I cannot stomach the news coming out of Ferguson. I should say I cannot stomach the narrative we are being force-fed from Ferguson. It reminds me of a true story my family lived through in the 1970s, the first one that taught me how much the media can manipulate the narrative of a major event (in a way that may surprise you).
We had a terror of a neighbor. His name was Ricky, he was 15, and he was out of control. He did terrible things. For example, he chased my six-year-old sister through our yard on his brother’s motorcycle, yelling at her, “I’m gonna get you!” “I’m gonna kill you!” etc. Needless to say, she was terrorized. She had nightmares for years to come and wouldn’t go outside of the house by herself for a long, long time. That was vintage Ricky.
Ricky used to cut through our yard, often. Once, he did it while my dad was painting the house. Dad said, “Please go around next time.”
To which he replied, and I quote, “Fuck you, greaseball.”
Dad dropped his brush and ran after him. Fortunately, Ricky’s brother came out and dragged him by the ear back into the house, preventing a fight. Dad said ominously, “That kid’s not gonna make it to 21.” Fortunately for us, he and his family moved away after only one year.
A couple years later, there was a terrible police brutality incident in Buffalo. An angelic prep school grad and soon-to-be college kid was dragged from his car, beaten unconscious and left for dead by a couple off-duty cops. (The "angelic" kid cut off and then flipped off their car while driving his brother’s Porsche, and then he took off, but he didn’t get away from them.) Worse, he died from his injuries, literally drowning in his own blood. It was a horrific case, and it dominated the local media for months.
I’m sure you’ve already made the connection, but none of us had, because the media’s angelic portrayal of the victim made him unrecognizable to us. It took Dad – a journalist by trade – a couple days to make the connection that the victim, “18-year-old prep grad Richard Long,” was the same terrible Ricky that Dad had predicted wouldn’t make it to 21 only a couple years before. When Dad made the connection, we were all stunned.
Now, lest anyone suggest I think the kid deserved to die, let me say in no uncertain terms that I’m not blaming the victim, I’m only sharing this memory to show how the media can portray someone in a completely different light. Ricky Long was one of the most irredeemable persons we'd ever known, yet he was portrayed so differently by the media that we didn’t recognize him, even knowing him personally.
The media and the Fourth Estate plays a crucial role in a fair and democratic society. It informs its citizens and it serves as one of the checks and balances of the government. If it doesn’t do its job fairly, it can lead to … well, what we’re seeing today.
While the media can resurrect the terrible Ricky Long into the saintly Richard Long, it’s even better at assassinating someone’s character. The more we see of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and all the other victims being smeared by the media for the sake of the authorities, the more we see how the media tells a narrative that buttresses the power of the Haves at the cost of the rights, freedoms and even lives of the Have-Nots.
The authorities are using the media to tell the narrative they want us to hear. Not the truth. The narrative. Brown might’ve been involved in a robbery. (Or not.) Garner was selling individual loosies. (Gasp!) Brown had marijuana in his system. What the hell? Don’t we usually check the PERPETRATOR for illegal substances? When did we start checking and publicizing the VICTIMS’ toxicology reports?
When they’re black.
This isn’t simply a police problem, or a media problem, this is a systemic problem that permeates the breadth and width of our American society. Our legislators makes rules and laws that enforce the status quo and weaken minorities’ already defenseless positions (e.g., the ">Rockefeller drug laws); police, executive branches and our ridiculously prosperous prison industry enforce these unfair policies (and fight the legalization of marijuana); the courts rule against the poor and weak and in favor of the rich and powerful almost every time, regardless of justice (see almost any recent Supreme Court ruling); and the fourth estate provides the narrative to sidestep the messy details of all these unjust actions.
When we had a reasonably free media (was it ever truly free?), there were reasonable checks and balances. A key example was the media played an instrumental role in unseating Nixon. Today, I cannot find reasonably trustworthy news in the mainstream media - I have to alternative media or even overseas to find reasonably informed and informative reports about our own country's major news events.
This could be a watershed moment. Many Americans believe that racism is overplayed and really doesn't exist anymore, and many of them are shocked by the facts coming out of Ferguson. White Americans. I can't say many black Americans are shocked. Fatigued, maybe, and angry, certainly, but not really shocked anymore. They've seen it happen too many times to be shocked anymore.
But many white Americans are shocked because they haven't seen this before. They've only seen the narrative the media has told them. When the media accurately portrayed the horrific police actions of the early 1960s, that won the hearts and minds of many Americans and convinced them to support the Civil Rights Act. Michael Brown's death and the happenings in Ferguson could have that same effect if we can keep the truth from being drowned by the narrative the media is trying to report. Our own mainstream media no longer serves us citizens, it serves the Haves to the detriment of us all.
But mostly to blacks.