Part 4—Provides some actual journalism: What actually happened when Michael Brown was shot and killed?
Yesterday, the New York Times offered a front-page report on that topic. As we noted yesterday afternoon, the 1500-word piece started like this:
ROBLES (8/20/14): 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.Speaking in her own voice, Frances Robles reported that witnesses to the shooting “have given investigators sharply conflicting accounts of the killing.”
Some of the accounts seem to agree on how the fatal altercation initially unfolded: with a struggle between the officer, Darren Wilson, and the teenager, Michael Brown. Officer Wilson was inside his patrol car at the time, while Mr. Brown, who was unarmed, was leaning in through an open window.
Many witnesses also agreed on what happened next: Officer Wilson's firearm went off inside the car, Mr. Brown ran away, the officer got out of his car and began firing toward Mr. Brown, and then Mr. Brown stopped, turned around and faced the officer.
But on the crucial moments that followed, the accounts differ sharply, officials say...
As we noted yesterday, we don’t know how sharply these accounts actually differ. When Salon was willing to cite this report, we thought it was worth noting.
Last night, Lawrence O’Donnell assailed the New York Times report as “a terribly misleading, badly crafted story about witnesses to the killing of Michael Brown.” He presented an 11-minute segment in which he sharply criticized the Times report.
One of O’Donnell’s remarks last night struck us as basically silly. (Hint: Every Wednesday, the Times presents its weekly Dining section.)
Some of O’Donnell’s critiques strike us as being off point. He also omitted and miscast a few basic points.
But O’Donnell offered some strong critiques of the Times report. If you’re willing to watch with a critical eye, his segment is very much worth watching.
As is often the case, MSNBC is dawdling this morning with respect to the posting of transcripts. At its own transcript site, the channel hasn’t even posted O’Donnell’s transcript from Tuesday night, let alone the transcript of last evening’s program.
Nexis has Tuesday night’s transcript up—but based on past performance, there’s no way to guess when last night’s transcript will appear. For that reason, we won’t be able to show you all the text from last evening’s program which is worth considering.
That said, let’s take a heavily paraphrased look at some of O’Donnell’s main points.
For starters, O’Donnell criticized the Times on a very basic matter. Its report failed to mention, let alone quote, the eyewitness account of the killing provided by Tiffany Mitchell on last Thursday’s O’Donnell program.
In two detailed segments, Mitchell reported what she saw as Brown was shot and killed. As he began his critique of the Times report, O’Donnell provided a videotaped excerpt of what Mitchell said.
To watch Mitchell's first segment, click here.
With respect to the claims in the Times report, O’Donnell’s critique begins with the passage we’ve already posted. He offered a comment about this particular part of that passage—a comment which was accurate, though not entirely relevant:
ROBLES: Many witnesses also agreed on what happened next: Officer Wilson's firearm went off inside the car, Mr. Brown ran away, the officer got out of his car and began firing toward Mr. Brown, and then Mr. Brown stopped, turned around and faced the officerAccording to O’Donnell notes, Wilson had already committed a crime if he fired at Brown while Brown was running away. We don’t know the relevant Missouri state law, and O'Donnell cited none. But we would assume that his claim is probably accurate.
Later in his segment, O’Donnell made the same point about another passage from the Times report. We highlight the relevant part of this passage, in which Robles reports an interview with an eyewitness:
ROBLES: A man who lives nearby, Michael T. Brady, said in an interview that he saw the initial altercation in the patrol car, although he struggled to see exactly what was happening.“What happened next could be what the case turns on?” According to O’Donnell, that is “the most egregious passage in the New York Times article.”
''It was something strange,'' said Mr. Brady, 32, a janitor. ''Something was not right. It was some kind of altercation. I can't say whether he was punching the officer or whatever. But something was going on in that window, and it didn't look right.''
Mr. Brady said he had been interviewed by county investigators, but not the F.B.I.
Mr. Brady said he could see Mr. Johnson at the front passenger side of the car when he and Mr. Brown suddenly started running. Mr. Brady did not hear a gunshot or know what caused them to run. But he said he did see a police officer get out of the patrol car and start walking briskly while firing on Mr. Brown as he fled.
What happened next could be what the case turns on...
What makes that sentence egregious? According to O’Donnell, Officer Wilson had already committed “an illegal use of deadly force,” “a crime,” by firing on Brown as he fled.
O’Donnell savages “the New York Times” for failing to note that fact. He says that law enforcement officials “tricked the Times” into ignoring those first reported shots.
We don’t know the relevant state laws, and O’Donnell didn’t cite any. That said, it’s the killing of Brown that’s at issue here. By all accounts, the killing of Brown occurred after Brown turned back to face Wilson.
For that reason, it seems to us that O’Donnell wanders off point a tad at this juncture. In the most obvious sense, it seems to us that Robles is right: Barring convoluted legal argument, what happened when Wilson fired the killing shots is presumably “what the case turns on.”
Let's move to a new point:
Throughout the segment, O’Donnell made a basic claim. He said the Times failed to show that witnesses have offered sharply conflicting accounts of what happened.
In the passage posted above, Robles quotes Michael Brady, an eyewitness to the shooting. But uh-oh! O’Donnell then played tape from Brady’s interview with Anderson Cooper last night.
Cooper’s transcript is already up. For that reason, we can show you the transcript of what O’Donnell’s viewers saw.
This is Brady speaking to Cooper, as re-aired by O’Donnell:
BRADY (8/20/14): By the time I get outside, he's already turned around, facing the officer. He's balled up, he had his arms like under his stomach, and he was like half way down, like he was going down, and the officer lets out about three or four shots at him.From Officer Wilson’s point of view, that seems like unflattering testimony. It sounds like Wilson fired the final shots after Brown was largely disabled.
So like I said, just like the body—I took a few pictures and a video about how his body is on the ground, just like with his arms tucked in. That's how he got shot or whatever. But like I said before, he went down, he was already like this, and he took like one or two step going towards the officer and he, like I said, let go about three or four more shots at him.
That said, O’Donnell instantly misquoted Brady as he continued. He then assailed “the New York Times” for what it had written, without having any way to know what Brady may have told Robles.
O’Donnell also omitted one part of the Times report, in which a second witness, James McKnight, is quoted telling the Times that Wilson “was about six or seven feet away from [Brown]” during this final confrontation. The relative propinquity might tend to tip the scales in Wilson’s favor.
It isn’t easy to assemble facts, to perform actual journalism. We think we see some obvious problems with O’Donnell’s report from last night.
But we think he helped define the issues which will have to be settled by anyone who wants to determine what actually happened here. We think he performed a service.
As he started and as she ended, O’Donnell heaped mandatory praise on the wondrous Times. Expressing shock at its lousy report, he said this as he closed:
O’DONNELL: The New York Times normally uses the best reporting standards of any news org. I have never seen the New York Times used by police this way...Funny he should say that! When Trayvon Martin was killed, this very same New York Times quickly got used by civil rights lawyers, in egregious ways. It falsely reported that two shots were fired, a warning shot and a "kill shot."
When it comes to domestic affairs, we’d have to say that the New York Times doesn’t maintain wondrous reporting standards. By rule of law, Lawrence may have felt that he was required to say different.
What actually happened that day? Assembling facts can be hard! Making some errors as he went, Lawrence advanced the ball.
Tomorrow: We try to summarize some basic trends in the coverage