Standing on the streets of Baltimore to cover what his employer Fox News was calling a “riot,” Geraldo Rivera found himself at the receiving end of a passionate and articulate lecture from Kwame Rose on skewed, sensationalist and racist media coverage. As Rose attempted to engage Rivera in a conversation, the reporter kept walking away, refusing to even make eye contact. The episode was captured on video, uploaded and went viral. Rose became a sensation. Rivera would later intone that Rose’s actions represented “exactly that kind of youthful anarchy that led to the destruction and pain in that community.”
The Rivera confrontation was one of many between media professionals and citizens and activists in Baltimore. What is becoming clear is that many people are more than aware of the ways in which the news media have the power to frame and reframe events through words, images, suggestion and omission. What is also clear is that these people are no longer willing to put up with it.
In an on-air interview with activist DeRay McKesson, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer went to extraordinary lengths to get McKesson to condemn protesters who had damaged property. After listing the number of arrests, vehicle fires and structural fires in Baltimore, Blitzer asked, “There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?” McKesson, unwilling to play Blitzer’s game, responded, “Yeah, and there’s no excuse for the seven people the Baltimore police department have killed in the past year, right?” Blitzer, unused to having a guest who was willing to challenge CNN’s simplistic worldview, had an incredibly telling response, saying, “We’re not making comparisons. Obviously, we don’t want to see anyone hurt. I just want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.” McKesson, noting that by demanding he condemn protester violence but not police violence, Blitzer was taking a position, then offered this coup de grace: “You are making a comparison. You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right?”
The challenge to media storylines has also come from local politicians. When Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby was stopped on the street by a Fox News reporter and was asked, “When you’re watching this, tell me what this means for your city,” Mosby responded pointedly, “What do you mean, what does it mean for my city?” Realizing that no deeper question was forthcoming, Mosby explained that what was being seen in Baltimore was the result of structural inequality and a lack of investment in inner-city youth and that these were circumstances not unique to Baltimore but common in many places in he described as “socially and economically deprived America.” Unwilling (or unable) to engage with that deeper point, the reporter said that we saw similar events in Ferguson, at which point Mosby cut in and said, “We also see it in Kentucky, like when Kentucky lost that basketball game. We see crowds that loot and that flip over cars … but unfortunately, all the 95 percent of all the positive rallying that has been occurring here in Baltimore? The national media is going to focus on this. And that’s the problem.”
What we have seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities is the intersection of media savvy on the part of citizens and activists and an ability to reach large numbers of people via social media platforms and direct on-air confrontation. Imagine if the interaction between Rose and Rivera happened two decades ago. No mainstream news channel would have run the confrontation, and without an outlet to exhibit the material to a significant audience, the spread would have been close to zero. In other words, it never happened. Those days are now over, and that’s a good thing.
In these critical interactions between citizens and media professionals, an important issue is made visible: the extent to which the media have avoided discussions on media power and performance. The irony is striking, given that the news media generally define themselves as watchdogs over those in power on behalf of citizens. The problem is that media organizations are also purveyors of massive political and social power. This, I would argue, is one reason “The Daily Show” became such a hit. While politicians were regular fodder for ridicule, people were itching to see large media corporations taken down a peg over their weak coverage of topics such as the Iraq War, global warming, white-collar crime and racism as well as over their perpetual refusal to even acknowledge their close relationships to corporate and political power.
When people such as Rose, McKesson and Mosby question dominant media storylines on race, they not only challenge the facts as presented by CNN or Fox News; they are also peeling away the veneer of journalistic objectivity and questioning the power of all media companies to define events in broad and stereotypical terms, regardless of the consequences those definitions might have for those who remain in Ferguson and Baltimore after the cameras have been turned off and the reporters have left.