What he reported back then: Should journalists try to tell us the truth about some issue or topic—as much of "the whole truth" as is relevant and manageable?
Or should they possibly tell us a story—a story which has perhaps been designed to affect our views and opinions about some point of concern?
In our view, the question arises when you read Wesley Lowery's recent essay in The Atlantic.
Right at the start of his essay, Lowery describes three police shootings in Minnesota in the year 2015. These shootings were part of a "gruesome cycle," Atlantic readers were told told as the essay began:
MINNEAPOLIS—Miski Noor watched just the first minute of the video of George Floyd’s killing before closing the tab and walking the two blocks to join the protests already forming at the scene. The days since have been filled with a maddening sense of déjà vu.The shootings of Quinn, Christen and Clark were part of a "gruesome cycle," Atlantic readers were told. Indeed, in the aftermath of the shooting of Clark, "Hundreds poured into the streets."
Noor had joined the Movement for Black Lives in 2014, after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The 34-year-old activist’s first protest was that December, a demonstration that shut down the Mall of America during the peak of the holiday shopping season.
Noor soon became intimately familiar with the gruesome cycle: The police killed someone. Activists protested. Small reforms were won. The police killed someone else.
In Minnesota, St. Paul police killed Philip Quinn, a Native American man in the midst of a mental-health crisis, in September 2015. One week later, a Kanabec County Sheriff’s deputy killed Robert Christen, a white former fullback for the Wisconsin Badgers who was enduring a mental-health crisis of his own.* Two months after that, in November 2015, Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man. Hundreds poured into the streets.
In this way, Lowery's self-described "story" began. But in what way did those three deaths constitute a "gruesome cycle?"
Also, why were those hundreds of people in the streets? Assuming that they were protesting the conduct of "Minneapolis police," was their protest well-founded?
Lowery never addresses these questions. Before long, his basic thesis has come into view:
"Black men and women are still dying across the country as police unions continue to codify policies designed solely to shield their officers from accountability," Lowery writes. That, of course, is certainly true, though it's also true that it doesn't speak to the questions we've asked.
Briefly, let's return to the shooting death of Christen—one part of the "gruesome cycle" Lowery describes as he starts.
Presumably, it would be a better world if no one was ever shot and killed in an encounter with a police officer. In this case, local reporting made it clear that Christen's death occurred as part of a terrible mental health breakdown.
That said, did the police officer whose affiliation Lowery misstated do something wrong in the shooting of the man whose name Lowery misspelled? Everyone, including Christen's parents, seems to agree on what happened:
On the evening in question, a former Big Ten fullback bullrushed a female sheriff's deputy who had arrived at the scene of a potential crime. The deputy was all that stood between Christen and his former girlfriend, who Christen had said he was planning to kill.
When Christen attacked the female deputy on his way into the former girl friend's house, the female deputy shot him. It would of course be a better world if none of this had ever occurred, but did the deputy misbehave in some way on that tragic night?
Lowery never explains. He simply continues to tell his "story," perhaps conveying a certain impression about this unfortunate set of events.
What made the cycle a "gruesome" cycle? In the manner of the saints, Lowery offered this overall picture:
First, "the police" kill someone, he says. After that, they kill someone else. Full stop!
That recitation conveys a fairly obvious picture. That said, should the female deputy who was bullrushed by the Big Ten fullback be summarized in that way?
Even Christen's mother says the deputy did nothing wrong! But when the saints start to engineer revolution, the saints may not tell it that way.
It's true, of course, that "black men and women are still dying across the country" in encounters with police. As we noted yesterday, police officers in Minnesota have shot and killed ten black people since the start of 2015.
In the realm of ideal forms, that would be ten too many. For ourselves, we'd much prefer that police officers never shot and killed anyone.
That said, it's also true that police officers in Minnesota have shot and killed 37 "white" people (including Christen) over that same period, perhaps recalling Professor Cobb's recent statement on cable TV.
(More on that topic tomorrow.)
In our view, Lowery's essay represents the sort of work which may result when the saints start providing our journalism. Because the saints are fashioning revolution, they may feel that they understand what facts should appear in a given "story" and which facts should perhaps disappear.
At any rate, Lowery never explained why that deputy's conduct that night was part of a "gruesome cycle." Should hundreds of people been in the streets because of what she did?
We were struck by what we found when we explored the background of the three events which comprised Lowery's gruesome cycle. Undesirable though each event may have been, did any of those events involve misconduct by an officer?
Lowery never addressed that question. Instead, he let an impression stand, with The Atlantic cheering him on.
Tomorrow, we'll look at Lowery's essay in last weekend's Sunday Review. In our view, the essay was very poor work. For that reason, it appeared in the Sunday Times.
For today, we wanted to call your attention to one other part of the way Lowery began his "story." We refer to his reference to the late Michael Brown, right in his second paragraph.
In our view, the world would be a better place if Michael Brown was still alive in it. He may have been having his own mental health crisis on the unfortunate day of his death, not unlike Quinn and Christen.
People having mental health breakdowns may put police officers in extremely difficult situations. This was obviously true in Christen's case. It may have occurred in the case of the late Michael Brown.
That said, we're always struck when journalists like Lowery cite the shooting death of Michael Brown as an example of police misconduct. We say that for the obvious reason:
On March 4, 2015, the Obama/Holder Justice Department released an 86-page report about the death of Brown.
In our view, the world would be a better place if Michael Brown was still in it. But this is the way the Washington Post's Sari Horwitz began her news report that day:
HORWITZ (3/4/15): Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Mo., in August because he feared for his life after Brown first tried to grab his gun and then came toward him in a threatening manner, according to a Justice Department report released Wednesday.Say what? According to the Obama Justice Department, the officer's account of what happened had been corroborated by physical evidence and by eyewitnesses?
“Given that Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and that his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other eyewitnesses . . . there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat,” officials concluded in the 86-page report. The review explained why the Justice Department will not pursue civil rights charges against Wilson for the fatal shooting.
Later, Attorney General Holder explicitly said that he agreed with the report, which he urged people to read.
Was the officer's conduct that day justified? We bring no expertise of experience to such questions. For ourselves, we'd prefer that police officers throw their guns away and run for their lives when they're being charged by people who are refusing to accept arrest.
That said, we've been told that police departments simply can't function that way.
Horwitz's report was quite straightforward. She flatly said, in her opening sentence, that the DOJ held that the officer's conduct had been justified, though she presented no direct quotation to that effect.
Lowery had "contributed to" that report. But on that some day, Lowery wrote his own brief analysis piece for the Post about the Justice Department report.
In our view, Lowery may have had his thumb on the scales, at least a tad, that day.
He offered a narrower account of what the DOJ had said—"federal investigators opted against charging Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson with a federal crime." But his brief analysis offered four bullet points, each of which was accompanied by text from the report:
There is not evidence to suggest Darren Wilson’s use of force was unreasonable"There is not evidence to suggest Darren Wilson’s use of force was unreasonable?"
Michael Brown likely did reach into Wilson’s vehicle and grab the officer
Michael Brown did double back toward Darren Wilson
Michael Brown’s hands were probably not up, but it’s impossible to say for sure
Speaking a clearer version of English, the passage posted by Lowery actually said this:
"The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson's use of deadly force was 'objectively unreasonable' as defined by the United States Supreme Court."
Somewhat similarly, the passage quoted by Lowery affirmatively finds that Brown actually did reach into Wilson's SUV—and it says that, when he did, Brown "punched and grabbed Wilson." Concerning the bullet point about Michael Brown's hands, we'd say that Lowery was giving ground grudgingly.
Offering an instant appraisal, it seems to us that Lowery may have tended to understate the findings he was discussing. But he surely knows what the DOJ concluded about Wilson's actions that day.
Five years later, in The Atlantic, Lowery opened his recent essay by citing the shooting of Michael Brown. Stating the obvious, everyone knows what such a citation is meant to convey at the present time, at least within our tribe.
Way back then, the Justice Department found that the officer's actions in that unfortunate incident were not "objectively unreasonable." (Reasonably enough, Horwitz turned such statements into a finding the the officer's conduct was "justified.")
That's what happened back then. Today, this incident is universally cited, within our tribe though not within theirs, as an example of racist police misconduct.
In the first four paragraphs of Lowery's essay, Brown's unfortunate death was paired with the unfortunate event in which that female deputy stopped a former Big Ten fullback from killing his former girl friend. Shame on that cop for doing that! A rather clear impression is quickly conveyed about all these events.
Did police officers misbehave in the four incidents Lowery cites? Lowery produces no argument or evidence to that effect. He simply hands us a pre-approved story.
Should The Atlantic have published Lowery's essay in the form in which it appeared? In our view, no—it shouldn't have.
Stories are easy; the whole truth is hard. But as we've been noting for 22 years, if it weren't for all the novelized news, we'd often have no news at all.
Tomorrow, we'll revisit what Jelani Cobb said about our numerous police shootings. We'll also recall what a guest on the PBS NewsHour said—a guest who was telling a story.
Story is easy, the real world is hard! We'll also look at Lowery's recent attempt to offer journalistic advice, as published in last Sunday's Times.
High-minded advice can be very easy! That's especially true if you're one of the saints, convinced of your one true perspective.
Tomorrow: "Focus on telling the truth"