The Mailbag: More Reaction to Ferguson Coverage

Posted by Michael Getler on

Viewers, not unexpectedly, continue to be stirred by news coverage of the grand jury decision on Nov. 24 in the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., and by coverage of the aftermath of that decision. Almost all of the mail to me is critical, which also is not unexpected. Several of the letters are posted below, without comment, in this mailbag.

There is, however, one general point that I would like to make. On a couple of occasions, either people in film clips or guests being interviewed on the NewsHour make historical or statistical claims that can be both powerful and controversial. In a story as fast-moving and as emotional as the killing of Michael Brown, it can be very difficult to challenge or substantiate such claims on live television. But somehow, it seems to me, a way needs to be found to revisit these claims and examine them in a factual and contextual fashion.
There were, for example, two powerful claims made during NewsHour segments that drew strong challenges from a few viewers who wrote to me and that I thought were worthy of being revisited on the program.
Two Claims that Drew Challenges
One involved a person being interviewed on the street on the Nov. 26 program who invoked the claim that “a black person is killed by police every 28 hours” in America. There is a history to this claim and one viewer, whose letter is posted below, sent in a link to the fact-checking service which pointed out the origins of this statistic—in a report, not an academic study—and notes that more than half of those killed were armed. The details of each case, of course, are critically important, but the origin and context for a widely disseminated claim is also important.
The other example that provided a jolt to some viewers, and I have to say to me as well, was the comparison, on the Nov. 26 NewsHour by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson, of what is happening now to the lynching of blacks in post-Civil War America.
Here’s what Wilkerson said, in part: “You know, you realize, when you look at the history, that there’s this haunting symmetry between the killings that occurred during the Jim Crow era, meaning the lynchings, and what’s happening now. As it turns out, every four days in the Jim Crow South, an African-American was lynched for some perceived breach of the caste system that they ultimately were fleeing. And now, based upon whichever survey that you’re looking at — and the numbers are not complete, but they’re actually an undercount — that it appears that every two to three days an African-American is killed at the hands of a police officer in this year at this time. And so you see this connection across time of the history, the long history, which would speak to the level of distrust among African-Americans.”
NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill made a stab at getting some context, asking: “But, Isabel, I wonder why there’s any connection — why there’s such a difference in perception between older people and younger people about this schism and between white and black people about that? Is it that it’s ahistorical?”
It’s a big subject and Wilkerson has written extensively about it but that is a jarring comparison to leave hanging out there without more questioning.
Here Are the Letters

I can't believe the NewsHour was so irresponsible to broadcast someone on the street repeating an urban myth about cops killing a black man every 28 hours unchallenged. The NewsHour just perpetuated a myth that reinforces racial tension. That's sad.

John Simpson, Kennesaw, GA

~ ~ ~

[Isabel] Wilkerson and [Judith Browne] Dianis [Nov. 26 NewsHour] should not be allowed to speak on a publically-funded station. They are so biased and desperate for a solution they fall back on comparisons between the number of Jim Crow lynchings and the number of illicit police shootings. The population has doubled since then, so it's a lie from the start, not to mention that rogue cops shoot a lot of unarmed white people too. I am no defender of the Darren Wilson's out there, but when it comes to white officers killing blacks there is no comparison to the lynchings my white friends all despise and condemn without exception. PBS is just contributing to the race problem by helping to oversimplify it and putting mindless parrots on the show. Where is the commentator who would dare tell a black person something they don't want to hear, like black self-righteous elements and white self-righteous elements should both be condemned?

Then we have to suffer Wilkerson saying stuff that would incite a race war if the minority liberation thugs in Ferguson were listening. Neither commentator wants to hear that race problems are primarily spiritual, caused mostly by irresponsible parents. That's why such problems never go away. I don't know, did PBS bother to report that the father of the victim was found encouraging arsonists? "Yeah but he apologized." Well of course he did after he was caught. An apology does not exonerate a self-righteous hypocrite, but I guess PBS thinks it does, or they would have asked tougher questions. Darren Wilson should have been indicted for manslaughter at least, so a jury could decide his fate. Maybe someday PBS will get what Rodney King came to understand. But they aren't ready to hear, when they host commentators like Wilkerson and Dianis. You have no standard of integrity like, for example, Frontline does. You could have at least interviewed one of the black pastors who knows exactly what I am talking about. Instead you just worsen the problem, shutting off any comment by those who actually think outside the race box.

Jim Moore, Tujunga, CA

~ ~ ~

The left-wing bias at the NewsHour has achieved comedic proportions. Today [Nov. 26] we were given two guests to opine about the Ferguson issue, both of them black and both faulting the police. This is analogous to representing David Brooks as a conservative. You already know this of course, but you are content to provide cover for an institution that engages in anti-white propaganda and a variety of ostentatious compassion carried to preposterous lengths.

Tito Perdue, Brent, AL

Other Voices

We are sick and tired of hearing about Ferguson, Mo., to the point of ad nauseam. There are far more important things in this country and world that warrant your coverage instead of dragging on and on about Ferguson. The only racism here is what you and other media are bent on creating and perpetuating. It was a cop that was threatened; a cop that was doing his job.  We are not buying what you are trying to sell about this. You incessant and obsessive coverage proves your agenda and bias.

Syracuse, NJ

~ ~ ~

PBS blew it bigtime in their coverage of the Michael Brown shooting. PBS was one-sided and jumped on the bandwagon of police brutality without examining the facts and both sides. We were disgusted by all the time PBS gave to the proponents of police/grand jury injustice. With the article in today's news [Dec. 1] in the Washington Post about what Witness 10 says about what really happened, PBS needs to do an apology piece, explain what really happened and say something about what public hysteria can do to race relations/do a psychological study of Michael Brown and try to figure out why he might have literally killed himself by his actions. It isn't enough for PBS to post letters critical of their coverage, they have to do something to right this wrong. PBS was guilty of fomenting the violence that has plagued this nation since this incident, almost like it was a public relations service for the likes of Al Sharpton and his crew.

Vancouver, WA

~ ~ ~

I see from your letters that I'm not the only one disappointed in the Ferguson coverage on PBS News. I always tout PBS News as fair and balanced but it was decidedly biased against Officer Wilson. With all of the forensic and scientifically derived facts it flies in the face of real events to color the shooting as a murder of an unarmed teen. Brown not only had committed a crime at the store but when he tried to grab the officer's gun escalated it into a deadly force encounter. Who among us would not have fought for our lives in this case? I just expected coverage that showed support for Wilson as well but it did not happen. Disappointed.

Brian B., Morrison, IL

Does Size Matter?

I have yet to hear on PBS or most other stations for that matter that "unarmed" Michael Brown was 6'4" and weighed 300 lbs. He was no tyke and he apparently threw a pretty decent punch.

Donal Mahoney, St. Louis, MO

~ ~ ~

I listen to PBS podcasts each and every day, and consider PBS one of my favorite sources for news and educational material. However, I was extremely disappointed at how the press, including PBS, inflamed the Michael Brown shooting in the minds of the public. I am one who feels that reporters should be unbiased, but the frequent description of Michael Brown as an "...unarmed teenager..." is truly bogus, in my opinion. I am not a legal expert, but I doubt that "teenager" is a legal description of one's age in our society. He was an "adult" by legal definition, and should be judged as an adult (not in a category that includes children as young as 13). He was somewhere around 280 lbs. and 6'4" tall. He had an aggressive and non-law-abiding demeanor as demonstrated by the video of him stealing cigars from a local store and then shoving the employee in a physical implied threat. This was an angry man who was obviously used to getting his way due to his physical size and aggressiveness, matching the descriptions provided at the reading of the Grand Jury's findings. If he had physically attacked another man, it is entirely conceivable that he would have been able to kill that man without any need for additional weapons other than his own strength. All in all, repeatedly referring to him as an "unarmed teenager" is clearly a way to make him appear to be more of a child than an overpowering adult, which he clearly was. I'm very disappointed in PBS for representing him in this way, and now have a different outlook on the quality of reporting I can expect from PBS.

C. R. Chandler, AZ

~ ~ ~

I really want to state how I like PBS news. I beg of you to help this country now! There has been so much media news that has been very biased. What the country needs is the truth. That is the role of true newscasters. Justice should be served. First off, the incident in Ferguson is a police issue not a racial one. Standards need to be addressed, and I am hopeful that the Federal investigation will bring forth the truth. Let the public be aware of Dillon Taylor, who was shot down and killed by deadly force in Utah by a police officer. Why has this incident been kept quiet by the media? Mr. Brown and his friend were in the convenience store and used force on the man in the store. No comments have ever been addressed as to the force that Mr. Brown used, and no apology to the man. Mr. Brown was an 18-year-old man. If he was applying to go to college then he was fully aware of his actions in the convenience store. He used his size to intimidate the man in the convenience store while his friend stood there and took the items. The two men then took off carrying the stolen items in their hands. I ask you to please relate the truth. Sensationalizing this incident only promotes the riots and anger to the public. Please don't forget Dillon Taylor. Mr. Taylor did not deserve to be unnoticed, and he was a true victim of wrongful use of force. Again I ask to help the country put this issue in perspective by reporting on the truth of the matter.

Linda Pavon, Longview, WA


I'm weary of reading pages of the most over-coached lies I've ever heard outside of a Republican's demonization of Barack Obama. Yes, I've been reading the highly irregular hours of testimony from the 6'4" police officer and killer of an unarmed man, Darren Wilson, who got all raged out when a car door hit his ankle and calmed that rage by letting out a hail of bullets into a guy who was running away. I'm weary of reading transcripts of the most vulgar condemnation of witnesses I've ever known to appear before a grand jury. Not a trial, but definitely a grand jury. Why did I not hear just how bizarre this grand jury was? The lawyer from the NAACP and her colleague sort of hinted at it, but no one really hit it home. Since when does the prosecutor function as defense attorney?!? Since when does such an obvious case for recusal get entirely ignored? And when did so many PBS viewers become so completely and utterly ignorant of the grand jury process and the seething hatred displayed every single day towards black Americans by law enforcement, almost all of which seems to exist to preserve a power structure that has existed since before the drafting of the Constitution (which itself reinforced that same power structure until amended). I'm stunned. I'm really stunned. That viewers can watch McCulloch and believe his taunting lies, that they can glibly dismiss a glaring problem in American society...I'm stunned. I don't remember the source, but one study I read recently found that a young black man has a 21x greater chance of getting killed by police than a young white man. To those of us who follow statistics on arrests and incarceration or are personally involved, that sounds both correct and appalling. I've never been more ashamed to be white as I am right now, and the biggest problem is not necessarily the actions of power-mad police but the acceptance of the white-privileged majority that continues to stand behind their every word, no matter how implausible when uttered amongst inconvenient facts.

Waterford, PA

~ ~ ~

I am really sick of the coverage Michael Brown's parents and especially, Benjamin Crump, is getting on PBS. Crump is using this as an opportunity to get his name before the public and for future business. Just as it was with Trayvon Martin. All these people can say is that the officer was lying and I don't believe he was. I would love it if the press could make available Michael Brown's juvenile record. He was no angel as was shown when he was shoplifting as shown on the video. This is indisputable evidence as to his character and in my opinion and this office has been maligned enough. Michael Brown did not have to challenge the policeman in any way whatsoever. Just put this issue to bed and stop giving these people television time.

Louisville, KY

~ ~ ~

I can watch Fox or MSNBC if I'd like to see news coverage with a slant. I happen to believe that the Ferguson grand jury got it wrong. But I've been extremely disappointed with the lack of balance with the NewsHour coverage these last two days.

Washington, DC

~ ~ ~

Overall, I think coverage was adequate but not to the exceptional standard I've witnessed over several decades. What I've looked for is hard-nosed questioning about many issues: about the highly unorthodox, questionable way the grand jury was run, virtually no cross-examination of Wilson's testimony, sloppy police procedures after the shooting. In his strange press conference announcing the grand jury decision, the prosecutor used inflammatory language and he sounded to me as protesting too much. The whole way this was handled smells - did Brown, probably a minor criminal and full of hatred toward cops, deserve to die for hassling a cop? Why didn't Wilson shoot to disable Brown instead of in the head and chest? What level of training in race relations has Wilson undergone? What race relation procedures does the Ferguson Police Department have? I have no doubt that if the race roles had switched, the black officer would now be indicted. We need solid investigation into all of it, and I hope PBS does it.

Bob Schober, Bellingham, WA

Critical of Segment

I watched Gwen's segment with Susan McGraugh and Christina Swarns. It was obvious that they, like the people of Ferguson, want Officer Wilson punished regardless of the Grand Jury's decision. The guest's referred to "softball questions" and "more vigorous interrogation for lesser crimes" in a Grand Jury. Why were these women not challenged? When will someone at PBS, or the media in general, dare to explore the possibility that the people of Ferguson are at least partially responsible for their own problems with the police? The segment left me with this six word message: Innocence doesn't matter, punish the cop!

D L, Cincinnati, OH

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May I apply a parallel to the NewsHour's 11/25/14 discussion segment over the Ferguson situation involving NAACP's Christina Swarns and St. Louis University's Susan McGraugh? In 18+ years of global warming issue reporting, the NewsHour has not invited a single skeptic climate scientist onto the program to rebut either its 25 pro-global warming guest scientists or to rebut specific science points made by its numerous additional pro-global warming speakers. For this segment, they couldn't find a single legal expert to rebut the NAACP's Swarns?? And the best they could come up with was Susan McGraugh, a person who was already predisposed - as shown in a video found at ThinkProgress - to believe the grand jury would not reach a 'good decision'? Arguably, both are an absolute violation of the MacNeil/Lehrer journalism guideline, "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story." The NewsHour demonstrably has a serious problem with this 'two sides' concept and they only amplified it with last night's discussion segment. How do they explain their way out of this hole?

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

Posted on Dec. 2, 2014 at 2:56 p.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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