NY Times Takes Sides in Front-Page Story on Gates-Race Case

July 24th, 2009 1:32 PM

The New York Times takes sides in its Friday front-page story on Harvard professor (and Obama friend) Henry Louis Gates's confrontation with Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley, "Case Recalls Tightrope Blacks Walk With Police -- A Professor's Arrest Tests Opinions on Racial Progress."

Gates was arrested outside his home in Cambridge, Mass. for disorderly conduct on July 16 after Sergeant James Crowley arrived to investigate a report of a possible break in by two men. Gates had just gotten home from abroad to find himself locked out of his house, and asked the taxi driver to help him break down his front door.

Times reporters Susan Saulny and Robbie Brown aren't very interested in the factual details of the Gates arrest, or excerpts from the police report that painted Gates in an unflattering light, alleging Gates shouting accusations of racial bias and generally throwing his weight around. Saulny and Brown's story opens misleadingly, not with details of Gates's arrest, but with less ambivalent stories of racial stereotyping, leading readers to believe that the Gates imbroglio ran along similar lines:

Ralph Medley, a retired professor of philosophy and English who is black, remembers the day he was arrested on his own property, a rental building here in Hyde Park where he was doing some repair work for tenants.

A concerned neighbor had called the police to report a suspicious character. And that was not the first time Mr. Medley said he had been wrongly apprehended. A call Mr. Medley placed to 911 several years ago about a burglary resulted with the police showing up to frisk him.

"But I'm the one who called you!" he said he remembers pleading with the officers.

Like countless other blacks around the country, Mr. Medley was revisiting his encounters with the police as a national discussion about race and law enforcement unfolded after the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard's prominent scholar of African-American history. Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct July 16 at his home in Cambridge, Mass., as the police investigated a report of a possible break-in there. The charge was later dropped, and the Cambridge Police Department said the incident was "regrettable and unfortunate."

The Times also tried its hand at mind-reading:

In interviews here and in Atlanta, in Web postings and on television talk shows, blacks and others said that what happened to Professor Gates was a common, if unacknowledged, reality for many people of color. They also said that beyond race, the ego of the police officer probably played a role.

But more deeply, many said that the incident was a disappointing reminder that for all the racial progress the country seemed to have made with the election of President Obama, little had changed in the everyday lives of most people in terms of race relations.


In interviews, blacks and whites of various ages and experiences with law enforcement showed a tendency to give a benefit of the doubt to Professor Gates over the police.

"It seems to me that Dr. Gates was simply arrested for being upset, and he was arrested for being upset because he's a black man," said Wayne Martin, 25, an official at the Atlanta Housing Authority, who is also black.

Is it any surprise to the Times that people who have had a bad experience with law enforcement would tend to side with the civilian?

Abby Goodnough's Friday Page 3 story from Boston, "Sergeant Who Arrested Professor Defends Actions," at least gave the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, a forum to make his side of the case, a perspective absent from the paper's front-page story. Goodnough's story including the photo of Gates in handcuffs shouting on his front porch while surrounded by three officers, one of whom was black, a picture that tends to mitigate against the knee-jerk liberal assumption of racist, reckless police behavior.

The police sergeant whom President Obama accused of acting "stupidly" in arresting a prominent black Harvard professor offered his own account of the incident on Thursday, adding a new dimension to a drama that has transfixed the nation.

The arrest of the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was dominating talk shows and dinner conversations even before Mr. Obama discussed it on Wednesday at his news conference. But the president's comments seemed to further polarize the national debate over whether the sergeant, James Crowley, who is white, was right to arrest Professor Gates for disorderly conduct while investigating a possible break-in at the professor's home in Cambridge, Mass.

Police unions and other law enforcement groups lined up behind Sergeant Crowley on Thursday, calling his actions justified, while the Congressional Black Caucus defended Mr. Obama's remarks and called on Congress to address the issue of racial profiling.