FAKE NEWS ALERT: Federalist Tags The Atlantic for Peddling Dubious Cop Shooting

July 20th, 2020 5:38 PM

On Thursday, The Federalist’s senior editor Christopher Bedford published a devastating piece of reporting exposing what appeared to have been a fabricated St. Louis Police-involved shooting from the early 2000s chronicled in The Atlantic on July 6 as a plea to not only defund, but abolish police.

Bedford’s nearly-1800-word item found that, based on available media archives and public records requests, the tale from “social justice activist and lawyer Derecka Purnell” when she was 12 years old about witnessing a young African-American boy being shot by police doesn’t “appear to have ever happened.”

Despite the fact that Bedford’s investigation included “newspaper archives and the police department records, and questions to The Atlantic, the police union, and the office of the mayor,” Atlantic editors had yet to respond as of Monday

Bedford started with what Purnell claimed took place, which was she and her sister were at a St. Louis rec center in their impoverished neighborhood when a police officer walked in, drew his weapon, and shot a young boy for having “skipped a sign in sheet.” She added that, as a sign of how such behavior was enabled, “the officer was back at work the following week.”

Purnell argued that this experience and subsequent horror of hiding “in the locker room for hours afterward” led her to become “a police abolitionist.” In years since, she graduated from Berkeley and Harvard Law, was profiled in the Kansas City Star, and wrote for The Guardian and The New York Times in addition to The Atlantic.

Before even going into the fact-checking, Bedford pointed to how, despite a growing list of “publicly available writings,” this “appear[ed] to be the first mention of the incident in any publicly available record The Federalist was able to uncover.”

In her piece, Purnell provided details about her upbringing being near a Budweiser plant, “a fish-seasoning plant,” Interstate 70, a junkyard, and “a Praxair industrial gas-storage facility” as points of reference to start with.

After determining the incident had to have taken place between 2001 and 2003 given her current age, Beford first noted that a search of “the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s archives for those years yields 37 results” using the words “police” and “recreation center” found none “remotely resembling a police officer shooting a boy.”

Purnell’s geographic details were imprecise (such as I-64 being three-quarters of a mile north, not I-70), but things fell apart were when Bedford was able to pin down the nearest rec center (click “expand”):

Based on the vivid-if-imprecise description of her neighborhood, her “neighborhood recreation center” was most likely the Buder Recreation Center. Having a location allowed The Federalist to launch a Sunshine Law records request with the St. Louis Police Department, but just in case the sisters had attended a different rec center, there was one more that could be walked to from the general neighborhood without having to cross a major highway. Both community centers were included in the records request.

The results, though, do not support a shooting, and certainly not one involving a police officer shooting an unarmed child in front of witnesses.

Between 2001 and 2003, there were 23 police responses to the Buder Recreation Center and 38 to the 12th & Park Recreation Center. The nature of the calls cover a range of incidents, from accidents to domestic disputes, from pedestrians in need to suspicious vehicles, from larceny to arson. None of the police responses, however, involved a shooting except perhaps one attempted suicide at the 12th & Park rec center.

Two words: Not good! 

For a story that Bedford noted in Monday’s follow-up was so widely heralded by mainstream reporters, Purnell might have been channeling her inner Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, or Brian Williams to help gaslight the left into a more venomous hatred of police.

For good measure, Bedford obtained quotes from a spokesman in the mayor’s office (who had been “a former reporter” in the area) and the head of the city’s police union. Both had no recollection of such an event.

Finally, here were Bedford’s questions to the magazine (click “expand”):

The Federalist sent two emails to Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic’s editor of the Ideas section, asking if the magazine fact-checked the claim:

  • …can you detail the fact-checking process for this story? 
    IE which editor was tasked with confirming the details alleged in the story?
  • Did The Atlantic verify the details of the shooting with local authorities?
  • Did The Atlantic speak to any other eyewitnesses to the alleged shooting, or to any witnesses who recalled the incident and corroborate the claims made by the author of the story? Did The Atlantic speak to the police officer allegedly involved in the shooting, or to any of his representatives, legal or otherwise, prior to publishing the story?
  • Can you provide the name of the officer responsible for the alleged shooting? Can you provide the name of the recreation center where this allegedly happened? Can you provide a police report of the incident? Can you provide the date of the shooting?

Appelbaum did not respond. On Friday morning after publishing, Purnell responded to a Thursday afternoon request for “any other stories or corroboration of this incident,” writing, “Hi Chris – The Atlantic found it. Take care.” The Federalist sent a follow-up to Appelbaum inquiring on if he this is true, and if he plans to answer any of Thursday’s questions. He has still not replied.