The annual award, which honors individuals in the media or media-related fields who have advanced national understanding of the 21st-century challenges of criminal justice, will be presented at a John Jay College dinner Feb. 15. Moyers was most recently executive producer of “Rikers,” a documentary on New York’s troubled jail facility.
Bill Moyers, a legend in broadcast journalism for four decades, has been selected as the 2018 Justice Media Trailblazer, an award given annually by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Crime Report to honor individuals in the media or media-related fields who have advanced national understanding on the 21st-century challenges of criminal justice.
Most recently, Moyers was the executive producer of Rikers: An American Jail. The riveting documentary brings viewers face to face with men and women who have endured incarceration at the country’s largest jail facility. Their stories, told directly to camera, vividly describe the cruel arc of the Rikers experience—from the shock of entry, to the extortion and control exercised by other inmates, the oppressive interaction with corrections officers, the torture of solitary confinement, and the challenges of reentering civil society.
RIKERS, which won a 2017 Robert F. Kennedy journalism award, is a production of Schumann Media Center, Inc. and Brick City TV LLC, in association with Public Square Media, Inc.
“Bill Moyers has been honored in many venues for his journalism, but the John Jay Trailblazer award is a way of recognizing the impressive contribution he has made in bringing longstanding issues of incarceration to the forefront at this time in our history, and in setting a standard of excellence for other journalists writing on criminal justice,” said Stephen Handelman, Executive Editor of The Crime Report.
“Through him, we are also honoring his documentary team, along with the men and women who bravely shared their experiences at Rikers.”
Moyers, who began his television career in 1971 after serving as deputy director of the Peace Corps and special assistant and press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, has been responsible for groundbreaking public affairs series, such as NOW with Bill Moyers (2002-05), Bill Moyers Journal (2007-10) and Moyers & Company (2011-15). Among his many honors, he has won 36 Emmys and 9 Peabody Awards.
Moyers, the fifth recipient of the annual Justice Media Trailblazer, will receive his award during a dinner on the evening of Feb. 15, 2018 at John Jay College, which will also recognize the winners of the annual 2017-2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Prizes for Excellence in Criminal Justice Journalism. The dinner is the highlight of the 13th annual John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Justice in America.
The winners will be announced in January, 2018.
Previous Trailblazers were: Van Jones of CNN; David Simon of The Wire; Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black; NPR’s Maria Hinojosa, producer of Latino USA; and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb.
Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman will introduce Moyers at the dinner, which will be emceed by NY 1 News anchor Errol Louis and hosted by John Jay College President Karol Mason.
When the NYC websites Gothamist and DNAinfo were shuttered this month, it was a blow to local justice reporting. But it’s also a wakeup call to journalism schools and others to find new ways of filling the coverage gap, writes a NY journalism professor.
But it also raises additional questions about the future of local crime reporting.
A few days before the two sites closed, I ran into a former colleague who reminded me of a story we covered together more than a decade ago. A dispute at an illegal gambling parlor in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, led to a fatal shooting.
My colleague and I showed up the next day to find the betting shop still operating, and the winning numbers scrawled on the wall next to a guy who was preoccupied on the phone trying to field bets.
A mop bucket filled with blood sat in the corner. The dead man’s blood was still smeared on the floor. Business was so good the operators didn’t have time to clean up after the deceased.
We both had a laugh over the bucket of blood. It’s the kind of detail that we crime reporters lived for, chasing crime back when the tabloids and the New York Times were still dedicated to covering what happened in the city on a nightly basis.
There are those who might say that the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality is best left in the past, a remnant of a booze-soaked newspaper era, a relic of a pre-social-media age best left to fade away in the era of smartphones and social media.
Who needs slightly damaged, slightly alcoholic guys and gals like us to be middlemen-and-women to grind out workaday truths when citizens can do it with an iPhone?
Of course the same detail that delighted me as a crime reporter left the residents on the block terrified. If someone can blow away some guy and then stroll away, what about us, they asked? What about my kids? And what about the gun? How did the gun get here, in this room? How many more guns do the criminals have than the cops?
How many white people get killed by guns purchased in a former Confederate state and smuggled into the heart of New York City? How many black people get killed? How many victims are rich? How many poor?
For many citizens, the only contact they have with their government is with the police. How could a guy be killed in a demonstrably illegal gambling den; and less than 24 hours later, how could that den still be humming before the blood could be mopped up and dumped out into the street?
How did the Buildings Department miss this? Was it the sexy corruption of kickbacks and bribes? Or, more likely, the pedestrian corruption of an overburdened bureaucracy incapable of realistically meeting its legal responsibilities?
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. Crime is titillating, but it is also the only way we as a society have to talk about the fundamental questions animating human existence, namely: what it means to live in a just society.
What should be illegal in a free society? Who has to deal with the consequences of crime and why? Who watches the watchers? Are we as a society securing the liberty guaranteed by the Founding Fathers?
The crime beat rubs our faces in the way that what we casually think of as justice plays out in countless small ways in courtrooms and street corners all over this demented slaughterhouse of a democracy we call the United States of America.
Crime reporting was a passport to a world that largely remained uncovered by the major newspapers, and it was a way to see how people survive living in abject poverty, to see up close the consequences of inequality.
Who knows how many stories my colleagues and I stumbled on because we were trying to figure out who shot whom, and why, on some cold winter night.
The simple fact of reporters being there, with eyes on the cops at the scene, and their bosses, who know that someone is watching, can be a check on power.
Human beings, not the greatest specimens that nature has coughed into existence, will generally get away with what they are allowed to. Cops are not unique in this. The simple act of being present at these crime scenes is a deterrent on abuses of power.
With Gothamist and DNAinfo shuttered, it begs the question: what do we do now? What can be done to fill in the gaping holes in coverage left by their absence and the paucity of news coverage by newspapers here?
The short answer is, hell if I know.
If I had an answer to that I’d be filthy rich and not writing this op-ed. The slightly longer answer is that news agencies need to reassess what crime reporting can be. It is not just a blotter. It is a tableau to ask the lofty Big Questions in a small-bore, concrete way.
Schools that teach journalism need to cut their students loose to fill the gap created by the shuttering of DNAInfo and Gothamist. At the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, we have a paper that covers the South Bronx.
Similar projects should be vigorously supported in Washington, D.C., Chicago, L.A., and all the cities affected by the closing, as well as any place where there’s a school teaching journalism.
There is a corrosive nihilism at the beating heart of people turning their noses up at “local news.”
Just recently, a student at the school where I teach was talking about how robots can do what I and my fellow crime reporters did back at the turn of the century, when at least three reporters, sometimes more, were out in the streets at crime scenes trying to figure what the hell happened and why and what it all means.
Especially what it means for the real people swept up in their private tragedy, and what it means for all of us who live in the parallel universe of stability and order, a life free of buckets of blood, who like to go to sleep at night thinking we’re good and fair and just.
My friend, who warned me he was likely to be laid off as a result of the closures, said he had recently returned to the spot infamous for that bucket of blood. It’s a French bistro now. A sign of the “gentrification” rampant in the neighborhoods that used to be awash in crime.
It’s fashionable these days to think all the other diners could just use their iPhones to make sense of the chaos, institutional and intimate, going on in this city as they sat and ate.
But my colleague could have used his experience, streetwise skills – and reporter’s curiosity─to turn that chaos into compelling stories. But he’s now unemployed.
I’m not sure what the other diners were eating. But I asked my friend what he chose off the menu. He ordered the lamb burger, medium well.
Daryl Khan is a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the NYC bureau chief of JJIE, a juvenile justice website. He welcomes readers’ comments.
In an excerpt from his foreword to “The New York Times Book of Crime,” by exclusive arrangement with The Crime Report, one of the country’s masters of crime fiction writes that the best crime reporting can uncover truths about ourselves that we would sometimes prefer to ignore.
I’ve always assumed that the best crime reporting—sports reporting, too—was to be found in the tabloids, but after inhaling the contents of this anthology, which cover more than a century and a half of criminal mayhem as filed with The New York Times, the shingles have fallen from my eyes. Lurid writing can overwhelm lurid deeds. Excitable adjectives, judgmental prose and the egging on of public outrage can often obscure rather than illuminate the facts at the core.
In most of the articles contained herein, the thoroughness of the research combined with the implacableness of the tone, especially when flying in the face of a popular taboo or sentiment of the times, often reads like a fortress of probity.
A 1926 article debunks the era’s hysteria over marijuana by carefully extrapolating the results of an investigation into the physiological and psychological impact of smoking marijuana on a number of subjects, “soberly” concluding: “The influence of the drug when used for smoking is uncertain and appears to have been greatly exaggerated . . . There is no evidence that [marijuana] is a habit-forming drug in the sense of the term as applied to alcohol, opium, cocaine . . .or that it as an appreciable deleterious effect on the individuals using it.” I repeat: 1926.
An even earlier investigative piece written in 1852 regards the systematic use of capital punishments meted out by the guards of Sing Sing prison. The report gathers physicians and physiologists to refute the prison staff’s claims that the punishments (including an hours’-long form of water torture) were carefully monitored, when in fact, due to either unchecked sadism or sheer ignorance regarding the limits of human endurance, they ended in either death or madness.
Occasionally, the stoniness of the prose can feel chillingly blunt given the subject at hand. The unnamed writer covering the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, reports: “The pistol ball entered the back of the president’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The president has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.”
At other times, the measured tone and objective formalism of the writing, when set against the grain of outrage, can powerfully serve to isolate and heighten the darkness of the deed. At first glance, John N. Popham’s atmospheric description of the Sumner, Mississippi, courtroom during jury selection for the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers in 1955 reads like a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird; the judge in shirtsleeves, the defendants and rubberneckers free to smoke up a storm, bailiffs passing out cups of ice water to their friends in the sweltering pews, the jarring intimacy between the state-appointed prosecutor and the prospective jurors during voir dire: “He seemed to be familiar with everyone’s personal habits and family background, even to the nicknames they had for friends who might be interested in the outcome of the trial.” And last, but not least, the defendants’ children “played around the knees of their fathers and occasionally ran up and down the corridors” of the courtroom.
This effortless sketch of southern comfort has become a trope of countless Hollywood legal dramas, from Inherit the Wind to My Cousin Vinny, yet in this soon-to-be-infamous courtroom, the barely mentioned true crime that has brought this assembly together—the torturing and murder of a 14-year-old African American boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman—infuses every folksy detail with an aftertaste of revulsion. On the other hand, Popham’s description of the courtroom hangers-on as “several hundred white persons who strongly support a strict pattern of racial segregation” seems, pardon the oxymoron, a feat of excessive understatement.
Legendary bank robber Willie Sutton (center). Courtesy Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., The New York Times.
At the other end of tone spectrum, and maybe the biggest revelation of all, is the discovery that certain crimes—especially those found in the heists and capers chapter—demanded a punchier, almost sporty, narrative. Who didn’t root for Willie Sutton? How could you not like a jewel thief named Murph the Surf? The articles can read like a cross between a tense noir thriller and a riff on Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
In the report on the 1965 recovery (from a bus terminal locker in Miami) of the Star of India diamond (563.35 carats) and eight other eye-popping jewels stolen by the aforementioned Murph and two other part-time beach bums, the Florida paparazzi chasing three NYPD detectives, Assistant District Attorney Maurice Nadjari and a handcuffed perp, Allan Kuhn, seem more villainous than the bad guys, some of them “hiding in bushes . . . carrying walkie-talkies and . . . pulling ignition wires on cars the authorities had rented so they would not start.”
But sometimes the melodrama can run as thick as in any news rag, including the account of the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre that consolidated Al Capone’s gang rule in Chicago after two of the killers entered the murder garage dressed as policemen, “their stars gleaming against the blue of the cloth.” The seven victims were lined up against a wall. The likely order “to give it to them” was followed by “the roar of the shotguns mingled with the rat-a-tat of the machine gun, a clatter like that of a gigantic type-writer.” (Love hyphenated “type-writer.”)
However, the same reporter redeems himself when he describes one of the victims in a sleek three-sentence word burst worthy of James M. Cain: “The body of Mays, the overall-clad mechanic, had only a few dollars in the pockets. He was the father of seven children. A machine gun bullet had penetrated two medals of St. Christopher.”
In another gem of succinctness written 78 years later, Shaila Dewan describes the sound of another deadly barrage, this one slow and steady, resulting in the deaths of 33 Virginia Tech students (including the shooter, who killed himself) and the wounding of 17 more: “[the gunshots] went on and on, for what seemed like 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, an eternity with punctuation.”
Richard Price, a Bronx, NY native, is author of The Wanderers, Clockers and Lush Life, and also the screenwriter of The Color of Money, Sea of Love, Freedomland, many episodes of The Wire—and, most recently, the HBO series The Night Of.Readers’ comments are welcome.