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Media Matters And The #OccupySavannah Controversy


In a commentary posted on Big Government on Monday evening, Nov. 14, editor Mike Flynn wrote that Occupy Savannah had reported the tragic death of one of its members, 34-year-old Jonathan Brazell. The headline read: “Breaking: Facebook Posting Reports Murder at #OccupySavannah.” The article itself was a reflection on the lawlessness at Occupy encampments, and the mainstream media’s general reluctance to report it.

The difficulty of covering breaking news: An Occupy Oakland protestor injured on Nov. 2 was reported dead by Occupy activists, until later reports confirmed his injuries had been non-fatal.

One reason we believed, in investigating the initial lead, that the crime had occurred at the protest site was that the Facebook posting by Occupy was accompanied by comments that indicated Brazell had been “one of the protestors there.” There had also been a spate of shootings at several Occupy protest sites in just a few days. We had interpreted the Occupy Savannah post in that context–perhaps too readily, in retrospect.

Subsequently, we received comments and tips indicating that Brazell had not, in fact, been killed at the Occupy Savannah protest site itself. We were not able to confirm that fact–partly because there was little information available at the time of the post, and also because Occupy activists at other protests had, in the past, made apparently false claims that victims and perpetrators of crimes were not connected to their campsites.

On Wednesday morning, we were finally able to confirm that police were investigating the murder as an ordinary robbery, and published an update to the original article. That is standard practice in breaking news. We decided that we would leave the rest of the article in its original form, since it was largely opinion and analysis. We also felt the tone of the article had been appropriately somber and had expressed genuine sympathy.

For Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, the article presented an attractive opportunity to deflect attention away from the scandal over insider trading in Congress, and particularly from the allegations against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Boehlert published one attack on Tuesday, and another one yesterday, resulting in roughly two dozen complaints to our site (some from fake addresses) over several days.

In my capacity as editor-in-chief, I took the time to respond to some of these complaints, especially from people who said they had known Brazell. Some were satisfied that we had updated the post. Others were not; their objection seemed not to the facts reported, but to the opinions accompanying them. Meanwhile, at Media Matters, Boehlert tried to use the episode to deny Occupy’s criminal record, and to denounce the Breitbart sites.

The irony is that Media Matters and Boehlert often make false allegations based on little or no evidence. One small, representative example occurred when controversy erupted over video of radical classes at the University of Missouri in May. A Media Matters blogger speculated, falsely, that conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe “has something to do with this whole smear campaign.” No proof, update or correction was ever posted.

More recently, Boehlert himself tweeted that an article I wrote at Big Government was “hating on the military, claiming vets who support [Occupy Wall Street] are dupes and pawns.” Boehlert had deliberately and completely misrepresented the article, and added insult to injury (literally) by tweeting: “When @andrewbreitbart blogger’s done mocking U.S. vets for supporting #OWS can he tell us which war her [sic] served in?”

My wife happens to be in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and I spend several days each month with her at her base. At nearly seven months pregnant, she is about to begin a 59-day training course in servicing and repairing the type of helicopter flown by her squadron. Boehlert did not know, and did not care, about the facts. He simply accused me of “hating on the military”–and, in the process, Boehlert “hated on” our military family.

When I challenged Boehlert, he did not retract, or apologize for, his statements. He just kept on attacking. Media Matters does not exist to correct facts; it exists to “correct” conservative opinions, often through obfuscation and distraction. It is, in fact, built on one big lie–namely, that it is non-partisan, and hence deserving of tax-exempt status. It routinely “corrects” media criticisms of Democrats, but not of Republicans.

The fact is that covering breaking news is not easy. With Occupy, Big Government has often reported what Occupy activists themselves are reporting, when we do not have our own correspondents present. When Occupy Oakland marched to the city’s port, for example, we reported that activists had claimed on Twitter that one demonstrator had been killed. We later updated the post to note that his injuries were non-fatal.

In the case of Jonathan Brazell, the death was all too real. We are deeply upset that it happened–and we are also frustrated that the media, and the weakness of local political leaders, have indulged the chaos at the Occupy protests–which has, in places, diverted police away from neighborhoods they normally protect. We extend our condolences to the family and friends of Jonathan Brazell, and to all affected by this ongoing tragedy.

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