Author Archives: William H. Freivogel

This American Life distorts St. Louis school desegregation history

Last summer, one year after Michael Brown died in Ferguson, This American Life ran a powerful program on the failed Normandy school district from which Brown graduated.

Much of the program, reported by Nikole Hannah-Jones, critiqued the racially tinged protests of St. Charles County parents who didn’t want black students from Normandy to transfer to their mostly white schools.  This past February, the program received a George Polk award, one of the nation’s highest journalism prizes.

But there was an important mistake in her report — one that the PRX program declined for weeks to correct. Last weekend, when this story was about to be published, producer Hannah Joffe-Walt agreed there should be a clarification.  Still, the program’s story about school desegregation in St. Louis remains misleading.

In her initial report, Hannah-Jones incorrectly reported state officials had killed St. Louis’ city-county school desegregation program in 1999, when the Missouri Legislature had actually done the opposite. State officials passed a remarkable bi-partisan law continuing the program into the future. The transfer program still operates today.

The supposed demise of the program fit the overall narrative of the episode laid out in an introductory segment with Hannah-Jones and Ira Glass, host of This American Life.  In that segment, Hannah-Jones said America had abandoned the one educational tool that had improved educational results — integration.

State officials “killing” St. Louis’ desegregation program in 1999 fit that narrative while the true story of state officials preserving St. Louis’ model school desegregation program in 1999 did not.


The nation’s largest, most successful program

Here’s the actual story of what happened in 1999.  It is a story of how St. Louis preserved the largest, most ingenious, most successful, most costly and most long-lasting urban-suburban school desegregation program in the country.  The urban-suburban school desegregation plan began in the 1980s after an African-American mother, Minnie Liddell, sued to get a better school for her son, Craton.

NAACP lawyer William L. Taylor, one of the leading school desegregation lawyers in the country, represented Liddell and helped create the inter-district transfer program.  Under it as many as 15,000 African-American students from the City of St. Louis transferred to suburban schools in St. Louis County each year.  A smaller number of Caucasian students from the suburbs attended magnet schools in the city.

U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate, a savvy former congressman, used a carrot-and-stick approach to alternately bribe and bully suburban school districts to voluntarily join the unique plan brought to fruition by special master, D. Bruce La Pierre, a law professor at Washington University.

The stick was Hungate’s threat to merge all of the county districts with the city district, based on strong evidence that county districts had been complicit in the city’s segregation. Suburban school districts could voluntarily accept black students from the city and avoid the stick. In turn, they were rewarded by a carrot – state money that Hungate was able to offer suburban districts for each transfer student accepted. Because the courts had found the state to be the “primary constitutional wrong-doer” in segregating the schools, Hungate could force the state to pay for most desegregation costs.

For the next two decades Attorney Generals John Ashcroft and Jay Nixon — one a Republican and one a Democrat — fought never-ending Supreme Court battles to kill the transfer program.  Both used opposition to the program for political gain.  But they failed in court.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of black students from the City of St. Louis attended suburban schools.  Hannah-Jones reported accurately: “A generation of black Saint Louis residents, tens of thousands of them, remember the Saint Louis desegregation program…as a great opportunity. They’ll be the first to tell you that it was hard, but also that it was necessary. And for the most part, it worked. In the schools where white families chose to stay, test scores for black transfer students rose. They were more likely to graduate and go to college. After years of resistance, Saint Louis had created the largest and most successful metro-wide desegregation program in the country.”

So far, so good. But then, in her next sentence Hannah-Jones mistakenly said: “And then state officials killed it. In 1999, just 16 years after real desegregation came to Saint Louis, mandatory desegregation ended…This is what happened in cities all over. With Brown v. Board of Education, we as a nation decided that segregated schooling violated the constitutional right of black children. We promised that we would fix this wrong. And when it proved difficult, as we knew it would be, we said integration failed instead of the truth, which is that it was working. But we decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.”

What actually happened in 1999 was that community leaders, political officials and the citizens of St. Louis came together and decided the transfer program was worthwhile and working; they took extraordinary steps to continue it.


The Political Miracle of 1999

In 1998 Attorney General Nixon went to court trying to end the program, but U.S. District Judge George Gunn Jr. wouldn’t go along. Instead, he appointed William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University, to find a solution. The result was a settlement, approved by the Missouri Legislature, to continue the transfer program indefinitely. This settlement was built on three extraordinary accomplishments.

First, a coalition of rural and urban legislators in the state legislature combined to pass a law approving the continuation of the cross-district transfer program, even though the program had been politically unpopular in parts of the state.

Second, community leaders of St. Louis pressed hard for continuation of the program. Danforth brought along the St. Louis business community, obtaining the support of Civic Progress, St. Louis’ most powerful business leaders. He told leaders the program had worked, resulting in much higher graduation rates for transferring black students.

Third, taxophobic citizens of St. Louis voted to levy a two-thirds of a cent tax on themselves.

In announcing the settlement of the case, Danforth called it “a historic day” for St. Louis.  Minnie Liddell, the heroic mother whose suit had led to the desegregation plan said, “All I can say is, `Yay, St. Louis.’ This has been a long time coming, yet we have just begun. I’m glad I lived to see a settlement in the case.”

Liddell’s lawyer, Taylor, wrote that St. Louis’ settlement was the best in the nation.  And nobody knew better than Taylor, who had been involved in many of the nation’s biggest school desegregation battles after having served as general counsel of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and then vice chair of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“In many communities around the nation, courts are declaring an end to judicially supervised school desegregation and to the mandated subsidies for improved education that are often part of the remedy. But in St. Louis, the state Legislature has offered a financial package that will enable educational opportunity programs to continue for 10 years or more,” he said.

“Both from a financial and an educational standpoint, the St. Louis settlement is the best of any school district in the nation. The state funding will make possible continuation of the voluntary inter-district transfer program and the city magnet program. Both of these programs have enabled African-American city students to complete high school and go on to college at far greater rates than they have in the past.”

Former Rep. William L. Clay, who had led St. Louis’s seminal civil rights protest against the Jefferson Bank, inserted remarks in the Congressional Record: “When the State sought to end its financing of the remedy in the early 1990’s many feared that the opportunities that had been afforded children would end as had happened elsewhere. But an extraordinary thing happened. The Missouri State legislature voted funds sufficient to continue the programs…for at least ten more years. The legislature insisted that the city of St. Louis contribute financially by raising its sales and property taxes. Many feared that this would not occur. But in February of this year the voters approved a sales tax increased by an almost 2-1 margin–and every Ward in the City–Black and White–voted for the tax increase.”

Clay attached to his remarks an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headlined “Voting for a Miracle.”

“Tuesday’s overwhelming vote in favor of the sales tax increase for city schools is the latest miracle in a year of political miracles. The first was getting the Missouri Legislature to pass a law to continue making extra payments to the St. Louis schools after the end of court-ordered desegregation. The second was Dr. William H. Danforth’s trick of getting the platoon of lawyers to stop squabbling and hammer out a deal. The third was persuading the people of St. Louis to lay aside their opposition to taxes and lack of confidence in the schools and, instead, to tax themselves in hopes of a better future.

“This feat makes us the first place in the nation where the democratic institutions of government found a way to preserve the gains of the era of desegregation while making it possible to improve the education of all children. Imagine. This happened in Missouri.”


Standing by the story

When I initially sent an email to This American Life pointing out its mistake, I received no response.  My email to Hannah-Jones never reached her because she had moved from ProPublica to the New York Times.

I wasn’t the only one to raise a question. The Washington Monthly quoted an expert on school desegregation, Rick Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, pointing out the same mistake.  “The St. Louis inter-district integration program was not ‘killed’ in 1999, as reported on the show, notes Century Foundation education guru Rick Kahlenberg (who otherwise finds much to admire in the podcast). It continues to exist to this day, with some 4,500 St. Louis students transferring to suburban schools.”

After the Polk award, I brought the mistake up again because that honor ensured even more people would listen to the flawed account of desegregation in St. Louis.

Hannah-Jones responded in emails that she had not known of Kahlenberg’s or my criticism.  She added that she disagreed with it. In a February email she wrote, “…we at TAL disagree that this is an error. In the show, we say the mandatory program ended. The settlement ended court-mandated desegregation, just as we said it did. We fact-checked it and we think it is, in fact, accurate.”

Joffe-Walt, the producer who worked with Hannah-Jones, apologized for not having responded sooner.  She wrote in an email: “I did a search on our listener comments and see that you wrote in, which we regrettably missed at the time. We were overwhelmed with the response to those shows and I personally did not see this one. So first, I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

“In terms of the content of your message, I wanted to respond as I wish I had many months ago.  The existence of the current voluntary program was something we discussed in the writing process — writing that was reviewed in edits and fact checking.  While I understand the concern you are raising, I see it differently, and I feel comfortable with the language we used.

“Here is why: We do say that the state ended mandatory desegregation. This is true….Second, we are telling the story of a modern day mandatory program, and comparing it to the original mandatory program, so it is appropriate to distinguish between voluntary and mandatory.  They are different animals entirely, as is illustrated in the very scene where these sentences appear.

“In the section you are pointing to, Nikole is giving a 60 year history of integration efforts in one paragraph.  She is highlighting the need for mandatory integration in the face of enormous resistance from white, suburban St. Louis.  In that context, it is completely reasonable to underline the long lasting consequences of the state’s decision to get rid of the mandatory program. St Louis schools are racially segregated and white suburban resistance continues.  Because of that ongoing resistance, which you hear immediately before and after that paragraph, it is clear that there is a fundamental difference between a program that is mandatory and one that is voluntary program.”


Voluntary, Not Mandatory

The problem with Joffe-Walt’s response is that the city-county program she and the program praised was always “voluntary.”  The state funding was mandatory but not the participation of the suburban school districts.  The 1999 agreement replaced court-mandated funding with public funding the people of Missouri provided through their representatives and at the ballot box.

Wasn’t it better to for Missouri to democratically provide the funding indefinitely rather than to be forced to provide it for some limited period of time?  And how does this unique democratic act figure into the narrative of the This American Life program that there was the “need for mandatory integration in the face of enormous resistance from white, suburban St. Louis.”   There was no “enormous resistance” in 1999.

When Joffe-Walt was presented with the celebratory statements of Rep. Clay, Bill Taylor and Minnie Liddell, she at first did not reply.  When pressed, she asked for more time.  When told that a story would be running, she sent an email announcing a clarification. She wrote:

“While I appreciate the details you are citing, our show goes out to a national audience and most of our listeners have little or no awareness of the St Louis case.  We did not think it made sense to go into the level of detail and context that, while interesting, shifts focus away from the larger story (which is complicated itself)!  That said, we do find that the language about the continuation of a voluntary program is worth mentioning and so will clarify the language in this way:

“The sentence will now read: ‘After years of resistance, Saint Louis had created the largest and most successful metro-wide desegregation program in the country. But from the moment it started, state officials worked kill it. And then in 1999, just 16 years after real desegregation came to Saint Louis, the desegregation order ended. Just a much smaller voluntary desegregation program remains.’”

As clarified, the show still says nothing about the extraordinary efforts of Missouri officials, St. Louis leaders and civil rights leaders to save the desegregation program.

For her part, Hannah-Jones wrote in an email that she stands by the story as broadcast. “Of course we stand by the story,” she said. “One sentence that you don’t agree with does not change that.”

There is plenty of racial history that St. Louis and Missouri should be ashamed of. That includes Ashcroft’s and Nixon’s decades-long fight to end the city-county program.  But 1999, when the urban-suburban desegregation program was saved rather than killed, is a bright moment in St. Louis’ and Missouri’s racial history.  It doesn’t fit into This American Life’s narrative of St. Louis and the country giving up on desegregation.  That’s too bad because the story would have been richer and more nuanced had it been based on the real history of citizens and politicians coming together to create better, more integrated schools.

Ferguson – An Arab Spring moment

The Ferguson story was an Arab Spring moment when social media inspired social change. It rejuvenated the civil rights movement and started a new national conversation about race and policing.

In remarks to the Ethical Society in St. Louis on Oct. 25, GJR publisher William H. Freivogel looked back at the impact of social media on Ferguson.

I’ve been a reporter for almost 50 years, covering free speech, civil rights and the First Amendment most that time.  I’ve covered the U.S. Supreme Court, presidential campaigns, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, police brutality in the Maplewood police department, dioxin contamination of Missouri and the successful effort to keep the St. Louis-St. Louis County school desegregation program alive.

But Ferguson is the biggest, most important story I’ve covered.

We may look back on Ferguson as the beginning of the rebirth of the civil rights movement.  We may also see it as America’s Arab Spring when it comes to social media setting the agenda and spurring political change.  It’s safe to say Ferguson would not have played out as it did had it not been for Twitter.

The subject of the Ferguson story is the most important story of this nation’s life – our effort to escape the sins of slavery and segregation and to perfect our imperfect experiment in equality.  The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson’s police and municipal court system demonstrates there are a lot of imperfections.  It found racist, unconstitutional police practice in Ferguson – practices that most likely exist in thousands of Fergusons around the nation.  Those other towns just haven’t been under the Department of Justice’s microscope.

The reform of the municipal courts in St. Louis County is also a reminder that practices fair in form – say the issuance of a bench warrant when a traffic violator fails to appear in court – can wreck poor people’s lives and turn our municipal holdovers into something approximating debtors’ prisons.

One of the main points I would like to make this morning is Ferguson is complicated, with a capital C.

It’s like many ethical questions that don’t have clear right and wrong answers.  Answers aren’t found rushing to conclusions based on ideology and group affiliation, divorced from facts.  Instead, judgments should be based on core values, historical context and a search for facts.

 Let me give you a dozen examples of how complicated Ferguson is:

1.   Social media broke almost all of the news about Ferguson but they also spread most of the myths and hate speech.

2.   Social media became a way for protesters to reach out to a national and international audience, but the national media often got the story wrong.

3.   At the same time that social media became a way to reach out for a broader audience, they also spread early, inaccurate rumors and stories spread, leading to unreliable statements from supposed eyewitnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown.

4.   The Hands Up, Don’t Shoot story quickly took hold in the nation and the world, but it turned out not to be substantiated.

5.   Although a myth, Hands Up Don’t Shoot became a powerful force for addressing a long, festering problem of white police officers shooting unarmed black suspects and of police allowing minor stops to escalate into life-or-death situations.

6.   The powerful call for civil rights that emerged from Ferguson often failed to recognize Officer Darren Wilson had civil rights too, most specifically a constitutional right of due process.

7.   Ferguson may have been the rebirth of the nation’s civil rights movement, but this isn’t our generation’s civil rights movement. This is a movement of young people who have little regard for the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the past.  The same is true across racial lines.  One of the most viewed tweeters about Ferguson, Sarah Kendzior, tweeted recently, “All around me people of my generation drowning, while boomers toss out useless life vests of their memories.”

8.   Ministers in St. Louis were among the most outspoken leaders in the protest, but they too may have gone overboard in chanting for police officers to “repent.”

9.   St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch inspired little confidence that the investigation of the shooting would be fair and complete; but McCulloch’s release of grand jury testimony and his inclusion of exculpatory evidence addressed the most common civil rights criticisms of the grand jury process.

10. Even though there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Wilson on criminal charges, that doesn’t mean Wilson handled the encounter with Brown properly; he didn’t.

11. Even though the killing of Michael Brown had nothing to do with municipal courts, the reforms in the municipal court system that followed are among the most important reforms that have grown out of Ferguson.

12. That said, even though the legislation passed by the Missouri Legislature last year to reform municipal courts was called the Ferguson reform bill, it has little impact on Ferguson and its greatest impact may be to put out of business the tiny municipalities with African-American leadership.

13. Just as the press was slow in recognizing the myth of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, it also failed to recognize the magnitude of the unconstitutional policing in Ferguson until the Justice Department revealed it excruciating detail.

Ferguson – symbol for injustice

The question I’m asked most often is why Ferguson went in a few days during the summer of 2014 from being the obscure name of a quiet, residentially integrated suburb to a word known around the world as a symbol for everything wrong with America.

Here are some of the key factors that turned the shooting of Michael Brown from a small story that probably wouldn’t have made the national news or the local front page into a national crisis.

1)   Leaving Michael Brown dead on the street for four hours.  The Justice Department after-action assessment released this September stressed the role this four-hour period played in angering the crowd – although the report also pointed out that shots were fired at the police performing the forensic analysis and that the results of the forensics were crucial to the resolution to the case.

2)   The failure to immediately name the police officer who shot Brown. Did the press have a right to the name?  Probably not. But in Cincinnati officials have learned from past shooting like Ferguson and name the officer right away and release any video.

3)   The similar deaths of other unarmed black men at the hands of police, creating a critical mass of tragedies of this kind – Staten Island, Cleveland, North Charleston, Tulsa, Baltimore.

4)   Police with dogs, reminiscent of Bull Connor.  The Justice Department after action report stressed the role of dogs in angering demonstrators and urged that police departments not use dogs in crowd control.

5)   Police in military gear with military vehicles and red lasers pointed at protesters’ chests.

6)   Failure to respect the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists.  Police tried to ban night-time protests, tried to force protesters to keep walking, overused tear gas and arrested reporters, hassling and threatening others.

7)   A whirlwind of social media, cable and national and local media, often failing to check out facts before they were tweeted or reported to the nation. #ferguson flew by on the screen faster than it could be read – and far faster than a community or nation could comprehend.

8)   Most importantly, Ferguson reminded us we haven’t solved many of the racial problems we hoped we had gotten past.  Mike Brown’s high school was broken and unaccredited.  He lived in a segregated housing project.  And the town of Ferguson was engaged in racist policing.

Violating the First Amendment

Many of the violations of constitutional rights occurred in the couple of days after Brown’s shooting. Five days after the shooting, Gregory Magarian, constitutional law expert at Washington University law school put it this way in a story for St. Louis Public Radio: “Police and officials in Ferguson have declared war on the First Amendment. Since Sunday’s police shooting of an unarmed student, Michael Brown, local officials and law enforcement have blatantly violated three core First Amendment principles: our right to engage in peaceful political protest, the importance of open government; and the freedom of the press. In the space of one evening, police in Ferguson conducted a master class in destroying the freedom of the press.”

Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post had been arrested in a McDonald’s restaurant when they did not quickly obey a police order to leave.  St. Louis alderman Antonio French, whose blogs from the protests have been journalistic, was arrested for not leaving a protest that had been declared an illegal assembly. And police fired tear gas close to an Al Jazeera America crew setting up for a report.

PEN America released a report in October documenting 52 instances of infringement of journalists’ rights, including 21 arrests. The other instances of interference included 13 incidents of journalists threatened with guns or bodily harm, 7 who faced tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, and 11 instances where police obstructed reporters. PEN noted freedom of expression and the press are not just rights guaranteed by the First Amendment but universal rights guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The main abuses of the rights of protesters and the press were:

1)    Trying to enforce a rule that required protesters to keep moving instead of stopping to assemble – the so-called 5 second rule.   A federal court ruled that policy unconstitutional after a suit by the local ACLU.

2)    Overuse of tear gas.  A federal court ruled police did not follow strict protocols for when tear gas is appropriate, failing to give proper warnings and failing to consider whether the crowd had ways of escaping the gas.

3)    Threatening to arrest reporters and demonstrators who recorded the officers’ actions. Police don’t have the authority to make that threat.  It is uniformly improper for police to stop photography, tell journalists to turn off their cameras or try to make journalists erase photographs.  The public is entitled to see with its own eyes, through media photography, whatever is happening.

Press’ Mistakes

I’ve dwelled so far on the mistakes made by law enforcement.  But there also were mistakes by the media – both traditional and social.  Here are a few examples:

–      First example: Fox misreported Brown had broken Officer Wilson’s eye socket.

–       Second example: Ferguson was portrayed as a symbol of segregation and white flight – a ring of fire around St. Louis, the New York Times said – when Ferguson actually is one of the most residentially integrated suburbs in an otherwise residentially segregated St. Louis area.

–       Third example: The New York Times committed journalistic malpractice by reporting the name of the street where Darren Wilson had lived and then refused to admit to the ethical breach.

–       Fourth example: ProPublica published an influential data analysis concluding young African American men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts in the past three years.

 Most of the mainstream media picked up the report as gospel.  Few paid attention to the work of Peter Moskos, a criminologist at John Jay, pointing out the disparity was so large partly because of the way ProPublica sliced the data.

Looking at the bigger, 15-year picture, Moskos found black youths were about 6 times more likely than white youths to be killed by officers – still too many but far from the 21 times.

–       Fifth example:  When the press showed up at McCulloch’s press conference the night of the decision not to indict, reporters put on the most pitiful performance I have ever seen.  Three reporters asked the same unanswerable question – what was the vote of the grand jurors.  One reporter began his question with a polemic about the law not protecting African-Americans. Reporters were offended McCulloch blamed social media for distortions, but the DOJ report released in March proved him right.

–       Example 6:  I had a personal window into one of the press’ failures.  I reported for St. Louis Public Radio that McCulloch had changed the legal instructions to the grand jury at the last minute – making it easier to indict Wilson, not harder – MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell picked up the story, distorted what had happened, injected factual inaccuracies and claimed it was a reason for a new grand jury.  O’Donnell’s distortions were picked up as gospel by a liberal echo chamber.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

Overall, much of the national media followed a narrative trail that prejudged Wilson as guilty based on initial, unreliable eyewitness accounts to the media.  The story of the gentle giant on his way to college who had his hands up in a don’t shoot surrender mode and who was supposedly shot in the back by police – didn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The same day the Justice Dept. issued its stinging indictment of the unconstitutional police practices in Ferguson, it issued another report effectively clearing Wilson in Brown’s death.  It turned out not one witness had heard Brown say “don’t shoot” and none of the 22 witnesses who said Brown’s hands were up when he was shot was found to be credible.  Eight admitted lying, another admitted hallucinating. Others said they just wanted to be part of something important for the neighborhood.

The DOJ report described the way in which the media contributed to the creation of this myth. The story of the Jefferson County contractors is a good illustration:

A month after Wilson killed Brown, CNN broadcast what looked like a blockbuster “exclusive.” It was a videotape of two white construction workers who said Brown had his hands up when killed.  CNN reported the video was taken in “the final moments of the shooting.” One worker even gestures with his hands up.

At MSNBC, Chris Hayes carried a long report and Lawrence O’Donnell followed up. Vox had a story as did the Washington Post. Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept included an account of the workers in its summary of evidence against Wilson entitled, “Down Outright Murder.”

But instead of a game changer or evidence of a crime – as Jeffrey Toobin put it on CNN – the contractors turned out to be two of a score of unreliable witnesses and the clearest example of how the media helped create the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” myth.

The video was not taken in “the final moments of the shooting,” as CNN reported.  Nor were the accounts of the contractors credible.

The man who thrusts his hands in the air told a TV station that three officers were at the scene when only Wilson was there. That was the tipoff error that convinced the Justice Department the men hadn’t seen what they claimed.  The other tipoffs were that the men’s view of the end of the encounter was blocked by a building and no one else heard Brown say over and over, OK OK OK.

It turned out that the person who shot the video of the contractors put down the Ipad and it picked up the conversation of people talking right after the incident who claimed to have seen the shooting but said things that couldn’t have happened.

The Washington Post rated the hands up don’t shoot story as 4 Pinocchios.

St. Louis’ Arab spring

Up to this point I’ve mostly focused on the mainstream media.  But that’s misleading because of the enormous impact of the social media.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say social media – Twitter in particular – had a greater impact on the public’s view of what happened in Ferguson than did the mainstream media.

Social media had many positive and negative impacts:

On the positive side:

–       Social media provided a way protesters could get their message out and not feel they were limited to what the traditional media would report.

–       Social media enabled the protesters to attract the attention of the national and international media, making Ferguson and all of the other ensuing police shootings of black men into big stories instead of small local ones.

–       Social media became the means by which a new generation of civil rights leaders began organizing and assuming power.

On the other hand:

–       Social media and citizen journalists created a chaotic scene where police couldn’t tell who was a reporter and who was a demonstrator.

–       The sheer volume of the tweets added to the chaos. Five days after the shooting of Michael Brown. Twitter users had shared 3,648,032 and another 3.5 million on the 6th day.

–       The rumors about Hands up don’t shoot were magnified by social media.

–       Although the main impact of social media was to promote the protesters’ cause, there were also many racist posting on sites like yic yack.


Anonymous was one of the most poisonous of the online media – misidentifying the shooter and then claiming to name the officers in the offending department – but naming the police in Florissant, not Ferguson.

Livestreaming video became especially important, but once again could distort.  Bassem Masri was identified by the Sunday New York Times as one of the citizen journalists most prominent in recording what happened in Ferguson.

One would think livestreaming would be the most objective way of reporting on a story – live video can’t lie – right?  The problem is the Masri and other live streamers would inject their own interpretations and sometimes diatribes.

 In one of Masri’s livestreams he is recording a shoving match at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen last winter when the board considered a civilian review board.  On the video someone is shouting a stream of profane, racist invective at Jeff Roorda, a white police union official.  It turns out the invective was coming from Masri himself.  Some citizen journalist.

In Baltimore lst spring, there was a replay of the way false rumors can spread like wildfire from angry demonstrators, careless reporters and livestreamers. Mike Tobin, a Fox correspondent broadcast having seen a police officer shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  Hannah Allam, a seasoned war correspondent, also sent out misleading tweets of what she thought she saw. Then a livestreamer, recording a chaotic Baltimore street scene, began repeating over and over on Ustream.

Baltimore police shot a man in the back and they’re macing people – Tweet it out.

Yet the police didn’t shoot anyone and the alleged victim in dire condition wasn’t shot.


Just because Hands Up Don’t Shoot was a myth does not mean there is no problem with police shooting unarmed blacks and Hispanics.

The killing of Michael Brown shouldn’t have happened.  Darren Wilson didn’t commit a crime, but he didn’t use the best police tactics either.  Many of the cases where black citizens are killed by white police officers are the result of officers confronting citizens over minor infractions and allowing the situation to escalate.

Wilson should have called for backup before confronting Brown, police experts say.  The Cleveland officers who killed the young man with the starter pistol drove up too aggressively and closely.  The confrontation with Eric Garner did not have to play out as it did.  The same can be said of the shooting in North Charleston, the confrontation with Sandra Bland and the Texas swimming pool confrontation.

I don’t believe I’m overstating things when I say Ferguson has helped revitalize the civil rights movement nationally, has focused new attention on the need for better training and discipline of police and has reminded the nation and the community that they haven’t come close to solving the problems of race.

–       The recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing are promoting more training on community policing and de-escalation and more cameras on squad cars and officers.

–       The Justice Department’s detailed studies of the way law enforcement responded to the disturbances in Ferguson provides lessons for police – don’t use police dogs to control demonstrators, don’t use military equipment to shine laser sites on demonstrators, don’t use flashbangs, warn protesters before using tear gas and allow them a way to escape it and finally have a unified command structure.

–       The Justice Department’s review of St. Louis County policing also makes important recommendations for better training in de-escalation and community policing.

–       And the Ferguson Commission’s 100-plus recommendations provide a challenge to the St. Louis community to improve more than just policing but also housing and education.

No, we’re not in a post-racial society.  I don’t think any of us here will experience such a society.  The challenges that face us in St. Louis and as a nation are monumental.  The recommendations of the Ferguson Commission aren’t suddenly going to provide students with an equal education.  Brown v. Board outlawed separate but equal education 60 years ago, but the students in Normandy and so many other school districts are attending separate but unequal schools today.  Similarly, St. Louis remains one of the five or six most racially segregated places in the country when it comes to housing.  Remedying that is the work of decades, not years.

But there is quite a bit of evidence that one very good thing that grew out of Michael Brown’s tragic death is that St. Louis and the nation have woken up and recommitted themselves to equality and justice.

One year later: Media ignore their Ferguson failures

Editor’s Note: This is the publisher’s column from the current print edition of GJR.


The Justice Department’s twin reports on Ferguson this March raised two disturbing questions about the media:

• How did so many news organizations fail for so long to realize that “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” was a myth?

• How did so many news organizations fail for so many years to uncover deeply unconstitutional police and court practices?

One would hope those questions would prompt soul-searching. For the most part, they haven’t. The national media are on to the next police shooting with no sign of introspection. False or misleading stories from last summer remain online uncorrected. Social media also barrel ahead, clinging to preconceived ideologies in a cyber-world that is often fact free.

Here are egregious media failures:

• National and local media fell for “eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen Officer Darren Wilson shoot a surrendering Michael Brown. Many “witnesses” lied or fabricated stories.

• CNN irresponsibly broadcast “exclusive” video taken during “the final moments of the shooting” showing two white construction workers, one gesturing how Brown had his hands up. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called it evidence of a “a cold-blooded murder.” But the video wasn’t from the time of the shooting and the construction workers’ stories were full of holes.

• Local media – KTVI and the Post-Dispatch – gave the construction workers story big play. But they didn’t make clear that one of the workers incorrectly claimed three officers were at the scene. Both workers later admitted they had not actually seen Brown fall because the corner of a building obstructed their view. Nor did any other witness confirm the workers’ claims that Brown repeatedly screamed, “OK. OK. OK.”  Those are the reasons the FBI discounted their statements.

• MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell threw fuel on the fire day after day with biased reporting. O’Donnell ranted about St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch changing the legal instructions during the grand jury, but his reports were full of errors.

• The New York Times committed journalistic malpractice by naming the street that Wilson lived on and then refusing to admit its mistake. KSDK did it too but apologized.

• Fox misreported that Brown had broken Wilson’s eye socket.

• Anonymous, the scary and inept anarchists, misidentified the police shooter and the shooter’s police department.

• The New York Times portrayed Ferguson as part of a segregated “Circle of Rage” around St. Louis, when Ferguson is actually one of the most residentially integrated places in St. Louis.

• ProPublica sliced and diced statistics in a misleading way that exaggerated how much more likely it was for a young African-American to be killed by police.


Ferguson was America’s Arab Spring for social media. For that reason, their failures are as important as the mainstream media’s.

A story in the May 10 New York Times magazine uncritically romanticized the tweeters and live-streamers who made a name for themselves. It called Bassem Masri, “perhaps Ferguson’s most famous live-streamer.” Masri is the person whose live-streaming videos include loud streams of invective and hate directed at police. Masri isn’t a citizen journalist but a polemicist linking Ferguson and anti-Israeli protesters.

The Times’ piece also told how DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, two active bloggers, joined forces with Justin Hansford, a law professor at Saint Louis University, to critique the mainstream press in its “This Is the Movement” newsletter.

But the newsletter isn’t really media criticism. It’s a movement newsletter with headlines like: “This Is NOT St. Louis County, Missouri Prosecutor Robert McCulloch First ‘Racist Rodeo.’”

Not only have the media failed to critique themselves, they have gone right ahead making the same mistakes.

During the police unrest in Baltimore May 4, Fox’s Mike Tobin reported seeing an officer shoot a black man in the back. McClatchy war correspondent Hannah Allam tweeted, ‘We’ll be back under martial law tonight!’ EMTs take body away on stretcher.” Livestream’s “citizen journalist” barked out a tweet on the shooting. The reports were false.


Why did the press miss deeper stories of unconstitutional police and court practices? Sometimes the biggest stories are right in front of a reporter’s face but involve conditions that are taken for granted. That’s the case with the municipal court system in North St. Louis County. It took the ArchCity Defenders and allied law professors to show that procedures fair in form devastated the lives of poor, blacks who ended up in modern debtors’ prison.

The media did a good job of publicizing municipal court abuses. The one “Ferguson” reform emerging from the Missouri legislature limits how much traffic money each town can collect. But the press often forces reforms into a right-or-wrong framework, and it did with this story.

The new caps on municipal revenue hit the small predominantly black communities the hardest, with little impact in Ferguson. This take did not fit conveniently into the established media narrative and was mostly ignored in stories trumpeting the legislation as a “Ferguson reform.”


A personal note on former colleagues: The Post-Dispatch photo staff richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize it won for its brave, insightful, moving Ferguson photography. Tony Messenger and Kevin Horrigan, the P-D’s editorial editor and deputy, also deserved to be finalists for editorials that “brought insight and context to the national tragedy of Ferguson, MO, without losing sight of the community’s needs.”

St. Louisans sometimes don’t appreciate what a treasure they have had in the P-D editorial page as its Pulitzer commended work warned over the decades of Hitler, Vietnam, concealed weapons, civil liberties abuses and Missouri’s war on the Medicaid poor. It’s an editorial record with few peers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that both construction workers claimed there were three officers at the scene. That claim was made by the worker interviewed by KTVI; the person interviewed by the Post-Dispatch did not mention multiple officers. Jeremy Kohler, the Post-Dispatch reporter, wrote in an email that he considered the worker he interviewed “credible at the time and I still do.”

Dudman looks back at Pol Pot

Richard Dudman, the chief Washington Correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s, almost died in Cambodia – twice. Now, at age 97, he looks back at his reporting and says he may have been too easy on Pol Pot – the murderous dictator of Cambodia.

Dudman was captured in Cambodia while covering the war in 1970 and spent 40 days as a captive of Viet Cong. Five years later, after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power, Pol Pot invited Dudman and two other Westerners to Cambodia to see for themselves what life was like. One was Elizabeth Becker, who had covered Cambodia for several years for The Washington Post. The other was Malcolm Caldwell, a radical Scottish lawyer. They were the first outsiders to get visas to Cambodia to interview Pol Pot.

Pol Pot wouldn’t answer questions during their session with him. But that night Dudman was awakened by gunshots outside their guest house. A Vietnamese terrorist threatened Becker, shot at Dudman, who hid under the bed, and then killed Caldwell.

Recently, a special Cambodian court organized to prosecute Khmer Rouge war crimes asked Dudman about his reporting from that era. A lawyer who was questioning Dudman said he seemed to have been easy on Pol Pot. Dudman said he just reported what he saw. But the lawyer’s question haunts him, he wrote in an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch.

Reporting in Cambodia required courage. But the hardest thing for a reporter to admit is he may have gotten a story wrong.

Anonymous poster must be ID’d

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled this week that a northern Illinois public official must be told the name of an anonymous poster to a newspaper website who likened the politician to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, the child sex abuser.

The decision means that the anonymous poster cannot dodge a libel suit by hiding behind anonymity.

The Illinois high court ruled unanimously in favor of Stephenson County Board Chairman Bill Hadley, who has been demanding to know the identity of the poster for four years. Under the decision, Comcast, which provides the poster with internet service, would be required to turn over the poster’s identity.

The comment from “Fuboy” was posted on a December 2011 article in the Freeport Journal Standard website about Hadley’s decision to run for the County Board: “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire (Elementary School) from his front door.” The comment was an apparent reference to the former Penn State coach who was convicted of child sex abuse in 2012.

Because of a federal law – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – Hadley can’t sue the newspaper for the potentially libelous comment by Fuboy. The law gives websites legal immunity for the content of third party postings – like the one from Fuboy. So Hadley’s only alternative is to sue the poster and to do that he needs to know the poster’s identity.

The Illinois Supreme Court acknowledged that First Amendment issues are involved because anonymous speech is constitutionally protected. But it said that if Hadley could obtain Fuboy’s identity if he could present enough evidence to “establish the alleged defamatory statements are not constitutionally protected….

“Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case for defamation… a potential defendant has no first amendment right to balance against the plaintiff’s right to redress because there is no first amendment right to defame,” it wrote.

Even though Fuboy’s statement was one of opinion, it expressed allegations of facts that, if true, would constitute a crime. When opinions contain factual claims, they can be libelous.

The attorney for Fuboy said there may be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could put off his identification during the appeal.

Court opinion


Four Pinocchios for ‘Hands Up;’ Time to own up, editor says

A month after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, CNN broadcast what looked like a blockbuster “exclusive.” It was a videotape of two white construction workers who said Brown had his hands up when killed.  One worker even gestures with his hands up.

CNN’s analysts called it a “game changer” and its legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the witnesses had described “a cold-blooded murder.”

But instead of a game changer or evidence of a crime, the contractors turned out to be two of a score of unreliable witnesses and the clearest example of how the media helped create the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” myth.

The story began in St. Louis where KTVI had interviewed one of the workers and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the other.  The Post-Dispatch reported that the men’s accounts matched accounts from neighborhood residents about Brown raising his hands.

At MSNBC, Chris Hayes carried a long report and Lawrence O’Donnell followed up. Vox had a story as did the Washington Post. Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept included an account of the workers in its summary of evidence against Wilson entitled, “Down Outright Murder.”

But it all turned out to be wrong.  The video was not taken in “the final moments of the shooting,” as CNN reported.  Nor were the accounts of the contractors credible.

In fact, the telltale proof that the workers hadn’t seen what they claimed was contained in KTVI’s first interview with the men before any of the sensational coverage.  One of the men told KTVI that three officers were at the scene when only Wilson was there. That was the tipoff error that convinced the Justice Department the men hadn’t seen what they claimed.

In recent weeks, there have been a few mea culpas on the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” mantra.

The Washington Post’s opinion writer, Jonathan Capehart, admitted  it was “built on a lie.”  The Post’s fact-checker gave it a four Pinocchios rating for untruthfulness.  New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recanted an earlier column criticizing the Times reporters for quoting unnamed sources who had corroborated Wilson’s account of self-defense.

Not everyone is willing to give up on Hands Up. The Post quoted one skeptic, Saint Louis University law school professor Justin Hansford, who retained Hands Up as his Facebook photo. Hansford said, “I don’t feel any way that I was somehow duped or tricked or that my picture was based on a lie. I think it is a very symbolic gesture that really speaks to the experiences of a lot of us, a lot of youth of color.”

A separate Justice Department report released the same day as the investigation of Wilson, provided plenty of proof that Ferguson police and municipal courts engaged in racist and unconstitutional practices targeting African-Americans.  As Attorney General Eric Holder said, this may have made the community more willing to believe the rumors and false accounts circulated about the death of Michael Brown.

At week’s end, St. Louis Public Radio editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel said in a column that it was time for the press to reappraise not only why it had gotten Hands Up wrong, but also why it had failed to report in the past about the racist and unconstitutional police and municipal court practices  in Ferguson.

“We journalists hold others accountable for their shortcomings,” she wrote. “But in the months since Michael Brown was shot, we’ve had trouble owning up to our own.”


Publisher’s note: William H. Freivogel is a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio where his wife, Margaret, is the editor.

Twitter explodes with invective, partisan comment after Ferguson shootings

Twitter provided the earliest reports of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson this week. It also provided the forum for invective, hate and partisan reaction.

President Barack Obama used Twitter to condemn the shootings and conservative critics condemned Obama for relegating his response to Twitter.

Fox commentators blamed Attorney General Eric Holder’s report last week on unconstitutional police practices in Ferguson for creating the atmosphere in which the officers were shot. On Fox, Jeff Roorda, the head of the St. Louis police union said the resignation of Ferguson Chief Tom Jackson wasn’t enough for protesters, commenting, “They didn’t get what they wanted when Tom stepped down. They got it late last night when they finally, successfully shot two police officers.”

Protest leaders and the Brown family condemned the violence in press conferences and on Twitter.  But social media critics of the Ferguson police filled Twitter with invective about the police shootings being just in light of the death of Michael Brown.

Meanwhile the Twitter handle for police supporters #bluelivesmatter was trending.

Minds open; don’t prejudge

In announcing that no federal criminal charges would be filed against Officer Darren Wilson, Attorney General Eric Holder said he recognized “the findings in our report may leave some to wonder how the department’s findings can differ so sharply from some of the initial, widely reported accounts of what transpired.”  He added that it “remains not only valid — but essential — to question how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly, and be accepted so readily.”

The attorney general offered one explanation for the willingness of the protesters to accept the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative that the Justice Department report refutes.  His explanation was that the blatantly unconstitutional policing and municipal court practices were so racist that they created a powder keg that exploded on the August afternoon that Wilson killed Michael Brown.

But those in the media – traditional, new and social – might also take a look in the mirror.

Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund that supports cops accused of crimes while on duty, put it this way in the New York Times: “The lie got repeated over and over again. It was the headline in major newspapers and other major media publications all summer, all fall. And the subtext was: Racist rogue cop kills innocent black teen. And it was a lie.”

The Times, in quoting Hosko, seems almost surprised that the hand’s up mantra was not supported by facts.  But there shouldn’t be any surprise. It’s been clear for months that there was little evidence to support it and other details in initial media accounts.

In fact, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said it himself in his press conference in November announcing the grand jury’s decision not to indict. He said then:

“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media.

The liberal online media echo chamber led by Huffington Post blasted the claim as “bizarre,” commenting that, “Media figures and social media users lashed out at the notion that cable news and Twitter were to blame for the tension in the months following Brown’s death, rather than the death itself.”

What changed with the Justice Department’s report this week is that career prosecutors went witness by witness showing how the original media accounts of unreliable witnesses were refuted by either physical evidence or inconsistencies with later accounts.

In the end, the department’s investigators concluded that all credible witnesses, physical evidence and forensic analysis either supported Wilson’s account of shooting in self-defense or failed to refute his account.

In the long run, the most important story this week was the grossly unconstitutional way in which Ferguson ran its police department and municipal courts in tandem as an ATM for the city budget, brutalizing African-Americans along the way.  But hopefully the media will take some time for reflection before rushing off with a false narrative on the next national media storm.