The Mailbag: Reactions to the Reaction

Posted by Michael Getler on
As expected, the aftermath of the grand jury decision Monday night in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., has stirred up controversy, violence, emotion and lots of opinion. As can also be expected, the news coverage, including, of course, the PBS NewsHour, is always in the cross-hairs during such events. This will be a continuing story and it is always my sense that it is best to judge coverage of such stories as a continuum rather than a snapshot. But with the long holiday weekend nearly upon us, I wanted to post a sampling of the initial letters I have received from viewers about the Tuesday evening coverage on the NewsHour devoted to the immediate aftermath in Ferguson. I'm posting these emails without any detailed comment on my part other than to say that I thought the complete coverage on last night's program, including the introductory and the reporting segments, offered a balanced picture of the day's events, on a day when the protests were the main story. I thought the segment with the two lawyers suffered from another audio/technical glitch that seemed to give a lot more time in the opening round to the lawyer from the NAACP. An earlier technical glitch on a segment in September brought a lot of viewer criticism.

Here Are Some Letters   

What a biased and sensationalized report tonight [11/25] on Ferguson. Did it ever occur to you that, just maybe, the Grand Jury got it right?

Thomas Gilbert, Chambersburg, PA

~ ~ ~

The NewsHour's recent coverage of the grand jury decision in the case against Officer Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown has been lacking any meaningful exploration of the police's use of deadly force, which is the central legal issue.  There were two separate engagements in this incident (patrol vehicle window followed by street pursuit) and a discussion of each would have educated the public. In a nutshell, Officer Wilson's actions appear justified in the former but there is probable cause they were not in the latter. In layman's terms, you can't bring a gun to a fistfight, and the common law "fleeing felon" justification I've seen bandied about on various posts fits neither legally nor factually to this scenario.  That's not to say Officer Wilson is guilty or not guilty of anything, but rather that a petit jury should have decided whether his use of a sidearm instead of his baton or pepper spray was reasonable under the circumstances. In short, PBS missed the boat by incorrectly focusing on "who started it?" rather than "was deadly force justified?"

Lone Tree, CO

~ ~ ~

The PBS NewsHour's coverage of Officer Wilson and Ferguson today was inexcusable. Overall complaint was that the story was biased and misleading. 1) Mr. Brown was repeatedly and misleading referred to as "unarmed." The testimony showed that Brown assaulted Ofc. Wilson. 2) The broadcast devoted mere seconds to the actual facts and the Grand Jury's decision, including misleading simplifying the testimony-- and gave 10 minutes to let advocates sound off about their views of what happened. 3) The choice of photos for Ofc. Wilson and Mr. Brown really tell the story of how the NewsHour chose to "cover" this story. 4) Again, we heard nothing of the facts-- that Mr. Brown was walking in the street, that Ofc. Wilson ordered him and his friend out of the street; that Mr. Brown reacted angrily, that Ofc. Wilson suspected that Mr. Brown was the suspect of the strong-arm robbery that had taken place, and that Ofc.Wilson feared for his life. 5) How many times do we have to hear: "White officer and unarmed black teenager"? I realize that a lot of people have staked a lot on a losing bet; and that the pressure of the mob is intense. But I expect much better from the NewsHour.

David Baxter, Hamtramck, MI

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I have been impressed with PBS's fair representation of both sides of an issue in the past. However your coverage of the Ferguson issue leaves a bit to be desired. One example, for Michael Brown to always be introduced as an unarmed black man is only half correct. He was also uncooperative with requests from law enforcement and physically confrontational.  Being unarmed has nothing to do with not cooperating with the police. Had he done that he probably would have been alive today to tell his side of the story. I'm disturbed that Mr. Brown is always the victim.  

Fairfax, VA

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I wish you, and all the media would refrain from using certain adjectives when describing individuals. Last night Ms. Ifill referred to the police officer in Ferguson as a "White" police officer. This does not help America solve is race problems.  Why can't he just be a police officer, or governor, or mayor etc? Why do individuals have to be described as "Black, White or Asian?"

Robert Wagner, Gilroy, CA

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Regarding Gwen Ifill's Ferguson piece on November 25th. Biased! I love Gwen Ifill and I always turn to the NewsHour to get both sides of a given story. Yesterday I saw Gwen present two lawyers shaking their heads in sync with no answers and no solutions presented. It looked as though they were trying so hard to give some justification to the violence. The violence will stop when the facts are understood. Please give us the facts that were presented in the case and show the science that backs up the facts!

Norman, OK

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I am a long-time fan of the NewsHour. However, over the past few months I have noticed a bias on the part of the reporters in anything related to racial issues. Tonight's program on the Ferguson situation is clear proof. They interview two lawyers with the same opinion (even Fox news tonight had two opposing legal opinions-amazing-that used to be the NewsHour). They give total coverage to the few angry people who are destroying property and jobs, but ignore the far greater number of people who believe everyone should have their day in court and are outraged by both  the  lawlessness shown by protestors, and the general disrespect showed to our police force. As a fan of PBS I am personally outraged by this biased reporting. The sad part is that as a country we need to be having a real discussion about the issues, and this is not being done. More people are angry and the racial situation is worse today in part because of poor, biased reporting. 

Annapolis, MD

Posted on Nov. 26, 2014 at 11:27 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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