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August 1st, 2020 (Permalink)

Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers? (Part 2)

Part 1 examined a factual failure at The New Yorker1, once famed for its rigorous fact-checking. Part 2 is about a supposedly true story by "police abolitionist" Derecka Purnell published by The Atlantic. Here's the operative paragraph:

The first shooting I witnessed was by a cop. I was 12. He was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet at my neighborhood recreation center. I was teaching my sister how to shoot free throws when the officer stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot the boy in the arm. My sister and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. The officer was back at work the following week.2

However, according to Christopher Bedford of The Federalist, important details of the story were false:

The article's title and call for police abolition remain unchanged, although the story justifying her activism is no longer about (1) a police officer shooting (2) a child (3) without serious consequences, and is about now (1) a private security guard shooting (2) an adult (3) and being charged with assault.3

Purnell subsequently confirmed this by "tweeting":

The shooter was a uniformed private guard with a badge and gun. When we say abolish the police, that includes private police, too.4

The Atlantic went on to correct the story5, thus vitiating whatever rhetorical power the opening anecdote had to support the call for abolishing the police. That the resulting article ends up advocating abolition of the police based on an incident in which a security guard shot someone and then was arrested by the police makes about as much sense as any other argument for abolishing the police. A single anecdote is very weak evidence, even when the anecdote is true, but a false anecdote is evidence of nothing except for the author's bad memory or, perhaps, youthful misunderstanding of what happened.

Why did The Atlantic publish this article? Was it fact-checked before publication? If so, why weren't the falsehoods caught? If not, why not? According to Bedford:

The Atlantic still refuses to share any corroborating evidence or if they did a fact-check on the original story before publication…. When asked if The Atlantic spoke to the victim, spoke to the guard, or acquired a police report, Anna Bross, a vice president of communications at the magazine, replied, "To start, you can find coverage of the incident in local newspapers in 2004." … While still declining to say if the article was fact-checked before it was posted on July 6, and if so by who, Bross emailed that she "will keep an eye out for the significant corrections or updates to your piece(s)," referencing The Federalist investigation that fact-checked the article for them.3

The fact that The Atlantic keeps stone-walling about whether it fact-checked the article indicates that it probably didn't. Like the statistic from the Lepore article examined in part 1, the original anecdote was implausible. We were supposed to believe that a police officer would shoot his young cousin in the arm for not signing in at a recreation center. Then, the cop was back on the job the next week as though nothing had happened. Perhaps this would sound plausible to a thirteen-year-old, but it shouldn't to any adult. So, how did this get past the editors at The Atlantic? Presumably, the story was simply too good to check.

What does Purnell think would happen if the police were abolished? If she would read the Lepore New Yorker article referred to in Part 1 she'd learn a little about what happened before there were police, and why police were established in the first place:

[The] history [of the police] begins in England, in the thirteenth century, when maintaining the king's peace became the duty of an officer of the court called a constable, aided by his watchmen: every male adult could be called on to take a turn walking a ward at night and, if trouble came, to raise a hue and cry. This practice lasted for centuries. (A version endures: George Zimmerman, when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, in 2012, was serving on his neighborhood watch.) The watch didn't work especially well in England―"The average constable is an ignoramus who knows little or nothing of the law," Blackstone wrote―and it didn't work especially well in England's colonies. Rich men paid poor men to take their turns on the watch, which meant that most watchmen were either very elderly or very poor, and very exhausted from working all day. …

…[U]nlike their British counterparts, American police carried guns, initially their own. … American police carried guns because Americans carried guns, including Americans who lived in parts of the country where they hunted for food and defended their livestock from wild animals, [and] Americans who lived in parts of the country that had no police…. Outside big cities, law-enforcement officers were scarce. … Meanwhile, Americans became vigilantes, especially likely to kill indigenous peoples, and to lynch people of color. … A San Francisco vigilance committee established in 1851 arrested, tried, and hanged people; it boasted a membership in the thousands. An L.A. vigilance committee targeted and lynched Chinese immigrants.6

How does Purnell propose, as in her "tweet", to get rid of private security guards? Would she make them illegal? How will that law be enforced without police? Does she desire a return to vigilantism? We're already seeing this happening in Minneapolis and other cities at the center of the anti-police agitation that she supports7. How would she stop it? Abolishing the police would only return us to vigilance committees and lynch mobs.


  1. Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers?, 7/30/2020
  2. Derecka Purnell, "How I Became a Police Abolitionist", The Atlantic, 7/6/2020. This is the original, uncorrected version of the story, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
  3. Christopher Bedford, "The Atlantic Finally Admits Its Police Abolition Piece Is Based On A False Narrative", The Federalist, 7/21/2020.
  4. Derecka Purnell, "Tweet", Twitter, 7/20/2020.
  5. Derecka Purnell, "How I Became a Police Abolitionist", The Atlantic, 7/20/2020. This is the corrected version.
  6. Jill Lepore, "The Invention of the Police", The New Yorker, 7/13/2020. Warning: Contains the four-letter f-word. No, not "fact".
  7. See, for instance: Leila Fadel, "Armed Neighborhood Groups Form In The Absence Of Police Protection", NPR, 6/3/2020.

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