A sense of surprise — sometimes reaching the level of awe — appears to be a common theme throughout the mass media coverage (particularly television coverage) of the protests and uproar surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland.
We hear commentators thoughtfully ponder the reasons behind the outrage, saying things to the effect of, “I just can’t understand why someone would want to cause so much trouble in their own neighborhood” or, “Where are these kids’ parents?” or, “Don’t these people have anything better to do than stand around screaming about poverty and police brutality?” and maybe, if they’re feeling extra democratic, “Well, if they really wanted change, they would vote different people into office.”
And, with a few jabs at commentators and politicians who, by their words, “incite” racial conflicts (most often the scapegoats are President Obama or Al Sharpton), the mainstream media carry on with their loaded questions and condemnations of the looting and rioting.
Judging only the television media’s reaction to these events, one would think that Baltimore’s upheaval, and others like it, emerged “suddenly,” without provocation. It’s as if everything was splendid, until the death of Freddie Gray, and now there are mass protests and a country-wide movement. Can’t explain it, I guess.
In fact, these events are perfectly predictable, if anyone cared to put them into context and to pay attention to history — a tactic which CNN and other mainstream media outlets have little capacity to utilize, as Jon Stewart has observed.
On Friday, former presidential candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader penned a column underlining the infinite capacity of the media to be caught by surprise, as if they are startled by the idea that there may be serious grievances behind the unrest.
Suddenly, the mass media is writing about or televising the conditions in West Baltimore…Suddenly, reporters and camera teams are discovering Baltimore’s inner city…Suddenly, media highlights a report by Harvard economists putting Baltimore County last among the worst counties in the U.S. for economic mobility.
Suddenly, The Atlantic pays attention to the reporting by the Baltimore Sun of police brutality in Baltimore against people and communities of color.
Suddenly, the Washington Post reports that life expectancy in 15 Baltimore neighborhoods, including the one where the innocent, young Freddie Gray lived (slain by the police for making eye contact and running) is shorter than in North Korea! The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health gets press for concluding that Baltimore teens between 15 and 19 years old face poorer health conditions and a bleaker economic outlook than those in economically distressed cities in Nigeria, India, China and South Africa.
Baltimore is an example of the harsh conditions created by a combination of white flight and loss of economic opportunities due to a shift of manufacturing off our shores to those of other countries that will allow their citizens to work for a smattering of pennies (facilitated by trade agreements like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization). The gap between rich and poor, between visibility and invisibility, is one of the largest in the country—a recurrent tale of two cities in modern America.
With the repeated use of “suddenly,” Nader captures perfectly the mainstream media’s approach to these issues: Context and systemic problems must be ignored or mentioned quickly in passing because they might lead to the wrong answers, such as institutionalized racism, lack of opportunity, and outright neglect which leads to generations of economic strangulation.
In Orwell’s words, it just “wouldn’t do” to mention these facts in great detail; thus, the narrative of “personal responsibility” continues to run smoothly.
Instead of putting them in context, the problems like those currently plaguing Baltimore must be presented as “sudden,” perhaps a slight diversion from the norm of happiness and tranquility (this is America, after all, the land of opportunity), and coverage must fade as quickly as it emerged.
Further, the focus must be on the destructive aspects of the protests rather than the overwhelming and inspiring peaceful demonstrations. The goal is to get the public to perceive protests as generally harmful to the cause, and therefore disagreeable.
Analyses of serious grievances by legitimate sources abound and are presented by some media sources, such as the Washington Post and The Atlantic and others. Temporarily, of course.
The fact that it takes the death of a young black man to spark a serious discussion about the systemic issues underlying Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the country as a whole, is quite disturbing. And if history is any guide, after a few weeks the discussion will shift to the next hot topic, and Baltimore’s “suffocating poverty, dysfunction and despair” will be left to fester, without any serious hope of change; and the media will move seamlessly to the next hot topic.
Here’s Nader again:
And what brought the media attention? A couple hundred young men smashing windows and burning some stores, buildings and cars. Young men like Freddie Gray die often at the hands of some violent police in America’s inner cities without any subsequent media coverage or remedial action, but it took protests, civil unrest and fires to finally illuminate the interest of the nation’s media. How shameful! And how predictable will be the inevitable official inaction by the ruling classes once the embers dim, leaving the neighborhoods in despair.
JFK made a comment that is quite relevant: “Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable.”
By ignoring the plight of minorities and the poor in a major American city like Baltimore and around the world, the media and our politicians are complicit in what follows. It is not an accident that minorities and the poor have to struggle for survival while corporate oligarchs are busy locking down another “trade” deal to fatten their wallets.
Scenarios like the one Baltimore and many other American cities face are not the result of lacking “personal responsibility,” but the predictable outcome of deliberate policy decisions to marginalize the working class poor and minority groups who don’t contribute to the bottom line.
Profit over people is the “new spirit of the age,” and if this continues, we can expect nothing other than what we have been seeing lately in the near and distant future.
When the poor neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. erupted in 1968, the great FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson said: “a riot is somebody talking. A riot is a man crying out: listen to me, mister. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you, and you are not listening.”
If the plutocrats of America do not wake up to the daily, acidic results of excessive greed coupled with excessive concentration of power over the people, they will be fomenting what they abhor the most—cascading instability and disruption. In their parlance—that’s bad for business.