When is it OK to call a not-murder a murder? When Democrats need it to call it one for political gain, if I’m reading PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson correctly.
The big stink this week, “largely ignored” by the Mainstream Media, is over false claims by United States senators and Democratic presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris that Michael Brown was “murdered” by a white policeman five years ago.
Here are the candidates’ own tweets:
Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 9, 2019
5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 9, 2019
The legal definition of murder is “the killing of a human being by a sane person, with intent, malice aforethought (prior intention to kill the particular victim or anyone who gets in the way) and with no legal excuse or authority.” Or murder in the second degree, which “is such a killing without premeditation.”
Brown, a young black man shot to death by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, was not murdered. Wilson, as the facts eventually made plain, fired in self-defense while under attack by Brown. That’s a legally justified killing, which is pretty much the exact opposite of murder.
You’d think that for a fact-checking organization, this would be an open-and-shut case. And for at least two lefty publications, it was.
To date, the New York Times has ignored the story, because apparently two big-name Democratic presidential contenders with deep pockets libeling a young Midwestern police officer isn’t news that’s fit to print. But the Washington Post‘s Fact Check column gave Harris’ and Warren’s claim Four Pinocchios, the polite equivalent of “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Progressive young adult infotainment site Vox explained that Brown was not murdered, because “the evidence, including a report released by President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, says otherwise.”
But apparently all that’s not good enough for PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson, who chose instead to muddy the waters with his so-called “fact check.”
Now if it were me running a fact-check site, I’d look at the claim (“he was murdered”) and the facts (“the law says that a legally justified shooting isn’t murder”), and tell my readers whether the claim stood up to the facts. Which seems to me not-at-all-unreasonable for a fact-checker.
But here’s Jacobson’s not-quite just-the-facts-ma’am take:
In discussing the case with legal experts, however, we found broad consensus that “murder” was the wrong word to use — a legal point likely familiar to Harris, a longtime prosecutor, and Warren, a law professor.
In fact, two other Democratic senators with law degrees now running for president — Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand — more accurately referred to it as a killing.
That said, experts who have studied police-related deaths and race relations said that focusing too much on the linguistics in controversial cases comes with its own set of problems.
Let me parse that for you. Jacobson admits that Brown was not murdered, but then goes on to argue that “murder” might be a good word to use anyway, because doing so fits a particular agenda.
Jacobson then quotes Jean Brown, a communications instructor (not a legal scholar) at Texas Christian University arguing, “I don’t know if the legalistic distinction intensifies the anger, but it does feel like an attempt to shift the debate from a discussion about the killing of black and brown people by police.” Which is a fancy way of saying, “Brown wasn’t murdered, but it suits my agenda to say that he was.” And that’s a fancy way of saying, “I’m not going to let the facts get in the way of stoking racial hatred.”
“Quite frankly,” she says, “it’s a distraction that doesn’t help the discussion.”
Precisely, although perhaps Brown admitted more than she meant to.
Muddying the waters further, Jacobson says that “some legal experts argued that there’s a difference between being legally precise and using language more informally.”
Well, sure — but is it factual, Mr. Fact-Checker?
I’d have to rate Jacobson’s fact-check: Four Muddy Waters.
Jacobson concludes his piece with a quote from Joy Leopard, an assistant professor of media communications (not law) at Webster University. “Focusing on the language opens up the opportunity for some to discredit the conversation about police brutality and the criminal justice system in general.” I’d argue that conflating a justified shooting with murder makes it impossible to have a real conversation about police brutality (which is a genuine concern) in order to perpetuate a permanently aggrieved victimhood class. But that’s just me and my opinion, and I’d expect you to treat it as such.
Jacobson, for his part, “won’t be rating” Harris’ and Warren’s tweets “on the Truth-O-Meter,” because “the significance of Harris’ and Warrens’ use of the word is open to some dispute.” Forget weighing the facts, he’s saying; PolitiFact is here to judge the “significance.”
That’s not fact-checking — it’s opinion. And that’s a fact you should keep in mind when forming your opinion about PolitiFact.