When Kenosha Might Have Burned Again, Local TV News Coverage Calmed the Flames their Broadcast Networks Fanned

On January 5th, Michael D.  Graveley, District Attorney of the County of Kenosha, Wisconsin, called a news conference to explain why charges would not be brought against Officer Rusten Sheskey for shooting Jacob Blake on August 23, 2020.  During August anti-racism protests in response to a black man being shot seven times by a white police officer, rioting had led to two deaths and to fifty million dollars in damage to over one hundred businesses in Kenosha, including forty that were shut down for good with the loss of many jobs.

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Graveley was joined at the podium by Noble Wray, former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief and head of Police Practices and Accountability in the Obama Administration.  An expert in police procedures and an African American, Wray was selected by the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office, which had been mandated by Graveley to review the use of force in that incident.

Both District Attorney Graveley and Noble Wray emphasized that the police had been called by the mother of Blake’s three children, who expressed her fear that Blake was going to take her SUV vehicle and one or more of her children, without her permission.  Also, the police were aware that Blake had a warrant for his arrest from a prior domestic abuse incident.

Graveley and Wray asserted that Blake did not comply with the commands of the officers, whom he fought when they tried to arrest him.  Twice, they tried to stop him with tasers.  Also, according to the officers and other witnesses, he was carrying a knife through most of the confrontation, which had opened with the blade exposed.

The police tried to prevent Blake from getting into the SUV.  At least one of the children (or perhaps all three -- the report is not clear perhaps because it covers different stages in time) was in the back seat.  Officer Sheskey grabbed Blake by his shirt and then, according to Sheskey and at least one other officer and a couple of civilian witnesses, Blake “twisted his body, moving his right hand with the knife towards Officer Sheskey.” 

The case was much complicated by the administrative failures of the Kenosha Police Department to equip its officers with body cameras, though a witness’s cell-phone video did capture some of the audio police commands.  That video did record Blake carrying a knife and a male voice yelling, “Drop the knife!” at least twice.

Summarized at the press conference by both Graveley and Wray, the report asserts:

“Officer Sheskey stated the knife was approximately two feet from him….  Officer Sheskey feared Jacob Blake was going to stab him with the knife but knew that he could not retreat because the child was in the car and could be harmed, taken hostage, or abducted by Jacob Blake.  Officer Sheskey stated that for these reasons, he discharged his firearm [seven times] towards Jacob Blake.”

Another officer similarly described the situation, noting that the blade was “pointing up.” 

Both District Attorney Graveley and Noble Wray emphasized that Officer Sheskey could not let Blake leave with a child or children during a domestic dispute incident lest a police chase ensue, and that the officer fired his gun only after Blake turned toward him with the knife, bringing the blade closer to the officer.  They both invoked the findings of the Chief Medical Examiner which revealed that three shots were in Blake’s side and four shots in his back, and that this seems to corroborate the claim of the officers and other witnesses that the first shots were fired as Blake “twisted his body, moving his right hand with the knife towards Officer Sheskey,” and that the shots to the back occurred when Blake turned due to the first three shots and finally dropped the knife to the floor of the vehicle.

Because of the strong case for self-defense and for the need to prevent the taking of the children under any circumstance, dictated by the warrant, both Graveley and Wray insisted that they could not make a criminal case against Officer Sheskey, even though Jacob Blake was, tragically, paralyzed from the waist down by the shots.  They were visibly moved that Sheskey rendered immediate aid to Blake until the paramedics arrived, urging Blake to survive.

I was curious about national coverage of the press conference by the traditional three broadcast networks on their January 5 evening news, so I taped those programs in advance. 

None of them related the police concern about the danger of a car chase had Blake driven off with children in the car, as their mother feared when she called in her concerns.  None of them mentioned the theory that three shots were fired to Blake’s side because he had turned toward Officer Sheskey with the knife, and that four more shots were fired to the back as the first three shots forced him to pivot and to drop the knife.

The CBS national reporter divulged that “prosecutors say that Blake was holding a knife when Officer Sheskey shot him multiple times in the back” (echoing the anchor’s opening to the half hour) and related the finding of self-defense without providing any detail.  The story emphasized the city’s being “on edge” and bracing for more trouble.  How does such “reportage” help to ease tensions?

The NBC national anchor’s provocative and, according to the press conference being “reported,” misleading opening words for the entire program were, “No charges for the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back.” He later remarked that Blake was shot “in the back as he leaned into a car.”

As on CBS, there was immediate focus on the “mounting outrage” in Kenosha.  The reporter parroted: “seven times in the back.” He related the D.A.’s statement that Blake was armed with a knife and that the officer “could have successfully argued self-defense.” Brief video footage of Graveley does relay his description of the domestic abuse call and of the warrant.  Also, the reporter spoke of Blake walking to the car with his three young sons, citing family members instead of the official report which stated that the children (or one child?) were already in the car.  Appended to this story was a video clip from Dateline NBC, in which Blake’s father said that his son suffered “seven shots to the back” for not stopping when hateful police officers commanded it.  Nothing was said about the emphasis at the press conference on the Medical Examiner’s finding that three shots were to the side.  The reporter did conclude with the family’s call for peaceful protests.

ABC’s national anchor announced “no charges against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back” before the reporter noted that Blake struggled with officers who were called about a “domestic dispute” and who were unable to stop him with a taser.  Graveley is shown declaring that Blake was “clearly armed with a knife.” The dispatcher’s recording was played about a complaint that Blake had taken car keys, but no other details were given except that Blake “appears to lean into the driver’s side of the car” when Officer Sheskey “opens fire.” ABC News began and ended the segment with attention to fences and boards being placed around Kenosha in anticipation of further rioting.  Was a reference to 500 National Guard personnel intended as a deterrent against such further violence -- similar to the approach of CBS News?

In all fairness to the network reports, they were aired around two hours after the press conference began.  But how could they have missed the key points? 

In our local Chicago news, the affiliates of “the three networks” (ABC, CBS and NBC) did somewhat better by the time their 10:00 p.m. news rolled around, but not much better.  They all began with inciteful (not insightful) concerns about further civil unrest in Konesha as a result of the press conference.  They did relate, in the report or in video clips, that Blake was carrying a knife, and that the police had concerns about his driving off with children.  But they all omitted the crucial allegation that the shots fired to Blake’s left side may have been provoked by his pivoting toward Sheskey with knife in hand.

The NBC5 Chicago reporter did relate that police are trained to stop firing only when the suspect is no longer considered a threat.  Of the three main Chicago news franchises, her report alone noted that not all shots were to the back, and that the district attorney said that the first shots were fired toward Blake’s side, perhaps forcing him to turn his back toward the officers as more shots were fired.  She alone provided the information given at the press conference that the police officer still had ten more bullets in his gun and had helped Blake until paramedics arrived. 

In the ABC7 Chicago coverage Noble Wray was quoted as stating that the officer followed training and protocol.  A video clip has him share that it has been a “stressful endeavor” to have been an African American male involved in policing for 37 years and that “I feel it in the worst way” but that his decision had to be “grounded in the facts.” Also moving was a video clip shown of D.A. Graveley acknowledging that the Blake family and Jacob Blake himself have “tried to be truly positive forces in the community, asking the community to have peaceful but real dialogue about change.”

I checked on how Milwaukee’s “big three” network news outlets covered the press conference in their 10:00 news programs.  They did a creditable job -- indeed, a yeoman job when one factors in the failures of the national and Chicago coverage.      

Though the anchor’s introduction began with a provocative reference to “shockwaves not only in Kenosha but really all across the country,” reporter Mark Stevens of CBS58 related the concern that Blake was going to “take a child and take the car,” that Blake struggled with officers, that taser attempts had failed, that he had a knife, and that the warrant against him required an immediate arrest.  Video showed Wray asserting that "officers in the State of Wisconsin are trained to shoot until the threat has stopped." But nothing was said about the crucial allegation that Blake pivoted with knife in hand toward the police. 

Part of the 911 call was played in which the mother claimed that Blake had crashed vehicles in the past.  The segment also showed video of Mr. Wray stating that Wisconsin officers are trained to shoot until the threat has stopped.  In a video bite Wray shares his awareness of a “history of racism on top of racism” and adds that “we are trying to work through this.  But we cannot work through this by just trying to find a decision that is comfortable with people.” Reporter Stevens concluded by noting that Graveley called in Federal investigators for a “second opinion.”

The anchor of NBC TMJ4 led into the story with optimism, observing that while streets are barricaded and businesses boarded up in Kenosha, protests have “stayed peaceful.”  Reporter Ben Jordan began his coverage by emphasizing that Graveley was obligated to press charges only if he believed they could be upheld in court.  Jordan competently and cogently related in narrative and video the special considerations involved in a domestic abuse case, the finding that Blake “turned toward” the police officer with the knife, and the police concern that were Blake not stopped, they might have faced a “vehicle pursuit with a kid in the car.” 

ABC WISN’s Derrick Rose immediately conveyed the DA’s contention that Blake made a “stabbing motion” with the knife, and that official police policy is to shoot until the perceived threat ceases.  Of all of the coverage I have screened, the most pertinent and telling clips from the DA’s press conference were shown in this news segment.  Rose provided balance by showing video of Graveley quoting Blake to the effect that he had no intention of pulling a knife on an officer and by acknowledging the feelings of many that seven shots were excessive force and that a Federal investigation is underway.  He alone showed a video clip of Wray reflecting, “At one point in time did Blake drop the knife? Was it at four shots, at three shots, at six shots, which is hard to determine?”

Of all the big three broadcast network and their local affiliates, the Milwaukee reporters, especially Ben Jordan and Derrick Rose, best conveyed the salient points of the press conference. 

There were four factors, it seems at first analysis, that may account for Kenosha escaping a second round of destruction:   

  • The call for peace by Jacob Blake’s family;
  • the orderly protests that occurred in the days before the press conference;
  • the painstaking presentations of the DA and consultant Noble Wray;
  • the responsible Milwaukee broadcast news coverage

On ABC’s Good Morning America (January 14) Michael Strahan asked good and helpful questions.  Blake admitted that he should not have picked up the knife once it dropped after he was tased.  He stated his belief that the police would let him go if he walked away from them and made it to his car.  He denied turning the knife toward Officer Sheskey and claimed that the officer had never identified himself.  The latter issues will have to be explored in any Federal or civil inquiries.  Meanwhile, Strahan’s questioning familiarized his audience with police protocol that any movement toward an officer with knife in hand -- or other object, for that matter -- or any attempt to walk away from an officer and head toward a motor vehicle occupied by children, especially when there is a warrant in a domestic abuse case, is, by current law, at least in some places, sufficient cause for an officer to fire his gun multiple times until the knife is dropped.

Again, the focus of the news media on this could save life and limb.  It could also open up discussion of the policy and on how a change in protocols could affect children in vehicles.

District Attorney Graveley’s report quotes Jacob Blake to the effect that he had dropped the knife but then picked it up again because it was given to him as a gift and meant a lot to him and he wanted to put it away in the car.  The news media should have conveyed this detail because it would have provided critical warning that anyone being arrested or even approached by the police should not cling to any weapon for any reason, even out of sentimental concerns, or to any object that could be construed as a weapon.  Such information could prevent individuals confronted by the police from being injured or killed.  The media can still report it.

According to District Attorney Graveley’s report, Jacob Blake said that he didn’t think clearly because he was angry and frightened at the thought that the police might do him harm, and could not focus on their commands nor understand why the officers had tased him.  The report reveals that Blake had worked as an armed security guard and that he had used tasers and knew how to disarm them by pulling out wires and prongs.  Why have the news media not cited these statements, which have been on line for weeks, thereby highlighting the dangers for anyone stopped by the police of fighting back or simply not surrendering out of fear or anger?