As America waits for a grand jury in Missouri to decide whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will stand trial for the killing of unarmed 17 year-old Michael Brown, a steady stream of one-sided leaks from that secret proceeding makes it pretty clear that there will be no judge, jury, or verdict for Wilson. Since that proceeding is secret, the only way anyone will ever know what happened there is through leaks, and the only way those leaks become public is with the cooperation of media outlets willing to publish them.
Since the early days of the Michael Brown murder investigation, local law enforcement has sought to tip the scales through selective and prejudicial release of information, and the purpose of this current spate of leaks could not be more clear: deliberately incomplete accounts of Darren Wilson’s side of the story, a leaked autopsy report along with “expert analysis” to spin “consistency” with Wilson’s story into support for it, and third, fourth, or fifth-hand stories about black witnesses that allegedly “largely support” Wilson’s account, whatever that means, and whom no one will ever get to speak to or confirm the existence of. This is the presentation of a defense case without a trial, and its purpose is to ensure that most of the public accepts that there will never be a trial. Just as Mike Brown was killed without a trial, so too will his killer be set free without one.
Chris King, Managing Editor for the St. Louis American, is now offering a fascinating window into how these self-serving leakers sell their biased information to newspapers, since he was shopped the exact same leaks and turned them down. His paper ran an editorial with blistering criticism other papers’ ethics for running with “third party hearsay,” and in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, King went into more detail about how leaks like these were shopped to him, and why he refused to use them. King gives several good reasons, but the most relevant to this story is the issue of authority:
“I certainly could have picked his brain and ran a report with the weak authority that these three daily papers used, but I think the authority’s too weak, because I couldn’t use anyone’s name.”
“It’s very arrogant, because you’re asking the public to believe somebody told somebody who told me, and you’re supposed to believe me.”
The issue of authority is central to this phase of the story, because as King points out, the authority of these sources isn’t just weak, it is completely indeterminate. The attributions used, such as sources “who were briefed,” or sources “familiar with” or “with knowledge of” the investigation, leave open the possibility that their information is further removed from the facts than they are from Kevin Bacon. What these papers are doing is vesting these sources with their own authority, simply by printing these stories. A New York Times reader isn’t going to parse the attributions against their sourcing policy, they are going to believe what they read in the Times, which is why it is so important that proper, ethical editorial judgment is used.
This is not to say that no news outlet should ever report on a grand jury, or ever use anonymous sources. There are a slew of ways that these papers could have fixed the journalism in these stories. They could have insisted their source give a complete accounting of Darren Wilson’s story instead of stopping while he and Brown were still in the car, and/or insisted on an attribution that informed readers as to any possible ulterior motive the source might have (even while still remaining anonymous; for example, “sources in the District Attorney’s office”), and/or an attribution that gave readers an accurate feel for the sources authority (who were they briefed by, for example), and/or explained to readers that a piece of evidence that’s consistent with Wilson’s story can also be (and in all these stories, actually is) also consistent with the witnesses who say Wilson shot Brown as he was surrendering, and/or insisted on detailed accounts of the alleged black eyewitnesses who “largely support” Wilson’s story instead of taking a subjective source’s word for it, or even on interviewing them with promise of anonymity, or barring any of those attempts to properly tell this story, do what Chris King did: let them keep shopping around.
These papers, and even these leakers, may feel that they are doing a public service by sweetening what is sure to be a bitter pill, but all they are doing is reinforcing the notion that when police shoot down an unarmed black man, they are above the law. The press will, sadly, have many more opportunities to get this wrong.