Media Bread and Circuses in Missouri

It is two weeks since Michael Brown was shot six times at high noon by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The town’s motto is: Proud Past. Promising Future. They may have to rethink that.

Ferguson is a small town suburb of St. Louis that has shrunk from 29,000 residents in 1970 to 21,000 today, and over time it has changed racially from two-thirds white to two-thirds black. Meanwhile, the Ferguson police force is 95% white. What could go wrong?

Brown was eighteen, graduated from high school in the spring, and was two days from beginning a community college program in heating and air conditioning maintenance. He was also six feet four and 300 pounds. The officer was responding to a report of a petty theft incident at a convenience store and video has since surfaced showing Brown intimidating an employee on his way out of the store.

I have nothing new to say about the incident and the ensuing mess. It will eventually run its course with ruined lives and Ferguson an even worse place to live than it was before. I do have something to say about the media coverage which has surely aided and abetted the confrontations on the streets. It has been wall-to-wall and excessive, as is usual in such cases.

Why? No thinking is required. Black, town, white cops, Petty crime, excessive force. Six shots, two the the head. Oppressed minority’s long simmering resentments are triggered by the incident. Protests turn violent. Police and town officials bungle the response. More force, more violence, burning, looting. An escalating response worthy of a police state, complete with snipers and armored assault vehicles.

It almost writes itself, but I date myself. Who writes? It almost videographs itself. Point a camera and you get another highly telegenic protest-SWAT team- rock throwing-tear gas firing confrontation.

It is a familiar pattern, similar for instance to every school shooting. The media hordes descend. Interviews with traumatized children and parents. With any luck, snippets of shaky cellphone video. Ghoulish intrusions on tragic funerals. Grisly revelations about the florid psychopathology of the nutjob loner who was hiding in plain sight all along if only someone had listened to the warnings. Hand-wringing debates on the favorite topics of various interest groups — guns, mental health, schools, violent video games. Or in the case of Ferguson, race, inequality, militarized police, lack of opportunity, blah, blah, blah.

It would be different if any action were to be forthcoming, if a change was gonna come. But it isn’t. Except on TV. When the ratings numbers show the saturation coverage is no longer attracting eyeballs, that the short attention span of the audience has reached its limit, the satellite trucks will exit Ferguson and hare off in quest of the next telegenic riot, mass murder, hurricane, beheading.

One would like to believe news media and policy makers might seriously address themselves to some of those big issues and others than are less telegenic like climate change, debt and deficit, tax policy and competitiveness, globalization and its discontents. But as long as the audience is content with bread and circuses, why bother with meat-and-potato issues that might require a bit of study, and maybe even some familiarity with economics, science and math? Nah. Let the hunger games begin. Our world is Reality TV 24/7, baby.

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