Mark Hughes’ story: We went from being good samaritans to suspects

So, the pair left the gun—and Mark’s shirt, which the police refused to give back—and walked away. They were never read their Miranda rights, though both were detained. They were interrogated even after both invoked the right to counsel. They walked away to jeers from policemen. And when they asked that the police take down the tweet, or at least correct it, they were declined.

from “Falsely Accused, Dallas ‘Suspect’ Now Fears for His Life” Time Magazine, July 9, 2016

Like most of us around the country, I watched the Dallas shooting rampage unfold live on television and Twitter. And like most Americans, I had one question on my mind: Who did this? I wanted a face to match to the carnage, a gender, a race, a motivation. Much like in Orlando less than a month before, I couldn’t put a narrative to the story without an identified attacker.

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The original tweet from the Dallas Police Department

The Dallas Police Department identified a suspect during the manhunt, and tweeted a picture of a man at the peaceful protest. (The tweet is now deleted, but it read, “This is one of our suspects, please help us find him!”) The tweet was retweeted approximately 40,000 times and shared on television stations. Instantly, Mark Hughes, a stocky, young, African American man appeared on television and mobile phone screens around the world. And what made him a suspect? Well, not because of anything he did, but rather because he was wearing camouflage and carrying an assault rifle.

I watched the news unfold with my wife, and we both agreed that it’s insane that the man was allowed to walk around Dallas with a loaded assault rifle. We wondered why he wasn’t reported to the authorities beforehand. We feared for the sanity of our nation’s laws and for a public that doesn’t report an image that would terrify anyone in Chicago.

But this logic is not central to the debate.

Mark Hughes did he break any laws. Much like me, the media desperately wanted a narrative to cling to, so upon finding Mark’s brother, a reporter had a hard time seeing the obvious truth that Mark Hughes was not the shooter.

Other news outlets came to the same conclusions, almost grudgingly. They found footage of Hughes with his gun and camouflage shirt standing in the crowd as the shots rang out (his gun silent). Much like the Dallas Police Department, media outlets such as CNN and Fox News recognized this inconsistency, but they did not boldly state that they identified the wrong man.

Mark Hughes would never again have the same identity. His 15 minutes of infamy could potentially brand him for life, despite having broken no laws.

Ethical Questions Arise

Why would the Dallas PD share this photo, a photo that they were well aware would go viral? Of course, their number one concern was public safety, so they clamored for a suspect in the same manner as the public and the media. I have no doubt that they made the quick decision to tweet the photo with public safety in mind. If we can find out information about this man, perhaps we’ll save lives. 

How did the Dallas PD come to the conclusion that the man in the photo was a suspect? Because he had an assault rifle? Would they have reached the same conclusion had he been caucasian?

Though most of my anger steadfastly remains on the fact that these assault weapons are legal, I question the ethics of publicizing a suspect that is simply carrying out his “Second Amendment rights,” as many white Texans do at these sorts of rallies all the time. It’s impossible to not come to the conclusion that Mark Hughes was a suspect simply because he was a black man with a big gun in the same place that an attack with an automatic weapon occurred.

What positives could result from making his picture go viral? I suppose had Hughes been the shooter, hostage negotiations could have potentially gone smoother. Records could have been searched in order to discover if he’d likely worked in tandem with others. I could see many ways that lives could have potentially been saved… had Mark Hughes been the killer.

But he was not, so how much blame falls on the Dallas PD?

In order to answer that, it’s important to investigate what happened after Hughes turned in his gun and shirt to the police.

We went from being good samaritans to suspects

Mark and his brother Cory discussed the aftermath of the incident to a local news station.

Upon hearing the Hughes brothers’ story, it’s impossible to find any culpability on their part (despite the potential “asking for it” argument that comes to mind when anyone brings an assault rifle to a protest). The gun was turned in preemptively and the brothers cooperated fully with officers.

The police interrogated the brothers, separated them, pressured them with hard questions, lied to them in order to get a false confession, and, in the end, did not apologize for their mistake.

The significant ethical gaffe occurred following Hughes release. Not only was he further harassed after his name was cleared (as the video above explains), but an apology was never issued. I know that the Dallas PD had much more significant issues to tackle, but someone could have understood that a man’s life had been forever changed and at least explained their logic with a heartfelt, “I’m sorry for your troubles, we’re just trying to keep the public safe.”

Plus, it took a long time for the original tweet to get taken down. And a proper apology or statement explaining the mistake was never issued to the public. Had someone only followed the story through Thursday night, they might still believe that Mark Hughes killed police officers.

This is the point where the Dallas PD crossed a line from being concerned with public safety to harming an individual. And as the Hughes brothers explained in the video, Mark could have been shot, had he not turned his gun in when he did. In the wake of the week’s police shootings that spawned the protests, Mark Hughes could have become another unfortunate statistic.

Is the 24-hour news cycle to blame? 

The following day, CNN’s prime time harbinger of idiocy Don Lemon interviewed the Hughes

Don Lemon giving Larry Wilmore the middle finger at the 2016 Correspondents' Dinner Roast.
Don Lemon giving Larry Wilmore the middle finger during the 2016 Correspondents’ Dinner Roast. Classy!

brothers. Not surprisingly, this interview had been taken down from their website. Lemon, who has the interview skills of a two-year old constantly asking “Why?” asked Mark Hughes at least five times why he brought the assault rifle to the protest, despite Mark explaining it clearly the first time.

I bring up Lemon’s interview because throughout it, I was waiting for Lemon to apologize on behalf of CNN for perpetuating the harm done to Mark Hughes’ reputation. He never apologized; instead, he attempted to instigate him into anger.

Hughes will likely sue the Dallas PD, and he may win. And I know that the media sort of has to put up an image of a suspect if the police department publishes it on Twitter. But, considering the fact that they perpetuated an untruth, a station like CNN could have had the class to apologize to Mark Hughes and his brother for spreading the error. If nothing else, they could have published a story explaining to the public that Hughes was not responsible for the attack and the police department had little to no justification in naming him.

Instead CNN wiped their website of Mark Hughes and the false accusations made. Is this something that the public needs to accept from the 24-hour news cycle that relies on tweets and rumors in creating reports that they can revise as they go?

I say, no. We should demand that journalists take enough time to substantiate their claims, fact check, go to the source, find the opposing point of view–all the requisites steeped in the tradition of proper journalism. Yes, this sort of misreporting will happen, possibly even if more time were taken to sort out the facts. When mistakes occur do stations like CNN need to apologize for their haste and show concern for the lives they have the power to ruin through spreading unsubstantiated rumors?

Too often, bloggers and news outlets sweep their errors under the rug, quick to move on to their next story. Unfortunately for people like Mark Hughes, his life is forever changed and the impact on his image is permanent.

I’m presently reading Ryan Holiday’s troubling book Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which makes clear how lies are perpetuated in today’s blogosphere. Late in the book, he states, “Forcing someone to dispute a preposterously untrue allegation is just as much slander as making the accusation. The types of stories that scream out to be written and broken before they are fully written are precisely the types of stories that cannot be taken back.”

Mark Hughes now faces the challenge of clearing his name because the media will not do it for him. To them, simply revising the story is enough. Credibility is lost when journalists misreport and don’t properly correct their errors, and without credibility, journalists sacrifice their most important attributes: trust and respect.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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