Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson and the Media

Here's my final thought on Ferguson for the time being. (The rest are on Facebook, incidentally, if you're accessing this through the blog and wondering,  "Last of what series?")

I've watched/listened to probably something like six hours of coverage in the last 36 hours.  One of the developing tropes, coming out of yesterday's press conference, is the role of the news media in all of this. I want to say something about that.

Let me admit up front that I have a natural affinity for, and probably even bias in favor of, journalism and journalists. This might, however, shock some readers who see me often decrying "the media" and especially "the mainstream media" as complicit in terrible things. But that's because I make a distinction when I speak of "the media" - and there's the rub. It wants elucidation.

I have in mind here especially the 24 hour news channels, but also the major wall-to-wall coverage engines that can now be managed online by everybody from the likes of HuffPo down to the local ABC affiliate that knows how to do on the Twittface.

I will repeat. I've tuned into about 6 hours of the last 36 hours of coverage. That's one sixth of the total coverage (#Maths). But during that time, I've seen a whole lot of the same things repeated over and over again.

When CNN and MSNBC and FOX get frustrated about being accused of shallow coverage, I can understand the frustrations of the journalists. They are often doing their jobs fairly decently. It is the editors and producers and consultants for marketing and all the rest of the managerial sort involved in making 24 hour news that are failing miserably. 

Repition is the mother of study. We learn through repetition - especially in this meme-filled, RT'ing, Buzzfed world. And if you take note of what the major 24 hour networks repeat, versus what is unique, it is fascinating. The repeated things are always the sensational things, the outrageous or scandalous things. Heading into every commercial break and coming back from it, we are hit with footage of burning cars and protestors shouting, tear gas being fired, and banners evincing a sense of urgency and crisis and Armageddon brought to you by Sears.

In between, you sometimes get treated to insightful commentary, but often these segments are framed around the same boilerplate. Each expert guest or leading figure is asked to comment on the clip we've seen a thousand times, of the political hack blathering at the podium or the angry step-father screaming amidst the crowd. And while the expert or leading figure might have something interesting to say, it only barely "informs" us because it's the sixth different opinion we've heard on a controversial matter. The image or soundbite itself, however, is firmly seared into our minds at least, and it keeps us hooked like a drug. We want to see what the next special person is going to say about it.

The whole style of presentation of all this is, overall, patronizing in the cheapest of ways. The anchor switches between every segment to greet the viewers who may have just tuned in with a "Breaking News Alert," which is actually an alert about news that broke five or six hours ago. The viewer who has been tuned in somehow falls for the trick each time, like a child when grandpa pulls the quartwr out from behind our eye - exactly like that, in fact, because we know it isn't magic, but grandpa is fun. So we fool ourselves into expecting that maybe they'll finally say something new, when - lo! - it seems to be just that the on-location reporter has moved to a different part of the street with a different car on fire of which we need so urgently to be informed, and said reporter goes on to tell us the same shit he told us twenty minutes past. The upshot for those who are, in fact, just tuning in is that they're too stupid to know why they're turning on a 24-hour news station at 8:42 PM and might really be shocked to find something happening somewhere, or at any rate too stupid to catch up in media res, because it isn't like they have words flashing all over the screen and a scrolling banner at the bottom telling you exactly what the hell is going on.

Now, some will say that it has to be this way or that's the market or whatever - and I say, "Bullshit."

Here's what should've been repeated during the 6 hours I spent watching Ferguson on the news lately:

- statistics about how many young black men that encounter cops are shot by cops, annually; compared to whites; and cross-referenced to relevant demographic data; (in fact, they'd find this data nearly impossible to gather, because somehow it is a big mystery how many cops even shoot people each year nationwide - so, yeah, media, about that job you're supposed to do...?)

- facts about how grand juries work, and how they are statutorily managed in the state of Missouri;

- facts about what civil disobedience means, citing relevant laws and court cases;

- handy tips on what are a person's rights regarding detention by police;

- facts about how protests work, and how they're governed under law - hell, you might even find cause to actually quote the First Amendment verbatim!

... but what, some may ask, would any of this accomplish? What would quoting the First Amendment verbatim do to inform us about what's happening in Ferguson?

Nothing. But neither does the shit it would replace. It would, on the other hand, educate us - which cannot be said for what it would replace.

If the First Amendment had been quoted *half the times* I saw the same pictures of tear gas and burning cars over those six hours; and if the number of black men aged 18-34 pulled over by cops last year in a given representative area were presented the other half of the time - then I'd go to bed tonight with those things solidly memorized, seared into my mind and forming germs for constructive thought. And I have a shrewd bet that, besides teaching me those two actually useful things (and maybe some more besides) they could've still found time to show me the same damn soundbite of Obama twenty or thirty times as well as twenty or thirty camera shots of the same damn car burning. I don't think I'd miss the other 150 helpings of each.

In short, media - please be journalists. Please, for the love of God, inform the public and educate the public and give them tools for productive democracy.

And repeat. Repeat for the sake of news, and leave repetition-as-entertainment to Hollywood and the creators of the Umpteenth rendition of SpiderMan. Repeat the useful stuff, and ease up on the things that add shock value (and distraction). Repeat even facts that have finer points that are debatable: be discerning, be partial, pick a fact and repeat it. Repeat at the expense of debate even: because the "dialogue" you present us in debating controversy is often nothing other than a trading back and forth of useless talking points constrained to the smallest point and the end result is just as liable to be stilted in partiality anyway by the anchors.

Repeat what is useful, I say again. (See what I did there?) And maybe, better informed and less distracted by infotainment static, our country will find a way not to repeat the tragic mistakes and failings that seem continuously to fill our 24-hour news cycles.

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