If you have been watching the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, then one of the themes you have seen powerfully depicted is the campaign of public lying carried out by President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his team in defense of the war.
Long after LBJ’s secretary of defense began showing him evidence that tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives were being wasted in an unwinnable slaughter, LBJ told the American public the United States was winning. He couldn’t admit he was losing a contest, so he lied.
It was the press — the media, as it is now called — that first began telling the public the truth. Some of what the media reported came from eyewitness accounts by reporters, but more of the true story came from sources within the military and the governments of the United States and South Vietnam.
The mystery of history: what lesson we learned. It seemed reasonable to me then — it still seems reasonable — that the lesson for the American people should have been to maintain a challenging skepticism for the self-serving claims of leaders. Instead, for a great many Americans, the lesson was that the media lost the war.
And we are by no means done with that mystery or beyond it in any way. If anything, our society is still choking on it.
Is truth an aspiration? Are we winning as a people if we think we’re winning, good if we think we’re good, right if we believe we’re right? Or is historical truth a reality that is external to what we think and what we want?
Yesterday, The Dallas Morning News op-ed page contained a column written by the chief executive of a statewide police association and lobbying group. He argued that professional football players are protesting the national anthem because of false reporting by the media.
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, wrote: “When Colin Kaepernick took a knee last year, he was protesting what he incorrectly viewed as an increase in police brutality.
“We haven't forgotten that fact because, while we support the First Amendment rights of every American, including the right to protest, we believe the conversation about race and policing has been distorted by the national media and anti-cop activists looking to score cheap political points.”
Lawrence went on to cite instances of media distortion, including the meme in which Michael Brown supposedly had his hands up begging, “Please don’t shoot me,” when he was shot to death by former Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that Brown probably did not have his hands up when he was shot and probably was in the process of launching a second physical assault on Wilson when the officer shot him.
“We cannot ignore the role of national media distortions of celebrity cases in these shootings,” Lawrence said in his piece in the Morning News.
I wrote to Lawrence before I finished my first cup of coffee, challenging him to come up with an instance to prove his allegation. Even one. Just one instance would have been enough.
“Are you able,” I asked, “to come up with a single media story, for example, where the media said that Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot?”
I called Lawrence later in the day and was told by his office that he was not going to take my call. So, bottom line, I never got my single instance — just one story anywhere in which the media said that Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot or that he said, “Please don’t shoot me.”
This is not rocket science. We were not there. No reporter was there when Brown got shot, so no reporter could tell the world that he saw Brown get shot. What reporters could and did tell the world was that Brown got shot, according to witnesses and according to police.
On March 4, 2015, the Justice Department published two reports, one on Brown and one on Ferguson. The one on Brown’s death was what I would call forensic, and the one about Ferguson was political. The political report launched broad allegations of racism against the municipality of Ferguson and its police department. That’s not the one that Lawrence of the TMPA seemed to be talking about in his piece yesterday in the paper.
At several points in the other report, the one on how Brown died, DOJ investigators delved into what some witnesses had told reporters — and was subsequently reported about those witnesses' accounts in the media. In many of those instances, DOJ investigators determined that some witnesses had either been mistaken in what they thought they had seen or had deliberately lied to reporters.
I don’t know a seasoned reporter in this country who would have been surprised, disappointed, taken aback or startled in any way by those findings. Everybody in the business knows the dynamic by which a certain kind of show gets going on the street, especially when TV shows up. To the chagrin of print reporters, people are much more excited about being witnesses when they have a chance to be on TV. The blood may still be wet on the pavement, but when that TV truck rolls up, people start combing their hair.
People lie. LBJ wasn’t the Lone Ranger. Human beings lie. Eyewitnesses to death lie, for all kinds of reasons. Most of those reasons are over the heads of mere journalists. For those answers, you would have to consult the great novelists and poets. We just know they lie.
And, of course, we have an obligation on the spot and on the scene to vet the lies that we can see easily. We can’t quote an eyewitness who turns out not to have been present when or where he said he was, who has an obvious agenda or ax to grind that impairs his veracity, or who is just plain flipping crazy. Sure. We have a job to do.
But we also cannot look ahead a year, carry out an entire detailed multi-million-dollar heavily staffed Justice Department investigation in our heads and say on the spot, “I don’t believe you, so I am not going to report what you say.”
I’ve been a reporter all my life. Some of my best friends are reporters. I have enormous respect and affection for a few of my colleagues. But I am here to tell you that you do not want reporters ruling on who can and cannot speak about an important news story.
When we quote somebody saying he saw Michael Brown with his hands up pleading not to be shot, we have an obligation to fill in some dots for you. We need to tell you who the witness is and how he came to be an eyewitness. If he’s the victim’s brother, or if, moments before the shooting, he helped the victim jack a convenience store, then we need to tell you all of that, as well.
Then it’s up to you. Back to the mystery of Vietnam. We in the media purveyed all kinds of lies about the war before anybody told you the truth because we reported the lies we were told. If the lesson should have been a healthy public skepticism, then that skepticism should apply to us as well as political leaders, but with one very important caveat.
In our case, there’s a big difference between what we say ourselves and what we tell you we have been told. That was my question to Lawrence of the TMPA. I wanted him to show me one story where the media said Michael Brown had his hands up. We said witnesses told us he had his hands up. That’s a very big difference.
When witnesses are able to surmount a certain very preliminary bar of credibility, it’s our job to tell you what they say. Then it’s your job to decide what you think of what they say, based on your experiences and insights and also on other sources — maybe a great, big DOJ investigation a year later, for example.
So am I just feeling weepy for journalists? At a time when the president of the United States is urging Americans not to trust the press, I think the issue is more substantial than our hurt feelings.
Take, for example, the role of Lawrence of the TMPA. The TMPA has an associated political action committee that lobbies the Legislature on police issues. It provides training and legal representation, and it serves as a labor representative and collective bargaining agent for local police associations and unions. So Lawrence’s outfit, in other words, is supported by money from cops. He sells to cops.
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By setting up the media as the enemies of cops, by linking reporters with anti-police activism, Lawrence flatters a very unfortunate potential for paranoia among the blue ranks, and he lets the police off the hook.
By his account, cops have no positive obligation to take the football protests seriously because it’s all just an anti-police conspiracy. The media and the NFL are in on it together. And if you believe that, don’t forget to send in your dues.
What about the truth? What if the football players are trying to get the police to recognize something true about the relationship of police officers with the communities they patrol? What if the media are just telling the police what the football players are saying?
Enormous evils occur when people agree to be walled off from the truth. And there is always some guy with a wall to sell. We’re just the window. Be careful not to slam when closing.