Should real journalists be blamed for what goes on at CNN?
Should real journalists be blamed for what goes on at CNN?
Kobby Dagan Shutterstock

My Challenge on Cops and Media Distortion Is Met Halfway. Is it a Draw?

Last week, I wrote about Kevin F. Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, the state’s largest law enforcement association. I took him to task for blaming the NFL knee-taking protest on dishonest reporting about police brutality by the national media. Maybe we need to get back into that one and check the score one last time.

I had written to Lawrence with this challenge: “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?”

Then I wrote a bunch of stuff defending reporters — surprise, surprise. My argument was that when a reporter reports that witnesses said Michael Brown had his hands up when he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago, that reporter is not saying he knows himself it’s true. He is saying witnesses said it was true.

In that case, a yearlong investigation by the Obama Justice Department found that it probably wasn’t true. Brown did not have his hands up. The story that he was begging not to be shot couldn’t be proved and didn’t make sense; Brown probably was in the process of launching a second physical assault on the police officer who shot him.

That means the witnesses were either mistaken or lying, but they still said what they said. Reporters on the scene still had an obligation to report what they said, along with whatever supporting or contradicting circumstantial evidence they could muster.

When I wrote about it last week, I had not yet heard back from Lawrence. After my piece appeared, I heard from him, and he answered my challenge. I want to show you what he sent me in response, and it’s up to you to decide if he met my challenge. I suspect a good many readers will be on his side, and I hope a few will stick with me.

First, he sent me a link to a YouTube video of a clip from CNN in which CNN hosts Margaret Hoover, Sally Kohn, Sunny Hostin and Mel Robbins are all holding their hands up. They don’t exactly explain why they are holding their hands up, but the context conveys clearly that the gesture is a show of solidarity with the “Hands-Up-Don’t-Shoot” gesture common at events where people are protesting what they they say are unjustified police shootings of unarmed civilians.

Kohn says in the clip: “Do not trust this ‘Oh they’re bad, so they must have done something wrong, and they deserve what they had coming’ rationale, which is the same one we hear from the CIA as we hear from police in a case like Michael Brown.”

If I were to be totally fair and honest about this — which I probably couldn’t be if I tried — then I would have to say Lawrence has got me with that one. The unfair side of me wants to say that CNN host personalities are not journalists.

They are not even what the Brits call “presenters.” They are actors culled from God knows what kind of auditions, and they don’t even try to report the news most of the time. Instead, they perform improv skits based on what they think the news may be.

But I know. These people are what Lawrence says they are. They are the national media. This business about holding up their hands but not saying exactly why is a sleazy trick — a way for them to get their point across without taking responsibility for the truth of it.

Reporting what people said at protests about the death of Eric Garner is not the same thing as promoting an agenda about Eric Garner.
Reporting what people said at protests about the death of Eric Garner is not the same thing as promoting an agenda about Eric Garner.
A Katz Shutterstock

They are saying Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot. At the end of the clip, one of them holds up a felt-pen legend written on a piece of white poster board saying, “I can’t breathe,” a reference to the death of Eric Garner during his arrest on Staten Island in 2014.

The CNN hands-up display was aired 15 months before the DOJ published its exhaustive report rebutting the hands-up narrative. It would have been a lot worse, I think, had the CNN cast of characters done the hands-up act after the DOJ report came out, but the fact that it wasn’t out yet was hardly an excuse.

When they did their hands-up act, they were responsible for knowing that the truth or falsehood of the Michael Brown hands-up narrative had not yet been established. They should have known they were reinforcing an unproved allegation — a very important and explosive unproved allegation.

Did they know? Did they care? Who knows? As I say, the people on CNN at any given moment are more likely to come from Central Casting than from any kind of real news background, but that’s a distinction that may be important only to me and other aging insiders in the news business, and I doubt it gets me off the hook with my challenge to Lawrence.

In an op-ed column in The Dallas Morning News last week, Lawrence wrote: “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.”

I told him he couldn’t come up with a single instance in which the media, by which I meant the press, said Brown had his hands up. I said the best he could find would be instances in which reporters said witnesses had said Brown had his hands up.

I am the only person who believes that “media” means “press,” and that is because I was born in 1776. Media means media. Lawrence sent me an instance of the media saying that Brown had his hands up. So he’s got me.

Later, however, Lawrence sent me a second instance, this one an ABC news clip about St. Louis Rams football players coming out of their locker room tunnel with their hands up. Lawrence says in his email to me, “And here is ABC News also promoting the hands up, don't shoot narrative.”

But the reporter in that piece, far from promoting the narrative, says the St. Louis County Police Association called the hands-up display by the football players “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.” He also reports that former police officer Darren Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force out of fear for his family and his fellow officers.

And there is my problem with Lawrence’s narrative. He thinks that by reporting an event like the display by the football players, the various news media are promoting it. I don’t think ABC was promoting. It was reporting.

I have a dozen two-bit theories about why some national media like CNN have backed out of real reporting in favor of panels of screaming heads. Mainly, I think the screaming heads are better looking and cheaper than great big news bureaus, and they probably get better ratings.

Lawrence also called my attention to a piece I wrote five years ago in which I said no one has a right to physically resist arrest, and a cop is never wrong to shoot somebody who does. Yes. As far as personal opinions go, that’s how I felt then and how I feel today.

There is no such thing as an unarmed citizen once a citizen starts fighting with a cop, and I include as fighting any kind of physical struggle to resist arrest. As soon as somebody fights a cop, everyone in that fight is armed because everybody in that fight has a chance to get his hands on the cop’s gun.

I do believe it’s terribly wrong and an awful disservice to people to suggest to them that there is some kind of book of fair play for fighting with cops, that somehow it’s unfair for the cop to shoot the citizen if the cop started the fight with a gun but the citizen didn’t have one.

Who cares? Fight with a guy with a gun, and there are no rules. Everybody in the fight has to assume somebody may die. It’s not a TV show. The cop does this stuff for a living, and he or she wants to go home at night, every single night, for the rest of all nights.

But Eric Garner in New York is another matter. He had no gun. He was on the ground when he died. That could have ended a different way. Everybody would have gone home. Two police officers probably would not have been ambushed and murdered Dec. 20, 2014, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn by someone seeking vengeance for the deaths of Garner and Brown. We all have a shared interest in sorting these matters out — citizens, cops and even reporters.

But I admit this much: Even if I’m right about the ABC story, that only gets me back to about 50 percent because Lawrence was right about the CNN piece. I still believe there is a lot of great, tough, responsible reporting going on out there, and it’s wrong to blame the messenger for messages we may not like.

On the other hand, there is one whole hell of a lot of immoral inflammatory manipulation going on in the media today, and some of it is responsible for giving people some really stupid ideas about life in the big city.

Can I claim a draw?

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