Slightly Right

Rayshard Brooks and the mainstream media’s complete lack of credibility

I’m normally reticent to criticize the mainstream media. After all, I’m a journalist, too. I’ve been on the receiving end of that criticism plenty of times, and we all know what they say about four fingers pointing back at you when you point a finger at someone else.

But especially because Americans’ trust in journalism is at an all-time low — and even if it wasn’t — the news media in general needs to be held accountable by other journalists. The industry’s credibility depends on it.

And I’m here to tell you that this industry doesn’t have much credibility in the wake of Rayshard Brooks’ death.

On Sunday evening, the various mainstream media outlets breathlessly reported that Brooks’ death has been ruled a homicide by medical examiners who performed his autopsy. NBC News did it. CBS News did it. CNN did it. And none of them provided an ounce of clarification or context.

When most people hear the word “homicide,” they immediately think of it in the criminal context. In fact, someone who had consumed the news of the autopsy’s findings last night argued with me on social media that the ruling of the manner of death as a homicide was proof of the officer’s wrongdoing.

But homicide has a different meaning in the medical context than it does in the criminal context. In the medical context, homicide does not imply criminal intent.

In fact, I would argue that the medical examiner’s finding isn’t really newsworthy at all. Certainly it’s worth mentioning as an addendum to a story, for the record, but it shouldn’t be headline-generating — which is, perhaps, why the NY Times and the Washington Post, to their credit, didn’t lend it that sort of coverage.

Why isn’t it newsworthy? Because it was a foregone conclusion that the autopsy would find that the manner of death was homicide. Anyone who watched the video of Brooks’ death and has a rudimentary understanding of how autopsies work knew it was a foregone conclusion.

In Georgia, as in most other states, medical examiners have five options for listing manner of death after an autopsy: Homicide, natural death, accidental death, suicide, and undetermined.

That’s it. It has to fall within one of those five categories. When an autopsy determines that the manner of death was homicide, it merely means that the death was caused by the actions of another person — and that it wasn’t an accidental death. It does not indicate criminal liability. In fact, medical examiners and autopsies never determine criminal intent or liability. That is the responsibility of prosecutors.

Here’s what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has to say on the matter:

Many people, including the media, confuse the terms homicide and murder. Murder is a criminal charge or the unlawful taking of a human life by another. After the medical examiner determines the manner of death to be a homicide, then law enforcement investigate that death to determine if there is probable cause to bring the criminal charge of murder against the person who caused the death. While all murders are homicides, not all homicides are murders. If a homeowner, fearful for his or her life, kills an intruder or a law enforcement officer kills someone in the line of duty, both are considered homicides but not necessarily murder.

Not one of the aforementioned stories provided that context. They simply dangled the “homicide” carrot for the masses and left it at that. In fact, CBS News framed its coverage this way:

The Fulton County Medical Examiner issued a report Sunday ruling Rayshard Brooks‘ manner of death a “homicide.” The report concluded Brooks suffered two gunshots to the back that created organ injuries and blood loss. 

An Atlanta police officer was fired Saturday for the fatal shooting outside a Wendy’s on Friday night. The Wendy’s where Brooks was killed was set ablaze the following night.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said Sunday on CNN there are three charges that could apply against former Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe: Murder, felony murder or aggravated assault. “But I believe in this instance, what we have to choose between, if there’s a choice to be made, is between murder and felony murder,” Howard said. 

That’s an especially egregious approach. Certainly, the D.A. appears to be strongly considering criminal charges. I would question his motive, considering that he’s trying the case through the press before his office has even made a final determination on whether to file charges or present the case to a grand jury — much like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, who similarly declared the cop guilty through the press. But the CBS News story gives the leaps from the autopsy’s finding to the D.A.’s statement with zero contextual support, giving the implication that the autopsy’s finding of homicide is criminal.

The news media’s handling of this story is shameful. The American mainstream news media is advancing an agenda, the facts be damned.

This isn’t a blind defense of police. In fact, this shooting has striking similarities to the 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott in Charleston, S.C. In that case, a white officer shot a fleeing black suspect in the back as he fired his weapon eight times. He claimed the suspect had stolen his Taser amid a struggle after a traffic stop. But eyewitness video showed the officer picking up something after the shooting, presumed to be the Taser, carrying it over and dropping it beside Scott’s dying body.

The officer in that case — Michael Slager — was clearly in the wrong. He deserved to be punished and he was; he’s currently serving a 20-year sentence.

Likewise, Derek Chauvin — the Minneapolis officer who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd until Floyd died — was clearly in the wrong and deserves to be punished. He’s currently in jail, awaiting trial on murder charges.

This case is different. Much different. Rayshard Brooks was running away, but he not not only had the stolen Taser in his hand — he fired it at the officer. It’s reasonable for armchair quarterbacks with plenty of time to carefully analyze the video to say that the use of deadly force could’ve been and should’ve been avoided, but there’s no way that it rises to the level of criminal liability. In the split second the officer had to make a decision, it’s likely that none of us would’ve been able to quickly process the situation. In that split second, it’s also reasonable for the officer to have assumed that Brooks was firing an actual handgun instead of a Taser.

But what’s happening is the news media is leading the charge as activists call for their pound of flesh. The D.A. has already indicated that he will succumb to the pressure and file criminal charges. But if you watched the same video I did, you know that there’s no way a jury is going to convict the officer. So what happens? By the time this case goes to trial — months or even years down the road — the furious reaction to it will have died down. When that jury returns an acquittal verdict, however, it’ll reignite the fire, and Atlanta will go through this same mess all over again.

The news media doesn’t much care about that, though. Not even CNN (in fact, maybe especially not CNN), which calls Atlanta home, and which had a film crew attacked during the protests on Saturday. The news media is simply crusading at this point, and will not rest until a full-out race war has been ignited.

How else do you explain this Facebook post from Nashville’s WZTV, a Fox affiliate?

WZTV has caught a lot of flack, and deservedly show. Its post is as irresponsible as any I can recall recently. Brooks was “unarmed”? Really? A Taser no longer counts as a weapon?

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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