The murky facts of the August 9 incident in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was left dead in the street after having been shot six times by a police officer, have proved to be far less important than the events that followed. Indiscriminate violence overtook peaceful protests and overwhelmed not only the Ferguson cops but state police and the Missouri National Guard as well. A passionate national debate broke out about the nature of American law enforcement, its relation with minority members, and the nature of its training and armaments. There was a renewed focus on the supposedly disparate treatment of minorities both at the hands of police and in the American justice system generally. And the protests, violence, and debate were all intensified and heightened by the central role the national media played in its coverage of the event—which was unashamedly and unabashedly biased.
Reporters should strive to avoid becoming part of the story they’re covering, much less the center of it; on this everyone can and usually does agree. But when it came to Ferguson, one thing was inarguable: The press had not played a neutral, dispassionate role in its intensive coverage of the upheaval. Reporters on the ground had adopted, almost immediately, an activist approach. Not only did they “stand with” those who were protesting what they believed was racist excess on the part of local and state police, they also acted as though the police’s awkward and hostile interaction with them provided a direct parallel to what had happened to Michael Brown and to minorities in general in their interactions with peace officers.
For most of August, gossip and conjecture spread faster than fact because of the uncritical behavior of the media. Few details of the events immediately preceding the shooting were known. Unsubstantiated rumor circulated among irate Ferguson residents and percolated into the national press. A lethargic and unresponsive police department did not know what to do and remained silent as the charges swirled.
Brown had raised his hands in a universal sign of capitulation when he was killed, the increasingly agitated throngs insisted. The teenager had been shot in the back by a merciless police officer with almost no ties to the community he policed, some news outlets reported. It was said that the first responders—the one who shot Brown and those who were in his company—cared so little for his fate that his body lay uncovered for hours, no attempts were made to resuscitate him, and no one called for medical aid. Many of these notions were later exposed as distortions or outright falsehoods, but not before they catalyzed mass unrest.
On the day after the shooting, August 10, menacing but nonetheless peaceful protests began to coalesce. They did not remain peaceful for long. That night, a candlelight vigil exploded as protesters began to smash car windows and break into shops. A local QuickTrip convenience store was burnt to the ground, its smoldering hulk soon to be referred to by the press as Ferguson’s “ground zero.”
Local authorities called in riot police, which was an eminently reasonable response to what was unquestionably a riot. But the look of the riot police struck many as anything but reasonable—they resembled soldiers, not peace officers. They used nonlethal weaponry such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons to disperse rioters. When the sun rose over Ferguson on Monday, more than two dozen businesses there and in a neighboring town had been vandalized or looted.
To read local and national press accounts of the first night of rioting was to see events in the city from two utterly distinct perspectives.
“What you gonna do? Kill us all?” blared a headline in the New York–based website the Daily Beast. Its dispatch, by Justin Glawe, reported on events in Ferguson the night prior purely from the perspective of those facing down police from the picket lines. The article reproduced one “popular story” after another, most of them amounting to inflammatory rumor after inflammatory rumor about how poorly the offending officer had conducted himself in his confrontation with Brown.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, meanwhile, chronicled the aftermath of the riot and the lost livelihoods of the businessmen and -women whose stores had been destroyed in fits of blind rage. “It looks just like a storm blew through here. A storm of people,” one distraught business-owner remarked.
Two narratives—but only one took hold nationally. In part that was due to the interesting refusal of the right to do what it has usually done in such situations over the past half century. The right did not assume that the Ferguson police had behaved appropriately, or even in good will. Influential conservatives and libertarians instead joined with liberals in expressing dismay at what they considered a disproportionate display of force from law enforcement. Ever since the weeks after the September 11 attacks, a national conversation had been festering in the fringes of American society, warning of the increasing threat to the republic that a militarized domestic police force would pose. Overnight, it evolved from a thought experiment into what its advocates believed was an incontestable fact. The police’s response to rioting had made that violence worse, the conventional wisdom insisted; those locals predisposed toward peaceful demonstration had been alienated.
Clearly the Ferguson police did not cover themselves in glory. Their efforts did not cause the violence to subside; entirely unresponsive to criticism, this battle-ready police force only scaled up its response. Officers covered in head-to-toe body armor and sporting weapons of terrifying design flooded the city. They poured out of soft-skinned personnel carriers indistinguishable from their armored counterparts. The officers tasked with keeping the peace made no distinction between the nonviolent demonstrators who gathered during the day and the riotous rabble that terrorized the nights, prompting some to speculate that the police were converting protesters into something more insurrectionary.
A fateful development provided the media with a means of inflating their own importance while covering their favorite subject: themselves. On the night of August 13, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were detained by Missouri SWAT officers for apparently failing to evacuate a local McDonald’s with alacrity.
Immediately following their release a few hours later, Lowery and Reilly became national celebrities. Within minutes of being discharged, Lowery went on the Rachel Maddow Show and said he was given “no way to avoid being arrested.” According to his own account, the Post reporter warned those who detained him that his arrest would make the front pages of D.C.’s biggest paper. It did, and the article characterized the central cause of the unrest in Ferguson as “racial questions” that had “long hung over [the] police force.”
“I was shocked it was happening. I just, frankly, couldn’t believe it,” Reilly said during one of the many debriefings he gave his colleagues in the media. “In a certain way, it’s like I’m in a privileged position as both a reporter and, frankly, as a white male.” Choking back tears, he added, “It’s really just such a dehumanizing process, to be eliminated from all forms of communication.”
The deluge of criticisms the media had already heaped on Ferguson’s police took hold and, on August 14, Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, appointed State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald S. Johnson, an African American, to take control of the situation. “Within hours, the mood among protesters becomes lighter, even festive,” the Associated Press reported. “The streets are filled with music, free food, and even laughter.” Johnson immediately went about revising law enforcement’s rules of engagement, which so many of varying political stripes found deeply injurious to the public good. For a day, violence ebbed.
On August 15, local authorities bowed to public pressure and disclosed the name of Brown’s shooter: Darren Wilson. At the same time, they released surveillance footage from a local convenience store’s security camera that purported to show a man of Brown’s description committing a strong-arm robbery just minutes before his fatal confrontation with Wilson. But the authorities failed to release an incident report of the shooting itself, leading some critics to claim that the police were trying to assassinate the character of a deceased teenager. That night, violence returned to Ferguson.
By this point, however, the political press had descended on Missouri. Star reporters and flagship cable-news hosts joined the unsung correspondents already on the scene. They promptly became more than part of the story. In some cases, they became part of the unrest itself.
Chris Hayes, star of a leftist chat show on MSNBC, garnered national attention when he was nearly maced by police. “We were behind a bunch of SWAT vehicles and cops in riot gear. I had inched up because I couldn’t see over them,” Hayes told his friend, Vox’s Ezra Klein. “To my left was a line of officers also marching up and now I was a bit ahead of them. And one of them just flipped out and began screaming at me.” The MSNBC personality added: “I think it’s a fair assessment to say police don’t really enjoy doing this job while being recorded all the time. That press freedom is beautiful is not the prevailing sentiment.”
There was more trouble two days later, when the results of an independent autopsy of Brown were released. The teen’s body had been shot six times, with two bullets hitting him in the head. Some of the bullets struck Brown in the arm from the front, leaving wounds that many protesters said verified that Brown had had his arms up in a sign of surrender when he was killed. “This is bound to escalate tensions,” said the Reverend Jesse Jackson, just one of a handful of the usual suspects who descend on any city that has the misfortune to tumble into racial violence. He added: “This is a very provocative report.”
The next day, Monday, August 18, saw the worst of the violence and, simultaneously, the worst behavior from the media covering it.
CNN anchor Don Lemon—who a week earlier had offered the grieving Brown family his personal aid, noting, “You know how to get in touch with me”—joined the protesters on the frontlines. Goading the police into controlling his movements just as they were controlling those of the demonstrators surrounding him, the CNN anchor indicted the police. “Now you see why people are so upset here, because we have been here all day,” Lemon said as he was physically pushed back. “We’re on national television. So imagine what they are doing to people you don’t see on national television, the people who don’t have a voice like we do.”
MSNBC’s Hayes positioned himself so close to the action that undiscriminating demonstrators pelted him with rocks. “People are angry, man,” Hayes remarked, thus explaining away the violence done to him in a way he would never have permitted anyone on his show to do without objection when it came to actions by the police.
Even CNN host Jake Tapper, a consummate newsman, scolded the police for what he believed to be an undue demonstration of force while surrounded by peaceful protesters on what Ferguson police considered a night of alarming violence.
“Now why they’re doing this? I don’t know. Because there is no threat going on here. None that merits this,” he said of a display of force from police, which, he said, reminded him of a scene from Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield. “This doesn’t make sense.” Tapper was more accepting of the police’s response when he and his team found themselves surrounded by violent demonstrators an hour later and were subsequently engulfed in a cloud of tear gas. Only later in the week would the press extend some deference to police officers who had responded as they saw fit to what Captain Johnson said was a night in which his officers “came under heavy gunfire.”
On multiple occasions in the week that followed, police requested that the media separate themselves from the protesters with whom they were embedded. “Media, can you get out of our way?” one exasperated officer pleaded over a loudspeaker on August 20. “We’re trying to do our job.” His requests were ignored.
That disgraceful week culminated in some members of the media claiming scalps. An officer who had the misfortune of being captured on camera when moving Lemon along with the protesters he had supported soon found himself in the crosshairs of an army of researchers. As it turns out, the officer was recorded in April denouncing the four liberal Supreme Court justices as “sodomites” and calling Barack Obama our “undocumented president.” Disturbing and irresponsible sentiments, perhaps, but of little relevance to how he had performed his crowd-control responsibilities. Nevertheless, that officer was relieved of his duties.
At the height of this exhibition of profligacy from the press, a voice of conscience emerged from the media’s own ranks. Wrestling with his own conscience, Al Jazeera America’s Ryan Schuessler, a Missouri native, denounced his colleagues. “The behavior and number of journalists there is so appalling that I cannot in good conscience continue to be a part of the spectacle,” Schuessler wrote. “I get the sense that many feel this is their career-maker. We should all be ashamed, and I cannot do it anymore.” He left Ferguson that week, vowing never to return.
Meanwhile, commentators insisted that this was a moment for the country to engage in a “national conversation” about race and inequality. These conversations, which neither begin nor end but exist in perpetuity and are merely occasionally quieted, are not discussions at all. They are opportunities for liberals to issue a string of haranguing recriminations rather than engage in genuine debates—not only about the heavy hand of the police but also about the behavior of young black men, the refusal or inability of American institutions to teach them properly, and the fact that the greatest threat to the life and well-being of minority populations does not come from the authorities but from members of their own groups. Needless to say, the nation’s opinion pages were flooded with all-too-familiar pieces.
The residents of Ferguson “may be ready to expand the conversation so that it’s not just about black and white, but green,” declared Jeff Smith in a New York Times op-ed, “Black Town, White Power.” The Times’s Charles Blow argued that even if Michael Brown antagonized the officer who shot him, his actions cannot be dissociated from a legacy of racial disparity and economic segregation.
Carol Anderson, an associate professor at Emory, wrote in the pages of the Washington Post that the Ferguson riots were, in fact, the familiar consequences of an outbreak of “white rage” over black progress: “The election of Obama gave hope to the country and the world that a new racial climate had emerged in America, or that it would.” But that was a misplaced hope, she argued, for, from the Great Recession to stand-your-ground laws and voter-identification requirements, African Americans are now “under siege” in the same way they were after the collapse of Reconstruction.
Many demanded that the nation’s first African-American president weigh in on the watershed in Ferguson, and specifically about its racial element. He did so, and he disappointed them. The president spoke on August 18 and declined to echo their racial grievances and anxieties. The president was promptly scolded for not engaging in the “conversation” in a manner expected of him.
“I think he’s gone out of his way to try to appease them,” Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told NPR of the “haters” who plague Obama. “And that’s resulted in neglecting not just his political base, but a large sector of the American population, including African Americans, who need his leadership on these issues.”
Vox’s Klein went so far as to craft a post explaining to liberals and African Americans why the president could never give them the fire-eating speech on race relations they demanded—not because it would be neither fair nor honest, but because “the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides.”
Not content to merely observe and convey to the public the events they witnessed, the media tipped the scale in behalf of those they considered the disenfranchised masses. They sought to place the case for protest and anger in the most positive context. In so doing, they made judgment calls beyond the bounds of detached observation and acted as arbiters rather than correspondents. They blurred the line between reporter and activist.“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. told Mike Wallace in 1966 just as that decade’s racial strife and violence were only beginning to come to a head. His idea proved to be a formative one. The news media embraced this maxim as a guiding principle while covering the violence and unrest in Ferguson.
The news media did not come to Ferguson to chronicle events but to correct historical wrongs. The media’s detachment in the 1960s during episodes of unrest in Harlem, Watts, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, and even at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago has been studied and criticized by two generations of journalism scholars and J-school teachers, many of whom believe that the doctrine of objectivity is merely a way of maintaining an unjust status quo.
If so, the press almost certainly overcompensated on the streets of Ferguson. Too often, journalists intensified the already simmering air of crisis. The first instinct many reporters displayed was to take sides in a generations-old conflict between police and protester—by prejudging a complex story, by reporting rumor as fact, and by encouraging lawlessness with the suggestion that there was something noble about it. It was their chance to mete out social justice as they defined it, and they seized it with unholy glee.