August 27, 2014

CNN broke the story on Monday night of an alleged audiotape capturing the sound of 18-year-old Michael Brown being shot to death in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer on Aug. 9.

Enormous story, except for the qualifier: CNN has stated over and over that it can’t independently authenticate the tape, which supposedly comes from a person living in a nearby residence who was recording a video chat with a friend. Lopa Blumenthal, a St. Louis-area attorney who represents that person, has vouched for the recording.

Even so, the Associated Press hasn’t touched it. “We don’t comment on editorial decision making,” writes AP spokesman Paul Colford in response to a question on why it hasn’t run with the story.

ABC News has also stayed away. “We couldn’t authenticate it so we didn’t use,” notes Jeffrey W. Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News.

The New York Times proceeded with caution. “We went up with it and wrote it much later than other people,” says New York Times national editor Alison Mitchell. The New York Times story, titled “Recording May Capture Shots Fired at Michael Brown,” makes prominent mention that federal authorities hadn’t yet authenticated it.

Even CNN this morning produced a segment featuring skepticism from law-enforcement commentators on the authenticity of the recording. “I look at this and my first inclination is that someone is trying to punk CNN,” said former LAPD cop David Klinger.

And Rush Limbaugh is having a blast blasting the thing: “They did say, ‘We are trying to authenticate it.’ And after they said, ‘We are trying to authenticate it and the FBI is trying to authenticate it,’ they then spent the rest of the day reporting it as though it was real,” mocked Limbaugh on today’s show. “They had experts come in, and they had analysts come in, and they wondered what this new development might mean. And it turns out that today CNN is worried that the new audiotape is a hoax.”

Beritbart.com’s John Nolte ripped CNN: “Even if the audio ends up being authentic, the fact that CNN is now concerned over its authenticity and laying the groundwork to claim they were always skeptical, tells you how irresponsible the network is,” writes Nolte.

Blumenthal says she’s not concerned how widely the story circulates. “We had no interest in going public at least this early in the game,” she tells the Erik Wemple Blog, explaining that she would have preferred to present the recording to the FBI and then wait for authentication before doing a round of media. CNN, which received the tape about a week ago from the recorder, made that scenario impossible. “I have nothing to fear because I know what I know,” she says.

Though no news organization has authenticated the recording, Mitchell expounds on what made the story publishable for the New York Times: “We decided to write it when we knew it had been handed to law enforcement — that’s what gave us the comfort to write about it,” she says. “The fact that this is now a piece of possible evidence being examined brought it for me into the reportable realm.”

That’s a reasonable position, though hardly iron-clad. Investigations often plow through a lot of false rumors and garbage leads — flimsy stuff that news organizations do well to avoid in their reporting. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, the New York Post infamously put a photo of two young men on its cover under the headline “BAG MEN,” all but framing them for a crime in which they had no involvement. The paper’s treatment was based on an e-mail circulated among law-enforcement officials.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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