The Justice Department’s twin reports on Ferguson this March raised two disturbing questions about the media.
• How did so many news organizations fail for so long to realize that “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” was a myth?
• How did so many news organizations fail for so many years to uncover deeply unconstitutional police and court practices?
One hopes those questions would prompt soul-searching. For the most part, they haven't.
The national media are on to the next police shooting with no sign of introspection. False or misleading stories from last summer remain online uncorrected. Social media also barrel ahead, clinging to preconceived ideologies in a cyber-world that is often fact free.
Here are the egregious media failures:
• National and local media fell for “eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen Officer Darren Wilson shoot a surrendering Michael Brown. Many “witnesses” lied or fabricated stories.
• CNN irresponsibly broadcast “exclusive” video taken during “the final moments of the shooting” showing two white construction workers, one gesturing how Brown had his hands up. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called it evidence of a “a cold-blooded murder.” But the video wasn't from the time of the shooting and the construction workers' stories were full of holes.
• Local media – KTVI and the Post-Dispatch – gave the construction workers story big play. But they didn't make clear that one of the workers incorrectly claimed three officers were at the scene. Both workers later admitted they had not actually seen Brown fall because the corner of a building obstructed their view. Nor did any other witness confirm the workers' claims that Brown repeatedly screamed, “OK. OK. OK.” Those are the reasons the FBI discounted their statements.
• MSNBC's Chris Hayes and Lawrence O'Donnell threw fuel on the fire day after day with biased reporting. O'Donnell ranted about St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch changing the legal instructions during the grand jury, but his reports were full of errors.
• The New York Times committed journalistic malpractice by naming the street that Wilson lived on and then refusing to admit its mistake. (Local station) KSDK did it too but apologized.
• Fox misreported that Brown had broken Wilson's eye socket.
• Anonymous, the scary and inept anarchists, misidentified the police shooter and the shooter's police department.
• The New York Times portrayed Ferguson as part of a segregated “Circle of Rage” around St. Louis, when Ferguson is actually one of the most residentially integrated places in St. Louis.
• ProPublica sliced and diced statistics in a misleading way that exaggerated how much more likely it was for a young African-American to be killed by police.
Ferguson was America's Arab Spring for social media. For that reason, their failures are as important as the mainstream media's.
A story in the May 10 New York Times Magazine uncritically romanticized the tweeters and live-streamers who made a name for themselves. It called Bassem Masri, “perhaps Ferguson's most famous live-streamer.”
Masri is the person whose live-streaming videos include loud streams of invective and hate directed at police. Masri isn't a citizen journalist but a polemicist linking Ferguson and anti-Israeli protesters.
The Times' piece also told how DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, two active bloggers, joined forces with Justin Hansford, a law professor at Saint Louis University, to critique the mainstream press in its “This Is the Movement” newsletter.
But the newsletter isn't really media criticism. It's a movement newsletter with headlines like: “This Is NOT St. Louis County, Missouri Prosecutor Robert McCulloch First 'Racist Rodeo.'”
Not only have the media failed to critique themselves, they have gone right ahead making the same mistakes.
During the police unrest in Baltimore May 4, Fox's Mike Tobin reported seeing an officer shoot a black man in the back. McClatchy war correspondent Hannah Allam tweeted, 'We'll be back under martial law tonight!' EMTs take body away on stretcher.” Livestream's “citizen journalist” barked out a tweet on the shooting. The reports were false.
Why did the press miss deeper stories of unconstitutional police and court practices? Sometimes the biggest stories are right in front of a reporter's face but involve conditions that are taken for granted. That's the case with the municipal court system in North St. Louis County. It took the ArchCity Defenders and allied law professors to show that procedures fair in form devastated the lives of poor, blacks who ended up in modern debtors' prison.
The media did a good job of publicizing municipal court abuses. The one “Ferguson” reform emerging from the Missouri legislature limits how much traffic money each town can collect. But the press often forces reforms into a right-or-wrong framework, and it did with this story.
The new caps on municipal revenue hit the small predominantly black communities the hardest, with little impact in Ferguson. This take did not fit conveniently into the established media narrative and was mostly ignored in stories trumpeting the legislation as a “Ferguson reform.”
William H. Freivogel, a longtime journalist and professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, is publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review, where this column originally appeared. He welcomes comments from readers.