● Media Helped Spread ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Theme: Broadcast networks used the phrase, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” 140 times in protest coverage discussing the Ferguson case from Aug. 9, 2014, through March 4, 2015, the date of the Justice Department report.
● Networks Perpetuate False Claim: Despite the DOJ ruling the left’s “fact” a “myth,” the networks have continued to use the meme an additional 16 times since release of the Ferguson report.
● ABC, NBC Never Admit Expression Wasn’t True: CBS called out the “Hands up, don’t shoot” falsehood in a March 4 report saying, “Despite protests” the report found there was “no credible evidence Brown had his hands up attempting to surrender.” So have CNN, The Washington Post and even The New York Times. ABC and NBC haven’t dared to address it.
● Pop-Culture Support: The false narrative has even made its way into pop culture in television shows, professional sports and music awards shows. Entertainment media have helped promote “Hands up, don’t shoot” -- from the hit show Scandal to a Pharrell Grammy performance.
Editor’s Note: Some language in this story might be deemed offensive.
The phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot,” has come to define a movement protesting alleged mistreatment of African-Americans at the hands of police. It came from a witness account of how African-American 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer.
Only the account proved to be entirely false. Even the Justice Department has said so.
The news media helped spread the theme with massive coverage of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting. Journalists are still perpetuating it, though the claim has been disproven.
ABC, NBC and CBS used the phrase -- mostly B-roll of protesters chanting -- an incredible 140 times from the day Brown was shot to the date the Department of Justice report was released. Even after the government determined the phrase had no credibility, network journalists continued to use it an additional 16 times, most recently in coverage of the Baltimore riots and during protester attacks on citizens in Cleveland following the Brelo verdict.
That is equally troubling since they had every opportunity to invalidate the phrase or explain why it was false. For instance, on Good Morning America March 19, reporter Linsey Davis even explained the chant’s Ferguson roots, without telling viewers the phrase was inaccurate.
ABC continued avoiding the truth more than a month later in the middle of covering the Baltimore riots, on World News Tonight, April 28. Senior National Correspondent Jim Avila explained that protesters were shouting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” but made no further comment or clarification. The following night’s broadcast also showed protesters chanting the phrase without comment by Avila.
Cleveland protests grew violent after Officer Michael Brelo was acquitted in the deaths of two men following a high-speed chase. ABC World News Tonight led into its May 24, 2015, report with protesters marching and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and even holding a sign to that effect. Correspondent Alex Perez explained, “Police making 71 arrests, mostly for violence against bystanders.” ABC made no attempt to point out just how wrong the protesters were.
In fact, CBS was the only broadcast network to report that the phrase was debunked -- in one segment. On March 4, Evening News, Mark Strassmann said:
“Despite six months of protests from people who claim Michael Brown was killed by former officer Darren Wilson for no apparent reason, federal investigators said the evidence supported Wilson’s version of events.”
“It found no evidence to disprove Wilson’s contention he acted in self-defense and no credible evidence Brown had his hands up attempting to surrender.”
However CBS joined ABC, and NBC in continuing to use the phrase, in later reports.
On Evening News March 9, Correspondent Dean Reynolds reported on protesters filling the Wisconsin state capitol building holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and shouting, what Reynolds called “a familiar chant.” Why Reynolds did not take the extra seconds to also point out that this “familiar chant” was debunked by autopsy reports months ago, and officially declared false by the DOJ a full week prior is a mystery.
So where did this all begin?
The Origins of the False Phrase
“Hands up, don’t shoot” started Aug. 9, when black 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by white Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson contended that Brown charged at him after violently attempting to take Wilson’s gun. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, alternatively claimed Brown had tried to grab Wilson and pull him into the cop car repeatedly, before Brown was able to get away with his hands up in the air. Then Wilson allegedly shot Brown in the back several times as he was running.
Johnson’s claim was widely accepted into pop culture and propagated by the news media initially, despite Johnson’s uncertain credibility and his inconsistent account. He had gone to the store to get cigarillos with Brown the day of the fatal encounter. Johnson had an outstanding warrant for theft and lying to a police officer previously and he has continued to get into trouble with police in the months after Brown died. His testimony did not match forensic evidence found, either.
The court determined that forensic and DNA evidence corroborated Wilson’s story, not Johnson’s. Wounds found on both Wilson and Brown were consistent with Wilson’s account, and Brown’s blood trail confirmed he was coming at Brown, not running away from him, as Johnson claimed.
According to the DOJ report, “The autopsy results confirm that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back as he was running away because there were no entrance wounds to Brown’s back.”
But the facts didn’t matter to the media. Like race-baiting activists who came to Ferguson as part of the “Hands up, don’t shoot protest.”
“For months, a segment of our political leaders and pundits attacked cops across this country, based on the myth… We saw members of Congress, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, hands in the air, saying ‘Hands up, don't shoot!’ And if one of them has so far apologized for misleading America, we haven't heard it.”
Because of this determination to report the case inaccurately, the media arguably spread a falsehood that cast a cloud over the case and helped fuel an anti-police sentiment across the country.
News outlets also highlighted other cases where African-American suspects were killed by police over the ensuing months. Several incidents made national attention, sometimes justifiably, but helping protesters spread the “hands up, don’t shoot” phrase as a chant to fight against perceived injustices.
Even Obama Administration Admits It’s Not True
In a press conference March 4, Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department agreed with the grand jury report. He admitted that a false account of events had become popular with the public. Though he claimed to not understand how this happened.
“I recognize that the findings in our report may leave some to wonder how the department’s findings can differ so sharply from some of the initial, widely reported accounts of what transpired,” he said, “It remains not only valid – but essential – to question how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly, and be accepted so readily.” (Emphasis ours).
Holder asked “how” did this lie spread, twice, in that one short statement. It wasn’t really hard to figure out. He answered it in his own question. The news, Hollywood and the left took every opportunity to repeat the lie for eight months following Brown’s death. And sadly, in the months after the DOJ report.
The Media All Played Part Furthering Narrative
The problem wasn’t just at the broadcast networks. Other news outlets, left wing blogs and liberal politicians joined in advancing the false narrative. A CNN panel that included MSNBC analyst Sally Kohn held their hands up in solidarity with protesters on Dec. 13. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell reported that Brown “turned and faced him [Officer Wilson] and put his hands up.” U.S. National security analyst Juliette Kayyem, a former Boston Globe columnist, actually called the shooting a “murder” on CNN.
Online media were just as resistant to facts instead of discredited speculation. Erin Gloria Ryan, managing editor for the feminist site Jezebel, tweeted obnoxiously that the juries on these cases must be “country’s biggest idiots or actual klan members.” In her view, it was racist to consider that there might have been justifiable reasons why Wilson had to shoot Brown.
Likewise, Fortune Magazine took the complaints of protesters as gospel by naming two Ferguson activists in the magazine’s “50 World’s Greatest Leaders” list. Fortune said they fit the bill for “extraordinary men and women” who are “transforming business, government, philanthropy, and so much more.” The magazine seemed unfazed at the ways the Ferguson protests had turn to violence or arson.
Even liberal politicians used their positions of power to promote a false agenda. After the court cleared Off. Wilson, Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Al Green (D-Tex.) and Yvette Clarke (D-NY) took to the floor of Congress Dec. 1 to protest. They each put their hands up and said, “Don’t shoot” in a stunt that revealed their contempt for the criminal justice system. Jeffries even admitted to The New York Times after the DOJ report was released, that he didn’t care if “Hands up” didn’t happen:
“If I had to do it again, I would proceed in exactly the same way,” he said. “I made clear in my remarks that ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ is a rallying cry for people all across America who want to see the constitutional promise of equal protection under the law brought to life.” Jeffries added, “At no point in that speech did any member of the black caucus indicate that that’s what occurred between Mr. Wilson and Mike Brown.”
In addition, some members of the media have tried to diminish the harmful impact protesters and rioters have had, especially following riots in Baltimore. Former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, MSNBC anchor O’Donnell and Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore attempted to make the case that “thug” was the new “N-word” and so people shouldn’t describe those who loot, riot, throw rocks and commit arson, as “thugs.”
The Phrase Has Made It’s Way Into Pop Culture
“Hands up, don’t shoot” didn’t just rely on news media for promotion. Even sitcoms, sports and award shows spread the falsehood. African-American celebrities helped cement the phrase in the national consciousness.
Perhaps the most egregious example came in an ABC Scandal episode devoted entirely to presenting a fictional Brown as an innocent and Wilson as a racist who fabricated evidence. This incendiary program aired after Wilson was cleared by the courts and government. But ABC wasn’t the only network to do something like this.
Comedy Central’s Daily Show “Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore flippantly said on Dec. 2, that questioning the narrative was unacceptable and people who do so should “probably go fuck themselves.”
A few days after Brown was shot, Rappers Nelly, Chris Brown and Bow Wow led the crowd at a Los Angeles charity event to raise their hands and chant the phrase. People Magazine reported how on a lavish trip to Iceland, Beyonce and husband Jay-Z posed for several pictures with their hands up, found on her website and Instagram account.
Even the Grammys broadcast this year was commandeered with a bizarre routine by pop artist Pharrell. At one point, he stood with his dancers frozen, holding their hands up in tribute.
Professional sports broadcasts weren’t safe from this agenda either. Several St. Louis Rams players entered a game by holding their hands up in protest. NBC covered the incident while ignoring NFL coaches and players who wore apparel supporting the NYPD.
The media also celebrated openly gay Michael Sam, a former Rams player, who posed with his hands up in a picture with comedian Dave Chappelle at the 2014 GQ Magazine Awards.
The expression spread. One high schooler’s anthem using the phrase was nominated for a student Emmy Award, The Tennessean reported. An activist organization was even spawned from the phrase, calling themselves, “Hands Up United” that was praised by The Huffington Post. Of course this group still holds to the myth that Brown’s hands were up. On its “About Us” page it describes Brown as “an unarmed, Black, 18-year-old, with his hands up in a posture of surrender.”
Other News Outlets Have No Problem Saying Claim Is False
Some journalists understood how important it was to correct the record about “hands up, don’t shoot.” CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times all pointed out the flaws in the theme.
The Washington Post debunked it giving it “four pinocchios” as a blatant falsehood, a category the paper uses for what it calls “whoppers.” The fact-checker column about the phrase was headlined, “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ did not happen in Ferguson.”
Liberal Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart got a lot of flak from angry protesters when he changed positions and wrote a piece admitting he had been wrong, simply called, “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie.”
Capehart concluded that, “we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.” He added, “And when we discover that we have, we must acknowledge it, admit our error and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve done here.”
For simply reporting the truth, Capehart was admonished by liberals who didn’t want to hear the truth.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper and New York Times/CNN media reporter Brian Stelter both explained the phrase was false on their shows. On Anderson Cooper 360, correspondent Sara Sider even quoted from the DOJ report saying, that phrase is "inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence" and that "witnesses have acknowledged their initial accounts were untrue."
The New York Times reported the findings on its own, albeit spending most of the report defending the use of the phrase.
Conclusions: The Tragic Results
It might be impossible to convince supporters that “Hands up, don’t shoot” never happened. The government said so. Responsible media outlets have done the same. But the damage was done early on, and despite the phrase being debunked, protesters have continued to use it, even as recent as the Baltimore riots.
The effect has left an increased backlash and distrust for police officers in black communities around the country. The job of law enforcement continues to get tougher. “In total, 126 officers were killed in 2014. That's a 24 percent increase from 2013, when 102 officers were killed,” according to NPR.
Some cases from this past year point to the escalation of violence against police:
- Two Ferguson police officers were shot while guarding a protest the same day DOJ report was released, March 12.
- NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos killed by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, 28, who admitted beforehand he wanted to enact revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Dec. 20.
- Houston police Officer April Pikes survived after she was stabbed 15 times by a man who allegedly said he was out to kill police because they were “oppressive.”
The ongoing anti-police protests have sparked police officers to start their own social media hashtag, #BluelivesMatter, posting pictures of themselves in uniform, to show their lives are just as important as anyone else.
The Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald wrote a powerful piece in The New York Post explaining how the media and the Obama Administration helped fuel this violence:
“By now, the media and politicians are on ample notice that their crusade against law enforcement carries deadly risks. There's no more excuse for inflaming hatred against the police, especially when the allegations used to inflame that hatred are proven untruths.” (emphasis ours)
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges members of the profession to “Be Accountable and Transparent.” According to SPJ, journalists should both: “Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness”; and “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.”
The broadcast networks have followed neither of those guidelines correcting the record of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” falsehood.
Methodology: MRC Culture counted all mentions of “Hands up, don’t shoot” among ABC, NBC and CBS on their morning and evening news broadcasts both before and after the DOJ report was released on March 4, 2015. Analysis was through May 25, 2015.