Tag Archives: New York Times

SYNDICATED COLUMN: How the Media Manipulated the Democratic Primary

IMG_2255Though it might not always seem like it, the news media is composed of human beings. Humans aren’t, can’t be, and possibly shouldn’t be, objective. Still, there’s a reasonable expectation among consumers of political news that journalists of all political stripes strive to be as objective as possible.

At their minimum, media outlets ought to be straightforward about their biases.

They certainly shouldn’t have, or appear to have, their thumbs on the scales.

Unfortunately, all too often, it appears that the political system is rigged – and that the major media companies play an important role in gaming the system. That’s what has happened throughout this year’s Democratic primaries, in which the vast majority of corporate media outlets appear to have been in the bag for Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, against self-described “democratic socialist” insurgent Bernie Sanders.

Examinations of coverage have confirmed the impressions of cable news junkies that Sanders has been the victim of a blackout, thus depriving him of a chance to make his case to voters. When the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, scheduled the first round of Democratic debates at times the party hoped nobody would be watching – again, a seemingly obvious ploy to deprive Sanders of exposure – corporate media outlets had little to say about it.

Then there has been the media’s complicity in spreading Clinton campaign talking points that bore little relation to the truth.

MSNBC and other DNC-aligned media outlets kept pointing out that Clinton won 3 million more votes than Sanders. True, technically. But that’s pretending that caucus states didn’t exist. Sanders did better than Clinton in caucuses.

Most recently, they conflated pledged delegates – those won by a candidate based on votes cast – with superdelegates, the Democratic politicians and party officials who will be able to vote however they want at the convention this coming July. Back in November, an Associated Press survey found that Hillary Clinton – unsurprisingly – enjoyed the support of the vast majority of the superdelegates. Assuming that the superdelegates will not change their minds, the AP called the Democratic race for Hillary Clinton on Monday, the night before a set of important primaries, including California. Does anyone doubt that calling a race over as the effect of depressing voter turnout?

It’s impossible to quantify that effect, to know how many people didn’t bother to show up at the polls because they were told it was all over. In California, however, Hillary Clinton won 56% of the vote in a state where polls showed the two candidates neck and neck. (California’s state election officials also did their best to keep voters away from the polls.)

As a journalist, I’m reluctant to categorically argue that the AP ought to have held its statistical analysis of the race until after Tuesday’s vote. News ought not to be suppressed. When you have it, you ought to report it. Similarly, I’m not sure that the New York Times was wrong to report the AP story. However, I do question the editorial wisdom of running it as a banner headline. The United States is a democracy. We elect our leaders based on votes actually cast by real people, not polls. Even after Tuesday’s vote, Hillary Clinton still didn’t have enough pledged delegates to claim the Democratic nomination. Since those superdelegates aren’t going to vote until July, she won’t be able to really claim the nomination until then.

Agreed, it’s a silly system. But it’s the system the Democrats have. They – and the media – ought to abide by it. Besides which, think how embarrassing it will be if the Justice Department indicts Hillary between now and July. There’s a lot to be said for leaving things hanging.

The thing that disgusts me most about this system – besides the perpetual state of war, the manufacturing of mass poverty, the prison industrial complex, the miserable state of the justice system, the fact that it’s impossible to make a decent living working 40 hours a week – is that it doesn’t even pretend to follow its own rules in a consistent way. Consider, for example, how the New York Times couldn’t wait to report its “Hillary Clinton becomes first woman nominee from a major political party” story until after the primaries in California et al. Would one or two days have made a big difference? (Well, yes. Sanders might have won California.) If the idea is to get the story out first, no matter what, even if it suppresses the vote, I can respect that. But then they ought to be consistent.

It was a very different story back in 2004. A few weeks before the general election in November, the New York Times researched and came to the conclusion that George W. Bush, the incumbent, may have cheated in at least one of the presidential debates against Sen. John Kerry. Photographs of the debate clearly showed a suspicious bulge in Bush’s shoulder; the Times did report the story as a light he-says-she-says piece. But then experts concluded that the tongue twisted former governor of Texas had been using a receiver paired with an earphone in order to get advice and retorts to carry from an unknown co-conspirator.

Editors at the paper decided to hold a serious exposé until after the election so that its coverage would not affect the results. Then they killed it. Four more years of Bush followed.

Actually, the corporate media’s policy is brutally consistent. If holding a story benefits the forces of reactionary conservatism, it gets held. If releasing it does so, it gets released. Time after time, the system exposes itself for what it is.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His next book, the graphic biography “Trump,” comes out July 19th and is now available for pre-order.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Everyone But the Media Saw Trumpism Coming

  If you suck at your job, you’ll get fired.

If you suck because you’re lazy, you’ll definitely get fired.

Unless you’re a member of the political and economic establishment of a disintegrating superstate. If you’re incompetent and indolent but reliably loyal and unquestioning, your sinecure in the system that props up the powers that be is safe.

The New York Times, an institution so beholden to the establishment that it subjects a major presidential candidate to a media blackout and Orwellian post-publication memory-holing, is this week’s case study in establishmentarian unaccountability.

After effectively donating nearly half a billion dollars of free media coverage to the campaign of Donald Trump (or is it $1.9 billion? who can count?), corporate media is finally beginning to wonder whether teeing the country up for its first potential bona fide fascist dictatorship was a good idea.

In the Times, reliably mistaken op-ed columnist David Brooks allowed that, just maybe, opinion mongers like him ought to have noticed the building voter outrage over “free trade” deals like NAFTA and TPP — agreements supported by him and his paper’s editorial board — that gutted America’s industrial heartland and are driving the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns. “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else,” Brooks wrote March 18th.

“Moreover,” continued the man who thought invading Iraq would be a cakewalk, “many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.”

This is a stunning admission.

Let’s set aside the question of how likely it is that Brooks really will make the effort to get out more. (My guess: not very.) Why should the Times ­— and, more to the point, the readers whose paid subscriptions pay Brooks’ salary — keep a man on staff who admits that he sucks at his job because he’s too lazy to interact with the American people?

Brooks deserves to have plenty of company as he walks the unemployment version of the Long Green Mile.

On March 28th fellow Timesman Nicholas Kristof, famous for taking young men and women to Third World nations devastated by U.S. foreign policy (though I doubt he tells them why those dumps look so dumpy), went even further, in a piece titled “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump.”

“We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated,” Kristof wrote.

Most Americans are working-class. In other words, Kristof and his colleagues admit they don’t cover the problems that affect most Americans. Again: why does he still have a job?

Believe it or not, there are scores — maybe hundreds — of opinion writers who do know what’s going on in their own country. Who write well. Who get stories right. Pundits who saw the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders populist phenomena coming. But you won’t find any of them in the print pages of major newspapers like the Times, or even in the low-pay ghettos of their web-only content.

Because you can’t be a good journalist and a shill for a corporate media obsessed with access to the powers that be.

As usual in these moments of MSM navel-gazing, they almost get it right. Kristof continues: “Media elites rightly talk wabout our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”

Class diversity is a real thing. Newsrooms at stodgy institutions like the Times have their token women and people of color, but most are women and POC from well-off families. They attend expensive journalism schools that don’t offer scholarships, and thus don’t produce graduates from poor families and towns. As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prove, coming from a traditionally disadvantaged minority group is no guarantee that someone understands or cares about the troubles of the economically oppressed.

More to the point, we need a new class of intuitive journalists. Men and women with empathy. People who have a clue about what’s happening in their own country.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” is now on sale online and at all good bookstores.)

 

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Politics Behind a Paywall: If CNBC Sponsors a Debate, Did It Really Happen?

There are two kinds of media censorship: direct and self-directed.

In an authoritarian regime, nothing gets published or broadcast without state approval. I watched the inner workings of direct government control of the press during a visit to Turkmenistan. Every magazine and newspaper was run out of the same office. Many were edited by the same people, all wearing the same lapel pins, an image of the country’s then-dictator, Sapamurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.

This didn’t exactly make for a bunch of scintillating reads: the “our harvest rocks” stories were direct heirs of propaganda in the Soviet Union, of which the Turkmen SSR was a remote outpost. But it did offer clarity. The Turkmen people have never suffered from any illusions about the nature of their political system. They knew they weren’t free.

Censorship exists everywhere. In the so-called “free world,” however, political and cultural gatekeepers work to try to fool citizens into thinking that it does not. This morning, on NPR, I took note of an in-house ad in which an employee of the network claimed that it reports “unbiased news.”

There is, of course, no such thing as unbiased reporting or analysis. I’ve been listening to NPR for decades. In stories about foreign policy crises, never once have I heard an interview with a pacifist, someone who is against all military action. Whether it’s about Iran or ISIS, the “debate” is always between two varieties of interventionism: harsh (sanctions, i.e. “containment”) and harsher (bombs). If NPR’s “Marketplace” has ever interviewed a communist about why capitalism sucks and should be replaced, I missed it. Biased? You betcha. Always. Inevitably.

Here in the United States, censorship is usually self-directed. No one from the State Ministry of Propaganda calls The New York Times to tell them what’s fit to print. They make those decisions on their own. But those calls are informed by who those editors are — the elite schools from which they graduated (Columbia Journalism School), their class background (parents rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School), input from their friends and colleagues (other people whose parents are rich enough to send them to Columbia J-School). Who they are determines what makes it into print.

Which is often motivated by a desire not to offend those in power.

Major American media outlets are run by people who believe that they need access to those in power, which is to say government officials and corporate executives, in order to do their jobs. The Los Angeles Times, where I worked until July, fired me, apparently as a favor to the police. You see, I drew cartoons critical of police brutality and incompetence. The cops, understandably, didn’t like that. So they ginned up an excuse — since disproven — for the paper to get rid of me. Now they’re in a pickle. They know they messed up, but if they admit it they’ll hurt their relationship with the LAPD by revoking their favor to them. That might mean, the next time there’s a big O.J.-type crime story, that the LAPD refuses to feed them information.

A cartoonist colleague working in the Midwest tells me that, after he drew an anti-police cartoon, the cops stopped talking to his paper’s reporters. If the paper wants tips from the police, they’ve let his editors know, all they have to do is fire their cartoonist.

America, land of innovation, has now conceived of yet a third kind of media censorship: economic.

Last night, like millions of Americans, I turned on my TV to watch the third Republican presidential debate. Since I only subscribe to the basic cable package, however, I couldn’t get it. It only aired on CNBC, which where I live is on premium cable. (It didn’t livestream online either.)

I pay north of $120 a month for cable TV and broadband Internet access. This makes me a relatively privileged member of the mediarati. But not privileged enough. To watch a political debate — a civic ritual that used to be, and still ought to be, on every TV channel and radio station, free, by law — I would have to bump that up to something closer to $200. This is really, really wrong.

As a result, I — and other political commentators — are reduced to commenting on a debate as seen through the lens of media elites who have those $200 a month to spend.

Many millions of Americans, particularly young people, have “cut the cord” and watch only streamed television and movies. You can’t accuse them of apathy if you won’t let them participate in a presidential campaign.

Here’s how niche CNBC is. Debates sponsored by FoxNews and CNN averaged 24 and 23 million viewers, respectively. (After CNN offered livestreaming, Fox followed suit.) CNBC’s all-time viewing record is 3.9 million, during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Economic censorship is gross. But, much like the brazenness of censorship under a dictatorship, putting politics behind a paywall serves as an unintentional signifier. The system is not of, by or for you, the people.

It’s the ultimate triumph of pay-to-play electoral politics: democracy without voters.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Where Are the Passionate Editors?

          Stipulated: David Brooks isn’t that smart.

As editor of The Weekly Standard — the neo-con rag that served as the warmongering Der Sturmer of the Bushies — he endorsed the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He wrote a book, “Bobos in Paradise” (the “bobos” are “bourgeous bohemians”) that, aside from having the lamest title in the history of movable type attempted to coin a phrase to alongside “yuppies” and “hipsters” but never stood a chance.

Every now and then, however, the New York Times op-ed writer whose take on things uncannily mimics whatever happens to be the 50.000-yard line of mainstream corporatist politics writes something worth reading. (This distinguishes him from fellow militant centrist Tom Friedman.)

Brooks’ October 23rd column “Lady Gaga and the Life of Passion” is one of his more thought-provoking pieces, though probably not for a reason he might have hoped.

Born of staring-down-a-deadline laziness, “Gaga” came out of that most bobo of activities, sitting on one’s ass at a benefit dinner in a hotel banquet room. The shindig was thrown by Americans for the Arts, but that’s not important.

Brooks was enthralled by the musician Lady Gaga, who received an award. He quoted her: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.”

Brooks mused: “That passage stuck in the head and got me thinking. When we talk about living with passion, which is sort of a cliché, what exactly do we mean?”

I won’t rehash Brooks’ discourse about living with passion. Click the link if you’re so moved; he’s competent enough at expressing himself.

What struck me was Brooks’ hypocrisy.

Here is a man who, whatever else one can say about him, decidedly does not live his life with passion. He does not take risks. He does not say what he really thinks or really means, because doing so would greatly reduce his income stream. I mean, invading Iraq — seriously? No one with a brain thought that would go well. Even Brooks’ vocal delivery, as seen on NPR and PBS, defines the term “flat affect.”

More damning, he does not endorse the struggles of those who do live with the passion he praises in people like Lady Gaga.

To read him, you’d almost believe Brooks really, truly admires artists and others who take a chance. “[A] trait that marks them is that they have high levels of both vulnerability and courage. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her great book ‘Upheavals of Thought,’ to be emotional is to attach yourself to something you value supremely but don’t fully control. To be passionate is to put yourself in danger,” Brooks writes.

In this Brooks is absolutely right.

My chosen profession, political satire and commentary, is a high-wire act. To be really funny, to be really incisive, you have to be willing to express opinions that are unpopular — not provocation for its own sake, but in the service of ideas that are necessary to express.

If you’re any good as a political cartoonist, or artist, or singer, you’ll spend your career accumulating enemies. I draw 200 or 300 cartoons and write at least 100 essays a year. That comes to roughly 3500 pieces a decade, each expressing a political opinion. Not too many fans will stick with you through the one or 10 or 100 things you draw or write that really, really piss them off — even if they absolutely adored the other 90% of your work.

If the world needs artists with passion, as Brooks argues and I agree, how do we support them, emotionally as well as economically?

“People with passion have the courage to be themselves with abandon,” Brooks points out. “We all care what others think about us. People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion.”

Right. For passionate artists to survive or even thrive, then, cultural gatekeepers must themselves be willing to defy public opinion. There is no Lady Gaga without record company executives and concert promoters willing to distribute her music and put on her appearances.

There is no Ted Rall without editors willing to publish my work.

Editors are wimps. Journalists say that all the time. That was probably always true — but there were fewer wimps and more heroes in the past.

One of my first editors, at the Vandalia Chronicle in Ohio, got fired over one of my cartoons, about Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. I was in high school. When she called to tell me the news, I felt awful. She was cheery. Courage came naturally to her.

I can’t imagine an editor being willing to lose his job over something I drew today. I was fired by The Los Angeles Times last summer over a charge that was quickly proven to have been trumped up — yet no one at the Times spoke out, much less resigned, over an obvious injustice in the service of censorship. Years of budget cuts and downsizing have made editors who still have their jobs terrified of rocking the boat. All they want to do is coast to retirement before getting fired.

Brooks on the passionate: “There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react.”

True — but this will stop happening when there’s no one left to catch the passionate when they fall.

At the Times, where Brooks works, there has never been a columnist who truly took chances — much less one whose ideology was truly challenging to the status quo. There has never been a review of a truly revolutionary book, or CD, or play. “Experts,” though frequently wrong, are always drawn from among the usual middlebrow elites.

Brooks could dig deep into avant garde culture and politics if he wanted to. Which he clearly doesn’t. Every year around the December holidays, for example, he releases a list of magazine articles he recommends. Never, ever will you find him praising something that didn’t appear in the mainstream media.

There’s something really, truly weird about reading a paean to passion in a paper so dedicated to crushing it.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.CO

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United Rhapsody: Gag Me with A Pop Culture One Percenter

Culture has always been class-based. Rich people went to the opera; the poor listened to heavy metal. But what we read and watch and listen to is becoming segmented into more striations with wider gaps between them, reflecting income distribution.

I was thinking about this while reading that ultimate periodical for, by and about the richest one percent: The Sunday New York Times.

The Times is historically elitist: You get lots of reviews of classical music and fine arts, hardly anything about rock, hip-hop or comics. In Timesworld, a $150 dinner qualifies as a moderately expensive meal. A $650 hotel room is something you might actually consider.

But recently I’ve noticed that the gaps between what the Times prints to try to attract the audience targeted by its advertisers and the interests and tastes of most of its upper-middle-class striver readers are getting more pronounced. Just this weekend, I was tearing through the Sunday edition. (Despite lower page counts, it is still a whale of a paper.) I did it in under an hour.

united rhapsodyThe Times doesn’t have many pieces I want to read anymore.

The paper was always a pretentious publication. Now it’s pretentious and blah. The Times delivers too many puff pieces on corporate executives, too many political horserace articles minus actual politics and way too many dreary profiles of boring authors, musicians, etc.

But the really big change in The Times? It’s the tone of the stuff they print.

Good writing draws you in no matter what the topic. A decade or two ago, you could count on The Times, more so than The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, to print words strung together in a way that would make you care about anything from asparagus cultivation to arbitrage. Now, not so much. Everything in there reads like it was written by a pod person on a triple dose of Prozac.

The Times is all flat-line affect.

Which, in a way, is interesting — interesting in a dull way but still interesting: You see, to make it as a successful journalist in 2015, you have to be able to make videotaped mass beheadings dull.

This is, in a way, a skill. But who has time to read it?

united rhapsody review ted rallSo, today I read The Times in a slow-down-to-check-out-the-car-wreck way. And I came across an item that brought home the widening cultural class divide. Here it is:

Breaking News!  United Airlines has a new in-flight magazine, but it’s only for those who pay top dollar for flights. And it only features the type of literary fiction Timesians like long-time book critic Michiko Kakutani classify as “high-end.”

Good God.

Reports Alexandra Alter:

“As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier , more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose “

united rhapsody review ted rallAlter continues, “There are no airport maps or disheartening lists of in-flight meals and entertainment options in Rhapsody.”

But wait. Rich people don’t need airport maps? How do they navigate airports — teleportation?

“Instead,” she writes, “the magazine has published ruminative first-person travel accounts, cultural dispatches and probing essays about flight by more than 30 literary fiction writers.”

She reports a list of authors that includes “literary stars like Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Amy Bloom, Emma Straub and Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years ago.”

I’m glad I’m in Coach. Every one of those writers bores the shit out of me.

To paraphrase the fictional Nazi in Hanns Johst’s play via Mission of Burma, whenever I hear the phrase “literary fiction” I reach for my revolver. Then I run away screaming.

Fiction is good or bad. There is no such thing as non-literary fiction.

united rhapsody review ted rallPurveyors of literary fiction sometimes wonder aloud why their non-genre genre doesn’t get more attention (from the marketplace). Though I infrequently observe a relationship between quality and sales, I can answer this question: literary fiction is written for an upper crust, very white, well-educated but not-as-smart-as-they-think sliver of the word-consuming public — whose number is too small to create a Stephanie Meyer-scale bestseller.

Ninety years ago, these would be the same people who hate Hemingway.

They hate anyone just for writing non-MFA approved sentences that anyone could read, understand, enjoy — and not notice.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, who argued that any library would be improved simply by the absence of any books by Jane Austen, I will endure United’s cramped coach class more stoically thanks to my awareness that there isn’t a copy of Rhapsody in the seat pocket in front of me.

The Times, again:

A United marketing flack ‘said the quality of the writing in Rhapsody brings a patina of sophistication to its first-class service, along with other opulent touches like mood lighting, soft music and a branded scent.’ “

Gag me with a plastic TSA-approved spoon.

But wait, there’s more …

‘We’re not going to have someone write about joining the mile-high club,’ said Jordan Heller, the editor in chief of Rhapsody. ‘Despite those restrictions, we’ve managed to come up with a lot of high-minded literary content.’”

Listen. There was a time, not long ago, during my own young adulthood, back when upper middle class and upper class people read the same books and magazines. The former aspired to the latter; the latter imagined themselves in touch with the former.

Now there’s literary fiction, a category designed as an exclusion.

In music, this is jazz. In movies, it’s documentaries and art films. It’s NPR and The Times and the Democratic Party.

Today, the rich live in gated communities of the mind. Every house and every person inside them look and talk exactly the same. No weeds on the perfectly manicured lawns.

Just boring, bland, flat bullshit.

As much as they work to keep us out, I know what keeps the cultural one percenters awake at night: Their very real fear that we don’t want to get it.

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Ils Ne Sont Pas Charlie

1-12-15

The massacre of political cartoonists at a satirical magazine in Paris prompts American newspapers and magazines to express “solidarity” with cartoonists – even though they have been firing them for years.

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Ship of Fools

A Company Run By One Genius Supervising Thousands of Morons

Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin notes the difference between the way boards compensate their CEOs and ordinary workers. CEOs get more pay than they request because they think the best CEOs get paid the most. But they don’t have the same idea about the rest of us.

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The 7% Solution

The 7% Solution to Ferguson

From the New York Times, August 19, 2014: “Encouraging more participation in the democratic process in a community that feels alienated from political power – hence the demonstrations – seems like an obviously good idea; and one that’s particularly compelling because it’s so simple. Voting is an alternative to protesting in the streets.” The establishment, especially Democrats, are starting voter registration drives and using Ferguson as a rallying cry in black communities. According to the statistics, blacks are 7% short of no longer falling prey to trigger-happy white cops.

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