In the end, the first and perhaps only indictment to emerge out of the Ferguson tragedy went to the news media and its culture of frenzied coverage.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch explained Monday night in excruciating detail why 12 grand jurors chose not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson in a case that reopened long-simmering racial wounds in America, describing how some of the eyewitnesses quoted by news media and circulated via social media later recanted or were disproven by the physical evidence.
Some of the witnesses “pretty much acknowledged they saw parts and made up other parts of it,” Mr. McCulloch said in disputing some of the early media reports in the case.
To make his point, the prosecutor agreed to release all of the evidence gathered by authorities and presented to the grand jury.
“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction,” Mr. McCullough said after excoriating news media coverage of the case.
“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media,” he said.
The prosecutor said the exhaustive review of the evidence identified a “lack of accurate detail” in some of the initial reports that fanned the flames of the local community, including erroneous reports that Mr. Wilson shot the unarmed victim Michael Brown in the back.
The prosecutor said the grand jury sorted through inconsistent and conflicting eyewitness accounts and “interviews on social media” that proved wrong, and it deserved credit for sticking with the evidence.
“They are the only people who have heard and examined all of the evidence of all of the witnesses,” he said.
The media’s performance was put on trial anew at the news conference where the results were announced, when Mr. McCulloch scolded a reporter for suggesting that police could kill with “impunity.”
The announcement proved a cathartic moment for career law enforcement officials, some of whom seethed for months over what they saw as one-sided media coverage and lopsided political sentiments.
“While the legal system has exonerated Officer Darren Wilson for his split-second decision on that August afternoon, he very much remains a victim of a politicized agenda that deemed him ‘guilty until proven innocent,’” said Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who serves currently as the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “Although he will walk free, his life has been forever changed, as he has been exploited in a cynical effort to turn civilians against cops in fulfillment of an anti-law enforcement agenda.
When all the final details are reviewed and the smoke settles, one question that should be asked is whether the media’s age-old adage to “get it first, but first get it right” has been hijacked by a sentiment of “get it first, and hope it is right.”