On Wednesday afternoon, in wake of the news that no police officers would be held responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor, Hulu tweeted the following message: “Breonna Taylor’s life was changing. Then the police came to her door. #NYTPresents: The Killing of Breonna Taylor traces the missteps of the deadly raid. #FXonHulu.”
After Twitter users immediately expressed justified disgust and outrage over what they perceived as an ill-timed marketing push, Hulu released a statement expressing regret: “Earlier today, we promoted content that we felt would be meaningful in light of today’s events. That was, quite simply, the wrong call,” the statement read, in part. “We’ve taken the posts down and are deeply sorry. Thank you for holding us accountable – we will learn from this.”
But it’s unclear what lesson Hulu will learn. The Killing of Breonna Taylor, which was released September 4, is episode 3 from the first season of The New York Times Presents, an FX on Hulu series. Each episode of the series, which promises the “unparalleled journalism and insight of The New York Times” in its description on FX’s website, acts as a visual explainer for a current news story. Other recent episodes cover the Australian wildfires and New York City’s response to covid-19. The episode focused on Breonna Taylor does exactly what good crime reporting should do: Provides not just the details of a crime but its context, walking the audience through the ripples of grief and rage that spread through a community in the aftermath of tragedy.
The Killing of Breonna Taylor begins with a tight focus on the gunshots and confusion on the night of March 13, offering a better understanding of the chaos caused by three police officers—Jonathan Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison—executing a “no-knock” warrant that resulted in officers shooting Taylor to death inside her own home. From there, the episode pulls back to examine the series of systemic failures that put Taylor’s life at risk in the first place, including the shaky reasons for issuing the warrant and the Louisville Police Department’s callous treatment of Taylor’s family in its attempts to justify her murder.
“I called, but they never called back,” Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, says of trying to get news of her daughter’s condition from the police following the shooting, highlighting the indifference with which her death was treated by the authorities from the outset.
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But rather than turning a blind eye to violence and cruelty, the way police did in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder, true crime all too often looks too closely and the most salacious aspects of a crime, turning death into a spectacle in service of grim entertainment.
In popular newspaper parlance, the saying goes “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that death, especially violent death, draws eyeballs, and in the era of true crime podcasts, downloads. But great true crime reporting takes us beyond our impulse to gawk at tragedy; it forces audiences to feel but also to think, acting as a guide for making sense of the senseless. When poorly or carelessly done, salacious true crime engages our basest instincts to look at the wreckage and feel nothing beyond grim curiosity, ignoring the systemic problems that both foster violence and permit it to continue. True crime is all-too-often simply a promise that we will get a peek at gore with the reassurance that someone else will do the cleaning.
The makers of The Killing of Breonna Taylor made sure that the documentary was an exploration of the systems that enabled and then justified Breonna Taylor’s murder. If viewers didn’t understand what all the anger was for at the beginning, they certainly should by the end. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that Hulu’s social media promotion of the episode undercuts all of this careful work. Breonna Taylor’s death becomes merely a product they’ve packaged and are peddling to the public, promoting FX, Hulu, and The New York Times with marketing department-approved hashtags, and using the news that no one will be held responsible for Taylor’s murder as an attention-grabbing plug for the show, rather than offering the documentary coverage as a way to more fully understand the travesty of the indictment.
The Killing of Breonna Taylor does its job. Unfortunately, the marketing around the crime reporting does not seem to understand what that job is.