As the curtain closes on the latest episode of “Ferguson,” the media series, it is fair to wonder whether events might not have spiraled out of control to the extent they did had the media settled on another topic.
Ebola, say. Remember that one?
I’m not the first to wonder or comment on the media’s role in contributing to events, but some further clarifications seem warranted in this case.
First, as always bears repeating, The Media are neither the same animal nor equal. Think Tom Brokaw and Al Sharpton. Or, TMZ and “60 Minutes.”
In practical terms, the differences are obvious: People in print media observe and relay what they have witnessed, leaving readers to visualize with their own intellectual resources. It’s little wonder so few still read anything longer than a tweet. Why exert oneself when tasty news niblets are just a tap and a scroll away?
And which do you suppose captures the attention of rioters, looters and grandstanders? Certainly not the guy scribbling on a skinny notebook.
Thus, when we talk about media, we’re really talking about television. To the extent that people clown, plunder or pillage for attention, media presence does make a difference. Cameras not only capture the action but in some cases may well prompt the action. This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t be there -- or that media folks really want things to go awry to spike ratings, as some have suggested.
Except, of course, some do. A bad day in America is a good day in the newsroom. Thus it has always been and shall be. The symbiotic relationship between viewer and the viewed makes it so. What would you rather watch, after all? A congressman standing alone in the House chamber, talking to himself and a C-SPAN camera, or “Lethal Weapon?”
Still, for the most part, producers and reporters are doing their jobs, trying to bring up-to-date information to the public about events and issues that people are most likely to care about. The first person to contract Ebola in the U.S. was of paramount interest and entered into every sentient individual’s conversation for weeks. It deserved wall-to-wall coverage.
But did Ferguson? Acknowledging that race continues to challenge us and that too many unarmed African-Americans have been shot by white police officers -- or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by a nonofficer playing one in the movie in his head -- there is still some muddle to the emphasis placed on Ferguson.
To what might we attribute it? “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter noted the surge in CNN’s ratings the night the grand jury announced that no charges would be brought against police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. This should come as no surprise. CNN, where I was once employed, always enjoys a ratings spike during breaking news events.
And, yes, by the time the announcement was made, America tuned in. I happened to be in a restaurant bar when verdict time arrived. The whole place fell silent as patrons assumed their best “Cheers” bar positions and listened raptly.
Was it because a white police officer fatally shot a black “unarmed teenager,” otherwise known as a 6-foot-4, 290-pound adult (though at 18 still a teen), who, the officer told the grand jury, punched the cop through his car window and tried to grab his gun?
It’s a compelling story, to be sure. But the intensity of interest was in no small part driven by certain media outlets and “journalists,” such as the agenda-driven Rev. Al, who talked of little else in the months since the August shooting. This relentless coverage, combined with the repeated use of photos showing a much-younger Brown, surely contributed to public contempt toward media.
Finally, what ultimately happened in Ferguson was but a brief incident compared to the weekslong preamble of speculation that took place across cable news shows. How many times did you hear show hosts asking guests, “What do you think will happen?” “Do you think Ferguson residents will heed the call for calm?” “How bad do you think it will be?”
The media may not have caused events to spiral out of control in Ferguson and, to be fair, Sharpton may well have a legitimate role in shining a light on racial injustice. But when activists posing as journalists have television shows through which they stoke passions -- and when certain media decide to magnify issues not in the name of justice but, let’s face it, for ratings -- then journalism has a problem.
And that means America has a problem.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.