Does Atlanta’s “Cop City” Debate Make the Case for a Left Local Media?

On April 1st, the Atlanta Committee for Progress and Cox Enterprises released a joint press statement pledging support for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ plan to address violent crime.

It calls for hiring 250 additional police officers, installing 250 new surveillance cameras, and the building of “a new, state-of-the-art public safety training academy through a public/private partnership with the Atlanta Police Foundation and the city’s philanthropic community.”

The ACP is currently chaired by Cox Enterprises President and Chief Executive Officer Alex Taylor.

“Mayor Bottoms has asked Taylor to lead a capital campaign to seed the initial private funding for the project, and he has accepted.”

Cox Enterprises owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and retains part ownership in Cox Media Group, which includes WSB TV and radio, Atlanta’s largest broadcast news stations.

Taylor is an heir to the Cox family dynasty which has dominated Atlanta media since 1950.

John Dyer, Taylor’s predecessor as CEO of Cox Enterprises, also served as ACP Chairman in 2017.

Another joint press release from that year describes the ACP as:

“a unique public-private partnership founded in 2003 by Mayor Shirley Franklin. Today, the ACP includes more than 40 highly-engaged chief executive officers, university presidents and civic leaders who offer expertise in service to Atlanta and its future development …. The organization’s key focus areas have been public sector fiscal accountability; economic development; infrastructure and transportation; K-12 public education; technology and innovation; and enhanced quality of life.”

In essence, the ACP is the current iteration of “The Atlanta Way” in which business and political leaders work closely together, often making decisions behind closed doors that are then sold to the public by concerted effort.

At its best, The Atlanta Way is credited with helping the city navigate the Civil Rights era relatively peacefully and outpace regional rivals like Birmingham.

“The city too busy to hate” became a recruitment tool in attracting national corporations, major league sports teams, and the 1996 Olympics.

As the 2017 ACP press release puts it,

“…the ACP is an example of what makes Atlanta great: Leaders from across all sectors working together for the common good of the city. The ACP has played a leading role in supporting major initiatives and policies, such as the purchase of the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the creation of the Atlanta Beltline Partnership; the enactment of the city of Atlanta’s pension reform; and the passage of the T-SPLOST.”

But increasingly “the Atlanta Way” has come under criticism.

Why does Atlanta have such huge income inequality?

Why do mega-projects like the Beltline, originally promising transit always seem to accelerate gentrification, forcing middle class and poorer residents out before any transit gets built?

From Tyler Perry’s acquisition of much of the former Fort McPherson site to the brother of the owner of the Atlanta Hawks leading the downtown Gulch redevelopment, “The Atlanta Way” seems to favor insiders and billionaires.

Its inherent elitism has fostered a sense that “The Atlanta Way” no longer works for the benefit of average citizens.

Is it now a root cause of the city’s inequities?

And has Atlanta’s pro-business, often boosterish media fetishized urban design renderings and “game-changing” projects at the expense of holding wealth and power to account?

A coalition of groups began organizing against the proposed training facility which they dubbed “Cop City.”

Their concerns ranged from the sites estimated $90 million cost to its environmental impact to opposition from neighbors who felt unincluded in the process.

A forum organized by opponents of the facility had the feel of a collective unloading of grievances against the city’s corporate boardrooms.

Two previous protest movements against Atlanta Way decisions I watched with interest involved Georgia State University. One was calls for a Community Benefits Agreement as part of its redevelopment of Turner Field, and the other the #SaveWRAS effort to stop state-run Georgia Public Broadcasting’s takeover of student-run radio station WRAS.

The Turner Field protests included a tent city, the #SaveWRAS efforts used social media and citizens engaging in their own journalism.

Both meant trying to counter insider connections and breaking through the Cox-dominated media ecosystem.

(GSU President Mark Becker served on ACP along with John Dyer. Dyer also served on GSU’s Foundation Board which financed the Turner Field redevelopment and a large raise for Becker. “New renderings!” of the Turner Field redevelopment were place on the front page of the AJC when news of the WRAS takeover was announced. AJC reporters have been on GPB on WRAS ever since.)

Neither protest movement succeeded.

Is something different now?

Have some of the newer left-wing local news outlets combined with social media become a force able to halt or alter the “Atlanta Way” consensus? To at least shift the narrative.

A full analysis of the #StopCopCity campaign, including various social media platforms, is beyond my capabilities, but here’s some observations on how the story played out in some of Atlanta’s legacy and left-leaning outlets.

03/22/2019

Save The Old Atlanta Prison Farm is a Facebook group that began in 2014. This post from 2019 is about an ad in the Atlanta Business Chronicle proposing the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and decrying lack of public engagement.

For critics of the current proposal this is evidence that the Atlanta Committee for Progress is using the current rise in crime as an opportunity to push through this project which leaders have been planning for years.

03/31/21 Wednesday Atlanta mayor touts plans to open new police training center (ajc.com)

An AJC article previewing the Thursday press release with access interviews with Mayor Bottoms and the Police Foundation President. Includes quote from Alex Taylor and disclosure of Cox Enterprises’ ownership of the AJC.

04/01/21 Thursday Atlanta Committee for Progress to help fight crime in the city — SaportaReport

The same day of the Cox/ACP press release, the SaportaReport’s founder Maria Saporta wrote it up in a mostly favorable article.

SaportaReport is a site devoted to “civic journalism” begun in 2009 by a former AJC business columnist. Its corporate sponsors and emphasis on “Thought Leaders” mean it’s hardly a bastion of socialism, but the site debuted as the AJC was leaving downtown for the affluent suburbs.

It’s mostly a defender of The Atlanta Way especially when the city is under attack from rural Republicans. It celebrates corporate philanthropy and is mostly supportive of public-private partnerships.

But as neighborhood opposition to the training facility grew, the site’s writer John Ruch authored reported pieces giving context around other police training facilities and possible alternative sites.

04/07/22 Wednesday

Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm picks up on Mayor Bottoms’ plans.

04/12/21 Monday https://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-news/atlanta-police-foundation-unveils-renderings-of-new-public-safety-academy/G2EUTPUTH5ARDK5M54MWACJMIU/

Renderings.

“Academy renderings obtained by the AJC show a preliminary design from 2019. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will unveil the academy’s final designs in the coming months, according to a foundation spokesman.”

04/12/21 Monday

Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm post about the new renderings.

04/30/21 https://www.facebook.com/atlantaprisonfarm/photos/a.266995800170671/1732033413666895

A satirical vision of the renderings.

05/04/21 https://www.facebook.com/southriverwatershedalliance/posts/4054666654579745

The South River Watershed Alliance joins the opposition.

According to its website, the group “is committed to ecological restoration of the South River for the benefit of nature and people. Cleaner water requires increased awareness and advocacy, stronger protection, and management of our river as a valuable natural resource.”

05/27/21 Thursday Save Southeast Atlanta Forests from Developers — Streets of Atlanta

Lengthy article summarizing some of the grass-root groups that have begun organizing against the proposal. Some were already active against a nearby land-swap for a Hollywood studio. One of the first articles I found using the term “Cop City” though it was circulating on social media groups and in activist circles.

Streets of Atlanta is a blog covering “social justice movements” run by Gloria Tatum, a former writer for the Atlanta Progressive News.

By now protests and calls to City Council members were ongoing.

06/17/21 Thursday New Atlanta police training center: Council delays vote as opposition grows (ajc.com)

Online version appeared Thursday 6/17/21 after Wed. City Council vote and protest. Article didn’t appear in print/e-paper until following Monday.

06/22/21 Tuesday Video report: Councilmember Joyce Sheperd’s press conference in response to local Stop Cop City movement — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

Activists from the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists and other groups began canvassing the area surrounding the prison farm, encouraged calls in opposition to City Council meetings, and made ample use of social media to #StopCopCity.

They also had new and emerging left-wing, local media to post their own articles and analyses and point out conflicts of interest and the framing of stories in outlets like the AJC.

Mainlinezine was begun a few years ago by a former Creative Loafing writer and has support among local activists in part for “countering the corporate narrative.”

Part of a national trend of left-leaning analysis that criticizes the mainstream media as too corporate and centrist, after years of attacks from the right.

06/22/21 Tuesday https://www.wabe.org/newly-formed-coalition-concerned-about-the-future-of-the-old-atlanta-prison-farm/?fbclid=IwAR2a2tNpQTeEH-ykZYovH7cqXkUVcK7Nn44u-O7KPX3qKNuEYnLTrAz70_E

WABE radio interview with a member of Defend the Forrest.

07/16/2021 Wednesday Updated 07/17/21 Atlanta holds first public session for police, fire training facility (ajc.com)

Again, article appears online close to the hearing date but not in the print/epaper edition until the following Monday.

By now the AJC was including some criticism of the proposal but skeptics, knowing Cox Enterprises supports the project, could question how prominent articles were placed, whether only online or in newsletters and print editions, in lower circulation editions like Monday instead of Sunday, etc.

08/03/21 Tuesday To fill a void of democratic practices in Atlanta, local residents organize the People’s Town Hall on ‘Cop City’ — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

08/09/21 Monday A Walk Through the Atlanta Forest — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

08/10/21 Tuesday Research shows that weapons testing at new police training facility could expose the public to toxic chemicals, contaminate urban farm and South River — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

08/10/21 Tuesday Two Different Department Have Been Given The Old Prison Farm Property — Streets of Atlanta

08/11/21 Wednesday https://theintercept.com/2021/08/11/atlanta-police-training-center/

An article in the national publication The Intercept by Mainline editor Aja Arnold.

08/13/21 Friday Public safety training center plan heads to City Council with chorus of opposition — SaportaReport

8/15/21 Sunday Atlanta City Council asked to vote on public safety center despite unknowns — SaportaReport

08/16/21 Monday Internal memo obtained by The Mainline shows police foundation’s response to proposed amendments on training facility legislation — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

08/16/21 Monday Atlanta City Council delays vote on controversial public safety training center, tightens legal language — SaportaReport

08/16/21 Monday Atlanta City Council tables police and fire training center proposal (ajc.com)

08/20/21 Friday Atlanta City Council tables “Cop City” legislation, introduces substitute — The Mainline (mainlinezine.com)

08/20/21 Friday Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation says it had no role in training center site selection — SaportaReport

08/21/21 See Cop City — by George Chidi — The Atlanta Objective with George Chidi (substack.com)

08/21/21 https://ryangravel.com/2021/08/21/faq-what-process-would-we-expect/

The author of the original Beltline proposal who now works with the South River Forrest planning comes around to criticizing the Atlanta Way.

08/21/21 OPINION: Crime wave should spur action on center (ajc.com)

AJC editorial board supports the proposal. This was one of three Sunday Opinion columns on the subject.

Opinion: Tabling center vote, support for public safety not opposing goals (ajc.com)

Opinion column by Councilmember and City Council President candidate Natalyn Archibong. Notes the high amount of public opposition she’s received and sense that constituents have not been adequately consulted. Still supports a facility. Just wants a delay and better PR.

Opinion: Atlanta City Council needs to step up, prioritize public safety? (ajc.com)

Another View by business leader criticizing the Council’s delay. Robert C. “Robin” Loudermilk Jr. is president and CEO, The Loudermilk Cos., and chairman of the Atlanta Police Foundation Board of Trustees.

The E-paper version includes a disclosure on Alex Taylor’s fundraising, but someone on Twitter claimed early online and print editions of the editorial board’s endorsement did not.

The AJC’s editorial and intermittent disclosures renew concerns that it will not be an honest referee and that Cox could use its considerable market dominance to “manufacture consent.”

This can be done using access relationships with politicians in favor, putting pressure on those opposed, or hyping crime stories.

It’s a cynical view of how the media works but one that can’t be dismissed outright.

Much of the debate about “saving local news,” including in Atlanta, depends on solutions the left is skeptical of, such as benevolent local billionaires, Big Philanthropy, and public-private partnerships.

Most assume a need to preserve or restore local media ecosystems to their pre-Great Recession health and pre-Trump credibility.

But isn’t that rewarding the same gatekeepers that got us here?

And even as the right has long cried “fake news” and pro-Trump forces have begun building up a local media infrastructure to criticize the AJC and WSB radio from the further right, the paper is still trying to win the trust of conservatives.

The case for independent outlets is strong.

Non-profit newsrooms like the Georgia Recorder or Pro-Publica South are an option, but many are made up of former Cox reporters and still want to partner with legacy newsrooms, not criticize their owners and executives.

That may be the best reason for a vibrant local left media. Not to replace Cox and NPR, but to ensure the discourse isn’t just between the right and center.

That dissent against the Atlanta Way isn’t just from the populist right.

To not just “work the refs” but point out when the refs are also players.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.