Excellent — and horrible — media work about Ferguson

Often your take on the news depends on how you get your news. If you stick to ideology-driven websites, Twitter feeds, and news media, your view of today’s stories are going to be skewed. It’s certainly true on the right; it’s even partially true on the left.

That’s why the coverage of the events over the last two weeks in Ferguson, Mo., has been so important.

A white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That much is certain. There was some kind of struggle between them beforehand. That’s pretty much been verified by actual eyewitnesses. And the cop, Darren Wilson, shot the teenager, Michael Brown, as Brown ran away. That’s also been verified by actual eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses who don’t know each other, who told the same basic story to varied media outlets without talking to each other.

Note: They had to tell their stories to media outlets because for a long time, Ferguson police didn’t bother to interview them. Nor do we know the extent of their eyewitness testimony to police, because — as it turns out — the Ferguson police didn’t bother to write up an incident report. Let’s repeat that — they didn’t bother to write up an incident report when a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager who was running away from him. When the police finally DID release an incident report — a few days ago — it said basically nothing.

There has — as expected — been a range of quality and clarity in the reporting about the ongoing story in Ferguson.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has been doing extraordinary work reporting live from Ferguson for more than a week, often letting the cameras tell the story as police in riot gear and gas masks march toward mostly peaceful protestors, fanning the flames of an already tense situation as they sometimes aim assault rifles and throw tear gas canisters and smoke bombs. Cameras also have shown some — a small minority — of protestors throwing rocks (sometimes even at MSNBC personnel). I’ve laughed as I’ve watched Chris perspiring in the St. Louis humidity, his shirts showing sweat stains, until he finally just showed up in a T-shirt and said, “I had to take off the dress shirt — it’s 100 degrees here.” We know what’s going on in Ferguson because of his excellent reporting.

If you’re a fan of right-wing media, however, you heard a different spin, with a heavy emphasis on “rioters and looters.” You heard that it must be about the “New Black Panther Party” (they just can’t let that go). You got lots of reporting about how Michael Brown “stole cigars.” Note: Even this is now in dispute. Although police leaked security footage video of a black man appearing to be Michael Brown pushing a convenience store employee, the whole tape appears to show that same black man paying for something at the register.

You also heard (again from a police leak) how Brown had marijuana in his system. Some right-wing sites immediately claimed that such evidence showed that Brown “wasn’t in control” and must have “gone crazy.” Funny — if memory serves, smoking marijuana leaves people more mellow, not “crazy.” Another question: If a police autopsy showed that Brown had marijuana in his system, why didn’t that same police autopsy show many times Brown had been shot? Or didn’t they think that was as important as smearing the victim?

The media became part of the story in Ferguson. Due to saturation coverage of Robin Williams’ death, the Ferguson story got minimal coverage the first few days, except for the coverage of “looting and rioting.” Note: There never was any rioting. There was looting, by a small minority of protestors, on multiple nights. A small minority threw Molotov cocktails. A small minority carried guns, and there was some shooting by that minority.

The media really became the focus when reporters and photographers were arrested with little provocation. Reporters refused to move quickly enough. They refused to stick to an assigned “media area.” (Since when does the First Amendment have “areas”?) We have watched video of Ferguson police threatening to kill members of the media (and the public), and of them disassembling camera equipment.

Then we have the actual reporting.

A few days ago, someone who identified herself as “Josie” called a St. Louis-area radio station and gave “the other side of the story.” She claimed that the shooter, Wilson, had told his fiance, who had told Josie, a different version of the tale, and that Wilson feared for his life. So a third-hand account somehow became a “witness.”

CNN jumped all over it, with its usual “BREAKING NEWS” meme. CNN reported that “sources” said the story from “Josie” matched up with what Wilson described.

I see. So — we have a shooter cop who won’t come forward, who won’t write up an incident report, yet will get his “side” of the story out via leaks, and the media eat it up. It took several days for CNN to ‘fess up: “Well, yeah, first let’s throw out ‘Josie,’ the radio caller in this … We all had Josie fever for about a day and we took a step back and realized wait, she wasn’t even an actual witness, even though her story was compelling.”

Compelling? Hell, I could make up compelling stories, too (if you want one, check out the book I wrote — The Political Blogging Murder, available as an e-book from a link on this site). But no, “Josie” is not an eyewitness to this shooting.

Then we had the “beating” of Darren Wilson. Fox News, in the form of FoxNews.com (pardon me if I don’t share the link) breathlessly reported that Wilson had been “beaten severely” by Brown. (How is that supposed to have happened when Wilson was in his car, Brown was outside, and multiple independent eyewitnesses saw Brown running away?) “Sources” said Wilson had to be taken to a hospital. Funny — cell phone footage shows him walking around afterward. He supposedly had an “eye bone” fracture. The Washington Post had to walk that story back the next day. The crime reporter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sent out a tweet that “Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop’s version of events in shooting #Ferguson.”

A DOZEN witnesses? Somehow, if the police had a dozen witnesses corroborating Wilson’s version, they would have come forward. None has. The reporter, Christine Byers, who isn’t even reporting the story — she’s away from work due to the Family Medical Leave Act — had to walk back her tweet, claiming her original statement “did not meet standards for publication.” YA THINK? Of course, that didn’t stop other outlets from reporting the same thing.

There’s no evidence — and no proof — of injuries to Darren Wilson, although he very well may have an injury. We do, of course, have an injury to Michael Brown, in the form of his dead body lying on the street for five hours.

Does this “injury” story remind you of another shooting of an unarmed teenager? Trayvon Martin? When George Zimmerman claimed — after the fact — that he had been injured by Trayvon Martin, and had to be taken to the hospital? Even though police video footage of Zimmerman on that same night showed Zimmerman walking with no visible injuries?

We all would like to know what exactly happened the day Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The police don’t seem interested in telling the story. They seem more interested in keeping everything under wraps, piecing together the narrative from eyewitnesses, and figuring out a scenario in which the cop won’t be charged with a crime. Wilson will have the chance to tell his side of the story to the grand jury — an almost unheard-of gift to him.

I don’t know if a grand jury will indict Darren Wilson — given Missouri law and the direction of the “investigation,” it’s beginning to seem more and more unlikely. A separate FBI and Justice Dept. investigation probably will tell a different story. And no doubt, right-wing media will spin that as the work of a black president and a black attorney general.

Somehow, the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer  — not to mention that of many other unarmed African Americans — deserves more than political spin.

2 Comments on “Excellent — and horrible — media work about Ferguson”

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