Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand got attention for his press conference last week about the investigation into the killing of Joe McKnight — but it may not have been the right attention.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand had something important to say last week about an equally important topic: how irresponsible rants on social media can feed a public frenzy by circulating false rumors in the immediate aftermath of a racially charged killing.
Too bad most people who watched or heard about the sheriff's own rant didn't get that message, which was lost in Normand's epithet-riddled delivery.
I totally get what Normand wanted to accomplish, and he's absolutely correct about the public's tendency to rush to judgment — especially in this age of instant "news" via social media. But if his aim in reading samples of online racist, homophobic tripe aimed at him and his allies was to create shock and awe, he missed his mark. It was more like shock and awful.
I think Normand was absolutely correct to blast members of the public who jumped to conclusions about him and the deputies who were investigating the killing of NFL star Joe McKnight, who was gunned down by Ronald Gasser in a tragic case of road rage gone (literally) ballistic. McKnight is black; Gasser is white.
Soon after the shooting, Normand's deputies let Gasser go free but continued to investigate, prompting howls of protest — and much wild online speculation — about the case. Days later, after interviewing a host of witnesses, deputies arrested Gasser for manslaughter.
Decades of study of human communication have universally concluded that what we say is inevitably overshadowed by how we say it.
At his news conference announcing the arrest, Normand let loose by reading some of the more offensive online attacks against black Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears, who had supported the sheriff's handling of the investigation. The N-word and various expletives and epithets prompted national media, which carried the news conference live, to bail out and apologize for the offensive language.
Normand is one of the most respected and admired lawmen in Louisiana. His endorsement carries enormous weight in political campaigns, and Jefferson voters routinely re-elect him with 90 percent or more of the vote. He's also well educated and politically shrewd. He didn't need to resort to race-baiting, and I'll never believe that was his intent. I'm fairly certain, in fact, that he quoted the offensive posts because he wanted to wake people up to the crude, inane and degenerate level of discourse that seems to dominate digital media these days — and to land some punches of his own.
If that was his message, it was spot on. Unfortunately, his delivery was so far off the rails that most who were watching never got that message.
Decades of study of human communication have concluded that what we say is inevitably overshadowed by how we say it. It's human nature, and it's immutable. People notice body language and tone much more than the actual words being spoken — to the point where even the best message can't break through the clutter of a bad delivery.
Hopefully, once people get over the shock and the awfulness of Normand's delivery, they'll come back to his message. It would be a shame for it to remain forever lost in delivery.