The Character Assassination of Michael Brown

The slow release of information in Ferguson has created a different portrait of the dead 18-year-old.

There is still a lot we don't know about the death of Michael Brown, and won't know until various law-enforcement officials come out with their findings about what motivated the killing of an unarmed, black 18-year-old by a white police officer. (The New York Times has a good rundown of what we know for certain about Brown's death so far.)

What is not up for debate, however, is that since he was shot to death on Aug. 9, Brown has been the subject of character assassination by the police and by the media.

"Gang signs"

After Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old, was killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012, commentators tried to justify his death with photos of Martin throwing up "gang signs"—which amounted to photos of him flipping off the camera, smoking, and wearing a backwards baseball cap—as evidence that Martin was a "thug."

Similarly, the shooting of Michael Brown by a law-enforcement officer has undergone media thuggification. A tweet from NBC News—which depicted an unsmiling Brown throwing a peace sign—sparked outrage among Twitter users, and led to the creation of the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to ask, "If they gunned me down, which picture would they use?" In tweets, users juxtaposed edgier photos of themselves with more wholesome photos—in a cap and gown, smiling with family, or in a military uniform. The growth of the hashtag in the days after the shooting helped bring national attention to Brown's death.

Since its first tweet about the story, NBC has illustrated its stories about Brown with a photo of him wearing headphones and a varsity jacket.

Robbery footage

The media's distortion of black victims is nothing new. But rarely does the police department investigating a crime so thoroughly confuse the press about the context of a victim's death.

That is precisely what Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson appeared to do Friday. On that morning, Jackson called a press conference to release the name of the officer who killed Brown. Along with the officer's name—Darren Wilson—Jackson released surveillance footage from a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store, which allegedly showed Brown "towering over" the shop owner and stealing a carton of cigarillos (value: $48.99).

Naturally, the press had many questions about the robbery footage, but Jackson refused to take any questions. He instead asked reporters to "digest" the information and reconvene in the afternoon for another press conference at which he would take questions.

Many reporters assumed—not unreasonably!—that the robbery must have somehow directly led to Brown's shooting. And indeed, the media proceeded to speculate about how the robbery footage was connected to Brown's death for most of the day on Friday, until Jackson revealed that the robbery was, in fact, in no way connected to Brown's shooting.

While it may seem that six hours is not enough time to mislead the public, it was ample time for national outlets to repeatedly play the footage, and treat it as a key factor in the case.

Brown's family has said that the piecemeal manner in which the police have released information about Brown suggests an attempt to craft a narrative that would ultimately justify his death.

Marijuana in his system

On Monday, an anonymous source familiar with the investigation into Brown's death told The Washington Post that, at the time of his death, Brown had marijuana in his system.

Conservative thought leaders such as the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh seized on this new bit of information. But smoking pot is hardly a smoking gun, nor is it indicative of a criminal mind (as Coloradans and Washingtonians would attest). As some pointed out, the past three presidents in office have all smoked marijuana. And even if Brown did suffer from some form of Reefer Madness, marijuana can remain detectable in toxicology reports long after its effects have worn off.

As Nicole Flatow points out, marijuana is often used to paint black victims as aggressive or paranoid—as George Zimmerman's attorney argued about Martin—while white victims who happen to smoke pot are often not as stigmatized.

Anonymous stories

Given the dearth of information about what happened on Aug. 9, the media has been scrambling for anyone who may have information on the shooting.

The latest information comes from an anonymous account by a woman who claimed to know Wilson. On Friday, the conservative talk-show host Dana Loesch received an anonymous call from a woman going by the name "Josie," who said she knew Wilson's side of the story.

She said she had heard the story on Facebook from Wilson's "significant other." Here is the entire transcript of what "Josie" told Loesch:

The problem with "Josie's" story, however, is that it closely resembles a Facebook post supposedly written by Darren Wilson, telling his side of the story. A CNN producer eventually debunked the post as fake.

With no scheduled press conferences with Ferguson police on Monday, and Wilson himself having gone AWOL, national media turned back to Loesch's interview. To litigate Brown's shooting in the court of public opinion, national outlets like CNN have started using "Josie's" story to represent Wilson's point of view.

"Source w/detailed knowledge of investigation into shooting tells CNN account of caller to KTFK matches account of Officer Darren Wilson," CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted on Monday.

According to CNN host Don Lemon, "a source with detailed knowledge of the investigation ... says that the account of a caller to St. Louis radio station KTFK matches the account of officer Darren Wilson as to what happened at the time of the shooting."

So, ironically, CNN is now taking as fact an account that is essentially the same story it already debunked.


On Monday, President Obama avoided weighing in on Brown's death.

"I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed," he said at a press conference. "The DOJ works for me, and when they're conducting an investigation, I've got to make sure that I don't look like I'm putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other."

But Obama doesn't need to worry about putting a "thumb on the scales." Other public officials and public voices have already done that work for him.