Getting The News Out of Ferguson

“This is what they do on national TV. Imagine what they do when you aren’t watching.”

–Don Lemon, CNN

Within the framework of how happily one surrenders constitutional rights whenever someone in a uniform issues a command, the “dynamic” situation in Ferguson, Missouri presents an image of information asymmetry that raises huge concerns.  The organized “media” (let’s not fight over what that means for now) is being corralled, restrained and even arrested, almost as if they were citizens of lesser value.

Via the Guardian, Getty photographer Scott Olson was led away in plastic cuffs.  Ryan Reilly of HuffPo and Wesley Lowery of WaPo were arrested in McDonalds.  They just wouldn’t do as they were told. Or at least not fast enough.

A spokesman for the St Louis county police said that an “organised protest zone” would be established close to the convenience store where unarmed teenager Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars minutes before he was shot by a police officer. Media would be permitted to view the zone from another area opposite it. Olson was across the street from the press area when he was detained.

Some will see no issue here. not even how the spokesman gratuitously tossed in the convenience store lest anyone forget how the loss of a worthless criminal like Michael Brown was no big deal anyway.  After all, they had an “organized protest zone.”  What more could the animals want?

But for the officer’s words being caught on video, what are the chances the official police spokesman would have alerted the media in an official press conference of such sentiment? What are the chances the media would capture these words if they were corralled in official media zones?

The nation learns what the media reports, for better or worse.  Among the many casualties of Ferguson has been information.  When the police call a press conference, they feed the media the information they want it to know, which they expect to be dutifully transmitted to the rest of us.  They use language that gives rise to inferences without actually saying what the message is expected to convey.  The media reports. We buy it.

Even this control of the flow of information out of Ferguson has proven inadequate to limit the public’s understanding of why we should all support the police in their efforts to restore order.  And so they must treat the media as they treat the public; pen them into zones and feed them only what they want them to report. More from the Guardian:

Barack Obama condemned the arrest of journalists in Ferguson last week. “Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists just trying to do their jobs,” he said then.

Authorities in Ferguson later signed a court declaration pledging not to arrest journalists covering the protests, unless they posed a threat to public safety or were obstructing police.

From the perspective of police, everyone poses a threat to public safety and obstructs police, including, if not especially, the media.  It was a perfectly fine pledge, of only as much practical value as the police were willing to give it.  Their willingness was limited.

The situation in Ferguson is moving more quickly, more inexplicably, more unreliably than anyone can seem to follow.  Announcements by the police of their latest tactic seems to last for minutes before blowing up, being forgotten and tear gas cannisters fired again.  But the stories, even in newspapers like the New York Times, are so lopsided as to make little sense.

The latest turn in law enforcement tactics — the removal of a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew imposed Saturday and the arrival of members of the Guard — followed a chaotic Sunday night. Police officers reported gunfire and firebombs from some among a large group, and they responded with tear gas, smoke canisters and rubber bullets.

By Monday, the police seemed intent on taking control of the situation long before evening and the expected arrival of protesters, some of them inclined to provoke clashes. The authorities banned stationary protests, even during the day, ordering demonstrators to continue walking, particularly in an area along West Florissant, not far from where the shooting occurred. One of those told to move along was the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Why is it the police “report gunfire and firebombs,” but the media knows nothing of it except from the police reports, which are then used to justify the police response?  Why impose a curfew, then remove the curfew after a “chaotic night”?  Who among the police and media has the ability to see into the future to know that “the expected arrival of protesters” includes “some of them inclined to provoke clashes”?

Will they shoot the buses of the arriving protesters inclined to provoke clashes, as happened to the Freedom Riders?  Will they issue a press release about reports of gunfire that no one else heard?  There have been people harmed in Ferguson from violence, but not the police. That’s pretty surprising as well, considering how it’s used to explain the law enforcement need to restore order to the chaos.

While it might do well for all of us to remember that the rights being crushed in order to restore order in Ferguson are due all the people, not just the members of the media, our ability to know what’s being done on the ground requires us to rely on the media to report.  They are, for better or worse, our eyes and ears in Ferguson. Without them, we know nothing beyond what we are spoon-fed by the police.

The questions raised by the manner in which the media frames its reports out of Ferguson already raised harrowing questions of how tainted the perspective is, how willingly the media accepts official claims and reports and regurgitates them with the same passive tense and plausible deniability that characterizes most official actions.

What’s truly shocking is how well the media is taking its subjugation; as it turns out, they’re pretty good with being treated like cattle rather than taking the risk of doing their job and testing the police.  They aren’t quite the hell-raisers they like to think they are, at least not when the cop across from them has a gun pointed at their head. The feral cats have been tamed.

But they’re still all we have on the ground in Ferguson.  Unless you are satisfied with getting your information through police press conferences.

11 comments on “Getting The News Out of Ferguson

  1. david

    “and bravely marched on the people of ‘Merica, not quite knowing what they sought, only that it was missing, and they had grasped it once . . .”

  2. George B

    > Media would be permitted to view the zone from another area opposite it.

    So there is a Free Speech Zone such as at the GOP convention and Modesto Junior College, and a separate “Watch the Free Speech Zone” zone?

    I’m sorry to say this, but this reminds me of the panda exhibit at the National Zoo. When a panda is sick, etc. they close the observation area.

  3. Dragoness Eclectic

    Ferguson police have figured out that citizens + internet are regularly proving them to be liars, so they are trying to stop that too–there are reports that street lights have been deliberately turned off at night to deny the ability to take viewable cell phone videos, and there are multiple videos circulating of Ferguson police ordering people to stop filming or they will be shot.

    There is so much wrong going on here that I have no words. The feds should have stepped in by now and just decommissioned the Ferguson PD, because they are completely out of control.

  4. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, regarding misinformation, magic shows & no chain of custody documentation.

    The very first time the police said that a firebomb was thrown at cops, I was waiting for the video of it and it never came (hundreds of cameras and no footage, no burns on anyone or the ground where they’d land and burned). Over a week into it and still no proof of firebombs other than the one they pulled out of a hat makes me squint. The only thing that was being thrown and captured on film was the teargas canisters being thrown back at them by a few young men. Maybe the view from the inside of a foggy mask makes things look like fire and bombs or, it could be simply flashing back to Iraq? When they placed two guns on a table alongside a Corona Beer bottle with a rag stuck in the top saying they got these off the streets, not one single member of the media questioned any of it. The cameras went silent just as the non-media started asking something.

    Hell no, it isn’t about me. It simply reminds me of how easy it is to fake out the media and jurors, especially if no one has the balls to ask questions. Speaking as the very first person in Harris County, Texas’ history to have an ADA place a mystery gun on a table in front a jury with no chain of custody records showing where it came from, where it was stored at or, returned to for 10 years after the jury looked it up and down, (as the CDL to my right had no questions or objections for the ADA), I’m forced to ask questions. You allowed me to ask that very ADA of Record about this mystery gun in the SJ comment section of – Plea Bargaining 201 where he fiend SML – selective memory loss. Today, I’d like ask the police where they got their mystery guns from? Sadly, some lucky poor bastard will see them on a table in front of a jury and it’ll be about him, with the only difference being that the world was watching the magic show with CNN footage being part of his certified case files. That’s if he has a real CDL of course, that’s into asking questions. Thanks.

    *Ask No Questions?

    *Get No Answers!

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, they did have the vid of “looters” “stealing” the Al Jezeera crews equipment. Of course, the looters turned out to be police, but mistakes like that can happen amidst chaos.

  5. Fubar

    From a manuscript once believed by some to be a missing page of Aristophanes The Frogs, but later conclusively determined by a kindergarten student to be from a 20th century draft of an essay on reporters’ duties, discarded by its author as drunken gibberish:

    Whenever he goes on the road, he’s
    Obliged not to chorus with toadies.
    Foremost in his head
    Should be these words instead:
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    1. SHG Post author

      I once tried out to be in the chorus for The Frogs, but was told I spoke Latin with a lawyer’s accent. I was crushed.

  6. Todd E.

    It’s now come out that the store never called 911 about a theft, and that while Brown was in the store, and argued with the counter clerk about something, he paid for the cigars before leaving.

    Another customer called the police, and it was on the basis of that call that the police came for the footage. This according to the store’s attorney.

    1. SHG Post author

      Numerous people have sent me the link to this information, though it has since been taken down from DailyKos. Regardless, it’s too late. The police smeared Brown and the media has made it part of the myth. He shall forever be a criminal, no matter what happened.

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