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While the Media Talks “Varsity Blues,” Eerily Quiet on Gangs

(Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“It is high time for media sources and critics to alike engage in serious introspection on their seemingly universal reticence—some might say outright resistance—to responsibly report and comment on gangs.”

In the wake of Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s call to “stop and dismantle” criminal street gangs in the Peach State, James “Jimmy” Callaway, the hard-hitting president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, editorially decried the paucity of serious media attention to Metro Atlanta gang crime. Published in Georgia’s Insider Advantage, Callaway’s April 3, 2019, column reviewed news stories on the rate of repeat offender release in Georgia’s most populated county. Ultimately, Callaway concluded, “Neither [media exposé] mentions gangs. This gaping hole in the [area media’s] reporting is alarming.”

What Callaway discerned locally is symptomatic of a greater phenomenon. The criminal occupation represented by America’s Gang Crisis remains seemingly invulnerable from proportional media consideration nationwide. Examining the incongruent treatment of two pending federal prosecutions, one designated to as “Operation Gunsmoke” and the other labelled “Operation Varsity Blues,” both publicized by officials on March 12, 2019, provides potent proof.

Bobby Christine, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, announced Operation Gunsmoke, a 26 defendant, two-state (Georgia and South Carolina) federal prosecution, described as “including associates of a violent criminal street gang…indicted on drugs and firearms charges.” The Department of Justice further imparted that Operation Gunsmoke “began…as an investigation of a member of the Bloods criminal street gang who is alleged to have coordinated continued criminal activity while being held [in custody] awaiting retrial for murder.”

Government statistics highlight the hazards associated with the Bloods gang. A decade ago, a federal study recognized Bloods’ crimes as including, “street-level distribution of cocaine and marijuana…transporting and distributing methamphetamine, heroin, and PCP…assault, auto theft, burglary, carjacking, drive-by shootings, extortion, homicide, identity fraud, and robbery.”

That 2009 federal assessment placed Bloods’ gang membership at upwards of 30,000. Paralleling that calculation, and providing a disquieting context, CNN reports that in December 2018, Defense Department estimates of ISIS numbers in Iraq and Syria were “as high as 30,000.”

With the exception of regional sources, typified by a noteworthy Augusta Chronicle editorial, Operation Gunsmoke has raised little media interest. Conversely, a prosecution with no allegations of gangs, guns, or illegal narcotics distribution—which was initially made known the same day as Operation Gunsmoke—has received media concentration as seemingly relentless as it has been ubiquitous.  

According to the Department of Justice, the prosecution arising from what law enforcement agents denoted as “Operation Varsity Blues,” pending in the District of Massachusetts, pertains to “a nationwide conspiracy that facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits.”

While indeed it is of public interest, nothing in what the Department of Justice refers to as a “nationwide college admissions scam” rises to the level of an accused Bloods gang leader allegedly orchestrating a two-state spanning, armed drug conspiracy from jail while awaiting retrial on murder charges, a la federal descriptions of Operation Gunsmoke. Irrespective of this, however, media sources of all stripes have devoted themselves to expansive coverage of Operation Varsity Blues.

The foregoing presents a vexing, inverse correlation. It appears that the greater the degree of public danger inherent in an alleged criminal conspiracy, the lesser the volume of media focus, and vice versa.  

Media apologists might theorize that because celebrities are among the Operation Varsity Blues defendants, the case merits high-volume scrutiny. The bitter irony is that this is the exact type of superficiality and salaciousness that adherents of the various media camps claim characterizes their rivals. Truthfully, though, when it comes to gangs, gang crime, and gang crime victims, neither “conservative” nor “progressive” media outlets appear duly concerned.

With established research recognizing that this country houses well-over one million gang members from thousands of gangs who are responsible for an overwhelming volume of American crime, the abject lack of commensurate reporting on gangs is so shocking that it borders on the scandalous. The disjunction between degree of public safety threat and the amount of media emphasis exhibited the disparate coverage of Operation Varsity Blues versus Operation Gunsmoke provides yet another compelling example.

Condemning “a sort of de facto political immunity,” gangs receive from the Mainstream Media, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds has forcefully argued that gangs benefit from media and political inattention: “Ignoring gangs, however, does not impede their growth. If anything, it accelerates—likely encourages—their rate of metastasizing. The statistics prove it, and countless victims pay the price.”

Striking related chords, Callaway closed his piece by admonishing that until gangs are comprehensively factored into the local media’s analysis, Metro Atlantans “will fail to receive the full story on public safety.”

The same holds true nationally. It is high time for media sources and critics to alike engage in serious introspection on their seemingly universal reticence—some might say outright resistance—to responsibly report and comment on gangs.

Cui bono, indeed.

John Melvin is the acting District Attorney for the Cobb Judicial Circuit in Metro-Atlanta, Georgia. Michael Scott “Mike” Carlson serves as his Chief Assistant District Attorney. Both are published legal authors and routinely participate in training programs for law enforcement and prosecution sponsored by the Georgia Gang Investigators Association.

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