If you’ve read a single article about the shooting death by Officer Amber Guyger of Botham Jean, you will have heard a single account of what it was that happened when Guyger showed up at the man’s door. If you’ve read more than one article, you’re likely to have heard two different accounts. One problem is that both of these stories were told to reporters by anonymous staffers at the very same police department; that they contradict each other in every major respect; that they contradict the “facts” that law enforcement finally settled on when they charged Guyger with manslaughter on Sunday; and that both contradict what actual witnesses appear to be reporting. The larger problem is that some of the city’s journalists don’t seem to have learned anything at all from this.
Law enforcement has controlled the narrative in this case to an extent that’s unusual even in the hazy field of police shootings. There is no dash cam or body cam, and naturally no dispatch records preceding the event itself; there is reportedly a 911 call that one would expect to be on tape, though it has yet to be made public. Meanwhile the other party is dead and history is written by the winners, often with help from reporters.
There is a degree to which a journalist must sometimes rely on accounts from interested, unaccountable parties for their scoops, and so long as this is done with due consideration for the credibility of the source, it is not necessarily a sin. There was nothing wrong, then, with J.D. Miles reporting via Twitter that “the door was unlocked and she thought she was entering her unit when she saw victim in the dark.” Nor should anyone object to a host of NBC 5 reporters relaying an account from a “Dallas police officer” who spoke on condition of anonymity that, on the contrary, Guyger actually “put the key in and struggled with the lock” and then “put down several things she was holding and continued to fight with the key when the resident swung open the door and startled her.” But when it becomes apparent — as it did to The Intercept’s Shaun King — that the two accounts being provided by the same agency are entirely different, it is prudent to stop regarding the law enforcement community as the most reliable source of information on an incident involving a vastly unusual killing by one of their own.
To their credit, NBC later posted an editor’s note at the very bottom of the article noting that they’d removed the whole door-wouldn’t-open-and-was-totally-closed-and-that-guy-swung-it-open-so-time-to-shoot story and that they did so “[d]ue to conflicting reports of the incident from various sources.” These “various sources” include the arrest warrant itself, which ultimately went with the door-was-totally-open-so-time-to-shoot variant while also expanding upon the killer’s own description of events with new details. Another “source” is the search warrant from last Friday, which, as a later piece by at least one of the same reporters notes in its subhead, “differs slightly” from the arrest warrant. In fact it differs on key aspects of the story and helpfully accuses Jean of having “confronted” the officer, while also reporting that a witness heard “an exchange of words immediately followed by at least two gunshots” (emphasis mine). This latter element is less helpful, which is presumably why it does not appear in the arrest warrant, of which more presently. But being a man of great patience, I continue to await NBC’s explanation for why it reported that Guyger shot Jean “once in the chest and once in the abdomen,” an event that goes uncommemorated in either of the official accounts, which both describe Jean being hit a single time out of the two shots reportedly fired.
What do you do when law enforcement agents contradict each other over and over again regarding a case in which their reputations are collectively at stake? If you’re the Dallas Morning News, you double down on your deference to law enforcement. “The arrest warrant affidavit provided the first official account of what happened the night Jean died,” proclaimed reporter Dana Branham, who seems not to regard the account provided in the original search warrant as having being official. “Without it, misinformation swirled on the internet.”
This is a rather bizarre thing to say in a situation wherein the most widely viewed misinformation has come from anonymous police officers via the press itself, and wherein the two public documents that authorities have produced contradict each other in major respects that the actual witnesses seem to be challenging, as Branham herself notes in the course of describing the position of Jean’s family’s attorneys. To be sure, people on the internet have indeed expressed opinions about the circumstances that may be just as wrong as what cops keep telling reporters; Branham cites “social media users who ripped a photo from Jean’s Instagram and misidentified a woman pictured with him as Guyger, in an effort to prove that the two knew each other before the shooting.” It was indeed uncivil of these random citizens to have “ripped” the photo thusly, whereas reporters are careful to merely copy them and paste such things.
Branham goes on to paraphrase Dallas Police Association head Mike Mata at great length about such extenuating factors as police overwork and his supposed concerns about Guyger’s safety. “Guyger has received threats online and through her phone,” she reports, citing no particular evidence other than the claims of Mata, who in the course of asserting that Guyger has received “texts” but is currently “safe” rather foolishly reveals that a manslaughter suspect who may ultimately be charged with murder by a grand jury seems not to have had her phone taken up as evidence during her three-day grace period, or perhaps even afterward. Jean’s iPhone, meanwhile, was indeed taken as evidence.
That the sacred arrest warrant itself turns out to be a vastly insane document seems not to have bothered many folks outside of the swirling misinformation-spreading circles of benighted “social media users,” such as Ian Holmes, an old friend of mine who got his start working in the Dallas DA’s office before going into private practice as a defense attorney. “The PC affidavit reads like her defense attorney wrote it. I’ve never seen one like it in 10 years of practice,” he wrote on Twitter. My own favorite part is where it actually describes the place where Guyger killed a man in his own home as “her apartment,” presumably by right of conquest. Similarly telling is the claim that Guyger saw Jean merely as a “large silhouette” but nonetheless “gave verbal commands that were ignored” while remaining entirely vague as to what those commands might have been and how she knew he was ignoring them if he was a silhouette. If one recalls the search warrant reference to shots being fired “immediately” after an exchange of words — and one would have to recall it to know about it, since someone seems to have decided that it’s no longer as important as it was on Friday, and the Dallas Morning News does not have time to go into all this since Mata has a great deal to say about police officers working extra jobs and this totally needs to be in this article — one starts to get a sense of what Guyger’s exposure may be here, and how much trouble has gone into confusing the issue lest the press somehow catch on.
For his own part, Mayor Rawlings used Branham’s story in the DMN, the latest in a long line of friendly interviews, to convey to the city that he is “now all but pleading with people ‘to stay off social media’” lest they get the wrong idea about a highly irregular situation that the authorities can’t seem to get straight. Although I agree with him that the masses are fools who cannot be trusted to assess reality, which would explain why Rawlings is still the mayor, those who want to understand what’s really at stake here have little choice but to search for answers themselves.
As journalists, or simply thinking beings, we must rely on what we already know to evaluate which things are sufficiently probable to warrant further inquiry. My broader concern is that too many in the press have decided that they generally know enough to make these decisions, and that even a debacle like that of the last few days will not be sufficient to convince them otherwise. There are always those who prefer things thus, and they are rarely disappointed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story contained material that, in hindsight, we felt needed to be expurgated. Find an explanation here.