Don’t You Love It When Criminals Are Happy, Smiling and Perfectly Contoured?

So, the big news this week is the college admissions cheating scandal. But it’s not the scandal itself that I find interesting. Didn’t we always know that rich people pay in unsavory, under the table type ways, to get their kids into the best schools? It’s been a storyline or a sub story line in countless movies, TV shows, books, plays and every other kind of media. This is just the first time there’s been a widespread legal crackdown on the behavior.

No, what’s interesting to me is how the media is portraying the story.

To me, it seems like many of the major media outlets are portraying these parents, in particular the two actresses, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who’ve been made the faces of the story, in a very particular way. These are not criminals first, no. These are parents caught up in a faulty system. These aren’t people who broke the law and subverted the educational process, kicking down the little broke guy and gal along the way. These are concerned parents just trying to do the right thing for their kids. The pictures we’re offered beneath some rather soft headlines are mostly of these two actresses, carefully made up and smiling.

I can’t help but draw a comparison between their media treatment and say a black female criminal. Then the narrative wouldn’t be a good mother trying to prepare her child for his or her best life, it would be “INSERT NAME HERE Demonstrated a History of Criminal Behavior from an Early Age.” The subhead would read: “She stole cigarettes and pencils in the 2nd grade.” The picture would have been an ashy mugshot of a pitiful-looking woman with runny mascara, smeared lipstick and her hair going in every direction except the right one.

I’m being funny, but really, it’s anything but. Society, of which the media is a representative – however occasionally twisted it might be – has a serious problem with how it portrays people of color.

Both need to do better. I know that today’s media is largely biased. The days of journalistic integrity and “just the facts, ma’am,” are long over. Most outlets have a fairly clear agenda. But, damn. This seems so obvious it’s disturbing.

One outlet – I know the name, but just typing it makes my neck itch – couldn’t wait to throw out the fact that Michelle Obama’s private tennis coach was also charged in the scandal. Yes, I know she’s a huge name, one that pushes engagement for digital ads and gets tons of clicks, but using her name is also an attempt to cast dispersions on our former First Lady. Media is not stupid. It knows that certain associations are bad for the public image and terrible for the brand. This weak effort likely did absolutely nothing to tarnish Obama’s image, but just the effort to throw her name into the mud pit is so dodgy.

It’s not just news either. I seriously did not appreciate my enjoyment of the new Avengers Endgame trailer being sullied by the news that the poster featuring all living heroes from the post-Infinity war, listed all actors at the top – except Danai Gurira. The backlash was so severe, Marvel re-released the poster with her name included. One of my white friends told me about it, adding, “Rich white parents get their dumb ass kids into school while a literal superhero warrior can’t get her name listed with her costars.”

As my sister would say, now you’re sharing.

Some responses to the cheating scandal news were appropriate. For instance, Sephora pulled Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli’s beauty products from its site. The brand didn’t really have much choice after all of the backlash. I read a few of the comments, and let’s just say one-star reviews were a theme. But even that story featured a big, nicely angled and airbrushed picture of Lori Loughlin being kissed on the cheek by her daughter, all bonhomie, love and butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths.

My friend also sent me another, near perfect example to illustrate my point – and prove that it’s not just an American media problem. People of color are covered in a biased manner worldwide. You may have heard about Brenton Tarrant who recently killed 49 Muslims in New Zealand? Well, the DailyMail UK shaped his narrative by leading with this headline:

Something happened during his travels’: The boy who turned into a Muslim-hating mass killer and murdered 49 in New Zealand after his dad died of cancer and he left Australia to travel the world including North Korea and Pakistan

Let’s ignore for a moment that extremely long, poorly punctuated sentence, and focus on the immediately offered excuse for his behavior. Right after that we’re invited to view him as a boy – subconscious association, innocence – we’re informed that his dad died of cancer, and then we’re reminded that something happened to him while he was traveling the world in places that get major side eye from the rest of the world.

The visual? We’re treated to a picture of him as a little blonder toddler held securely in the deceased daddy’s arms. I don’t think this set up could be any more biased if it tried. Granted, it’s the DailyMail, which doesn’t have the best reputation with more discerning media consumers, but my point is made. This dude killed 49 people in a hate crime, but we’re invited to pity and excuse his behavior, not consider the poor people he killed for no good reason.

And Huffman and Loughlin? CNN ran a piece already prepping the actresses for Hollywood style forgiveness. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman may initially have a rough road in Hollywood after cheating scheme shares that “so long as Huffman and Loughlin “demonstrate sincere remorse for their actions and pay their debt to society, they can resurrect themselves.” Why? “America is a forgiving place for celebrities.”

Hmm. I wonder will Jussie Smollett be given that same leniency? That is if he and his 16 felony counts can stay out of jail.

My fellow media professionals, can we please do better? Can we choose headlines and photos that suit the situation? Or, if you’re going to visually portray criminals as smiling beauty queens and upstanding, working class citizens who’ve lost their way, can you treat the black and brown versions the same way?

I know every story is not the same. The nuances and details will vary, and that too should impact the visuals selected to accompany the content. But there’s a seriously warped, extremely biased pattern in the media that needs to be fixed.

Watch and see. For those of you who hadn’t already peeped what I’m talking about, now you’re gonna notice it constantly. It’s gonna be like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see that same make, model and color everywhere. Media bias is pervasive.

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