Part 1—Today, we get one basic fact: In a case where we don’t have a whole lot of facts, we finally got one basic fact in this morning’s New York Times.
Here it is:
According to the New York Times, 18-year-old Michael Brown wasn’t shot in the back.
If Brown had been shot in the back, it would have been hard to imagine a scenario in which the shooting was legal. As it turns out, Brown was shot at least six times—but he wasn’t shot in the back.
This brings us to the front page of yesterday’s hard-copy Washington Post. On a journalistic basis, we thought that front page was strikingly bad.
Even before we learned today’s fact, that front page seemed pretty awful to us. This is the way the featured news report started in our hard-copy Post:
BROWN, LOWERY AND MARKON (8/17/14): Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Saturday declared a state of emergency in this roiling St. Louis suburb and imposed an overnight curfew, telling a group of shouting residents that order must be restored after days of protests over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.On a journalistic basis, we have no idea why the Post would have published that report at all, let alone in the featured spot on its Sunday front page.
The governor's extraordinary action came as the attorney for a key witness described the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown as an execution-style slaying. Lawyer Freeman Bosley Jr. said Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown's, has told the FBI that Officer Darren Wilson confronted the two because they were walking in the middle of the street.
Wilson cursed at the pair and ordered them onto the sidewalk, Bosley told The Washington Post. When they refused to comply, he said, the officer grabbed Brown's throat through the window of his cruiser, pulled out a pistol and shot him. Wilson then chased Brown, shot him in the back and shot him five to six more times as Brown's hands were raised, Bosley said.
The account, combined with Nixon's declaration, made for another day of chaos and confusion in this small community...
In the Post’s report, Bosley inaccurately said, for the ten millionth time, that Brown had been shot in the back. This made it “an execution-style slaying,” the Post rather colorfully added.
Had Michael Brown been shot in the back? There was nothing new about this claim, which had already been repeated about ten million times by that point.
But so what? For unknown reasons, the Post seemed to treat its interview with Bosley as a piece of breaking news. On a journalistic basis, we have no idea what the Post would have decided to do that.
On the brighter side, we strongly doubt that Bosley’s account “made for another day of chaos and confusion” in Ferguson. Surely, everyone in Ferguson had heard the claim that Brown was shot in the back ten million times before Bosley spoke with the Post.
(Although it too may be somewhat inaccurate, Bosley’s account of the number of times Brown was shot was perhaps somewhat new. The Post didn’t seem to know that.)
On a journalistic basis, it was strange to treat the Bosley interview as front-page, breaking news. In the process, the Post advanced an inflammatory though apparently inaccurate claim for the ten millionth time.
To us, that seemed like strange journalistic behavior, even before we learned that the claim in question was inaccurate. And uh-oh! Right next to that news report, Manuel Roig-Franzia’s 2300-word “human interest” profile seemed almost as odd.
As a journalist, Roig-Franzia sometimes strikes us a very good novelist. In yesterday’s profile, it seemed to us that his picking-and-choosing of facts came early and often.
Here’s the way Roig-Franzia started. Warning! Be prepared for classic human interest, of the “two lives intersected” type:
ROIG-FRANZIA, BROWN AND LOWERY (8/17/14): It took just three minutes.It’s true! As Roig-Frania writes, “There has been no definitive account of what happened” in the interaction which resulted in Brown’s death. On a journalistic basis, we’d have to say this:
A speck of time on a snoozy side street, a stretch of asphalt winding through a modest working-class neighborhood of three-story garden apartment buildings that's easier to find a way into than out of.
There, two lives intersected when a white police officer named Darren Wilson and a black teenager named Michael Brown—one in a patrol car, the other on foot—found themselves together on Canfield Drive in the middle of a summer Saturday.
When they met at 12:01 p.m. on Aug. 9, the two were coming from different places, different mind-sets—Brown filling free hours with a friend, Wilson coming off an emergency call about a 2-month-old baby struggling to breathe.
Brown, barely 18, stood 6-foot-4 and 292 pounds and wore a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. Wilson, a lanky 28-year-old with short-cropped blond hair who had six months earlier won a commendation for "extraordinary effort in the line of duty," steered a police cruiser behind him.
At 12:04, Brown was dead, shot multiple times by Wilson. "Big Mike," as his friends called him, did not have a gun.
The conflicting accounts of those three minutes—the tortured exercise of assigning blame—have provoked intense protests and turned this inner-ring St. Louis suburb into a parable of race, class and justice. There has been no resolution, no definitive account of what happened in that flash of a hot afternoon or of the two men at the center of it.
Police records, public documents and more than a dozen interviews on the streets here and in other St. Louis suburbs are beginning to reveal details of the killing and clarify points on a timeline that began with a theft of less than $50 worth of cigars from a convenience store and culminated with Brown's death.
A key witness—Brown's friend Dorian Johnson—has told the FBI that he thought the robbery was a "prank," said Johnson's attorney.
As we read Roig-Franzia’s account of that day’s events, it struck us as rather selective. A few paragraphs later, he even offered this:
ROIG-FRANIZA: Both men are now forever entwined with Ferguson, but neither had particularly deep roots here.Is that swimming pool part of this case? Or is it part of a novel?
Brown was only spending the summer with his grandmother while making plans to attend a vocational school. Wilson was in his fourth year on the police force after working for two years on a force nearby. He lives miles away in a house with a swimming pool in the suburb of Crestwood.
The shooting death of Michael Brown is a very important event. The speed with which events have unfolded—including events in the middle of the night—have made Brown’s death and its aftermath a very tough challenge for journalists.
All in all, we’d say the journalism has been rather poor, in a few ways which are quite familiar and in one or two ways which seem new. This helps create a major societal problem.
The shooting death of Michael Brown is a very important event. According to our civics textbooks, citizens need accurate facts about what is known when such events occur.
Citizens also need to be reminded about what isn’t yet known.
According to our civic textbooks, that helps define the journalist’s role in our most important events. As we watched some major news orgs last week, we thought we noticed a major lack of journalistic behavior.
No journalism, no justice! That’s pretty much what our civics texts have always pretty much said.
Tomorrow: Murder, she said