Ferguson, and the Media That Divides Us

If we are to someday achieve the social goals, like racial equality, envisioned by the leaders of our past, we ought to first address the bifurcating rhetoric that is so often presented to us.
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If St. Louis had been hit by a hurricane last Monday night, then my university's campus must have been in the eye of the storm: surrounded, but unaffected, from its chaos. Multiple school-wide emails sent over the past few weeks had prepared us for the protests that would inevitably come to our community, regardless of what the grand jury presiding over the fate of Darren Wilson would decide. The warnings to stay away from the city's subway system, and that if we planned to protest, to "take a charged cell phone and travel in groups," added weight to the air that already hung unusually still within our island of Missouri granite buildings. On our campus, just down the street from the hearings, we also watched on with the rest of America, listening to what Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would have to say.

The fear on Monday night last week was certainly real for the citizens of Ferguson, as well as the rest of the St. Louis community. For media networks, however, it was just another night of primetime television. Reporters trickled through Lambert Airport throughout the day, talking up the aftermath of the grand jury's decision long before there was an outcome to discuss. After the decision not to indict had finally come, television producers made a decision of their own -- electing to show President Obama's call for peaceful demonstrations in split-screen with violent protesters, who threw bricks and set fire to a police car. To the world, it seemed as if Ferguson and St. Louis were rapidly descending into hell.

For the past three months, I've sat back and tolerated the fear mongering about what has unfolded in Ferguson, excusing it as good intentions mistranslated. While at a barber shop on a Friday in August, I had the chance to witness this hysteria first-hand, when the woman cutting my hair mentioned rumors she had heard from customers, including a retired DEA agent, about a "Purge" that was to happen that weekend throughout St. Louis. Though her reference to the plot of a horror movie seemed outlandish at the time, the blending of entertainment with news has become the norm for media networks, as they continue to capitalize on this tragedy to boost TV ratings and website traffic.

The plight of Ferguson has become the latest target of the 24-hour news cycle, succeeding the recent stories of Ebola and ISIS. Like a West African virus that finds its way into Dallas, or an Islamic militant group beheading American aid workers, Ferguson could also fill our society with a sense of urgency and fear. Of course, these emotions are not intended to start conversations about racism and inequality, nor to take collective action to address these issues. Instead, our media outlets encourage us to channel these emotions by consuming more media, and to spread rumors. And yet, we refuse to question this system.

Beyond questionable aesthetics, the media seem to be playing a dangerous game in Ferguson. The presence of National Guard troops, the militarization of local police, and scattered outbreaks of violence have fueled one of the more popular comparisons of Ferguson to a warzone -- the same isolating rhetoric that is used to describe scenes of gunfire and drone strikes in distant countries. The endemic racism and inequality in Missouri, we are told, is the result of misconduct by a corrupt police department, left unchecked by discriminating white bureaucrats stuck in a pre-Civil Rights Era past. Through a myopic lens, focused on a case in which the physical and eyewitness evidence seems to rest firmly in the gray, racism and inequality have been framed to be issues in only Ferguson, and other "Ferguson-esque" warzones of America. Yet all of our communities struggle with these same fundamental problems, in some shape or form.

Since August, the mass media has employed detached language and circular discussion to describe the death of Michael Brown, making the civil unrest on Monday night in Ferguson seem much more like reality television, and less like reality. Edgy media coverage has only pushed viewers to entrench themselves in one of two extreme opinions, instead of acknowledging the obvious truth pointed out by President Obama on Monday night -- that "a deep mistrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color." This deep mistrust of what opposes us, rooted in common sensationalism spread by the media, has come to define other parts of our lives as well. Perhaps this is the bigger issue at stake.

The events in Ferguson have demonstrated a disturbing bifurcation of thought and reason embedded within the American psyche, and the media has exploited our recent propensity to seek out our divisions, instead of our commonalities. On too many occasions, I've heard rhetoric and opinions that describe a world colored in black or white -- as supporters of Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, as Democrat or Republican, or as rich or poor. After the grand jury decision, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were immediately flooded with polarizing reactions from family and friends, understandably divided on the outcome. Most sympathized with Michael Brown, and others defended the course of action taken by Darren Wilson. But advocates of both sides often took their stand unequivocally -- leaving no room to reason with their ideological opposition. Pre-empting the opinions of individuals felt uncomfortably easy, dichotomized by a criteria of hometown and how I had come to meet them. Opinions, on a case this complex, shouldn't be this predictable.

If we are to someday achieve the social goals, like racial equality, envisioned by the leaders of our past, we ought to first address the bifurcating rhetoric that is so often presented to us. It is a cancer that will continue to metastasize into each and every pocket of our daily lives -- holding back the discussions needed to find solutions to delicate issues. In recent days, governmental powers have taken action that seeks to address recent events, allocating funding for police body cameras, and forming a committee to examine the social and economic issues that contribute to the systemic violence of Ferguson. But until we learn how to take part in constructive dialogue that doesn't anchor itself onto two extremes, the media will continue to play its dangerous game.

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