Media let themselves be duped by police unions’ story about poisoned milkshakes

Update: According to the NY Post, the officers never even got sick

Update (6/22/20): According to the New York Post, the three officers who went to Shake Shack “never even got sick, and there wasn’t the slightest whiff of criminality from the get-go — but that didn’t stop gung-ho brass from rolling out the crime scene tape and unions from dishing out empty conspiracy theories.”

Update (6/17/20): In a statement posted to its Twitter account Tuesday evening, Shake Shack said: “At this point, we have found no evidence in our internal investigation, nor have we heard from authorities, that there was any contaminant in the shakes. We continue to await the test results from the NYPD.”

News organizations around the country uncritically reported a claim from New York City police unions that three officers had been deliberately “poisoned” after they fell ill from drinking milkshakes. It took hours after the NYPD corrected the initial claim for some outlets to report that, in fact, the officers’ shakes had accidentally been contaminated with cleaning liquid in the shake machine -- once again showcasing that media need to independently verify claims coming from police sources.

In a since-deleted tweet, the Detectives’ Endowment Association claimed that “three of our fellow officers were intentionally poisoned by one or more workers” at a Manhattan Shake Shack. The police union’s president, Paul DiGiacomo, said in a since-deleted statement, “Police in New York City and across the country are under attack by vicious criminals who dislike us simply because of the uniform we wear, … these cowards will go to great lengths to harm any member of law enforcement.” New York’s Police Benevolent Association referred to the incident as an “attack” in a since-deleted statement: “When NYC police officers cannot even take meal without coming under attack, it is clear that environment in which we work has deteriorated to a critical level. We cannot afford to let our guard down for even a moment.”

The New York Police Department’s chief of detectives, Rodney Harrison, later debunked the claims of intentional poisoning on Twitter.

The New York Daily News, ironically relying on an anonymous police source, then reported: “It appears that a machine used to make milkshakes at the Fulton Transit Center Shake Shack was not properly cleaned and that residue from a cleaning product that contains bleach had not been wiped or rinsed from the machine before it was put back into service.”

But before this debunking, many media outlets uncritically repeated the police unions’ claims of intentional poisoning. NBC News published an article early Tuesday morning credulously reporting the Police Benevolent Association’s claim that the police were “under attack.” NBC drastically changed the article hours later to remove that claim and update it with information that the NYPD found “no criminality” by the Shake Shack employees -- without a note explaining that the article had been changed. 

Media consultant Timothy Burke posted a video supercut on Twitter of more than a dozen instances of TV news reports from New York City and around the country uncritically repeating the police unions’ claim that the officers had been “intentionally poisoned.”

Conservative media were even worse. Pro-Trump blogger Jim Hoft, citing the police unions’ statements, wrote that “the left is killing our police officers.” 

Longtime conservative columnist and author Michelle Malkin ranted on Twitter about it.

Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren tweeted “liberalism is a disease” after writing that a Shake Shack employee “poisoned NYPD officers.” 

Nearly five hours after the NYPD’s Harrison debunked the claim, Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity shared an article on Twitter which asserted the milkshakes were intentionally “spiked.” 

And this morning’s Fox & Friends First opened with one of the co-hosts claiming that the officers had been “poisoned,” calling it a “horrendous attack,” and later saying the milkshakes were “allegedly spiked with a toxic substance.”

Video file

Citation From the June 16, 2020, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

As countless people around the country have been protesting against police brutality, media outlets have exhibited a disturbing trend of running false police statements without independently verifying them first. This happened when police officers shoved and critically injured a 75-year-old man in Buffalo, New York, and claimed he had “tripped & fell”; claimed a bicycle repair kit was a set of weapons meant to be used by protesters against police; claimed millions of dollars’ worth of watches were stolen from a store that never had any; and several other false claims by police officials just in recent weeks. 

News organizations should reflect on how they fell for this latest unvetted story from police officers and take steps to avoid such embarrassing mistakes in the future.