A Couple of Thoughts on the Media and the Michael Brown Shooting

So, a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, last summer. I  confess that I hadn’t been closely following the circumstances of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Missouri over the summer.  Sure, I read a few articles about the incident and subsequent protests in the August, but I hadn’t been paying close attention.  But, with the release of the evidence presented to the grand jury, I thought it would be interesting to see what the basis of the grand jury’s decision was (as an aside, the evidence is fascinating, and from what I’ve read so far, provides a far more nuanced and subtle portrayal of the incident then has been broadly reported).  There’s a lot of evidence, which I’m still sifting through, but what really strikes me, so far, is how different the evidence is from the impression one would have formed from intermittently following media accounts (as I had done).  Consider two examples.

First, this morning I was listening to the host of one of the morning radio shows this as he described the affair of a shooting of a black “boy” by a white police officer.   Now, that’s a description that presents a certain image in one’s head, of a beefy police officer shooting your typical weedy teenage boy – think Trayvon Martin.  That’s certainly the image I had in my head from my, admittedly casual, reading of this story over my summer.  Moreover, it’s an image which instantly raises doubts about the legality of Michael Brown’s shooting – could a grown man really be so scared of a teenage “boy” that he felt the need to shoot him?  And if not, what else, other than racism, could explain the shooting.

So, imagine my surprise when I read the autopsy report for Michael Brown and find out that the teenage “boy” is  6’5″, 285lb.  This fact was not obvious from this summer’s new reports, and certainly it wouldn’t have been obvious from the description of Michael Brown as a “boy”.  Apart from raising the obvious question – when did it become acceptable to describe an adult black male (how else to describe an 18 year-old?) as a “boy” (a term that’s both misleading as to Mr. Brown’s age and size and also so laden with racist baggage its remarkable that the normally correctoid radio host would use it) – am I alone in thinking that this fact presents a very different picture of the conflict between Brown and Wilson?  Could a grown man really be so afraid of a teenage “boy” that he felt the need to shoot him – well, yes, if the teenage “boy” in question is the size of a linebacker and towers over him.

Second, I had thought, again, only from reading the papers, that it was contested whether Michael Brown had attacked the Officer Wilson in his police cruiser.  Obviously, whether or not Officer Wilson had been attacked by Michael Brown would be a relevent – though not determinative – fact in determining whether the shooting was done in self defense or out of racial animosity.

But, in reading the various witness statements, I was struck that there was a high degree of consensus among the witnesses and that there had been a fight between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown with Michael Brown as the aggressor, reaching into the front seat of Officer Wilson’s car and attacking him.  That testimony was broadly supported by the forensic evidence, which found Brown’s skin on the car door, blood on Officer Wilson’s gun and clothing (he apparently fired two shots at Michael while they were scuffling in the car), and marks on Officer Wilson’s face.   This just wasn’t a fact that was in dispute.  While, on one level, it’s irrelevant to the question of whether Office Wilson was subsequently justified in using lethal force,  it’s a part of the narrative that, for whatever reason, hadn’t been made clear in media reports.  Certainly, it makes Michael Brown a far from sympathetic “innocent victim” – cruelly, and irrationally gunned down by a racist police officer – and provides an explanation for why Officer Wilson might have feared for his life.

None of this is to say that the decision not to indict Officer Wilson is right or wrong, I’m still thinking about that.  But I’m struck by how the description of the confrontation between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson contained in the papers, on TV or on the radio (to say nothing of “conventional wisdom”)  differs from the description provided by eyewitnesses (who, with the exception of Officer Wilson, are presumably mostly black, given the demographics of the neighbourhood in which the shooting occurred).  That’s not a criticism of the media – they didn’t have access to the grand jury evidence (and I imagine, many eyewitnesses weren’t eager to speak to the media), and would be hard pressed to sort actual eye-witness testimony from second- or third-hand accounts of the shooting.  Still, it should serve as a cautionary story about believing what you read in the papers.


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