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.