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St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor on Ferguson ‘leaks’: They’re ‘public accountability’ journalism

The casket of Michael Brown. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post Dispatch via Associated Press )

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell blasted away Wednesday night at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over its story on the findings of an official autopsy of Michael Brown following his fatal encounter with Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson. That story, as O’Donnell duly noted, has prompted a wave of coverage affirming Wilson’s account of events. Citing the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, The Washington Post published a piece headlined, “Evidence supports officer’s account of shooting in Ferguson.

But does it?

That’s what O’Donnell addressed. He interviewed Dr. Judy Melinek, a pathology professor at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center who was quoted extensively in the Post-Dispatch’s story. The pivotal quote related to the official autopsy’s finding that Brown sustained a gunshot to his hand at close range. Melinek told the St. Louis-Dispatch that the autopsy “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound. … If he has his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.”

The story also used input from Melinek to undermine one of the central narratives of the shooting: “Melinek also said the autopsy did not support witnesses who have claimed Brown was shot while running away from Wilson, or with his hands up.”

In her chat with O’Donnell, Melinek padded her quotes to the newspaper with caveats: “Well, what happens sometimes is when you get interviewed and you have a long conversation with journalists, they’re going to take things out of context,” she told O’Donnell. “And I made it very clear that we only have partial information here. We don’t have the scene information. We don’t have the police investigation. We don’t have all the witness statements. And you can’t interpret autopsy findings in a vacuum. You need to take them in the context of the scene investigation.” Based on the physical evidence thus far presented, said Melinek, other scenarios are possible.

That wasn’t as strong an indictment of the Post-Dispatch as O’Donnell’s remark that the paper had printed a story that reads “as if dictated by Officer Wilson`s criminal defense lawyer.” Other outlets picked up the O’Donnell-Melinek chat.

So what does the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have to say about this? “We think that we reported it accurately,” Post-Dispatch Editor Gilbert Bailon told the Erik Wemple Blog in an extended chat yesterday evening. In Melinek’s interview with O’Donnell, said Bailon, she was “clarifying in her mind what she thinks” about the events in question. “She’s gotten some … blowback from some people saying this is not correct. If she feels that there are other possibilities for what happened, that’s her prerogative.”

The reference to “blowback” is a clear nod to how loaded the Brown case is. Following Brown’s killing on Aug. 9, Ferguson and points far beyond erupted in protests, clashes and a continuing debate over the treatment of African Americans by local police forces. A grand jury is considering whether to bring criminal charges against Wilson over the shooting. The two months following the tragedy have exposed a divided country, with one side favoring a murder indictment against Wilson and the other expressing support for how the officer handled the murky situation.

The parents of Michael Brown, the black teenager fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., visited Washington to ask the federal government to take over the criminal investigation of his death. (Video: Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

On MSNBC, O’Donnell verily spat at the news broken by the Post-Dispatch. “The St. Louis grand jury is leaking more and more every day. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has become the primary recipient of the biggest leaks of the week,” he said. Other news outlets also favor this terminology: “Grand jury proceedings are secret, but legal analysts say recently leaked information about Wilson’s testimony to investigators may be an attempt to prepare the public for the possibility that he might not be charged,” notes an account in the Associated Press. NBC News: “The official autopsy on Michael Brown, leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, suggests that he was shot in the hand at close range and may have reached for the police officer’s gun, outside experts told the newspaper.”

The paper’s editor wishes folks would stop using that word. “The grand jury didn’t leak this information. This information came from other sources,” says Bailon, arguing that the paper’s scoops are nothing more than “public accountability” journalism. Nor has the Post-Dispatch, he continues, published any details from the grand jury proceedings — for instance, the testimony of Wilson himself. “We’ve reported that Darren Wilson has testified. We don’t know what he told them,” says Bailon. “It’s an important distinction that’s not being made right now.”

More: “What’s different here is the framework and intensity around the story — that we’re doing it for one political motivation or another. People are not criticizing the veracity of what we wrote. They’re upset that we published anything at all.”

Post-Dispatch cops reporter Christine Byers has driven much of the paper’s high-profile reporting in recent days. She got in hot water in August when she tweeted, “Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop’s version of events in shooting.” At that time, Byers was on family leave from the Post-Dispatch and later clarified that the tweet hadn’t met the paper’s reporting standards. When asked whether there was any connection between that controversial August tweet and the recent scoops, Bailon responded in the negative: “She was on leave when that happened and wasn’t actively reporting on the story. … The fact is, she’s an outstanding police reporter.”

Whatever the motivations or non-motivations of the Post-Dispatch, one sure bet is that its findings will be digested in different ways by everyone else. While O’Donnell strained to discredit the reporting, consider how it went down on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show. The host asked colleague Martha MacCallum: “But the autopsy does destroy some of the initial reporting that this was an aggressive action by the police officer who, you know, shot a fleeing [Brown] with his hands up. Is that fair?” MacCallum responded, “According to this report, that is fair.”