it.
The news media did not even try and see it differently, however. Journalists accepted Christian’s account of the incident uncritically, and were uninterested in Amy’s version. When the New York Times reported on the story, they didn’t include the words he said prior to the clip we all saw, even though they had access to them. Perhaps they felt that would have made the story unnecessarily complicated. The news media didn’t report this story so much as retell it.
I’m sure I haven’t answered all your questions about the video here and I strongly recommend listening to the full podcast, because there is more to it. Weiss does an excellent job, as presenter, of asking the kinds of questions a sceptical viewer should ask of Amy’s account, and of Foster’s account of Amy’s account. The point is not that “actually Amy is Good and Christian is Bad”. It’s that this incident has been portrayed as a simplistic morality tale when the reality is much more complex and nuanced - and that this was a failure of journalism.
We know that social media incentivises hot takes and instant outrage. Of course it does. But that’s why we have professional journalists, isn’t it? In this case, as in others, the professional media failed to perform their most vital task: looking beneath the surface of a social media narrative and asking difficult questions of it.
In the wake of Trump and Brexit, there has been a lot of handwringing among liberal journalists over whether the goal of “objectivity” is a legitimate one. Reporting is always subjective – so why not take sides honestly? Why not practice “moral clarity”? In an interview, the NYT’s editor Dean Baquet responded to this question by describing objectivity as an “elegant goal”; something to strive towards, even if it is not easily put into practice. His guiding principle, he says, is empathy. He wants to build a newsroom “that listens to people, that hears people, that doesn’t laugh at people, that is truly empathetic and embracing.” Baquet describes walking through a student demonstration against racism in Union Square, and wanting to know what everyone is thinking – the students, but also the cops.
I like this because it describes not so much a theory as a mindset. Baquet calls it empathy, I’d prefer to call it open-minded curiosity (many people read empathy as implying sympathy, which it does not, necessarily; empathy is neutral). I don’t mind how journalists define what they do in a philosophical sense. But I do want them to be open-minded, I do want them to be genuinely curious, and I do want them to be - as a consequence - suspicious of all moralising narratives, especially those which accord with their own worldview.
Social systems, from a marriage to a society, run on feedback loops, everyone influencing everyone else. Systems theorists talk about two different kinds of loop which interact with each other, sometimes called “reinforcers” and “inhibitors”. Reinforcers amplify what is already happening and generate energy; inhibitors slow things down and stop the system from swinging out of control. In our news ecosystem, social media is a massive reinforcing loop – a video gets shared, people go batshit about it, which makes another group people even crazier, everything escalates.
Journalism ought to act as an inhibitor, dampening the febrile spread of misconceptions and misinformation, helping us to make less knee-jerk, more considered judgements. But for it to play that role, we need journalists who positively enjoy the work of undermining narratives, and who take as their mission something close to James Baldwin’s description of the poet’s responsibility: “to defeat all labels and complicate all battles.” Yet we appear to have fewer of those than ever.
Too often, news organisations and their employees act only as reinforcers, coming in behind a viral story and giving it rocket boosters. This is partly because they are hungry for clicks. It’s also because the mindset of journalists has changed. They no longer have much fealty to the traditions inherited by Baquet and his generation. They see their job as fighting for one side of a political battle. It hardly occurs to them to seek out information which undermines a story that bolsters their own side.
This puts us all at the mercy of one of the biggest, most explosive reinforcers in the system: viral videos. The dangerous thing about videos is that they seem objective. They give us the impression that we’re getting direct access to reality, without the mediating intervention of the media or anyone else. We can see it with our own eyes. But videos are just a sample of reality, and a highly unreliable one, as the Weiland ad shows us. We don’t see what happened to Amy Cooper before the point at which the tape starts playing, or after it. We don’t see all the angles.
Furthermore, we never view a video “objectively” but only through the lens of our own prejudices. This week Amanda Knox was in the news. I was reminded that a big part of the reason the world assumed she was guilty was because of a video of her kissing her boyfriend. (I wrote about it here.) People just presumed they could read her mind through her face, as if her face offered reliable evidence of anything. They overlaid stereotypes about sex-mad femme fatales on an innocent young woman. The Knox story happened before social media had got into its full galloping stride. Now, whenever viral videos which fit our moral prejudices bubble up, as with the Covington case, a narrative is imposed by social media, and news organisations supercharge it. By the time others come along and point out it’s not quite like that, the carnival has moved on.
In the public mind, there is no doubt about who the demon was in the Central Park story, and who was the angel. Amy Cooper was universally condemned and abused in the most vile and violent terms imaginable. She was fired from her job. She was prosecuted for misleading the police (she was later cleared). Her dog was even taken away from her for a while (she was fostering it). People took to the streets to protest her actions. Politicians proposed laws to stop the police responding to emergency calls from racists. She is now effectively in hiding, fearful of venturing into any public space in case she is attacked. Amy Cooper’s life has been wrecked. She is roadkill. Christian Cooper went on to get a book deal and a meeting with Joe Biden.
It’s a pity that Weiss and Foster’s investigation had to happen outside a mainstream news organisation (Foster isn’t even a journalist). Still, you’d have thought that any journalist would be at least interested in what they have turned up. But apparently not. A prominent journalist – from the Guardian, as it happens – merely scorned Weiss for talking to “unimportant racists”. The phrase drips with arrogance and condescension. But it is the incuriosity that astounds me, the blithe dismissal of alternative narratives, the staunch resistance to having a settled case re-opened. That’s the opposite of what should be the journalistic mindset.
Journalists, like good novelists, should be curious about everything and empathetic about everyone. They should seek to tell a different story, not the story everybody else is telling. They should instinctively want to report on what it felt like to be Amy Cooper that morning in Central Park, as well as Christian Cooper. The corollary of this attitude is a deep suspicion of stories with angels and demons which perfectly fit our own story about how the world is. Moral clarity means nothing to report.
Standards of peak athletic performance have been steadily rising for decades, due to better physical conditioning and advances in shoe and track technology. You can see it most plainly in how the bodies of athletes have changed. On the left, above, is the world’s best swimmer fifty years ago, Mark Spitz; on the right, Caeleb Dressell, who won five golds in Tokyo.
I found this image in Joseph Pompliano’s newsletter on the business of sport (with a US focus), Huddle Up. In a recent post he discusses an industry called “human performance optimisation” (HPO), looking at it through the lens of Olympic sport.
Joseph points out how hard it is getting to get better. Dressell can swim 100m about four seconds faster than Spitz. That’s a very long time in a sprint event. But it actually marks a slowing in the rate of improvement. In the 40 years from 1932 to 1972, seven seconds was taken off the record. In the 49 years from 1972, 4 seconds.
I’ve long been struck by a thought that is weird but kind of obvious once you see it: at some point, these records will stop being broken. The rate of improvement will continue to slow over time until it grinds to a halt. Nobody is ever going swim 100m in one second, or jump a thousand feet in the air, or throw a shot putt a mile (that is, until we enter the cyborg era). That means someone, some time, is going to make the fastest time/biggest jump/longest throw ever, and their record will never be broken.
Anyway, I digress. Pompliano’s point is that the harder these fractional improvements become to achieve, the more money and science will be thrown at them, and the more the resulting advances will translate into HPO applications for the rest of us. Right, I need a lie down.
For the New Statesman, I wrote about Kevin Feige, the most powerful man in Hollywood; the visionary geek behind Marvel’s extraordinary rise to dominance.
This video of the (grocery delivery service) Ocado warehouse is mindblowing. Obviously we should not draw conclusions from it about the moral character of the bots.
A really good piece on Simone Biles and “the twisties” by Elle Reeves. It goes into greater depth than most reports and provides real insight into the psychology of elite gymnastics.
Robert Bjork is one of the great cognitive psychologists. He specialises in learning and education (I wrote about his work in Curious). He works with his wife Elizabeth, also a psychologist. This primer on the Bjorks’ major research findings, written for teachers, is really well done, and handy if you want a cheat sheet on the basic science of how we learn.
I recently enjoyed reading this 2018 post by Scott Alexander. It’s a critique of an article by the science fiction writer Ted Chiang, in which Chiang argues, with polemical verve, that the reason Silicon Valley types are raising the alarm about AI superintelligence is that their mental model of it resembles their model of capitalism: endlessly extractive, amoral, relentless. Alexander very methodically pulls the piece apart, which was eye-opening for me, because I remember reading Chiang’s piece and being really impressed by it. So this ended up being a good mental exercise. By reading Alexander, I was able to reflect on why Chiang’s prose had dazzled me into buying what is - I agree with Alexander - an essentially empty argument. I recommend reading Alexander’s post. But first, read Chiang, and let yourself be persuaded by it.
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity.
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