Part 5—Cable star is correct on one point, horribly wrong on another: In theory, journalistic values are very important at a time like this.
What actually happened in Ferguson? It’s very easy to make up a story—perhaps a simplistic, pleasing story. This can be done from different perspectives. Such stories have already emerged.
It’s harder to ascertain basic facts. In theory, though, it’s important to take that journalistic approach at times like this.
What actually happened in Ferguson? What are the actual facts?
In our view, cable star Lawrence O’Donnell won the week, challenging the New York Times on one basic account of the facts. In the process, though, we’d have to say that O’Donnell has been horribly wrong with respect to a broader point.
Last night, O’Donnell challenged the Times for the second straight night. As of yesterday, even the New York Times public editor was saying he’d won his point.
Let’s get clear on the important way O’Donnell has been right. In a second post today, we’ll review the horrible way O’Donnell has been wrong.
Wednesday morning, the New York Times made a very significant claim in its featured, front-page report. Right at the start of her report, Frances Robles made the claim.
Hard-copy headline included:
ROBLES (8/20/14): Shooting Accounts Differ as Holder Schedules Visit to FergusonGiven the influence of the Times, that basic framework—“witnesses have given sharply conflicting accounts of the killing”—has already spread through much of the mainstream press.
FERGUSON, Mo.—As a county grand jury prepared to hear evidence on Wednesday in the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer that touched off 10 days of unrest here, witnesses have given investigators sharply conflicting accounts of the killing.
Quite aggressively, O’Donnell has said that the Times failed to establish the truth of that important claim. Yesterday, public editor Margaret Sullivan basically said he is right.
We agree. Plainly, O’Donnell is right.
Let’s be clear on what we’re saying. It’s possible that witnesses actually have given “sharply conflicting accounts” to investigators. Last night, O’Donnell said such conflicts are the norm in investigations of this type. He said he still expects such “conflicting accounts” to surface.
O’Donnell has been making a different point. He has said that the New York Times hasn’t provided any examples of “sharply conflicting accounts” from witnesses to the killing. He says the Times hasn't shown that any such conflicts in testimony actually exist at this point.
On that point, we would say he is plainly right.
O’Donnell has overstated at times in the past two nights. In her own piece, Sullivan misstates the contents of the Times report in at least one instance. In other ways, she’s murky.
That said, O’Donnell is right in his basic complaint. On the assumption that facts are important, let’s get clear on what he has said.
In her rambling New York Times news report, Robles doesn’t attempt to define those “sharp conflicting accounts of the killing” until paragraph 26 (out of 37 total).
Earlier in her report, she has said that witnesses largely agree on several basic points. They agree that an altercation occurred at Officer Wilson’s car; that one shot was fired from within the car at that time; that Michael Brown then ran way; that Wilson got out of his car and fired at Brown as he fled.
According to Robles, witnesses largely agree on those points. This is where she says the “sharply conflicting accounts” appear:
ROBLES (paragraphs 26-31): What happened next could be what the case turns on. Several witnesses have told investigators that Mr. Brown stopped and turned around with his arms up.Where are the “sharply conflicting accounts of the killing?” O’Donnell is right on his basic claim: In that passage, Robles provides no examples of any “sharp conflicts” in the witness accounts.
According to his account to the Ferguson police, Officer Wilson said that Mr. Brown had lowered his arms and moved toward him, law enforcement officials said. Fearing that the teenager was going to attack him, the officer decided to use deadly force. Some witnesses have backed up that account. Others, however—including Mr. Johnson—have said that Mr. Brown did not move toward the officer before the final shots were fired.
The F.B.I., Mr. Bosley said, pressed Mr. Johnson to say how high Mr. Brown’s hands were. Mr. Johnson said that his hands were not that high, and that one was lower than the other, because he appeared to be “favoring it,” the lawyer said.
James McKnight, who also said he saw the shooting, said that Mr. Brown’s hands were up right after he turned around to face the officer.
“I saw him stumble toward the officer, but not rush at him,” Mr. McKnight said in a brief interview. “The officer was about six or seven feet away from him.”
In paragraph 27, Robles finally defines the (alleged) “sharp conflict.” Wilson says that Brown moved toward him (in a way he found threatening). According to Robles, “Some witnesses have backed up that account.”
According to Robles, some witnesses have backed up Wilson’s account of Brown's behavior. But uh-oh! “Others, however...have said that Mr. Brown did not move toward the officer before the final shots were fired.”
In that brief passage, you see the (alleged) “sharp conflict” on which this front-page report was based.
In fairness, a “sharp conflict” could be lurking in that account of the witness statements. It’s possible that “some witnesses” have echoed Wilson’s account in a strong way, saying that Brown rushed toward the officer, even perhaps with his arms raised as a threat.
That said, we have to imagine such witness statements, because Robles provides no examples. In her entire report, she provides no samples of what “some witnesses” have said as they’ve “backed up” Wilson’s account.
Are these alleged accounts of the killing really in “sharp conflict” with those of the other, named witnesses? Robles provides no examples of what these alleged witnesses have said!
Indeed, it isn’t even clear how Robles knows that “some witnesses have backed up [Wilson’s] account” at all. Has she heard some witnesses do that? Or is this simply what she’s been told by “law enforcement officials?”
According to Robles, Wilson has said that Brown turned around, lowered his arms and began moving toward him. That is Officer Wilson’s account—and of course, it could be accurate.
That said, where are the witness accounts “backing up” that statement? We can’t have “sharply conflicting accounts” unless such accounts exist, and Robles doesn’t give any.
What are the “sharply conflicting accounts” upon which Robles based her front-page report? O’Donnell complained that no examples of such conflicts appear in her report.
Basically, the Times public editor agreed with this point. For ourselves, we would say that O’Donnell is plainly right.
O’Donnell has overstated at times in the last two nights. Sullivan, the public editor, made some basic misstatements and was sometimes murky.
But that important claim by the New York Times hasn’t been established. If we’re trying to nail down the basic facts, that claim has not been established.
We think O’Donnell has won his point. On a journalistic basis, we’d say he won the week. But in the meantime, the New York Times has managed to do it again! Once again, the Times has spread a framework through the press—a very important basic framework it plainly hasn’t established.
As usual, that front-page reporting by the Times was extremely weak. That brings us to the way in which O’Donnell, our man of the week, has been horribly wrong.
Coming next: O’Donnell is horribly wrong
Last night's segment: To watch O’Donnell’s segment last night, you can just click here.