“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.