Monday, March 13, 2017

Miasma of ideological reporting or too high expectations for accurate reporting?

An interesting epistemological question. A filmmaker has turned up security video of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. The video is from the day before his attack on a police officer, during which attack he was shot and killed. Following his death, there were riots in Ferguson and ultimately it led to the formation of Black Lives Matter, an advocacy group seeking to either undermine and attack police or hold police accountable for their actions, depending on your perspective.

The new video sheds no light on Brown's attack on the police officer, the video being from many hours earlier in the day.

What struck me was this passage in the New York Times's account of this new material. From New Ferguson Video Adds Wrinkle to Michael Brown Case by Mitch Smith.
Regardless of what happened at the store in the early-morning hours, the new security footage does not resolve long-simmering questions about Mr. Brown’s encounter with Officer Darren Wilson along a Ferguson street that day. Officer Wilson, who claimed that he feared for his life and had been assaulted by Mr. Brown, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a county grand jury and federal civil rights investigators. He resigned from the Police Department.

Mr. Brown’s death and the sometimes violent protests that followed raised broad questions about how police officers treat black people, both in the St. Louis area and across the country, and many remain steadfast in their belief that Mr. Brown was murdered.
I think it is this type of reporting which so galls people and contributes to the degraded reputation of journalism.

There is a passive aggressive construction to the two paragraphs which convey far more than is said.

For example, "the new security footage does not resolve long-simmering questions about Mr. Brown’s encounter with Officer Darren Wilson." Long-simmering questions? Well, what exactly do you mean by that, Mitch Smith? The case was extensively investigated by the local police, city police, state investigators and agents from the Department of Justice. There is a final report from the Department of Justice which exonerates Officer Wilson. Or, more accurately, "For the reasons set forth above, this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed."

Nothing in this new video undermines or addresses any of the evidence presented in the DOJ report. It does not resolve any "long-simmering questions" because there are no "long-simmering questions" to be resolved. The DOJ report does not provide answers to everything, there are questions still to be asked, but none that seem likely to change our understanding of what happened.

This mealy mouthed, sotto voce implying first sentence is followed by an even more weaselly second. "Officer Wilson, who claimed that he feared for his life and had been assaulted by Mr. Brown, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a county grand jury and federal civil rights investigators." Why is there the need for the first clause? Smith seems to be trying to raise doubts about the legitimacy of Wilson's claim that he was in fear of his life, despite Wilson having been attacked, having had his weapon discharged by the attacker, having his instructions disobeyed and despite being physically charged a second time. That seems to be editorializing. The substance is in the second clause. Officer Wilson was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a county grand jury and federal civil rights investigators. In fact, not only was there no evidence of criminal wrong-doing, there was no evidence of procedural failure. He did exactly what he was supposed to do under the circumstances. It was a tragedy that Michael Brown lost his life but the actions surrounding that were entirely of Brown's own making.

So the epistemological question arises from the ending sentence of the second paragraph, "Many remain steadfast in their belief that Mr. Brown was murdered."

The events were massively reported, there were multiple investigations by independent agencies from different levels of government all reporting the same broad outlines of what happened. Officer Wilson questioned the two suspects, Brown initiated a confrontation in which he tried to seize Wilson's weapon and managed to discharge the weapon in the Officer's car. Brown then fled. On being ordered to halt, he then turned, charged Wilson and was shot and killed.

The only long-simmering questions are why Brown chose to do these things, not about what happened. And yet, the New York Times is reporting this as if there are serious questions to be answered. They are not refuting or attacking any of the official findings.

Since when does the New York Times treat conspiracy theories as valid alternative views?

I am guessing there are three things going on simultaneously. Whether intentionally or by carelessness, Smith has conflated two categories of questions "What happened" and "Why did it happen." We know with a pretty high degree of confidence what happened. That is not significantly in question and the new video has nothing to do with what happened. "Why it happened" is still very much open. The whys all relate to Michael Brown and not to Darren Wilson. Wilson followed procedure as he was trained to do. No significant whys there.

But why did Michael Brown charge Wilson, why did Brown attack Wilson, why were Brown and his friend walking in the middle of the street, why was Brown videoed apparently stealing cigarillos from a nearby store? All these are "long-simmering questions." But they are questions about Brown's motivations, not questions about what happened.

So conflation is one explanation for this NYT article.

The other is a matter of correlation. The NYT publisher is a major supporter of the Democratic party for whom Brown and Ferguson were a cause celebre. So is the editorial board of the NYT. So are the journalists. So are the bulk of the subscribers. It makes sense that the NYT enterprise would see this through a particular lens. A lens that fails to distinguish between what happened and speculative reasons for why it happened.

Finally, and most obviously, the filmmaker has a new documentary coming out. It is in his interest to stir up old passions. You stir up old passions by raising new questions. The fact that you really don't have anything new about the most crucial aspects of the event, the What, cannot stand in the way. So you go to the New York Times, which given its history and proclivities, is a likely sympathetic platform. You know that most newspapers simply regurgitate press releases in order to fill space. Seems like a match made in heaven.

So I am guessing something happens along these lines. The filmmaker or their publicist issue a press release about the new documentary. They then contact the NYT to make the filmmaker available to discuss new evidence about the Ferguson case. The NYT, knowing its readers, of course says yes.

The reporter then interviews the filmmaker with sympathy about their position. The journalist then writes a report which conflates "what happened" with "why it happened" either omitting the distinction by fuzzy thinking or deliberately doing so in order to not come across as unsympathetic to the position he presumes held by his readers.

The result is a report which seems to attempt to breathe new life into an old, cold controversy. But in a fashion that seems, to a critical thinking or non-ideological person, to be manipulative instead of informative.

Or maybe I am too pedantic about the precision of journalistic writing.

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