NYT Public Editor Makes a Mea Culpa on Ferguson Case for Criticizing Pro-Police Sources Later Proven Right

March 23rd, 2015 10:16 PM

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on Monday made a mea culpa for her past criticism of Times reporting on the racially-charged Ferguson case. In a post last August, Sullivan called out a Times lead story for including the views of anonymous sources who supported police officer Darren Wilson's account of the shooting of Michael Brown, a view in which Brown did not have his hands up in surrender but had lunged at Wilson. Sullivan called the quoting of those pro-Wilson anonymous "ghost" sources "dubious equivalency" on the level of (horrors!) conservatives who deny climate change.

Now that the Obama Justice Department has vindicated Wilson's account, and by extention her paper's "ghost" sources, Sullivan confesses she should not have given her "implicit credence" to the sources who falsely claimed Brown had his hands up.

In the heat of a very hot news moment last summer, I criticized a Times story about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I want to acknowledge that I misjudged an important element of that story.

In my post, I found fault with what I saw as “dubious equivalency” and the vaguely described anonymous sourcing in an article that led the paper on Aug. 20.

Giving implicit credence to the named sources who described Michael Brown as having his hands up as he was fired on by Officer Darren Wilson, I criticized the use of unnamed sources who offered opposing information: They said that the officer had reason to fear Mr. Brown. I even went so far as to call those unnamed sources “ghosts” because readers had so little ability to evaluate their identity and credibility.

Now that the Justice Department has cleared Mr. Wilson in an 86-page report that included the testimony of more than 40 witnesses, it’s obvious to me that it was important to get that side of the story into the paper.

My post accused The Times of false balance. In fact, as the story’s editor, James Dao, said at the time, reporters and editors were making an effort to get at all sides of a fast-moving story. He told me that “the reporting gives some insight into how law enforcement is viewing this case -- this is what they say they’ve got.” He was right.

In retrospect, it’s clear to me that including that information wasn’t false balance. It was an effort to get both sides.


I noted once before, in a very low-key way, that my criticism of this story was too harsh. But I want to go further now and say that what I wrote was substantially flawed.

In that August 21, 2014 post, Sullivan had suggested the left-wing "hands up don't shoot" narrative was clearly the correct one and to claim otherwise was engaging in "dubious equivalency." That's a softer term for "false balance," a phrase thrown around by liberals/journalists (including Sullivan herself) who insist that some stories, like climate change and vote fraud, have only one side. From Sullivan's August post:

Want an object lesson in the problems of dubious equivalency and anonymous sources?

Look no further than Wednesday’s Times, where a highly fraught question -- precisely how, in Ferguson, Mo., a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson -- is the subject of the lead story.


The story goes on to quote, by name, two eyewitnesses who say that Mr. Brown had his hands up as he was fired on. As for those who posit that Mr. Brown was advancing on the officer who was afraid the teenager was going to attack him, the primary source on this seems to be what Officer Wilson told his colleagues on the police force. The Times follows this with an unattributed statement: “Some witnesses have backed up that account.” But we never learn any more than that.

Sullivan concluded: "The Times is asking readers to trust its sourcing, without nearly enough specificity or detail; and it sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other."

But it turned out the facts were on the side of the "ghosts."

James Taranto at Opinion Journal thinks Sullivan's mea culpa "needs more culpa." After digging up Sullivan's definition of "false balance" from her first column as, "the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side," Taranto concluded:

But in August, the facts were still in dispute and under investigation. Reporting both sides was simply good journalism -- the closest anyone could get to the truth. In her post today, Sullivan concludes by acknowledging “that what I wrote [in August] was substantially flawed.” No kidding. Could she explain to her readers how, with an investigation still under way, she came to the conclusion that the Times should treat a prospective defendant’s guilt as an “established truth”?