About ten years ago, I learned a valuable lesson in how some news reporters operate. There had been a series of racially charged incidents between black and Hispanic residents in South Central Los Angeles, and on this particular day the friction erupted in a chaotic scene at a public high school. Scores of students engaged in a melee on the campus at lunchtime, requiring a large police response to restore order. Anxious parents, already aware of previous incidents at the school, heard the sirens and the police helicopter and flocked to the streets outside the campus, which remained closed while officers sorted out the mess inside the gates.
Out on the street, I watched as a Los Angeles Times reporter worked the crowd, scribbling on her notepad as she moved from one group of parents to the next. Finally she came to one woman, the loudest and most obnoxious in the entire gathering, who railed on and on with complaints about the school, the police, and anything else she could think of while the reporter did her best to scratch it all down. When the story appeared in the Times the next day, this was the only person found worthy of a lengthy quote, this despite the fact that I had seen the reporter speaking with any number of calmer, more reasonable people. The reporter, and/or her editors, made the conscious choice to present only the most inflammatory version of what had happened at the school.
What we have seen on television since the death of Michael Brown is this same media mindset but on a far larger scale. It’s not that the reporting out of Ferguson has been deliberately false, it’s that so much of it has been sensationalistic and produced with the clear objective of furthering controversy. Controversy sells newspapers and draws viewers for television news programs. And in the present case, it gives New York- and Washington-based reporters the opportunity to get out on the streets in flyover country so they can later pretend to understand what has happened.
There has been a competition among people in the media to see who can find the angriest person and haul him before a camera and a microphone. This has resulted in some awkward moments on the air, as when CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed rapper Talib Kweli, who felt the newsman, in failing to properly introduce himself, had not accorded him the proper level of respect. It’s hard to say which of them came away looking sillier, Kweli for his childish display of entitlement, or Lemon for his acquiescing to it.
Even worse has been the willingness displayed by reporters and talking heads to perpetuate the poisonous myth that the greatest danger facing young black men on America’s streets is the threat of police officers looking to shoot them without provocation. Examples abound, but perhaps the most egregious I came across was on (where else?) MSNBC, where an exchange between Hardball host Chris Matthews, columnist Eugene Robinson, and attorney Michelle Bernard descended into absurdity when Bernard spoke of America’s “war on black boys.”
“Is somebody going to shoot me?” Bernard quoted her 11-year-old son as asking. And she went further: “My daughter watched the news and looked at me and she said, ‘Why is it that they only do this to black people?’”
Pity the children being raised on such foolishness. Even if one accepts the allegation that there was no legal justification for the officer to shoot Michael Brown, there remains the stubborn fact that for every black male killed by a police officer in the United States, about 60 are killed by other black males. I suspect that both Matthews and Robinson know this, but neither of them dared challenge Bernard’s patent nonsense. But why let reality get in the way of a good myth?
This desire to propagate the myth is manifested in other forms, as well, such as the suppression, or even outright distortion, of information that runs counter to it. Witness NBC’s editing of George Zimmerman’s 911 call to police shortly before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and CNN’s on-air speculation that Zimmerman used a racial slur during the same call. How long did it take before we saw photographs depicting the extent of Zimmerman’s injuries? And recall the Duke lacrosse case, in which exculpatory evidence was suppressed not only by the media but even the prosecutor himself.