Any news story on Ferguson — like this one — which mentions the shooting of Michael Brown without including Brown’s attack on Officer Darren Wilson is lying by omission. By now, it is no longer journalistically responsible to describe the shooting thus: “Protests on Monday maintained the momentum of those seeking justice for the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., almost four months ago.” Granted, condensing facts in the opening of an article is always a challenge. But nowhere in the long New York Times article on ongoing Ferguson-related protests is the reader informed that that “unarmed black teenager” had assaulted the officer without provocation and tried to grab his gun.
Leaving out such a crucial element in the shooting is tantamount to willfully distorting the facts. There is no dispute about Brown’s felonious attack on Wilson; unambiguous forensic evidence supports eyewitness accounts detailing Brown’s attack. Knowing those facts is essential to understanding the shooting incident; they are now an integral part of the record.
The Times article does find the time and space to report that protesters “walked out of their jobs and classrooms with their hands raised, the gesture that has become a symbol for the death of Michael Brown.” That symbol originated with Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, present during the incident, who claimed that Brown was shot in the back by Wilson. According to Johnson, Brown then turned to Wilson with his hands up to say “you should stop shooting me.” At that moment, Wilson gunned him down.
Dorian Johnson’s credibility is close to zero. As former federal judge Paul Cassell has demonstrated, physical evidence contradicts nearly the entirety of Johnson’s account, which he changed as each piece of contradictory evidence emerged. Johnson lied about the initial encounter — he alleged that Brown never hit Wilson, never had his hands inside the car to hit Wilson, and never came into contact with Wilson’s gun. The autopsy shows that Brown was not shot in the back, contrary to Johnson’s claim; blood tracks show that he moved back towards Wilson for 20 to 22 feet before being shot again.
Nowhere does the Times even hint that the mythology around the Brown shooting has been at the very least seriously contested, if not fully discredited. The press is as determined to hold onto a false but incendiary narrative about the shooting as the protesters. In so doing, it is complicit in the dangerous racial tensions that continue to boil over the shooting, and shows itself to be more committed to ideology than to objectivity.