Category Archives: Coverage Critiques

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.

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.

National media overkill

In August, 2014, in the United States, three men who did not know each other became part of a common tragic statistic.

They were all black. They were all unarmed. They were each shot to death by a police officer.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, and Ezell Ford of Los Angeles remain largely unknown outside of their respective communities. The death of Michael Brown, 18, from a suburb of St. Louis, touched off national media attention that made his name and circumstances known across the country.

In the time since Brown’s death Aug. 9, national media coverage has elevated the story to the status of a one-word description, akin to those celebrities who can forgo a last name. Columbine. Newtown. Katrina. Sept. 11. They need no other keywords on Google to bring up reams of stories.

Thanks to the maximum overload attention brought by the national press, a new name has joined the list. Ferguson.

Ferguson, like these other stories, now sparks debate and discussion around the country by people who had never heard of the community until the national media provided blanket round-the-clock coverage.

“Not only is daily journalism driven by what loosely can be termed bad news, events that are extraordinary and potentially harmful. There is a perverse appeal among journalists for exceptionally bad news, for the latest big scare story,’’ said W. Joseph Campbell, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, and the author of six books on the media. He also writes a blog, Media Myth Alert, which focuses on stories about and/or by the news media that prove to be exaggerated.

An examination of national media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Columbine, Co., present a blueprint for what the local media and community in Ferguson can expect. When a local breaking news story attracts the interest of national media, the two engage in a tug-of-war with sources and angles to determine who owns the story.

Campbell said the presence of out-of-town media injects an interesting and probably under-studied dynamic into coverage of major, developing events. “Local media can be expected to have better local sources; national media can be expected to have better national (or non-local) sources. This dynamic can lead to a tension in the coverage and to conflicting emphases in news reports,’’ he said.

Campbell spent 20 years as a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hartford Currant and Associated Press. His 2010 book, Getting it Wrong, examined coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation that hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.

“The non-local Katrina coverage focused largely on New Orleans, where it was thought – wrongly – that in the hurricane’s aftermath, a major American city was in the grips of apocalyptic horror and unimaginable mayhem,’’ Campbell said. “As I discussed in Getting it Wrong, that apocalyptic reporting was highly inaccurate but effectively defamed New Orleans and its people.’’

J. Brian Houston, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri and co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center, cites a research paper published in October in explaining why Ferguson became a media sensation.

Authors Amber E. Boydstun, assistant professor in political science, University of California, Davis; Anne Hardy, Ph.D. student in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, and Stefaan Walgrave, professor in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, titled their research “Two Faces of Media Attention: Media Storm versus Non-Storm Coverage.”

The authors define a media storm as “a sudden surge in news coverage of an item, producing high attention for a sustained period.”

Novelty, conflict, crisis and threat are all characteristics of an event that might drive media coverage, Houston said. “An African-American being killed by police in an American city {as with Ford, Garner and Crawford} will often not elicit a lot of media coverage,’’ Houston said.

But Ferguson elevated to the status of media storm when the national media’s spotlight both validated the story’s importance and influenced the events. “The protests and demonstrations that followed Michael Brown’s death were noteworthy and the police militarized response brought even more attention to these events,’’ Houston said.

“In some ways this is similar to the Civil Rights movement, in which nonviolent demonstrators elicited a violent police response, and this police response is what captured the media’s (and the nation’s) attention. In terms of school shootings, it is now the case that school shootings in which only a few students are killed or injured barely register on the national media’s radar. It is now only extremely devastating events like Newtown or the theater shooting in Aurora, Co. that results in a media storm,’’ Houston said.

The national media come to cover a local story. In turn, that begins a cycle where local residents respond to the attention of the national media, who then cover those events. “The Ferguson protestors are likely motivated by the national media attention in that media attention is necessary for any sociopolitical movement,’’ Houston said. “A movement must generate media interest, mobilize bystander publics and constrain the options of opponents to be successful, so media attention is the first cog in this process.’’

Like Campbell, Houston also says the national media can create a false impression of the community involved. St. Louis residents have expressed dismay at the national media coverage of their city, Houston said.

“And I have some sympathy for this. For example, Ferguson is a much nicer and more middle class town than what is shown in the picture that is drawn in the national media. Issues are often more complex than how they are described in the national media, and perhaps this simplification could have negative consequences for the local community,’’ he said.

Those negative consequences showed up in the hours and days after the Dec. 14, 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School were shot by a gunman who killed himself as police arrived to the scene.

Curtiss Clark, editor of the weekly community newspaper the Newtown Bee, has been at the paper for 40 years. His staff arrived first on the scene and provided first news of the tragedy.

Clark said he and his staff quickly realized two unexpected aspects of covering the story. One was that Bee staff members, as part of, rather than separate from, their community, were telling the stories of their friends and neighbors. The Bee joined other businesses in the community by putting a card in its window: ‘We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love,’ in green and white, the school’s colors.

Secondly, when overwhelmed by the media attention, community residents struggled to understand that not all media are created equal, nor is all coverage. “Sadly, there has also been persistent interest in the people of Newtown by conspiracy theorists (we call them Truthers), who assert in blogs and YouTube rants that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place, that it was a false flag operation by the government designed to foment opposition to the Second Amendment rights of gun owners,’’ Clark said.

Yet, even many of those 200 journalists who joined Clark and his eight editors and reporters in covering the story portrayed Newtown as something it was not. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams went to the Connecticut town and called it ‘the saddest place on earth,’ a description, Clark said, that failed to acknowledge how soon after the tragedy residents began organizing to offer each other support.

Three days after what locals call 12/14, the Bee published a special edition – the first since the paper’s founding in 1877 – entirely about the tragedy. Clark’s editorial in the edition, ‘Answering For Our Town,’ won the 2013 Allan B. Rogers Editorial Award, which recognizes the best editorial written on a local subject in New England.

Clark said the editorial tried to counter the portrait of the town created by the national media. {See sidebar.} “There is a perception locally that the fascination of outside media with the Newtown community and of certain individuals who live here is a kind of invasive species, not to be fed or encouraged,’’ Clark said.

“That, we know, is a sweeping generalization, and is unfair to the many sensitive and perceptive journalists who have worked the Newtown story since 2012. But it has grown out of experiences so many people in town have had with unfamiliar reporters casually crossing the frontiers of our emotional and physical privacy in a time of high emotion, when we hardly knew what to say to ourselves let alone to the great world on the other side of the klieg lights,’’ Clark said.

Campbell said that same type of anger and frustration of national media coverage is remembered almost 20 years later with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which is the topic of his next book, ‘1995: The Year The Future Began’. “Local residents still remember when Connie Chung of CBS News asked whether the city’s fire department or emergency response teams were up to the challenge,’’ Campbell said.

In the case of Ferguson, attempts by the national media to cover the story in the weeks after the shooting and leading up to the grand jury report include:

*Stories that linked drunken college students in Keene, N.H., who smashed hundreds of pumpkins carved for the annual Pumpkin Fest to the protests in Ferguson over Brown’s death.

*A six-minute CNN interview aired Sept. 27 with NBA star Lebron James that uses the keywords Ferguson, domestic violence and the father he never knew to describe it. James is asked about Ferguson; in his short response he said he sometimes feels moved to speak out on events as he did with the Trayvon Martin case, but never utters a word about Ferguson.

*Stories in the two weeks after Brown’s death about how former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “remains silent” and “ignores questions” on the shooting. When she addressed the issue Aug. 28 – 19 days after the incident – CNN reported Clinton had finally commented afterweeks of silence.”

*Stories about the Georgia Democratic Party’s flyers urging African-Americans to vote Nov. 4 to prevent another Ferguson. The flyer showed two young black boys holding signs that read Don’t Shoot.

*Stories with Rev. Al Sharpton discussing “The Ferguson Effect” about holding police accountable by having citizens videotape police actions on cell phones.

*USA Today’s Page 1 story in late November about Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s preparations for the announcement by the grand jury.

Campbell called the bold headline “State of Emergency” borderline misleading. “Readers wouldn’t immediately know to what event the headline was referring,’’ he said.

Houston said the Pumpkin riot on its own did not rise to the level of a media storm. “But one of the interesting aspects of this event is the largely white Pumpkin rioters were written off as kids getting out of hand generally, where the Ferguson protestors are often framed as much more of a threat,’’ he said. “This may have something to with race, with the fact that Ferguson protestors have in mind social change while the Pumpkin rioters don’t, or with some combination thereof.’’

Houston’s University of Missouri colleague, Berkley Hudson, associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, echoes the thought that race plays a part in why Ferguson has attracted so much outside attention. In a 2007 article in Journalism History Hudson examines the coverage in 1934 of a black farmer who called President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help.

Hudson wrote that ‘a key aspect’ of the research considers how the mainstream press, including the New York Times, treated Harris compared to African-American newspapers.  Hudson said the role of the mainstream white press versus the African-American press in coverage of racially tinged issues needs to be considered when examining stories such as Ferguson.

Such surface level and/or inaccurate coverage by the national media become known to local media and residents experiencing such a story only when it happens to them. Otherwise, exposure just to the national stories fails to give readers any context as to how the national coverage falls in line with local reporting.

“Local media can feel overwhelmed and a bit shocked by the sudden and intensive presence of out-of-town reporters and camera crews and producers,’’ Campbell said, “who sometimes run rather roughshod over local sensibilities.’’

A couple of days after the Newtown shooting, Clark and the Bee staff received a heads-up on what would happen along those lines. Caryn Boddie, who in April, 1999, was a reporter for the weekly Columbine Courier, contacted the Bee.

“I offered to help them,’’ said Boddie, who described her job as a part-time mom reporter for the Courier. “I knew what would be involved emotionally in covering such an event in their community. One of the students at Columbine, a boy who jumped out the window (to escape), went to Sunday School at my church. Objectivity would be hard. My heart went out to them (the Bee staff).’’

Boddie had been with the Courier for a month when her editor called her at home. He told her the police scanner reported a shooting at Columbine High School, which was five minutes from her house.

She was not just the first reporter there, but for quite a while the only journalist on the scene. “I got there before the police tape was put up,’’ she said. “I ran into the north parking lot. I saw a police officer and said I’m going to follow you.’’

She stayed at the school for days on end, she said, and spent days and days covering memorials and funerals of the 12 students and one teacher who were killed, as well as providing coverage of the 21 others shot, three injured trying to escape and the two student shooters, plus the community reaction. Boddie said what she experienced traumatized her, creating gaps in her memory of some of the events.

But Boddie said she remembers what she called the mushroom cloud of national media coverage that soon descended upon the area. “There were good ones,’’ she said, “who tried to do a good job. But many of them knew that this was the big one for their careers, the one that would get them noticed.’’

A public memorial in the park drew the upper echelon of media in 1999, including Barbara Walters. Walters won one of the big scoops, interviewing the family of a boy who lost half his face when shot.

What people in the community also remember is another media’s attempt at the story. “Someone called the boy’s uncle the night he was shot and offered $10,000 for a picture of his face,’’ Boddie said.

It took about nine months before the national media left the area and moved on to other stories. They returned for the one-year anniversary and five-year anniversary, but by the 10th Boddie said the national media’s attention span had run out.

Boddie at first tried to defend her profession. Then she tried to defend herself, telling people she was a local journalist and not like the national press. A year after the shooting, she left the paper to freelance and work in communication in the Littleton area, where she still lives.

Local media in towns with a national story soon learn that while the national press rolls on to the next story, their coverage will be never-ending. In the months since Brown was shot, the national media have blitzed through Ferguson stories, ISIS, Russia’s attempt to take over Ukraine, the new Apple phone, protests in Hong Kong and Ebola. Probably much to his relief, the media’s attention shifted to Ferguson and away from Donald Sterling as well as dropping any interest in the missing Malaysian airplane.

In late October the Newtown Bee had three stories that followed up in some way the aftermath of the shooting.  In comparison, only NBC and UPI provided national media coverage in September when a playground was dedicated to Dawn Lafferty, the principal killed in the shooting.

“The national media haven’t really moved on from the story, but they do seem to have moved on from Newtown,’’ Clark said. “We were told by the Columbine people that we could expect a drop-off in the intense interest in the community after the first anniversary of the shooting. And that’s pretty much what happened.’’

For the first anniversary in December, 2013, Clark said local leaders in town made a conscious decision to keep the commemorations low-key and private. “That denied the outside media a locus within the town for anniversary coverage and spared townspeople a repeat of the media circus that encamped in Newtown in the weeks after the 2012 shootings,’’ he said.

In a multi-story package Aug. 29 on the ninth anniversary of Katrina, which killed 1,833 people, the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote, “August 29, 2005. New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.”

With few exceptions, coverage of the ninth anniversary garnered notice only from local media along the Gulf. Limited national coverage included weather blogs and localized stories.

Next year, when Katrina hits its milestone 10th anniversary, coverage and rehashing of the 2005 storm should be greater. But maybe not much more, Houston said.

“The 10th anniversary will probably get more attention, but I don’t think it will rise to the level of a media storm,’’ he said. “Even the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks didn’t seem to get a huge amount of coverage. These events are no longer novel or threatening and so I think much of the media and public pay less attention to them. ‘’

Such inattention might also be good for the physical and mental well-being of readers. Two professors at the University of California, Irvine, researched the impact of watching at least six hours a day of media coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing, and Roxane Cohen Silver, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, found that those who watched had more acute stress than those who were at the marathon. Acute stress symptoms increased with each additional hour spent on media coverage of the bombing.

Silver said there is also evidence that people who watch multiple media traumatic events build up ongoing health issues. Symptoms of acute stress include intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge, avoiding reminders of the event and feeling detached from it.

“Media outlets, policymakers, parents, psychologists and other health-care professionals must be sensitive to the potential negative consequences of a steady diet or sudden influx of this material,’’ the 2013 study concludes.

So is there any role for the national media in these types of stories? Can they have a positive influence?

Images & Voices of Hope, a nonprofit group that focuses on how the media can be a force for good, said stories of recovery and resilience can make a difference. IVOH calls these types of stories Restorative Narratives.

IVOH Director Mallory Jean Tenore said she is developing a Fellowship on Restorative Narratives set to launch after Dec. 1. It will examine the impact of such coverage.

“I think some people confuse Restorative Narratives with fluffy feature stories,” Tenore said.  “These narratives are deeper than that. They reveal hard truths but highlight themes of renewal, resilience and recovery, themes that are often overlooked in breaking news stories about crimes, tragedies, problems,’’ she said.

This coverage approach responds to what people want, Tenore said. “I think people have become much more open to the idea of media being a force for good,’’ she said. “I think they realize that you can be a good journalist who cares about the people and communities you cover without being a biased advocate.’’

Campbell said journalists should remember to demonstrate restraint and skepticism. “But I doubt that will necessarily happen in the coverage of major disasters,’’ he said. “Journalists covering disaster must often rely on public officials for critical details about casualties and relief efforts. But in doing so they are not expected to shed the skepticism they develop about the officials and personalities they cover. Journalism, after all, is not stenography.”

As the second anniversary of Newtown approaches, Clark sees the local coverage and national coverage taking different paths. “The Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown has become a benchmark in the national debate over gun violence,’’ he said. “So many stories on the issue begin, ‘In the 20 months since Sandy Hook…’ What we have seen over the past year, however, is another iteration of media interest in the form of documentary producers and book authors exploring the impact of the tragedy on the community and presumably to make some sense of it or to draw some lessons from it.’’

The Bee will continue to report on the work of the dozens groups that sprung up to honor the 26 people killed that day. Events and news of these groups and the transition of the community course through Newtown day by week by month by year, he said.

“Things are happening, and keeping up with community happenings is what a local newspaper does,’’ Clark said. “So yes, in a sense, this is a story that we will always be covering. Grief, it turns out, is a most fertile medium for growth, and a growing town generates a lot of news.’’

How many Muslim readers hath the New York Times?

A note on the paper’s decision not to show the Charlie Hebdo cover after the attack

The decision of The New York Times not to depict the cover of Charlie Hebdo after ten of the French magazine’s journalists had been murdered by Islamic terrorists has drawn much deserved criticism in the United States and abroad, in comments from the editorial page editor of the Denver Post to a reporter’s charge of “cowardice” in the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL.

Within the ranks of Times editors the decision not to depict the cover, which showed a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, was defended by Executive Editor Dean Baquet:

“My first most important job is to serve the readers of The New York Times, and a big chunk of the readers of The New York Times are people who would be offended by showing satire of the Prophet Muhammad…That reader is a guy who lives in Brooklyn and is Islamic and has a family and is devout and just happens to find that insulting.”

Some might be surprised that among Brooklyn’s Muslim population (3.73% or 95,000 out of 2.5 million) there can be found a “big chunk” of the Times’ readership. Among them would be the paper’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan who voiced her disagreement with Baquet’s decision and observed:

“The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive.”

It’s got to be either that “big chunk” of Times readers potentially offended by the cover, or just a “small percentage” among them whose sensibilities would have been disturbed. Curious minds do indeed want to know and may not be satisfied with a Bill Clintonian explanation: depends on what your definitions of “big chunk” and “small percentage” are.

Different facts

Watching two different stations may give viewers two different takes on the same story, depending on which facts they know and report.

Such was the case at noon on January 20.  Channel 4 (KMOV) led with a live report from Robin Smith in South St. Louis where a fatal accident had occurred hours earlier.  She noted that only MoDot was on the scene repairing a damaged pole.  She mention homicide investigators had been called in saying investigators were “not sure why it happened.” Channel 5 aired only a taped version of the accident as their second story.

They began with the line “Homicide detectives are on the scene…”  Not being live, and watching Channel 4 live on scene, this was simply incorrect.  They appeared to be gone as was the wrecked car.  However, Channel 5 had a better angle, even though they were not there as they noted WHY homicide had been called in.  The station reported it was because the “injuries were inconsistent with the crash.”  Robin Smith never gave the reason for calling in the homicide detectives. Depending upon who you were watching, different views of the same story.

Journalist imitates Sergeant Schultz: “I know Nozzink” about the Paris attacks

“It’s not the internet that is ailing journalism. We’re killing ourselves, thin in our coverage, and often intellectually lazy and shallow.”  – The Journalism Iconoclast

Right after the January 7 murderous attacks on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and a kosher supermarket in Paris, TV and internet commentators regaled or outraged us with immediate analyses of what these attacks might mean. Predictably enough, conservative pundits saw in them another attack on Western values by radical Islam while liberal and left ones emphasized the “blowback” element of Islamic rage against the West’s often violent interference in the politics and culture of Muslim countries.

Comments, lacking information about the attackers’ inspiration and motivation, were therefore mostly recycled hot air. But one internet journalist outdid many others in intellectual laziness and shallowness the Journalism Iconoclast decries. And that was the onetime Washington Post and MSNBC wunderkind Ezra Klein, now Editor in Chief of the VOX media website.

On the day of the attack Klein posted the following:

“These murders can’t be explained by a close reading of an editorial product (the Muhammad cartoons in ‘Charlie Hebdo’) and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.”

Unprovoked incuriosity and ignorance are wrong too, if not lethal, and Klein is guilty of both. How could a journalist, on the day of the Paris mass slaughter, immediately adopt a “Nothing to see here folks, now move along” stance when media had not even begun investigation of the Paris murderers and the path that led them to commit their “horrible” acts?

And how can an educated person (Klein earned a B.A. from UCLA in 2005) write that mass murder is an evil “almost no human beings anywhere ever do?” Is it really necessary to dispel his inane “ever” with pictures of skulls from Pol Pot’s killing fields, frozen corpses from Stalin’s gulags or piles of victims’ shoes from Hitler’s death camps? Is he not aware that the perpetrators of those slaughters were not “mad,” but followed the logic of a political ideology, as the Crusaders in the Middle Ages followed a religious one as they hacked up infidels—Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. (For a starter, I’d recommend Christopher Browning’s ground-breaking book “Ordinary Men,” which initiated historians’ focus on the role of “normal” Germans in the Holocaust, away from the “madness” of the bad and fanatical SS types as sole perpetrators.

But Klein insists, rather pedantically, that only “madness” can explain the Paris attacks. Two fine pieces of investigative journalism soon proved him wrong.  The first one was The New York Times’ front-page story on January 18, “From Scared Amateur to Paris Slaughterer.” In it readers leaned that by September 2004 the Kuachi brothers, Cherif and Said, “began going regularly to Mr. (Farid) Benyettou’s apartment to discuss the religious justifications for suicide attacks. There they talked about how to load a bomb into a truck and drive it into an American base.”  A decade later, they translated some of what they learned from their mentor into the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

A day later the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL published on its English website a five-part report: “Terror from the Fringes: Searching for Answers into the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks.” The work of ten reporters, the series asks three questions that expose the mind-numbing shallowness of Klein’s simplistic response: were the attackers angry young men? Was their anger fueled largely by problems within French society? And, were they fed a misguided interpretation of Islam? Without supplying definitive answers to any of the questions, the thoroughly researched article suggests that one explanation would not suffice to provide even fragments of answers.

Or, as might have been suggested to Klein, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it’s more .

In DER SPIEGEL readers found out that “radical Islamists and terrorists have for decades been especially active in France.” And that the the two young Kouachi brothers and their accomplice “as adolescents seemed quite normal and promising.” They also learned that Benyettou convinced them “that armed conflict was the right approach and touted the martyr’s death as a path to paradise.” Moreover, “he incited his followers to engage in jihad” and quoted holy texts and Muslim scholars.” Cherif Kouachi is quoted: “It helped to convince me.”

Had Klein waited to dismiss complex answers to a complex issue and history, he might not have reached for the “madness” defense but concluded with a sentence often attributed to Voltaire: “Where people believe absurdities, they commit atrocities.”

He might also, should he touch this topic again, read the 1990 essay in The Atlantic by Bernard Lewis: “The Root of Muslim Rage.”  Its subtitle is “Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” But if he’s too busy, here’s Lewis:

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s stance is not an invitation to Islamophobia. To the contrary, Lewis insists that “It is critically important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Klein, who promotes “explanatory journalism,” is capable of explaining all that to his readers. For his sake and for journalism’s, let’s hope he’ll come back to the explanatory journalism he advocates but abandoned in his VOX posting on the Paris attacks.


Pathologist challenges quotes in Ferguson leak

The killing of Michael Brown Jr. in August by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, has produced a stream of controversial local and national news stories that portray the unarmed black teen as either the victim of police violence or a thug who got what he deserved in a “good shoot” by the officer.

A recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quotes a forensic pathologist, Dr. Judy Melinek of San Francisco, as viewing Brown’s autopsy report and saying that Brown was shot in the hand while struggling with the officer at his car and was “going for the gun.” She is also quoted as saying the several shots fired at Brown after he ran, did not show he had his hands up (as in surrendering) as several eyewitnesses have said.

Trouble is, Melinek says her words were taken out of context and they are inconsistent with the comments she emailed to the reporters Christine Byers and Blythe Bernhard. Melinek said their report was “misleading and inaccurate.”

The Post-Dispatch’s report was picked up by other media, including the AP and Washington Post. Melinek had to try to correct them. She appeared on MSNBC’s show with host Lawrence O’Donnell who criticized the Post-Dispatch  report saying it was aimed as corroborating the police officer’s account of why he shot Brown. O’Donnell noted that Post reporter Byers, who covers crime, had tweeted earlier that she was told by police they had a dozen witnesses defending Wilson. She did this while on family leave and her report was not used by the Post.

The Washington Post ran an editor’s note saying Melinek said she was quoted incorrectly.  The Post-Dispatch said she was quoted correctly. This week it attached an editor’s note stating that Melinek had said the autopsy “supports Officer Darren Wilson’s statement that Brown was reaching for the gun but that other scenarios are possible.”

The leaking of information by law enforcement sources has been mostly favorable to the scenario attributed to Officer Wilson. This has caused U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to say he was “exasperated” that the leaks were an apparent attempt to justify the shooting of Brown.

The growing opinion of protesters in Ferguson, and supporters of Wilson, is that he will not be charged by a St. Louis County Grand jury. Officials of six school districts, fearing violence if and when such an announcement is made, have asked the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, to announce it when school is not in session.

Reporting on a war that isn’t a war: USA vs. ISIL

“Our objective is clear. We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” – President Obama

Now that the USA and the coalition of the hesitant are stumbling toward the objective, NBC reporter Elizabeth Chuck had good reason to wonder “Why the Obama administration keeps saying ‘degrade and destroy’.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest finds the phrase “brimming with meaning.” Chuck did not.  The strategy of air strikes on the black-flagged beheaders of ISIL (or ISIS or just the Islamic State) seems to be “in tatters” according to the UK’s The Guardian. Has Chuck’s question received a good answer?

It was not a good sign that Chuck, in her search for one, felt compelled to enlist the help of UC Berkeley professor of linguistics George Lakoff.  Here’s what he came up with: “What they’re trying to do here is develop a way to frame the issue in such a way that it doesn’t mean you’re at war, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to save the country, etc. etc” Repetition of “de“(in “de-grade and de-stroy”) was intended to convince allies, public and enemy that “we’re really going to do it.” Verbal gymnastics from Washington did not frighten ISIS, convince skeptics or enlist greater support among allies. Is anyone outside the White House still be-guiled or be-witched by the “double-de” spin?

Reports from the front in Iraq and Syria depict ISIL moving relentlessly toward crushing Kurdish opposition and grabbing substantial swaths of land close to Baghdad. These reports confirm the cautious interpretation of the U.S./coalition strategy expressed by former White House aide Reid Cherlin: “You could just say ‘destroy’ to start with and leave out the ‘degrade,’ but probably most of what we will be doing is the degrading, and the ‘destroy’ is the hopeful part.”

Looking at the press reports about the achievements of ‘degrading,’ is there still hope for the second act of destroying? It doesn’t look like it. ABC News reported that U.S. airstrikes “destroyed a couple of armed ISIS vehicles.”  On October 10 WTKR revealed that “four air strikes south of Kobani (the town near the Syrian-Turkish border held by Kurds) destroyed two ISIS vehicles” while “one air strike northeast of Kobani destroyed an ISIS vehicle.” Our British partners are doing similar “degrading” of the ISIS fleet of pickup trucks: “Two Tornado fighters identified two vehicles, one of which was an armed pickup truck. Four Brimstone missiles were used to conduct a precision attack on the vehicles. Initial analysis indicates that the strikes were successful.”

The U.S. and coalition partners are using Tornado fighters ( at more than $20 million an aircraft and more than $ 30,000 an hour to operate it), or Apache helicopters to inflict the kind of damage on ISIS pickup trucks that ordinary American drivers  boast of on a foggy day on Los Angeles freeways for a fraction of the cost. It would have been even cheaper to get rid of those terrorist vehicles by waiting for recall notices from their manufacturers.  Especially since the “degrading” of the ISIS fleet isn’t stopping ISIS. And why is that?

Lt. General William Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Staff explained it to us all: “ISIS is a learning organization…and they will adapt to what we’ve done and seek to address their shortfalls and gaps in our air campaign in the coming weeks.” So we’re at war, kind of, with a “learning organization” that is winning the almost-war, and we’re not. TIME magazine told us what ISIS has done from what it has learned: “ISIS has frustrated air strikes by abandoning key outposts …easier to hit…and breaking into smaller units…and also moving into civilian areas the coalition won’t bomb…”

The White House, at least so far, has not shown itself to be a “learning organization.” And that led TIME to conclude: “For a President who wants to defeat ISIS without ground forces, the options are dwindling.”

So what is the press to do about reporting on this “operation” to stop ISIS? It can continue to chronicle the vehicular Blitzkrieg ISIS continues to wage with its degraded fleet of armed trucks and heavier weapons captured from Iraq’s forces. It can also reveal the spin our president and his spokespersons are putting on the results of the campaign. So far, we haven’t stopped ISIS and we’re not getting closer to the “destroy” part of the strategy. No boots on the ground ultimately will result in more bodies underground.