Ferguson: Stop Blaming the Media


St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch

It was the media's fault.

That was one of the peculiar talking points in prosecutor Robert McCulloch's exposition on why he failed to get an indictment in the August 9 shooting death of Ferguson, Mo., teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.

“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation,” McCulloch said Monday night, “has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media.”

Journalists were not impressed by his odd invective.

Writing online for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb called McCulloch's press conference a “rambling dissertation.” Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post tweeted, “Things indicted so far: Social media, regular media, the public. Things not indicted: The person who killed a kid with his hands up.” Ezra Klein, editor of Vox.com, tweeted, “The tone needed here would be hard for anyone to get just right, but McCulloch isn't even in the ballpark.”

And on CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called the prosecutor's 26-minute statement an “extended whine.”

Reporters who sat through it missed a chance to ask a good question: Why was the announcement made at night? On Tuesday morning, as arson fires smoldered and shopkeepers swept up broken glass in Ferguson, a prosecutor's spokesman said it was entirely McCulloch's decision. By then, the sole decider was not available to explain.

The timing of the grand jury announcement was the subject of endless jabbering by TV analysts Monday night. Toobin called the night-time press conference “crazy.”

Even the tweet-loving Donald Trump weighed in, as announced with some urgency on Fox News by host Greta Van Susteren. (He tweeted, “Who is the moron who decided to release the Ferguson grand jury findings after 9:00 o’clock in the evening. What were they thinking?”)

McCulloch also took a swipe at an unidentified “D.C. government official” who leaked details of grand jury evidence to those same media nudniks, apparently impugning the purity of his investigative process.

Warm-up Act

The prosecutor's TV warm-up act was Gov. Jay Nixon, who rushed to St. Louis County after getting 11th-hour notification of the impending grand jury announcement. Timely communication apparently is not McCulloch's strong point. Brown's parents, who were promised a heads-up by the prosecutor, learned of the scheduled press conference via the media, according to their lawyer.

Nixon, who went before the cameras about two hours before McCulloch, had no real news to impart, so he called for calm—in a tone that journalists found nearly as irritatingly professorial as McCulloch's.

Speaking on MSNBC, Washington Post political blogger Jonathan Capehart described the governor's news conference as “punitive and lecturing.”

Among other things, Nixon said, “Together, we are all focused on making sure the necessary resources are on hand to protect lives, protect property and protect free speech.”

On November 16, Nixon made national news when he activated state National Guard troops in advance of the grand jury decision. But when rioting began Monday night, the troops on hand (700-strong, the governor later said) were pointedly kept at a distance. (A Washington Post blog has photographic proof that guard members were in the area.)

Why were troops not deployed against rioters? Nixon deflected any criticism at another press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

But the missing-in-action National Guard became a riveting sidebar story during a series of late-night phone interviews with St. Louis TV stations by Ferguson Mayor James Knowles.

Unable to reach state Guard officials by phone (though he said he left messages), Knowles went on KMOX at about 10:30 p.m. to implore Gov. Nixon to deploy the troops. More than two hours later, he sounded exasperated as he explained to KTVI that his requests had gone “unheeded.”

“We need to have the governor step up, give us the resources that he's promised from the beginning,” Knowles said. At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Knowles called the faulty troop deployment “deeply disturbing.”

Also on Tuesday, Missouri's Republican lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, joined the criticism of Nixon, a Democrat. Kinder said troops “were kept away at the crucial time while Ferguson burned.”

Nixon later promised reinforcements.

But as was the case during the August riots that immediately followed the shooting, law enforcement strategies and reaction had become the focus of the news narrative.

And that may distract from deeper analyses of the criminal justice policy issues that are more important in the long run.

That's not to say that the media has failed on the story—prosecutor McCulloch's pat criticism aside.

The Ferguson story has been covered thoughtfully by many news operations, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to national heavyweights such as The New York Times, NPR and the Washington Post, by the old school alt-press like Mother Jones to the cutting-edge data-digger FiveThirtyEight.

But what's missing in the coverage?

So far, I haven't seen much analysis of the crucial procedural decisions made by Officer Wilson before and during the shooting.

Likewise, his grand jury testimony raises issues about his state of mind as he engaged with Brown—another subject begging for exploration.

'Hostile' Environment

Wilson testified that he regards the Ferguson neighborhood where the shooting happened as a “hostile environment” for police.

He explained, “There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity; it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”

Based on that comment, we must assume that he viewed Brown as an enemy—or at least an adversary—as he rolled up on him that day and they barked at each other over whether the teenager should be walking in the street.

His testimony also raises procedural questions: Did Wilson essentially pin himself in a dangerous position in the car when he summoned Brown to his door instead of stepping out of the vehicle? And after Brown was shot in the thumb during the confrontation at the SUV window, was the officer right to follow the teenager—a wounded and presumably dangerous assailant—without backup?

R. Paul McCauley, a former police officer who studies police-involved shootings as a criminologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said these are important questions that should be considered in the Ferguson Police Department's ongoing internal investigation of the shooting.

“There has also been too little analysis/discussion of the interval between the struggle in the police car and the point at which Brown is some distance away from the car,” Sam Walker, a police accountability expert and retired criminologist at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said by email.

“This is certainly the point where Wilson could/should have waited for backup, and certainly not provoked a confrontation.”

James A. Williams, an expert in police procedures, is a pioneering black police commander from New Jersey who now teaches criminal justice at Rowan University in that state after some 50 years in federal, state and local law enforcement.

I asked him about Officer Wilson's mindset and the decisions he made during the confrontation with Brown.

“In my opinion, a contributing element in this horrible incident is an existing feeling, held by a very few police officers, that it's 'us against them,'” Williams responded.

Williams said he has testified in 31 police wrongful-death and shooting cases, and he suggested that the shooting by Wilson fits a pattern.

He said, “It would be a stretch to say that all of them could have been prevented if standard and accepted police policy and procedures were followed—but not by much.”

Editor’s Note: For an earlier assessment by Krajicek of media coverage of the Ferguson events, see “The Media and Ferguson: A Mixed Review” in the September 9 edition of The Crime Report.

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and co-editor of Crime & Justice News. He writes The Justice Story for the New York Daily News and is a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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