What the Protests Look Like on Twitter Versus Cable News

How you view what’s going on in the streets depends on what you see.

A crowd shot of protesters at left. The Buffalo PD shoving an older man at right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via CNN and WBFO/Twitter.

It’s become an unfortunate truism that your view of the world depends on where you get your news. The story that has emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing is no different: How Americans, particularly those who aren’t out protesting, view what is unfolding on their streets depends on what they see. Which is why we decided to run a little experiment. What, we wondered, were viewers who have been learning about the protests over the past 10 nights from cable news getting that might be different from what those who have been scrolling through Twitter are seeing?

So, on Thursday night, we asked two Slate writers to take in two different mediums to see what they walked away thinking had happened that night. Justin Peters watched cable news, rotating between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Sam Adams scrolled through Twitter all night. Here’s what they found.

8 p.m., Cable News

Anderson Cooper kicks off his nightly CNN program by defining the issues surrounding George Floyd’s murder in no uncertain terms. “In cities across the country, people are in the streets, the vast majority protesting George Floyd’s murder, by four now-fired Minneapolis police officers, and the systematic racism and police conduct that has hurt generations of black Americans,” Cooper says, going on to note that the protests and demonstrations have “been so calm that curfews ended tonight in Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C.” They were so calm, in fact, that Cooper doesn’t throw to any reporters in the field. Instead, he convenes a discussion between CNN legal analyst Laura Coates and constitutional law professor Gloria Browne-Marshall on police reform.

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson slams Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for holding a press conference “in which he announced that he opposes using troops to bring order to the country.” At the press briefing, Esper had said, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now.” Carlson characterizes Esper’s remarks as being akin to the first stage in a military coup. “This kind of behavior is a grave threat to all of us and to our constitutional system. And that system is teetering tonight. We hate even to say that out loud. But it’s true. It is,” says Carlson, and his guest, former CIA officer Bryan Dean Wright, agrees with him. “The people are panicking. The country is on fire. Now, who is attacking us? Mr. Esper should know this. It’s antifa,” Wright says, going on to warn about “bricks in our suburbs and downtowns,” Bernie Bros, and “Miss Ocasio-Cortez.” (He also objects to a Slate tweet about the nature of protests, which he calls a “headline,” which is just personally an exciting moment for me.)

On MSNBC, Chris Hayes narrows his focus to look specifically at the NYPD’s response to the protests that roiled New York on Wednesday night. “These are protests that descended into violence not because of the protesters, but because NYPD officers started beating people,” says Hayes, playing clips that show NYPD officers doing exactly that. Hayes goes on to slam Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for holding press conferences Thursday in which they attempted to “gaslight the public into believing that we did not see what we all saw.” Hayes plays a clip from the Cuomo press conference in which the governor refused to believe that NYPD officers had attacked peaceful protesters without provocation.

“That’s not a fact. They don’t do that,” says Cuomo.

“Uh, that is a fact. They do do that,” says Hayes.

8 p.m., Twitter

Maybe Chris Hayes knew what Cuomo claimed not to because he’s on Twitter a lot. In the 8 p.m. hour, a tweet showing LAPD officers swinging batons at protesters passes by numerous times; it’s brief and taken from a local ABC broadcast, so the (presumed) profanity before the word pigs is bleeped out. There’s also footage, via ABC News’ national broadcast, of thousands of protesters marching peacefully across the Brooklyn Bridge after a memorial to George Floyd. (It’s from earlier in the day, but Twitter confusingly has it labeled as “LIVE.”) Not quite buried in all of this is the news that New York City has had its first day without a confirmed COVID-19 fatality since early March, and the AP reports that two of the police officers who watched George Floyd die had been on the job just four days, and their training officer was Derek Chauvin, who is now charged with Floyd’s murder.

I see that Donald Trump is attempting to seize the news cycle by tweeting out a letter from “respected retired Marine and Super Star lawyer, John Dowd” critical of Trump’s former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but it doesn’t seem to be gaining a whole lot of traction.

9 p.m., Cable News

As darkness falls across much of the East Coast, Sean Hannity starts off his Fox News program with a foreboding monologue. “Tonight: violence, chaos, reigning supreme, in cities across our country. In New York, one police officer stabbed in the neck, two others were shot, and you got a mayor in New York City that continues to deny all reality of what’s going on around him and listening to repeats of ‘Let’s Imagine,’ by John Lennon,” says Hannity, who clearly is more of a Bay City Rollers guy. After an obligatory mention of antifa, Hannity then throws it to correspondent Bryan Llenas, who is tracking a protest in Brooklyn. “We are not seeing mass arrests at this time, it appears,” says Llenas, seeming a bit puzzled. “That’s probably because of the criticism the NYPD has been facing from activists and elected officials in the city for what activists say was an aggressive stance last night against peaceful protesters.” Within a few minutes, Hannity moves away from the live coverage and back to his comfortable corner: “Last night in the city of New York, two officers were shot, another stabbed right in the neck. They were patrolling the streets of Brooklyn for looters, but now [are] probing the perpetrators’ possible links to terrorists.”

On CNN, Chris Cuomo begins with an update from a correspondent in Atlanta, who is tracking a protest there as curfew sets in. “They’ve been in an intense standoff with police in the last 15 minutes,” says Nick Valencia, laying out the situation for the viewers at home. “You see here, though, there’s a crowd,” he says, only to be interrupted when someone yells “Fuck your mama!” in the background. “Sorry about the language here, guys,” says a mildly flustered Valencia. He moves into a gaggle of police officers who are trying to get the crowd to disperse for curfew and pulls aside a protester for a brief and memorable interview.

“Why aren’t you leaving? Why won’t you obey the curfew?” Valencia asks.

The protester grabs the microphone and screams into it. “Black Lives Matter does not stop at 9 p.m.,” he says.

“Well, thank you very much,” says Valencia, ending the interview and hurrying away.

“Don’t ask me a question if you don’t want me to grab the mic!” the protester yells from the background. Cuomo soon moves away from Atlanta and into an interview with Maurice Lester Hall, who was in the car with George Floyd when he was killed.

MSBNC still isn’t talking to any reporters on the ground at the protests. Instead, the network goes long on Al Sharpton’s eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial. (Sharpton is an MSNBC contributor.) Later, Rachel Maddow opines on the ominously unidentifiable troops who had assembled to intimidate protesters and keep order in D.C. “I mean, how do we know that these people are who they say they are at all?” Maddow asks, noting that the only reason for law enforcement personnel stripping all markings from their uniforms would be to avoid accountability. “The darker prospect here is this: I mean, who’s to say they are law enforcement?”

9 p.m., Twitter

At 9:13, Buffalo, New York’s NPR affiliate posts a video of police pushing backward a 75-year-old man, who then loses his balance and falls flat on his back. When the camera swivels to find him on the ground, blood is already pooling behind his head. The video visibly proliferates across my timeline. It’s everywhere. The official report from a Buffalo Police Department spokesperson, which soon circulates, says “one person was injured when he tripped & fell.” That spreads across my timeline for the next hour, and the urgency and disgust with which it’s retweeted seems to grow by the minute. The incident seems, at least briefly, so ubiquitous that it no longer requires a direct reference. “That Buffalo video really is a lot to process,” tweets a Los Angeles Times reporter. (A friend tweets simply “goddammit that guy’s gonna die.”)

Meanwhile, in an incognito window where I’m not signed in, one of Twitter’s Top 3 trending topics is the Quibi revival of Reno 911, a show watched by approximately four people. (Toward the top of the next hour, a new trending topic is added: Bleeding.)

10 p.m., Cable News

MSNBC leads with Al Sharpton’s eulogy and then moves on to discuss the “chorus of military condemnation” of Donald Trump, referring to comments by retired Adm. Mike Mullen and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

On CNN, meanwhile, after shooting the shit with his buddy Chris Cuomo for five long minutes, Don Lemon eventually goes to Manhattan, where correspondent Shimon Prokupecz is on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, with hundreds of NYPD officers amassed behind him. In the background, a cop stepped toward him. “I’m on live television, officer,” Prokupecz says, going on to report how the cops had swarmed in to bust up the protest that had been occurring there a little earlier. “This group, we’ve started with them at around 34th Street. They’re the last remaining group of demonstrators around Manhattan,” says Prokupecz. “And it just seems like the NYPD just decided it was time for them to go home.”

Over on Fox News, Laura Ingraham talks about how “the Floyd family’s pain and justified anger and protest have been hijacked by a shadowy group that we hear too little about.” (Antifa.) Later, Ingraham assembles a panel discussion in which Sara Carter asserts that violent leftist unrest has been “fermenting inside the universities and colleges where our young people have been recruited basically by professors and teachers: leftists, communists, that believe in these types of acts. They basically hijack a crisis and, you know, peaceful protest, they hijacked these peaceful protests, and then they ferment.”

Back on CNN, Don Lemon chats with a correspondent who is reporting on a heartwarming moment from a protest in Brooklyn, in which an NYPD official used his powers of persuasion to convince protesters to disperse, instead of beating them to the ground with batons. “It was just really an incredible moment and one I thought was important to share with you and your audience,” says correspondent Jason Carroll.

“Right you are,” agrees Lemon. “If the police are doing something right and the protesters are as well, we should get that on television.”

10 p.m., Twitter

At 10:17, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz responds to the Buffalo video, saying the man pushed to the ground by the police is in the hospital and in stable condition. Meanwhile right-wing media are pushing back against the coalescing narrative, with the Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra tweeting that the man “refused to move back after being repeatedly told to do so” and “fell over himself.” A few minutes later Buffalo station WIVB reports that the police commissioner has suspended two officers involved in the incident, at least one of whose names has already been widely circulated on Twitter. (Several Twitter users are also pretty sure they’ve identified the D.C.-area cyclist seen assaulting a young girl posting flyers with George Floyd’s name on them, but it’s not immediately clear they’ve got the right man. The next morning, he tweets a picture of a police report excluding him as a suspect.) One tweet that quickly starts to go viral juxtaposes images of Buffalo PD officers taken on subsequent days in Niagara Square: the first showing them kneeling in a show of solidarity with protestors; the second, taken from the video, of them knocking an older man off his feet.

11 p.m., Cable News

On MSNBC, Brian Williams begins with the same damn Al Sharpton eulogy and then throws it to an NBC News reporter in Minneapolis on the site where George Floyd was killed, talking about the Floyd memorial service. Later, he goes to Ellison Barber, at Lafayette Square in Washington. “A small, medium-sized but resilient crowd is still here in front of Lafayette Square,” says Barber, which translates as “this protest is over but we still have airtime to fill.” Walking backward toward a fence that had been erected to keep protesters away from the White House, Barber echoes one of MSNBC’s themes for the night, noting that “at times it’s been very difficult to identify who the federal law enforcement officers are out on the streets of Washington, D.C.”

CNN brings us to Los Angeles, where Kyung Lah is covering a protest occurring in some sort of tunnel, with slow-moving cars and protesters awkwardly sharing the space. “It’s a little hard to hear you, Don,” she says, nevertheless noting that “this has been a very peaceful protest.” Back in Manhattan, Shimon Prokupecz checks in from the now-vacant corner of 59th and Fifth, where the media presence is the only sign that a protest had ever taken place. “I was talking to law enforcement, here, and basically it was time to wrap up the marchers,” Prokupecz says. “They extended them, they allowed them to stay an extra two hours on the street. The curfew ended at 8, and as you saw during your show there during the 10 o’clock hour, they just decided that enough was enough.”

On Fox News, Shannon Bream kicks off the 11 o’clock hour with “a Fox News alert” about Stockton, California, where “the police there are sending their bomb squad to check out a suspicious package that’s actually taped to the front doors of the courthouse, we’re told.” Later, Bream goes to Brooklyn, where Bryan Llenas is also reporting from an empty street. Perhaps because there is no actual news happening on the scene, Llenas spends some time recapping NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea’s characterization of anti-cop rhetoric as “disgusting.”

At around 11:07, Llenas moves on to a new story. “Disturbing video out of Buffalo, New York. Two officers are seen pushing an elderly man as they clear the streets there in Buffalo,” Llenas says, as Fox plays a video of the man being shoved to the ground. As blood pools around his head, some cops recoil from the sight. “Reportedly those two men, those two officers, have been suspended, an internal investigation is underway, reportedly, and that man is said to be in stable condition.” Then, Llenas goes back to the opinions of the NYPD’s Dermot Shea: “What he has been seeing on the street has been his cops showing a lot of restraint, but the tensions are really high. And these snippets on social media, Buffalo video aside, have been fueling it.”

11 p.m., Twitter

The Buffalo video and responses to it are still dominating Twitter—the mayor of Buffalo and the governor of New York have responded—but it’s mixed in with footage from around the country: police shoving protesters in Philadelphia, police charging a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn—and, oh, the Washington Monument getting struck by lightning. Over the past few days I’ve seen a steady increase in tweets referring to “kettling,” a crowd-control tactic in which police trap protesters rather than dispersing them. It’s already considered dangerous, and using it against large groups of people in the middle of a pandemic makes it exponentially more so. There are many more tweets about this Thursday night.

Because no one’s Twitter feed shows them everything, before I sign off, I do a search for “looting,” just to see if there are videos or images in wide circulation, but I don’t see much beyond people talking about the subject. Looting is a sideshow to what is boiling down to a prolonged battle between police and protesters—or at least, that’s how it seems on Twitter. But Twitter doesn’t just show scenes of violent clashing. Toward the end of the night, I come across a clip from outside of St Louis, shot by a Post-Dispatch photographer. It shows a black man who looks like he’s on his way home from work sitting on the hood of his car stalled in traffic as protesters swarm around him. His fist is raised and he nods his head as they move past. “Something’s happening,” he says to the camera. “We’re being heard. Change is happening.”

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