Cover note: While a single article cannot begin to address every contextual factor associated with the shooting of Michael Brown, this article examines why society continues to have difficulty reconciling the underlying issues that led us to the event. Not only is it immensely difficult to perform a comprehensive analysis of all that has surfaced following the incident, it’s even more difficult to move Americans towards a holistic view in a media age troubled by partisan objectives.
The release of the Department of Justice’s report on the policing practices of the Ferguson police—as detailed and damning as it was—likely did little to alter the view of the average American. The premature headlines by the popular press that accompanied every “development” had already shaped Americans’ views, making the average viewer as prejudiced as any profiling cop. The majority of media headlines and journalism first created and then parroted popular narratives as coverage unfolded, driving even more coverage in a continuous media cycle. However, enticing headlines to achieve coverage domination are no longer the only factors driving national news sources. CNN and MSNBC appeal to left-leaning viewers, Fox News panders to the right, and both sides believe the other to be biased. The result is a sub-goal that ultimately hinders their ability to effectively cover issues spanning the course of several months. Meanwhile, we all proceed to hear what we want to hear, believe what we want to believe, and converse with one another as if we are actually educated on the issue. Our innate desire to believe that we are correct leads to the reinforcement of the poorly-formed and misinformed ideas that we brought to the conversation in the first place.
Anyone who has followed the Ferguson coverage to the slightest degree realizes how the media has made it easy for Americans to hop on the partisan distortion-of-facts bandwagon. In a recent episode of The Daily Show, John Stewart ridiculed the consequences of a dishonest media by calling out Fox News for hypocritically demanding organizations apologize for perpetuating the “hands up” false narrative associated with the “Black Lives Matter” movement when they–along with other major national news media–were in fact the principal players. The media quickly assimilated the death of Tony Robinson (Madison, WI) into the Ferguson narrative, prematurely running headlines that read “unarmed black teen killed by white police officer” when Robinson was biracial. Robinson’s family even called out the media for assuming the incident had racial component when so few facts were known. Considering racism does exist in our society as well as the tendency to latch on to the first media narrative, it is imperative that the media realizes its ability to retard actually helping society better understand and improve race relations when coverage prematurely insinuates there is a racial component. In the case of Ferguson, such insinuation has disrupted the genuine efforts of social justice groups to end racial bias in their community and has also reinforced white conservatives’ reluctance to acknowledge racial bias where apparent.
Whether intended to receive media endorsement or not, America perceived the “eyewitness accounts” that Michael Brown had his hands up when shot by Officer Darren Wilson to have prompted the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Months passed before we learned that the witnesses not only recounted their statements, but forensic evidence also proved Michael Brown did not have his hands up. Jonathan Capehart’s article from earlier this month highlights the threat posed to actually moving toward positive reform when the principal movement is predicated upon a false narrative. The unfortunate result is that, for some (especially conservatives), the “Black Lives Matter” movement appears less credible and therefore the real underlying forces driving the movement – the frustration stemming from years of direct and indirect adversities black communities have faced combined with growing police mistrust – will take longer to reconcile. Yet, the “Black Lives Matter” campaign explicitly states on its website that it is “not a moment” but “a movement.” It seems as though this is precisely what leftist Jonathan Capehart was trying to say, but the depths of politics became vivid when he was called a “house negro” and “sellout” despite his efforts. Ironically, the liberal mainstream media, who frequently gives more attention to social issues, ultimately impedes them by prematurely attaching them to questionable situations. When the liberal media tries to backpedal, conservative media wrongfully assumes their innocence and criticizes them, failing to realize how they have only added to the injustice. Not only does this tendency paint a splotchy picture of the event to begin with, it undermines the integrity of the social cause many Americans have genuinely invested their energy without partisan objectives.
At its core, the Ferguson incident represents an explosion of societal issues and yet, ironically, we’ve not viewed it on the societal level. The minutiae of the Ferguson incident and the societal response that followed have been endlessly squabbled over—but only on the incident level. It is true that there has been a national examination of law enforcement practices following the Brown and Eric Garner incidents (among others)—but this dialogue has largely focused on preventing incidents from escalating, while not questioning that they will occur—when they do not have to. Leon Wolf, contributing editor for RedState, was correct in arguing that it was ideological tribalism that prevented both political sides from acknowledging all the facts.
As seen with Ferguson, established political agendas, unconstructive dialogue, and frankly poor journalism at times perpetuate squabbles over controversial moments and in effect causes Americans to lose sight of the real issues. In post-Ferguson America, the media has only divided us, when its just and proper role should be to unite and reconcile with disciplined objectivity. Twenty-first century society has placed increased value on ethics and social responsibility in corporate America, but has somehow forgotten about the media. If we are unable to reconcile the underlying issues, then society’s demand for answers will only result in facile critique and reform. Historically, our country has managed to navigate complex issues in a fraction of the time relative to other industrialized nations. Therefore, if Americans wish to continue the unprecedented manner in which we have afforded liberty and justice for all, we must consider the following: given the entrenched media age, to what degree will the ideological tribalism of media politics be a negative externality that impedes timely and sustainable reform?
Author: Jack Wagstaff ’15
Contact #: 919.599.2691
Readers can explore my research and experience relative to this piece on my online portfolio website – www.jackwagstaff.com