How America’s white media failed Baltimore

Protests in Baltimore are not new. Creative Commons

Protests in Baltimore are not new. Creative Commons

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA 
May, 2015

After watching the media coverage of the events in Baltimore, Maryland, over the past week and a half I’ve come to two conclusions: down deep, America’s media is really shallow, and it’s very, very white. The city erupted in protests following the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was fatally injured while in police custody. (On Friday state attorney Marilyn Mosby ruled the death a homicide; six Baltimore police officers face charges ranging from manslaughter to a form of second-degree murder.) 

When I originally considered writing about Baltimore I looked at a number of topics. The role that the National Rifle Association plays in promoting a gun culture in America, and how that gun culture has affected the way police must do their jobs. It’s a role that most politicians are reluctant to discuss for fear of being attacked by this powerful lobbying group. And after a long discussion with my oldest daughter, I thought about examining the role that violence plays and how sometimes violence, when it is the last resort of a desperate people, can be a positive factor in instigating change. 

In the end, however, I was utterly dismayed at the way the American media covered Baltimore. It showed me more than ever how little the American media, and its overwhelmingly white culture, fail to understand minorities in the United States. And it also showed me how little interest this same media culture has in actually exploring these problems and other issues, when in fact all they are really interested in is making a buck. 

Baltimore resident Kwame Rose challenges Fox News celebrity Geraldo Rivera. Photo: screen shot from YouTube video

Baltimore resident Kwame Rose challenges Fox News celebrity Geraldo Rivera over Fox coverage of city issues. Photo: screen shot from YouTube

If you’re going to talk about how the white media culture in the United States fails to understand or misrepresents African-Americans, you have to start at the top: Fox “News.” Fox “News” coverage of African-Americans is driven by several factors: its hatred of a black Democratic president, its strongly conservative and not-so-subtle racist viewpoint, its desire to cater to its overwhelmingly conservative, older, white audience, and the almost complete lack of diversity among the people who work for the network. The Fox “News” coverage of Baltimore has been almost uniformly anti-African-American, anti-protesters, and pro-police. (Continuing a trend it started in the coverage of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.) Fox has done almost nothing in terms of coverage of the issues that started the riots there, instead choosing to focus on burning and looting as the “real” problem.

But African-Americans are aware of the biased coverage on Fox, as was shown in a confrontation between a protester and Fox’s peripatetic correspondent, Geraldo Rivera. The protester, Kwame Rose, challenged Rivera as he was reporting on a street, basically demanding that Fox leave the city because it was unable to present any kind of a realistic portrait of what was happening there. (See video, below.)

But Fox News has not been the only culprit. CNN, which once upon a time could be counted on to provide solid news coverage, has moved more and more towards sensationalist, breathless coverage in an effort to improve its ratings. It has thrown aside the steak for the sizzle, and the result is that its baser instincts tend to show through. This was evident in interviews done once again with protesters by Wolf Blitzer, that mind-numbing defender of the status quo, and the acerbically conservative Erin Burnett. Both Wolf and Burnett tried to get the protesters they were interviewing to focus on the riots and condemn the people involved, rather than having any discussion of what might be the cause of the situation. In both cases the protesters pushed back. In Blitzer’s case, the community organizer in question asked Blitzer if he was saying that “broken windows were more important than broken spines.” And in Burnett’s case, her attempt to get a Baltimore city councilman to denounce the protesters as “thugs”, resulted in him frustratingly telling her “why don’t you just call them n*****s”.

The print media has not been much better. The Washington Post ran a story on Wednesday morning quoting a “leaked police report” that said that Freddie Gray was tossing himself around violently in the back of the police van, obviously trying to blame him for the almost severed spine that killed him a week later. You don’t have to be Walter Cronkite to figure out that this was a piece of dubious information leaked by the police in an effort to blame the victim. In fact, other reporters on the story almost immediately condemned the Post story, pointing out numerous inconsistencies. But it in its effort to “get ahead”, the Post played right into the hands of those who would say the real problem in Baltimore is not the underlying racism and poverty, but “thugs.” 

So why is the media’s coverage of events like Ferguson or New York or Baltimore so, well, white? It is a reflection on those who are working in American media, particularly in broadcast media. According to a American Society of Newspaper Editors survey, of the 38,000 reporters working at 1,400 newspapers, 4,700 are minorities. (The figures are even worse for broadcast and online.) Most editors, publishers, and reporters are white. And unlike in the past when most reporters came from lower economic backgrounds, these days reporters tend to be middle or upper class kids with almost no experience of cultures other than their own. Sure they listen to black music, and love black sports stars, but as Spike Lee so pointedly showed in his great film Do the Right Thing, they tend to not even think of these people as “black.”

There is another factor at play here, particularly in cable TV news and on the broadcast networks. The drive for rating success has buried the need for journalistic integrity down so deep, it may never see the light of day again. Once upon a time it used to be assumed that broadcast news operations were not there to make money, they were there to do the reporting there was so necessary to a democratic society. Not anymore. Now you are just as likely to see a story on Kim Kardashian’s butt photo lead the news as you are about police problems in Baltimore. And you will almost never, ever see anything on the underlying causes.

But here’s the real dirty little secret. News coverage mirrors the way most white Americans feel. Conservative white America wants to see pictures of rioting and looting in order to make themselves feel superior to “those people,” while reminding them that this really has nothing to do with their world at all. More liberal white Americans may “tsk, tsk” and condemn the police, but their concern stops there. They are really not interested in doing more than saying “Isn’t it awful?” Which is why a week from now, conservative or liberal, they will be more concerned about what’s happening on Game of Thrones or The Voice than they are about the real, deep problems that plague this country. Fixing the issues in black America is really not their concern. 

Nor the white media’s. Which is why America will find itself dealing with black rage again and again and again.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

References:

Freddie Gray’s death ruled a homicide, by Joshua Barajas, PBS Newshour: https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/04/29/baltimore-protester-shuts-down-blitzer-you-are-suggesting-this-idea-that-broken-windows-are-worse-than-broken-spines/

Prisoner Was Wrong: Freddie Gray Didn’t Kill Himself, by Michael Daly, The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/30/freddie-gray-was-banging-against-the-walls-for-help-not-harm.html

Erin Burnett Doesn’t Seem To Understand Why Baltimore Protesters Aren’t ‘Thugs,’ by Simon McCormack, Huffington Post:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/29/erin-burnett-thugs_n_7171136.html?utm_hp_ref=media

Protester Schools MSNBC Anchor About Media Coverage Of Baltimore Riots, by Nick Wing, Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/28/baltimore-protester-media-coverage_n_7166018.html?utm_hp_ref=media&ir=Media

New media, old problem: Where’s the diversity? By Michael A. Deas, Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/04/new-media-old-problem-where-diver-2014414635267559.html

Spike Lee clip – “Better Than Black People”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EihcRDRAy90

Further reading on F&O:

Collated F&O works on Ferguson: On Ferguson, Darren Wilson, and Michael Brown

Further reading elsewhere: 

1968 and the Invention of the American Police State, by Daniel Denver, The Atlantic: http://www.citylab.com/crime/2015/04/1968-and-the-invention-of-the-american-police-state/391955/

Baltimore’s Kwame Rose Responds To Geraldo’s Personal Attacks, Talks About Media And Freddie Gray, blog post by Brian Powell and Libby Watson, Media Matters for America

 Video: Baltimore resident Kwame Rose challenges Fox news celebrity Geraldo Rivera. Rose later told the Media Matters for America blog, “but I will not let you report lies about the people of this city.”

 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

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