In the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, many pundits called for a real national debate on race relations. This time is different, they argued; this event is too tragic and too serious for us to let pass by.
So news outlets sent reporters to cover a town and issues that would otherwise be ignored under normal circumstances. Journalists wrote earnest think pieces on how this event will make Americans ask serious questions about race and racism. We have seen this pattern play out again and again, from Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots to the O.J. Simpson trial to the Trayvon Martin killing.
Nearly three months after Brown’s killing, though, it is clear that now, as in times past, there will be no national debate. The hotel rooms that housed hordes of national and international journalists who flooded into Ferguson are long empty. Not even nationwide elections could motivate a larger discussion of the issues Ferguson raised. Instead the U.S. media and their audiences turned obsessively to the twin scares of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Ebola.
Of course, a real, nuanced debate cannot happen when each instance of racism and its consequences are treated as isolated incidents, divorced from the everyday realities facing blacks and other minorities in the United States. And a debate is impossible if news organizations refuse to step back and consider the connections between the stories they present to the public as utterly distinct and unrelated. For example, the transition from the news about Brown’s death to ISIL and Ebola was an excellent opportunity to consider how the race and racism so painfully obvious in Ferguson is reflected in the language and attitudes displayed in relation to terrorism and disease. A rational debate cannot take place in an environment of drama and fear. Nor can it take place in an environment of misinformation, in which Americans think, on average, that Muslims make up 15 percent and immigrants 32 percent of the U.S. population, when Muslims actually account for 1 percent and immigrants 13 percent.
But the media’s fear-inducing and sensationalist coverage is not new. When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the United States in the early 1980s, it was met with a mixture of brutally homophobic humor and pious schadenfreude: For many Christian conservatives, the gay community was finally being punished for its hedonistic sins. At first, some called the then-little-known disease gay-related immune deficiency; later it was called acquired immune deficiency syndrome, after it became clear that the disease affects all members of the human race and not just gay men. But the damage was done, and the link to the gay community became cemented in terms, such as “gay cancer” and “gay plague,” that would stigmatize the LGBT community for years.
The hysteria about ISIL and Ebola mirrors the fear illustrated by the reaction to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Moderate Muslims are being asked to prove their loyalty to Western values by publicly renouncing the unimaginable violence of ISIL. Conservative blogs and news outlets are now claiming that weak policing of the U.S.-Mexico border could lead to ISIL fighters flooding into the U.S. to wage their holy war. And in perhaps the most extreme example of story synergy and pandering to its audience, Fox News suggested that terrorists could use Ebola-infused vomit to construct dirty bombs to infect the U.S. population. Right-wing pundits had found a new perfect storm: an anti-American president sitting idly by as disease-infected, illegal immigrants and terrorists entered the U.S. via Mexico for an all-out jihad.
And what of Ebola?
“In both the United States and Europe, Ebola is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the ‘dark continent,’” Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in a recent op-ed. “The disease is persistently portrayed as West African or African or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black, even though nothing medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to Ebola.”
This linking of Ebola with racist imagery of an ill-defined “Africa” has also played into a number of disturbing incidents across the United States. For example, last month applicants to a college in Texas from (Ebola-free) Nigeria were informed that the school was no longer accepting applications from countries with “confirmed Ebola cases.” A Guinean high school soccer player in Pennsylvania was taunted from the stands with cries of “Ebola!” The chorus of calls for travel bans from West African countries has been growing. The most ironic incident, however, was when three-time Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist Michel du Cille’s invitation to speak at a Syracuse University journalism conference was revoked over health fears, despite the fact that du Cille (who had been working in Liberia) had no symptoms of the disease and had been back in the U.S. longer than the 21-day incubation period.
Ferguson, ISIL and Ebola speak to the culture of fear prevalent in the United States, a fear stoked by journalism that favors short-term sensationalism (laced with xenophobia) over deeper analysis. The coverage of Ebola has been boiled down to the media-friendly details — pumping up the rare U.S. cases of the illness, discussing quarantines, speculating about infected surfaces and critiquing President Barack Obama’s failure to institute flight bans, among other things. The much-needed context on poverty in Africa, the cost of health care and prejudices at home is woefully absent from the discourse.
Similarly, the mainstream news story on Ferguson was about one young man being shot. However, the social movement sparked by Brown’s death was about the daily drip of racism — the rejected job applications, the police violence, the disproportionate prison sentences, the sideways looks in shops and the assumptions about character based solely on skin color. For all of the national talk of Ferguson being a defining moment in U.S. race relations, the actual work of keeping the flame of the grass-roots social movement alive has come from local activists and journalists in and around Ferguson. Much like their practice on Africa and other “remote corners” of the world, the mainstream media parachuted into Ferguson when the story was hot and then flew out once the sizzle of the single-narrative story had died.
The coverage of Ferguson, ISIL and Ebola underscores the media’s attempts to maintain audience by isolation, breaking events off into chucks that can be consumed and discarded. This requires simplicity, blame and drama. Unfortunately, that is good for short-term stimulation but bad for long-term understanding.