Narrative Formation Case Study: NYT’s Role in the Ferguson Fiasco


Over at 28 Sherman, SoBL has links to all 106 New York Times articles referencing “Michael Brown” that the Newspaper of Record published just from August 10 to August 30. That’s five per day!

As you’ll recall, the Myth of Michael Brown collapsed in mid-August due to two revelations. On August 15, the convenience store video appeared showing gentle giant Michael Brown violently shoving the poor little Asian store clerk who tried to stop him from stealing. Then two days later, the Brown family’s privately-hired coroner announced Brown wasn’t shot in the back. His wounds were fairly consistent with the cop’s story.

Unfortunately for the New York Times, the national media in general, the town of Ferguson, the Democratic Party in November, Zemir Begic, NYPD Officers Liu and Ramos, and America in general, the Megaphone had apparently passed its Point of No Return by August 14, 2014. Here’s SoBL’s list of New York Times headlines datelined the day before the revelatory video:

08/14/14 Perlroth “Hackers’ Efforts to Identify Officer Create Turmoil”

08/14/14 Kennedy and Schuessler “Ferguson Images Evoke Civil Rights Era and Changing Visual Perceptions”

08/14/14 Vega “Vigils Planned Nationwide Over Ferguson Shooting”

08/14/14 Peters “Missouri Unrest Leaves the Right Torn Over Views on Law vs. Order”

08/14/14 Southall “Protest in Missouri at Police Killing of Teenager Is Chronicled on Social Media”

08/14/14 Beavers and Shank Opinion article “Get the Military Off of Main Street”

08/14/14 Schwartz, Shear and Paulson “New Tack on Unrest Eases Tension in Missouri”

08/14/14 Nyhan “How Race Undermines Obama’s Bully Pulpit on Ferguson”

08/14/14 Blinder and Eligon “For Missouri Governor, Test at an Uneasy Time”

08/14/14 Bosman and Apuzzo “In Wake of Clashes, Calls to Demilitarize Police”

08/14/14 the NYT editorial Board convene for an opinion piece. “The Search for Calm in Missouri”

As they say: Wow, just wow …

The next day, August 15, the store video came out. I hadn’t been paying much attention to this distant police blotter item, but that day I posted:

Ferguson Fiasco: It’s an Election Year …

There are a lot of advantages in terms of self-respect to waiting until you know what you are talking about. It’s easier to look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t rush to judgment in accordance with your resentful rages and dreams of exploiting some remote random event as a political masterstroke.

For the New York Times, however, which had pushed all its chips into the center of the table, they must have realized they were in too deep with no hope of extricating themselves gracefully so they just had to brazen it out.

So there was a Plan B: Shout louder and don’t mention the camera footage in any headlines. None of the scores of NYT headlines for the rest of the month mention the existence of security camera pictures of Brown setting off on his violent crime spree in the convenience store.

New York Times subscribers would have to read closely to find out the truth. For example, here is the peeved NYT article on 8/15 grudgingly admitting the existence of the store footage. It’s a pretty bizarre piece of reporting that makes palpable The Megaphone’s anger that authorities are revealing facts that undermine The Narrative:

Emotions Flare in Missouri Amid Police Statements
By TANZINA VEGA, TIMOTHY WILLIAMS and ERIK ECKHOLM AUG. 15, 2014

FERGUSON, Mo. — One day after roiling tensions over the police shooting of a black teenager here began to subside, emotions flared anew on Friday as the police identified the officer involved but also released evidence that the victim was a suspect in a convenience store robbery moments before being shot.

The manner in which the police here released the information, which included a 19-page police report on the robbery but no new details about the shooting, led to the spectacle of dueling police news conferences, one led by a white officer who seemed ill at ease and defensive, and the other dominated by a charismatic black officer who expressed solidarity with the crowd even as he pleaded for peace.

The white officer, Thomas Jackson, the police chief in Ferguson, gave a series of incomplete accounts that sowed confusion about whether the officer who shot the teenager knew he was a suspect in the robbery. The black officer, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, expressed his displeasure with how the information had been released.

“I would have liked to have been consulted,” he said pointedly about the pairing of the shooter’s identity with the robbery accusation.

All week, community members had demanded the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, 18, last Saturday, but when it finally came, it was accompanied by surveillance videotapes that appeared to show Mr. Brown shoving a store clerk aside as he stole a box of cigarillos.

Mr. Brown’s family, their lawyer and others in the community expressed disgust, accusing the police of trying to divert attention from the central issue — the unexplained shooting of an unarmed young man.

“It is smoke and mirrors,” said Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for the Brown family, of the robbery allegations. “Nothing, based on the facts before us, justifies the execution-style murder by this police officer in broad daylight.”

The videotapes seemed to contradict the image portrayed by Mr. Brown’s family of a gentle teenager opposed to violence and on his way to college.

Captain Johnson, who grew up in the area and had been brought in by the governor on Thursday to restore peace after days of confrontations between demonstrators and the police in riot gear and military-style vehicles, said he had not been told that the authorities planned to release the video of the robbery along with the name of the officer. But he sought to calm people down, saying, “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house.”

Captain Johnson won over many but also faced skepticism over his role along with anguished questions about who the police really represent and the lack of educational and economic opportunities in Ferguson.

“I find it utterly disgusting,” one man shouted at him. “What am I supposed to tell my people? It looks like you’re a figurehead.”

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, stood next to Captain Johnson at their news conference and emphasized that the details released Friday were not “the full picture.” He added, “I think the focal point here remains to figure out how and why Michael Brown was killed and to get justice as appropriate in that situation.”

Later Friday, the Justice Department, which is conducting a separate civil rights investigation into the killing, announced that teams of F.B.I. agents would be canvassing the neighborhood where shooting took place in the next several days.

The day began when Chief Jackson said at a news conference that the officer who shot Mr. Brown was Darren Wilson, who has served almost three years in Ferguson and two in another local department and had no disciplinary charges. Officer Wilson, who is white, has been placed on leave, and his location is unknown.

But the release of his name was overshadowed by the simultaneous announcement of the robbery allegations, leading to questions about timing and motives.

In a later news conference, on Friday afternoon at Forestwood Park, a sports complex in Ferguson, Chief Jackson said that Officer Wilson had not been aware that Mr. Brown “was a suspect in the case” and instead had stopped him and a companion “because they were walking down the street blocking traffic.”

But that only highlighted the central issue: How did an officer’s interaction with an unarmed young man escalate into a deadly shooting?

The videotapes, from an unidentified convenience store, show a tall burly man, identified by the police as Mr. Brown, shoving aside a clerk as he left the store with an unpaid-for box of Swisher Sweets cigarillos. According to a police report, Mr. Brown was accompanied at the store by his friend Dorian Johnson, who was also with him when he was shot.

Mr. Johnson has admitted being in the convenience store with Mr. Brown and told investigators from the F.B.I. and St. Louis County that Mr. Brown did “take cigarillos,” Mr. Johnson’s lawyer, Freeman Bosley Jr., a former mayor of St. Louis, told MSNBC.

Standing near a store that was vandalized during protests this week, Mark Jackson, who has participated in the demonstrations, expressed skepticism about police motives in describing the robbery. “They just want to make the case seem more reasonable on their side,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the man didn’t have a gun, so they didn’t have to shoot him.

In his afternoon appearance, Chief Jackson sought to explain why the information was released on Friday.

And isn’t that the real story here? It’s not about what Michael Brown did, it’s about how dare anybody who doesn’t own The Megaphone, such as the police chief, try to make The Narrative more factual? This Narrative is way, way above Chief Jackson’s pay grade, and nobody who is anybody wants to hear his stupid facts until The Megaphone has at least had a chance to come up with a strategy for spinning them. Because he surprised The Megaphone, all we can do now is just try to distract from the facts by shouting louder until Election Day.