Bob speaks with reporter David Weigel about how conservative media talk about the shooting death of Michael Brown by former police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
BOB: When news erupts -- especially news about which the underlying facts are uncertain -- two things happen. One is a search for truth, wherein the authorities and wide swaths of the press try to find out exactly what happened and why. The second thing is the mobilization of the Narrative Machine. This is where the politically inflected press, often in concert with their political affiliates, commences deconstructing the news to reflect their ideologies and serve their interests. Back in the day, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy -- which is now more like an industry. Fox News. Rush Limbaugh. Breitbart. The Drudge Report. The Daily Caller. The Blaze. Whether the subject is Solyndra, Fast & Furious, Benghazi, the IRS, or the annual Thanksgiving Turkey pardon, the disparate entities mobilize to spin misfortune into scandal, and prejudice into outrage. The left does it, too. But when an event like the Ferguson Grand Jury takes place, it’s not hard to marvel at the scale and efficiency of the Right’s Narrative Machine. Here’s the Daily Show’s montage on the subject: `
...this is not a civil rights issue...
...it’s not a black/white situation, it’s a thug/police officer situation...
...people forget, he had committed a robbery...
....Michael Brown was the bad guy in this case, and please America, let’s not turn this kid into some kind of civil rights martyr Ferguson, Missouri is not Selma, Alabama.
BOB: David Wiegel reports on the right wing of both media and politics, and is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics. He says the prevailing story this time is reckless race hustling by the bleeding heart press.
WIEGEL: On the right when the protests in ferguson became violent a lot of mainstream conservative media had the position that this did not need to become a volcanic situation. It was yet another sort of Bonfire of Vanities media-stoking of an outrage.
BOB: SO the narrative on the right was that the liberal press was at least an enabler in civil disorder. That if they hadn't been standing there with cameras trying to cover riots and demonstration, that the riots and demonstrations never would have come.
WEIGEL: Absolutely. Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review wrote a column called 'The Ferguson Fraud" saying that the irony of the Michael Brown case is that if he'd actually put his hands up and said "don't shoot" he'd be alive. There were resonances of how the media covered the killing of Trayvon Martin 2012. On the right it's generally understood that Martin was beatified by the media. This followed in the same script as that incident, where the media presented this as a case of an innocent kid being killed. Conservatives felt, after a couple of weeks, that the media had lied to everyone in order to insight violence and set race against race.
BOB: Are there are parts of this story that have the focus of the right wing media that haven't been present in mainstream coverage. Let's say in The New York Times or World News Tonight on ABC.
WEIGEL: It's good to delineate that way. Because what's really popular on the right in some cases have been local news coverage that did not get picked up by the times or by CNN, etcetera. The extremely viral story was how, as a reaction to Ferguson a bunch of protesters in Seattle interrupted the lighting of a Christmas tree. I mean, this hit all the buttons. If you've seen cable news in Christmas time -- there's Fox News' 'War on Christmas' coverage. This hit a lot of that. It was the 'media has goaded people into ruining the Christmas' of children by having the protest in the streets.' That was not a very popular story on the left or in the mainstream media.
BOB: Now, the Ferguson case took on a different trajectory. When The New York Times printed a story that mentioned the street where officer Darren Wilson owned a home. That triggered a great deal of anger.
WEIGEL: THe street that Darren Wilson owned a home on was a drive from Ferguson and reporters first from the Washington Post, as part of the early flood-the-zone coverage of what was happening in the city went there and noticed that Darren Wilson had gone elsewhere. So they printed that he lived on this lane, but not the house number. After the verdict, the Times did a follow-on on how he'd gotten married while he was ??? and mentioned the street in the article. People started tweeting about how the Times had endangered the life of the guy.
BOB: Which seems to me to be not a completely spurious charge. This is a guy who's been widely called an assassin. I never would written the name of the street he lives on. Seems to put a lot of people in jeopardy for a detail that is not of overriding significance for the story telling.
WEIGEL: I think conservatives, rightly, see what happened to George Zimmerman who also on the right is seen as someone demonized unfairly by the media - they look at him and they see that he basically has no life anymore. And they worry about that happening to Wilson. There was definitely if not an identification with him, a sympathy with him that was pretty alien to everyone protesting this and I think to a lot of the press.
BOB: And so, folks criticized the press and said "tsk, tsk...that was gratuitous detail and that was the end of it, right? Or did some people decide what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
WEIGEL: The latter. An activist named Charles Johnson, who's an independent researcher journalist - in the case of Ferguson has jumped into the story and written a bunch of stories based on anonymous sources which didn't pan out. So this guy who'd ??? had a very tongue and cheek post - if that's not too glib of term -- asking, 'why can't we print the addresses of New York Times journalists?' Johnson found their home addresses and if you check Twitter in the days after that, at least once an hour somebody was retweeting the personal addresses of these journlaists. And they were getting fake pizza deliveries. They were getting death threats. Making sure their families were not around for the harassment. Not knowing what would happen. They were harassed in a way that Wilson, because he's been invisible, it's not clear he has been harassed.
BOB: So when political ideology meets the internet but mutates into criminal mischief. Who's responsible for this? Is it Matt Drudge's fault?
WEIGEL: These are individual decisions. It's people seeing what works, seeing frankly who uses them. This is a pretty widely shared opinion on the right. And it has some merit, that the internet has broken down all barriers and knocked off the perches from which the media used to look down and coordinate what they were covering. What's been lost in this is the filter the media has for verifying a story. There's a lot online that's not verified. That's single sourced, that's pure rumor. I've covered a lot of this when it comes to conspiracies about Barack Obama or conspiracies about the UN - things of that nature. I'm not trying to get too far away from what happened in Ferguson, but it's kind of a piece where conservatives on social media can cover what they want and a lot of times that is shaming the media. And that's directing people to complain to the media. And it's clear that a need was served, put it that way, by demonizing and exposing the reporters who in their view, but Darren Wilson's life at risk for no good reason.
BOB: Sometimes heroes come from the damnedest places. And there's a part of the public that regards officer Wilson at least as a martyr.
BOB: And that's not unprecedented, you've written.
WEIGEL: If you want to look at examples, you could look to Oliver North who in the press, under Iran Contra -- was covered as a scoundrel and who, you can still turn on cable TV, see covering issues and doing reporting. You can look at William Calley, the My Lai culprit....
BOB: This was a massacre of a Vietnamese village in the mid-60s.
WEIGEL: Right, and to the surprise of a lot people who were analyzing that and covering it was the source of a huge backlash from Americans who thought he was being railroaded. Not that they endorsed what had happened, but that there was a campaign to bring this guy down and he was not a hero, but a martyr or something. When in the press he was clearly a villain. And by saying this I'm not conflating what Oliver North did or what Calley did with what Wilson did. Just saying that the press often seems surprised, no matter over how many decades it happens, by the villain of a narrative being embraced by the people who think he's been railroaded.
BOB: Dave, thank you.
WEIGEL: Thank you.
BOB: David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics.