Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Media Bias in Coverage of Ferguson Can Tell Us About Racism In America

"We see the need of nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."---Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail

As we await the Grand Jury’s decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for his murder of an unarmed man he apprehended for jaywalking in Ferguson, MO, we are assaulted daily by the lies, and half-truths, and clear media distortions I read, and see in the major media “news” about what’s happening there.

Some of these distortions are rather subtle in focus or emphasis. For instance, consider the story on CNN, “Gun Sales Spike As Ferguson area braces for Grand Jury Decision” (http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/10/us/ferguson-michael-brown-shooting/index.html). Even though this article uses the journalistic tone of seeming objectivity (avoiding opinion, just stating facts and stories about what’s happening in Ferguson in a detached, impartial way), the story directs you to look at the events in Ferguson through white eyes. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself did it not immediately present the black folks protesting in Ferguson (to say nothing of the deceased Michael Brown, the victim of police brutality who was the catalyst for these protests) as other, as even not quite fully human.

The article strategically begins by interviewing a white man who has decided to buy a gun because he’s afraid of what might happen if the cop who shot Michael Brown is not indicted by a grand jury. The fact that the media chooses to emphasize, or cherry pick, this perspective without showing the differing perspectives of the protestors, or others who criticize this man, has the effect of presenting him as a somewhat rational, and sympathetic, creature, a potential victim: what would you, dear reader, do if you were the only white in this situation? He can answer somewhat casually:

"So maybe I get trapped here or something and have to have a John Wayne shootout," (Dan) McMullen says before interrupting himself, smiling. "That's the silly part about it: Is that going to happen? Not a chance. But I guess, could it? I'm the only white person here."

Yet, this article denies voice to, and dehumanizes, the peaceful demonstrators who come together in a show of solidarity, unity, and collective strength. It gives little credence to their fears about justice not being done in this case and in ongoing instances of police brutality that have occurred since the shooting of Michael Brown (whether in the form of individual killings that have an uncanny resemblance to the lynchings of a century ago, or in the form of collective state-sponsored martial law designed to keep Ferguson under the segregated jurisdiction of the white power structure).[1]

The portrait of the poor, outnumbered, threatened white insurance salesman looms large. This story portrays the possibility of such vigilante justice sympathetically: white shop owners, or insurance salesmen, arm themselves out of fear of getting shot. This helps justify the “pre-emptive” (in scare quotes) proliferation of the paramilitary police force. According to Dan McMillan, "People who aren't afraid are stupid because fear keeps your mind alert and keeps yourself protected." But such a definition of fear is dangerous, especially when it’s pushed like a drug. And, like a drug, it tends to make the condition one was suffering from worse, and escalate the tensions. Certainly the increased presence of armed policemen represents this same fear, writ large.

CNN is certainly not alone in using fear as a drug that pushes reason out of the room. TV knows that fear sells. As Mumia Abu-Jamal recently put it, “American TV is awash in a cold splash of fear. Indeed, virtually every channel is tuned to Fear TV.” This fear informs and feeds our politics, as politicians use the fuel of fear to “build more prisons, write more laws, increase drug sentences, imprison more children (and the U.S. constitution itself) - all for lies spurred by fear.”

Many have pointed out how the mainstream corporate media has demonized and dehumanized the young black male to help propagate a culture and politics of fear. Today, in Ferguson, it is the demonstrators, who most pointedly take a stand against fear—not just their fear, but also the fear of their enemies. A large group of demonstrators is overcoming systematic obstacles to stand united, not succumbing to debilitating fears in the face of tremendous threats by the corporate-run state and its media propagandists.

Part of the point of these protests—let it never be forgot—is to show how we don’t have to let our fears of the injustice of those in power defeat us. Yes, the Ferguson protests, however “uncouth” some of their language is (if judged by the standards of Martin Luther King 50 years ago), are ultimately an appeal to reason, to passionate reason. And like Martin Luther King, many of the protestors have been called “outside agitators” by Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson as well as many others in the corporate media. Dr. King affirmed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.” Similarly, today, Nyle Fort, a youth pastor based in Newark New Jersey, who has joined the protests in Ferguson writes:

We must reconsider what it means to be named an “outside agitator” in a system whereby the very idea of blackness “agitates” – or disturbs – the “American dream”. Within the gaze of white supremacy, all black people are potential “outside agitators” But through the eyes of black folk, from Ferguson to Flatbush, the real “outsider agitators” are the police officers who don’t live here but come in to “agitate” black people. The real “outside agitators” are the political leaders who work against our right freedom and justice.”

In addition, I’d argue that the corporate media (CNN, MSNBC, FOX, etc) are also outside agitators, playing on the culture of fear to stir national sentiment against the demonstrators, as well as to portray Michael Brown himself as a gangbanger and thug in order to convince the grand jury, as well as the court of (white) public opinion, that Darren Wilson should not be indicted. Yet the media is doing far more than that. As Isabel Wilkerson points out:

Images and stereotypes built into American culture have fed prevailing assumptions of black inferiority and wantonness since before the time of Jim Crow. Many of those stereotypes persist to this day and have mutated with the times. Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug, embedding a pre-written script for subconscious bias that primes many to accept what they were programmed to believe about black Americans, whether they are aware of it or not.

I’ve seen first hand how this subliminal programming (whether through schools or rock and roll documentaries) has created this subconscious bias among whites. The more one becomes aware of it, the more one sees how it infects every aspect of our culture. Media bias and racial bias go hand in hand, and, as Fort adds, “The bullets that ended Michael Brown’s life emerged from the same system of anti-black violence that ends the futures of millions of black girls and boys across the US – be it through our failing school system, the growing prison industrial complex or any of the other structures of racial hierarchy that continually and systemically oppress black America.” 

I applaud Talib Kweli for giving CNN the benefit of the doubt, in claiming that their bias in the coverage of events in Ferguson may very well be unintentional rather than simple outright racial hatred of the KKK, [2] but that is what makes it so dangerous; as Martin Luther King wrote 50 years ago ”Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Another recent story shows how such a shallow understanding exists among the white citizens of Ferguson, including the former mayor Brian Fletcher, who formed the “I Love Ferguson” group because they’re embarrassed by the negative reputation Ferguson is receiving as a racist town. This attempt at public relations is another preemptive act of aggression. Like Dan McMillan, the white leaders of this group present themselves as the victims: “I’ve been in tears several times because it’s my home town and it’s not being portrayed as it is. The bigots, the racists left years ago. The whites who live here want to,” said Fletcher. Yet, as Angelique Kidd points out, “People like Brian Fletcher…care more about their image and property values.”[3] Fear, indeed, is at the root of this; fear that somehow an empowered black population will lower their property values!

Fletcher may not be a blatant bigot like the KKK who has recently threatened to march on Ferguson, but he does exhibit that “shallow understanding” which Martin Luther King so eloquently wrote about over 50 years ago. King wrote that the:

great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is….the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goals you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

What Martin Luther King wrote 51 years ago is deeply relevant to what’s happening in Ferguson in 2014, and because he’s so eloquent and such an icon of peace, I must quote the net paragraph:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Some of the most articulate and eloquent speakers on the ground in Ferguson have formed an organization called Millennial Activists United (MAU). MAU is but one of the many black-led organizations (with overlapping membership) that have taken a stand in Ferguson. They clearly articulate their place in the perennial struggle of blacks for a self-determination that has been systematically thwarted since the beginning of Chattel Slavery 400 years ago, as Ashley Yates points out in this paragraph:

Ashley Yates: We are the generation that was ignited by Trayvon Martin’s murder and placed our faith in a justice system that failed us in a very public and intentional manner. Most of us were raised by parents that inherited the fruits of labor from the Civil Rights movement. They were placated, in a sense, by the stories of a reality that no longer seemed an issue for them. So as we navigate a society where those realities of segregation and oppression are supposed to be far behind us, yet are more present than ever before in our lives, we say no more. We are the descendants of those who already fought for these freedoms and we will not let their sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears be swept away. We will cash in on the heavy price they already paid.”

While Yates understands that the labor of Civil Rights activists from 50 years ago bore fruit, this movement was also smashed and accommodated by the power structure in the years following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The media did a very good job of convincing many that the realities of segregation and systematic oppression were, indeed, a thing of the past, and in the process swept that tension back under the rug from which it had emerged during MLK’s time.

Like Martin Luther King, Yates defines her group as reformers rather than radicals or revolutionaries. She expresses a hope to work within the system, and to change it from within, by exercising her constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Of course, the media portrays MAU and others as law-breakers, who are not willing to negotiate and work within the system, while the politicians declare a state of emergency that allows them to suspend the constitution their police clearly violate.

Yet, these protestors remain undaunted in their fight for justice, not merely in Ferguson, but in Oakland or in any city with police brutality. Nor do they confine their fight to the justice system, but to the structural racism that infects every aspect of this nation's culture.

MAU is dedicated to lifting up the community of Ferguson first and foremost. We are committed to complete and utter reform of the systems in place that are clearly designed against us. Political education, community policing, grassroots organizing and on the ground actions are the methods we believe are instrumental in achieving a radical reform that will make the world our children inherit better than the one we came into. People wanting to get involved with us can contact us via twitter @MillennialAU or email us at millennialau@gmail.com

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