Last week we saw a remarkable moment in journalism when Washington Post columnist (and MSNBC commentator) Jonathan Capehart wrote a column in which he was finally forced to acknowledge that Hands Up Don’t Shoot was founded on a lie. Being not only a black journalist himself, but a member in good standing of the Liberal Elite, this hit the mediasphere like a shock wave and Capehart was quickly treated to the sort of compassionate response from his fellow liberals which we’ve come to expect. (He was labeled as a “house negro” by his allies.)
Capehart’s sacrifice may not have been in vain. By showing the courage to say what he said, he may have prompted the New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, to poke her head out of the closet a bit herself. I apologize for the length of this particular excerpt, but not everyone clicks through the links and this is key to the issue at hand.
In the heat of a very hot news moment last summer, I criticized a Times story about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I want to acknowledge that I misjudged an important element of that story.
In my post, I found fault with what I saw as “dubious equivalency” and the vaguely described anonymous sourcing in an article that led the paper on Aug. 20.
Giving implicit credence to the named sources who described Michael Brown as having his hands up as he was fired on by Officer Darren Wilson, I criticized the use of unnamed sources who offered opposing information: They said that the officer had reason to fear Mr. Brown. I even went so far as to call those unnamed sources “ghosts” because readers had so little ability to evaluate their identity and credibility.
Now that the Justice Department has cleared Mr. Wilson in an 86-page report that included the testimony of more than 40 witnesses, it’s obvious to me that it was important to get that side of the story into the paper.
You’ll note that Ms. Sullivan doesn’t go for the Full Monty of apologies here. She’s not offering her regrets for the crystal clear implication in her original “criticism” piece, which was that there was no point in reporting any witnesses who said that Brown may have been at fault and his convenience store robbery partner was a liar. That side of the story, she heavily implied, was such an obvious lie that the Paper of Record shouldn’t disgrace its pages by printing it. No… she didn’t apologize for that. But she did at least apologize for the error of suggesting that some of the content shouldn’t be included because, you know… maybe they should at least cover both sides of the story.
Hey… it’s a start.
More interesting, however, is the difference we’re seeing in the media response to different reports based on these investigations. One of the subtitles of the Capehart piece was “What We Learned from Ferguson.” I would take the next step in this journey here and subtitle this piece, What We Learned from What They Learned. Recall that there were essentially two reports. The first – and as it turns out, the most comprehensive one – was the Missouri investigation, the results of which were presented at mind numbing length to the citizens selected to be on the grand jury. And what happened after that process played out?
None of the Lords of Narrative Journalism believed it. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch was blamed for being “soft” in his investigation to the point where he was sued.
The members of the jury were blamed, natch, but far more to the point the entire grand jury system was called into question. It just had to be rigged. There was no justice for the people. You can’t get a fair shake, the media mavens told the eager masses, because the entire criminal justice system is rigged against you. So why should you have any faith in it? Better to go out into the streets and Burn This B**ch Down.
But then Eric Holder’s Justice Department conducted their own investigation and released their own findings, concluding the same thing that the grand jury did. After a suitable amount of time for the shock to wear off, some of the fiercest critics of Officer Darren Wilson, the rest of the police force, the prosecutor and the members of the grand jury have finally begun to come out and sheepishly admit that they were wrong. Why? Because it was Eric Holder’s team saying it. But here’s the telling feature of this story which none of them mention:
Eric Holder looked at the exact same evidence which everyone else looked at and was presented to the grand jury.
There was no new gathering of evidence. There weren’t mysterious bits of security camera footage which Holder’s team suddenly found tucked away in an out of service ATM that finally cleared Wilson. It was the same forensic evidence and the same testimony. They heard what the grand jury heard and saw what they saw. And they reached the same conclusions. But it was only good enough for the media and all of the Black Lives Matter crew on cable news when Eric Holder said it. Until then, everyone in and around Ferguson were clearly a bunch of lying racist liars who lie a lot because they are racists.
So now we have the extremely muted and limited scope mea culpas. But will there be an apology to Officer Wilson, the man who was hounded out of his job, his home and his life? Will there be an apology to Bob McCulloch? How about the jurors? No… there clearly will not. But perhaps more to the point, what of the damage done to the criminal justice system? What of the endless articles and wizened opinions on CNN and MSNBC from talking heads who reinforced that the system was broken? What of the people who clucked their tongues and said that of course they didn’t approve of looting and arson and shooting up cop cars, but you can kind of understand why they are doing it, right? Because the justice system let Michael Brown down. So we’re not saying we condone it, but you can kind of understand it, right? RIGHT?
Thanks for the apologies, such as they are. But they’re not nearly enough because they don’t address the real harm that was done.