Boardman writes: "The ONLY official eyewitness is Officer Wilson, who has not spoken publicly or to the Times. No other officer or official was an eyewitness, and all any of them can report on the event is hearsay, speculation, or conclusions from physical evidence."
Lesley McSpadden at the casket of her son Michael Brown at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. (photo: Richard Perry/Reuters)
NY Times' Dishonesty on Ferguson Called Out on MSNBC, and at Times
25 August 14
Editor, reporters caught pushing police version of Ferguson killing
he front page of The New York Times of August 20 carried the misleading headline "Shooting Accounts Differ" above a story datelined Ferguson, Mo. The "shooting" in question was the August 9 killing of unarmed college freshman Michael Brown, 18 and African-American, who was shot at least six times by six-year Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, 28 and white (a non-resident who lives in a 94% white community nearby).
The information in the Times story was hardly news, much less front page news. The essential story as reported by the Times was that Officer Wilson apparently has a self-serving version of events (as told by unnamed police investigators to the Times). That second hand story differs from several other accounts by identified eyewitnesses (although the Times omitted mention of the most credible of the presently known eyewitnesses). The Times does not mention that Officer Wilson and his anonymous defenders have a much clearer motive for shaping the story their way than any of the eyewitnesses (with one possible exception).
When the Times pimps for the official version of any story, close readers of the paper are not surprised. In this case, the Times has to work overtime on the official story for various reasons. The ONLY official eyewitness is Officer Wilson, who has not spoken publicly or to the Times. No other officer or official was an eyewitness, and all any of them can report on the event is hearsay, speculation, or conclusions from physical evidence. Perhaps the trickiest problem for the Times, in its adherence to the official story, is that officials keep changing what they say, and they continue to withhold key evidence, such as the relevant 911 tapes or the full county autopsy.
What is more surprising than the Times parroting each version of the official story is when such journalism-by-dictation is taken apart in a cogent, same-day, close analysis by a cable newscaster like Lawrence O'Donnell. And more surprising still is when that critical analysis is affirmed the next day by the Public Editor of the Times.
For the official story to work, officials need to attack the victim
The August 20 story (dated August 19 online) begins with the hearsay assertion that "witnesses have given investigators sharply conflicting accounts of the killing." What that apparently means in fact, the Times says four paragraphs later, is that:
The accounts of what witnesses have told local and federal law enforcement authorities come from some of those witnesses themselves, law enforcement authorities and others in Ferguson. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation.
The Times names three eyewitnesses: Dorian Johnson, who accompanied Michael Brown and whose lawyer spoke for him, and two bystanders, Michael Brady and James McKnight. There are no sharp conflicts in their stories as reported by the Times (and elsewhere). There is hardly any difference in their version of an event that continues to look more like a police execution than anything else.
The Times does not name any of the official sources, who were not eyewitnesses. Nor does the Times quote any of these anonymous sources directly. And the Times does not clearly identify any specific detail that it considers "sharply conflicting" with known eyewitness accounts.
O'Donnell: "a terribly misleading, badly crafted story"
That's how Lawrence O'Donnell characterized the Times story on his MSNBC program "The Last Word" the same day the story appeared. O'Donnell went on to note that the Times didn't even mention the most credible eyewitness to emerge so far, "the star witness," Tiffany Mitchell, who then appeared in a long clip:
As I come around the corner, I hear tires squeaking. And as I get closer, I see Michael and the officer like wrestling through the window. Michael was pushing like trying to get away from the officer. And the officer was trying to pull him in.
As I pull out my phone, because it just didn't look (INAUDIBLE), you just never see an officer, someone just wrestling through the window. So, as I pulled out my phone, the first shot walls fired through the window. And I just like tried to get out the way. I pulled into the parking lot beside where the cop car was. And that's when Michael kind of broke away and started running down the street.
The officer gets out of his vehicle and he pursues him. As he's following him, he's shooting at him. And Michael's body jerks as if he was hit. Then he turned around and he puts his hands up. And the officer continues to walk up on him and shoot him until he goes all the way down to the ground.
Tiffany Mitchell's account of the killing has no "sharply conflicting" differences with the accounts of the eyewitnesses the Times chose to quote. As O'Donnell describes it, "The Times simply asserts in the first sentence that the accounts sharply conflict and then fails to demonstrate that. But that [opinion] is exactly what the police defenders of Officer Darren Wilson wanted the Times to print."
Officer Wilson committed a crime: using deadly force illegally
O'Donnell later turned to what he called "the most egregious passage" in the Times story. O'Donnell is familiar with unlawful police killing. In 1983, he published a book, "Deadly Force," with the subtitle: "The Wrongful Death of James Bouden Jr.: A True Story of How a Badge Can Become a License to Kill." The passage he calls egregious is just two sentences:
He [Michael Brady] said he did see a police officer get out of the patrol car and start walking briskly while firing on Mr. Brown as he fled. What happened next, that could be what the case turns on.
This editorializing is both stupid and wrong, O'Donnell argued, because: "the shots fired while Michael Brown is fleeing, those shots, that is an illegal use of deadly force. That is a crime. The police officer had no legal right to shoot at Michael Brown while he was fleeing." [emphasis added]
O'Donnell mocked the Times reporters and editors who didn't know that. And he mocked the Times for thinking that what happens after a crime is being committed might be what the case could turn on. And he attacked the Times for taking the word of unnamed law enforcement officials saying that "fearing that the teenager was going to attack him, the officer decided to use deadly force."
As O'Donnell makes clear, Officer Wilson started using deadly force as soon as he left the police car, and quite possibly while he was still it when a shot was fired. Worse than getting the law wrong, O'Donnell said, was the Times suggestion that there was any basis for even speculating that Michael Brown might have been about to attack, with several bullets already in his body. Of course Officer Wilson might claim that, but not one of the known eyewitnesses says that. Nevertheless, the Times claimed that, "Some witnesses have backed up that account." O'Donnell stopped short of calling that a lie, but he came close:
[The Times] does not produce or even refer to a single witness who backs up that account, not one. It just takes a leak from the police, and prints it as a fact.
Times editor: "The story is both fair and balanced"
On August 21, prompted by a number of comments from readers, the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the story and O'Donnell's critique of it. As the Times describes the public editor's job, she "investigates matters of journalistic integrity ... works independently, outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper; her opinions are her own."
Sullivan chose not to address O'Donnell's critique of the Times' fallacious reasoning, but supported his analysis that what the named witnesses said was not rebutted by any "sharply conflicting accounts" from any anonymous sources. The public editor concluded that:
this article doesn't measure up....The Times is asking readers to trust its sourcing, without nearly enough specificity or detail; and it sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other.
Along the way, Sullivan quoted the story's editor, James Dao, defending the story, without actually addressing the substantive issues. Dao calls the story "fair and balanced," and also tacitly admits that its bias is toward the official version. Dao says the story "gives some insight into how law enforcement is viewing this case – this is what they say they've got."
He does not explain why the anonymous police view was presented so uncritically and, in part, with uncorrected inaccuracies.
The Times posted Sullivan's piece on the public editor's blog. The editors did not choose to run it in the print edition.
Times editors continue promoting the official story uncritically
The same day the public editor commented on her blog, the Times editorial board published a lead editorial calling for "A Fair Inquiry for Michael Brown," which is a far from universal desire. But in the course of a fundamentally reasonable call for fairness and "something useful," the editorial accepts as fact its paper's published and unsupported claim that: "Witness accounts differ sharply ..."
Official bias has been patently obvious in the anonymous police claims and the selective police attempts at character assassination of Michael Brown through selective leaks. The Times reported some of these leaks uncritically as "what they say they've got." By contrast, the Times has examined eyewitness accounts more carefully, except when it has omitted them entirely.
With no trace of irony, the Times editorial says that "those in charge have an obligation to demonstrate fairness at every step, and that means there cannot be even a hint of bias in the process." That's hard to argue with, but it also raises the question of whether these people read their own newspaper carefully.
What the public editor and the editorial board are saying seems to have had limited, if any, impact on the Times coverage of the Ferguson killing. In the midst a wide range of reporting on many other aspects of the story, the Times newsroom continues to give significant play to pieces supporting the official story of the shooting, sometimes subtly, generally uncritically.
Curiously, the Times story of August 20 includes an assertion that does in fact sharply conflict with the accounts of named eyewitnesses. O'Donnell and Sullivan don't mention it, but the second paragraph of the front page Times piece says:
Some of the accounts seem to agree on how the fatal altercation initially unfolded: with a struggle between the officer, Darren Wilson, and the teenager, Michael Brown. Officer Wilson was inside his patrol car at the time, while Mr. Brown, who was unarmed, was leaning in through an open window.
It is simply not true that any of the known eyewitnesses have said that Michael Brown "was leaning through an open window" of Officer Wilson's cruiser. The accounts all describe some kind of physical struggle at the window, or outside it. Only the Times puts the victim inside the cruiser, which, if true, would seem to make Officer Wilson's lethal behavior more understandable if not more legal. Where does the Times get this "leaning in through an open window" that it asserts as if it were undisputed fact. The Times doesn't say. But it's not a fact. It is disputed.
McCullough: no charges when police kill two unarmed black men
In a front page piece on August 22, the Times uses anonymous sources again to lower expectations of a conclusive federal investigation, a result that would likely please Ferguson officials. The same article repeats the discredited "conflicting accounts" version of what the eyewitness have to say. And the story includes the "leaning in through an open window" canard, still without attribution. The most likely source would be Officer Wilson.
This Times story also misrepresents objections to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough, who has been petitioned by more than 70,000 people to recuse himself from the case. McCullough is widely distrusted by the African-American community in Ferguson. One reason is a case in 2000 when two police officers fired 21 bullets into a car, killing two unarmed black men – after which McCullough brought no charges. The Times doesn't mention this or any other relevant case, explaining away calls for the prosecutor's recusal by saying only: "Some have called for Mr. McCulloch to recuse himself from the case since his parents worked for the St. Louis police and his father was shot and killed by a black man."
The Times' August 23 front page story on Ferguson – headlined: "Key Factor in Police Shootings: 'Reasonable Fear'" – spins not so subtly toward the idea that Officer Wilson, sitting in his cruiser as Michael Brown ran away, felt reasonable fear for his life, and that justified his chasing and executing him. That moment sitting in the cruiser is when O'Donnell says Officer Wilson chose to commit a crime.
The Times chooses not to frame the question that way, or even mention that particular moment of decision for Officer Wilson. Most of the Times piece is largely irrelevant, abstract theorizing and speculation about police rules of engagement, as laid out by the Supreme Court and other sources, with no direct application to Officer Wilson's killing Michael Brown. When the Times did mention the specific case, it provided a summary of the official version that included new claims of hitting the officer in the face and trying to take his gun:
Ferguson police officials have said Mr. Brown and a friend were walking in the street when Officer Wilson stopped them. In an ensuing struggle, they said, Officer Wilson was hit in the face and Mr. Brown tried to take his gun, which discharged. Later, Officer Wilson shot Mr. Brown six times as the two men faced each other.
How long is an OK time for leaving a dead body in the street?
"Timeline for a Body: 4 Hours in the Middle of a Ferguson Street" is the headline on the August 24 front page Times story about the killing. This is yet another apologia for police behavior, reinforcing the official storyline that everything the police did was maybe sad but totally justified. With remarkable callousness, the Times offers a perspective redolent with the subtext of a hidden agenda:
Mr. Brown probably could not have been revived, and the time that his body lay in the street may ultimately have no bearing on the investigations into whether the shooting was justified. But local officials say that the image of Mr. Brown's corpse in the open set the scene for what would become a combustible worldwide story of police tactics and race in America, and left some of the officials asking why.
This is morally obtuse and factually insupportable. The Times uses blind quotes to raise questions no identifiable person is asking: Who says Michael Brown could not have been revived? Who asked what bearing this grisly four-hour display would have on investigations? And what local officials think leaving the body out in the August sun had "set the scene" for anything?
It was the killing that set the scene. Why is that not obvious? The one official the Times identifies gets it right. Committeewoman Patricia Bynes says, "The delay helped fuel the outrage.... It was very disrespectful to the community and the people who live there.It also sent the message from law enforcement that 'we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there's nothing you can do about it.'"
And the Times, with its long, detailed, cold exegesis of how the officials involved went about desecrating this dead black 18-year-old sends a message, too. It's an old, familiar, awful and shameful message: Americans don't care about black people.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.
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