Reporters must rediscover skepticism
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Some years ago, I had an interview with a homicide detective that got delayed. I used his office phone to postpone a tennis match.
”Tennis, huh?” he said after I’d hung up. “I wondered.”
”Well, you’ve got an indoors, sit-down job,” he explained. “But you’re always tanned and your hand’s callused. Now I know why.”
Me, I’d have asked. Or simply never noticed. Sgt. Dawson sometimes talked as if ungrammatical sentences were a point of honor. But no critical detail escaped him. I’ve always thought that if more journalists thought like him, we’d be spared much of the nonsense that passes for wisdom, not to mention the embarrassment when treasured tales collapse.
From Ferguson to Charlottesville, it’s happening all the time.
Journalists needn’t be homicide cops, but we should be able to abide by Rule One. I think it’s the New Jersey state motto, or it was when I grew up there: “Oh yeah, who says?”
Increasingly, however, skepticism is out. The manufacture and dissemination of didactic fables pleasing to the viewing audience is what many journalists do. And that’s becoming almost as true at MSNBC as at Fox News. Particularly in stories involving race and sex — that is to say, a lot of them.
The telltale clues often reside in the homeliest details. For example, how I came to doubt the Murdering Racist Cop version of Michael Brown’s tragic death was right at the start, in his companion Dorian Johnson’s version of how the conflict began. According to the slight young man with the dreadlocks who was everywhere on TV after his friend’s killing, officer Darren Wilson reached through his driver’s side window, grabbed Brown by the throat, and pulled him into the patrol car as Brown struggled to escape.
With one arm. From a seated position.
Never mind why he would do that. It’s a physical impossibility, even if Michael Brown hadn’t been 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds. So right out of the box, I don’t trust Dorian Johnson, or Witness 101, as the recently released Department of Justice report called him.
But let Jonathan Capehart take it from there. Capehart is an African-American columnist at the Washington Post who bought into the Murdering Racist Cop narrative big-time. Until he read the DOJ report. There he learned that “just about everything said to the media by Witness 101 . . . was not supported by the [forensic] evidence and other witness statements.”
Capehart adds that “Witness 101 ‘made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his
hands in surrender.’ In one of those interviews, Johnson told MSNBC that Brown was shot in the back by Wilson . . . and, like that, ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ became the mantra of a movement. But it was wrong, built on a lie.”
Strong words, but necessary. Possibly Johnson came to believe the tale he told. But none of it was real. Thousands of angry protesters from sea to shining sea have spent months chanting an intoxicating slogan based upon sheer make-believe.
Do I need to tell you that Capehart has been denounced in Salon and elsewhere as a racial sellout and worse?
Me, I’m thinking maybe comedian Chris Rock could do a routine about a black parent having The Talk with his teenage son about white cops.
”The first thing,” Rock might say, “is don’t punch them in the face.”
I suspect a black audience would roar with laughter, for all kinds of complicated reasons. Coming from me, maybe not so much.
But it gets worse. The DOJ report tells about Witness 128, who “told Brown’s mother that Wilson shot Brown at point blank range while his hands were up, and that even after Brown fell to his death, Wilson stood over Brown and fired several more times.”
Confronted by DOJ investigators who said none of that matched the forensic evidence, Witness 128 admitted he might have “hallucinated.” Actually, it’s not clear he saw anything.
Several witnesses who did see poor, doomed Michael Brown assault Darren Wilson, struggle to take his gun, and then make a final crazed charge, testified they feared “retaliation from the community” if it became known they’d contradicted the legend of Brown’s martyrdom.
It was ever thus, my fellow Irish-American friend Bob Somerby and I agreed recently. Bob, who has written a series of incisive posts on his Daily Howler website, compared the atmosphere in Ferguson to Belfast during “The Troubles.” I was thinking Dublin, 1916.
On MSNBC, the new party line is that the DOJ report on Michael Brown’s death shows the difficulty of prosecuting civil rights cases beyond a reasonable doubt. But the report actually concluded that Officer Wilson acted entirely in self-defense: “It was not unreasonable for Wilson to fire on Brown until he stopped moving forward and was clearly subdued.”
Nothing but a crying shame.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).