Distorting the news to inflame the mob

23 April 2021

3:28 PM

23 April 2021

3:28 PM

NBC’s flagship news program completely garbled one of the week’s top stories: a deadly fight among teenage girls in Columbus, Ohio, which ended with a policeman shooting and killing a knife-wielding attacker, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. The network’s coverage was an abomination.

NBC omitted vital information and distorted what actually happened. The Biden White House immediately piled on, insisting that the Columbus shooting was the product of racism. They did so at an incredibly sensitive moment — minutes after a Minneapolis jury convicted policeman Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd.

Since ‘NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt’  and other media programs did not report the Columbus story fairly or accurately, let’s do so here.

What happened on the ground

The fatal incident began with a desperate phone call from the girls being attacked. The victims specifically gave 911 their address and mentioned that the attackers are ‘trying to fight us, trying to stab us,’ crying out for the police to come immediately. NBC misreported that. They played the tape but clipped the tiny part about ‘trying to stab us.’

The police responded immediately and arrived while the attack was in progress, according to video footage from the two officers’s body cameras. Police ordered everyone to drop to the ground. They didn’t. The frenzied fight among the young women continued. Ma’Khia Bryant was about to stab a victim, it seemed; her knife was raised above the victim’s head, and she had already refused the order to stop and drop to the ground. To prevent the stabbing in progress, one policeman made a split-second decision to shoot. He appears to have fired four times at Ms. Bryant. She fell, dropping the knife. Police tried to resuscitate her, but she died there. Columbus police have identified the officer as Nicholas Reardon. He has been taken off street duty while a full investigation is conducted, as is normal practice.

How it was reported and tweeted

How did NBC report the incident? First, NBC Nightly News edited the 911 call to omit the phrase that the attacker was ‘trying to stab us.’ Second, when they showed the police video, they omitted the shot of the knife in the attacker’s hand. Taken together, those two omissions completely erased the lethal threat to the victim, which had been mentioned in the emergency call and was apparent on the video.

These omissions are not sloppy editing by a summer intern. They seem to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the day’s lead story. Worse, this malicious distortion comes amid a dangerous national controversy over racism and excessive use of police force.

Has NBC apologized or corrected their story? Of course not.

Columbus police have released the full 911 call, as well as the body-cam video from two officers on the scene. They have been utterly transparent, while calling for public calm and a full official investigation, as is normal after a police shooting. NBC News has, comparatively, behaved quite shamefully.

What about social media? There are, obviously, all kinds of comments out there, but one of the most prominent came from basketball star LeBron James. Probably the best ball player since Michael Jordan, ‘King James’ is also known for his prominent political positions and lucrative global endorsement deals. Those are important enough, apparently, that he has remained silent about China’s human rights abuses, even as he attacks U.S. voting laws and police behavior. James hasn’t made a peep about the CCP’s treatment of Hong Kong or the Uighurs. (The National Basketball Association has been just as quiet about their business partner.)

Yet, James was quick to attack police about the Columbus shooting. Almost immediately, he tweeted a photo of the officer involved with the text, in caps: ‘YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.’ The photo, screenshotted below, showed the full face of officer Reardon without any pixilation. James deleted it only after it had been viewed tens of thousands of times (and broadcast to his millions of Twitter followers).

LeBron James tweets about the Bryant shooting (Twitter Screenshot)

The photo and related text pose an obvious danger to the officer himself, as I’m sure some lawyers and P.R. experts must have quietly told James. Even after LeBron took down the tweet, he defended it because, of course, ‘systemic racism.’

NBC half-reported the LeBron James controversy. It did include a tweet from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark) criticizing the tweet, followed by James’ full-throated defense. NBC also included part of the tweet, but only part. For some reason, NBC couldn’t bring itself to include the officer’s face, even though it could have easily pixilated it and told the viewers that NBC, not James, had modified the photo. Nope. Instead, the news organization simply misrepresented LeBron’s tweet to its audience. Their sub-headline is James’ response, which managed to make himself the true victim: ‘I’m so damn tired of seeing Black people killed by police. I took the tweet down because it’s being used to create more hate.’ I didn’t make a mistake, he claimed. You terrible people are haters.

What about Twitter itself? Notice that the corporation did not take down LeBron James’s tweet or censure him. No, sirree. Mind you, this is the same platform that has permanently blocked all sorts of conservative and populist comments and commentators, including, most recently, James O’Keefe for trying to post videos of CNN officials explaining how they worked assiduously to elect Joe Biden. He’s permanently banned.

Why did Twitter leave up LeBron James’ post until he deleted it a couple of hours later? You’ll have to guess, since Twitter hasn’t said a word. That is what real power looks like.

Those are the standards displayed by Twitter, NBC, and LeBron James. They are paraded around as the country wrestles with the hard issue of how to police all communities fairly and restore order, at last, after a year of dangerous incidents.

Biased reporting on these incendiary issues is inexcusable. So is failing to apologize, once the misreporting has been called out. It’s rich to see celebrities and sports leagues posing as moral exemplars and paragons of civil rights while partnering with a genocidal government abroad. To paraphrase the old blues song, ‘If it wasn’t for double standards, they wouldn’t have no standards at all.’

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. 

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