I Blame People Who Blame the Media: Robert McCulloch’s Tone-Deaf Speech
There’s already been plenty of ink spilled in response to Robert McCulloch’s rambling, evasive, tone-deaf speech announcing no indictment in Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown. It has been pointed out how incredibly rare it is for grand juries to not deliver an indictment, period, much less a case in which no one disputes an unarmed man was shot dead in front of witnesses, and how unusual it is for a prosecutor to appear pleased and satisfied with his own failure to obtain an indictment.
It’s hard not to comment on torturedly noncommittal turns of phrase like “Darren Wilson caused the death of Michael Brown by shooting him,” or “For how many years have we been talking about the issues that lead to incidents like this?”, in an effort to avoid the appearance of downplaying the seriousness of what took place while still downplaying the seriousness of what took place.
No, the part that grabbed my attention was the part that wasn’t unusual at all. The refrain that I hear over, and over, and over again.
McCulloch could hardly pretend all was well in Ferguson, that there wasn’t a serious sickness suffusing the community that needed to be addressed. And he refused to lay responsibility for that sickness at the feet of the inherent racism of the society we all live in, or the corruption and brutality of the Ferguson police department, or even specifically the man who chose to put six bullets in an unarmed teenager.
And of course it would be impolitic to blame the grieving, furious residents of Ferguson or the protesters who’d come to join them in solidarity. McCulloch even, confusingly, encouraged them to “continue the demonstrations” at the end of a speech where he argued, at length, that the rallying cause of the demonstrations was specious and Officer Wilson did nothing wrong.
So instead he did what everyone does. He blamed the media.
I grew up among conservative evangelical Christians. Blaming the media is old hat, a tired reflex. Any time something bad happens, The Media gets the requisite ritual excoriation for “making the problem worse,” right up there with The Lawyers and The Politicians.
The obnoxious meddling journalist is a stock character in fiction. Every movie that’s about someone wealthy, politically powerful or of royal blood—which is a disproportionate number of movies—has a scene where the protagonist waves off a horde of microphone-wielding reporters while trying to go about their business.
We nerds, especially, with our inherent distrust of social situations, love to make “the press” the enemy of our heroes. Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson. Harry Potter and Rita Skeeter. Commander Shepard and Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani. Smart, introverted people are naturally predisposed to see public opinion as a nuisance at best, a threat at worst, and to think that everything would run better if the people in charge were just left alone to do their jobs without worrying about “popularity contests.”
It’s a cliché. You can summon up the requisite phrases in your sleep. “Taking things out of context.” “Making mountains out of molehills.” “Spinning a narrative.” “Ginning up controversy.”
McCulloch was a little more 21st-century, referencing “the 24-hour news cycle” and, of course, the one thing Everyone Knows is even worse than The Media, social media.
If only those gossips and busybodies on Twitter had kept their mouths shut. If only there weren’t so many viral images of the victim smiling at the camera, of protesters being gassed, of police officers driving around in armored vehicles dressed as stormtroopers.
If only this story hadn’t gone national. If only all the interlopers had just shut up and let the local authorities go about their usual business of shooting unarmed black citizens with no consequences for the shooter.
It’s a pattern that’s become especially noticeable this year. I’ve heard 2014 called The Year of the Angry White Man but it’s even more The Year of the Angry Man Who Blamed the Media. Chris Christie blamed the media. Rob Ford blamed the media. Even President Obama, bleeding popularity and under attack from the Left and the Right, blames the media.
Amazon blamed the media. Uber blamed the media, decided to try to destroy journalists’ lives in response and then blamed the media for the backlash to that. #GamerGate, that lovable amorphous mob of Internet haters, blames the media for pretty much everything.
And, in the evergreen field of men in the public eye denying rape allegations, we have Bill Cosby continuing a blame-the-media campaign he’s had going for over a decade and finally seeing it start to run out of steam. And Jian Ghomeshi, who took the interesting PR tactic of “getting out in front of the issue” by pre-emptively blaming the media before the media had even said anything.
The lesson of this year seems to be that if someone seems to be very huffy and resentful of “the press,” it means they most likely did something horrible that, soon, the press is going to reveal.
Now, I’m not giving some kind of unequivocal defense of the media. Journalists aren’t saints. They’re not even, as a class, particularly good people. I’ve read my history, I know about William Randolph Hearst, the Maine and the Spanish-American War—I even know about Scott McClellan, the White House press corps, and the Iraq War.
The history of journalism is filled with hoaxes, sensationalism, and widespread misconceptions. Journalists are, after all, only human beings driven by a profit motive like the rest of us, and like the rest of us are constrained and controlled by the real power-brokers of our society all too easily.
And yet. You can talk about a political “bias” or “slant” in the press but the main thing the press wants, like any other business institution, is profit—is to make money by sniffing out the stories people are attracted to, that they want to hear. And it’s quite true that the fallible men and women of the press all too often earn their paycheck with rumors or slander or yellow journalism that feeds prejudice…Mostly what attracts the hounds from the press is if it genuinely seems like someone really did commit a horrible offense.
And if it looks like a horrible offense and quacks like a horrible offense and lays eggs like a horrible offense… I don’t believe that the sheer volume of scandals filling up our RSS feeds is because the press has somehow become nastier or more scurrilous in the past few years. It’s mostly just that, thanks to technology, there’s more press able to be in more places for more of the time.
All the press is is people like you and me asking the questions you and I would ask about the disturbing situations in our society if we could, if we weren’t burdened by our daily responsibilities and our distance from the situation. The stories we hear—that politicians abuse their power in petty ways and go back on their promises; that arrogant young millionaires break rules and mistreat employees and competitors; that powerful men threaten, harass and abuse women with impunity; that black men get gunned down in the street by police and no one bats an eye—none of these are, really, news. They’re all stories as old as time. The “24-hour news cycle” just makes them harder to sweep under the rug and ignore.
I am all for criticizing the press, and demanding that we get more depth to a story than a sensationalistic headline. But all too often the people who reflexively “blame the media” with vague insinuations that the negative attention focused on them is slanderous are just throwing up a smokescreen for a story that becomes more and more damning the more facts come out—as the crisis management firm Jian Ghomeshi hired learned, too late. As, for me, has been true the more facts I learn about Ferguson.
Do you want to challenge a media narrative with more facts, more evidence, with a more compelling narrative? I will applaud you all the way.
But I am done with the world-weary sigh that “the media” is always getting things wrong, to “never believe what you read in the papers,” that “sensationalistic journalism” is ruining everything. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I’m sick and tired of the flippant rhetorical stance that rejects any “sensationalistic” story with world-weary cynicism as though the refutation has already been made.
Because it was the “sensationalistic” media that helped put a stop to the Vietnam War, that rallied the nation behind the civil rights marches in the 1960s. It has always been the power of “the media,” in its various forms, to brutally, shockingly force us to confront head-on things we had previously accepted as distant, vague everyday realities.
Although the cynical “ignore the media” attitude I’m talking about exists all over the political spectrum, it’s not a coincidence that its most common manifestation is among conservatives who sneer at the “liberal media” and the “liberal agenda.”
The ultimate effect of telling people to ignore the media, to ignore the latest shocks and outrages, to turn off the TV and close Twitter and go about your business—well, it’s a conservative stance. It’s telling people to trust that the people in charge know what they’re doing, that the system basically works and the status quo is basically okay.
“Blaming the media” for always distorting the story, for making a big deal out of minor misunderstandings, for drawing attention to things that “aren’t any of their business”—it’s the favorite rhetorical trick of powerful people who want to be left to continue doing what they were doing.
Sure, the media frequently make terrible mistakes. But a kneejerk rejection of “the media” and a demand for those of us in the audience to “mind our own business” is an implicit statement that the people the media make miserable—business owners, politicians, police chiefs, celebrities—don’t make mistakes. It’s an implicit call to trust them to do the right thing without fear of external scrutiny.
And there’s a lot of classes of people who hate the idea of being scrutinized by the unwashed masses and having to explain themselves to them, from narcissistic celebrities to patrician local aristocrats.
The introverted self-proclaimed “disruptive” geniuses of the tech world are just the latest group to discover how annoying it can be to have ordinary people question your decisions and how tempting it can be to try to shut them up.
Ben Franklin famously said that he’d rather have newspapers without democracy than democracy without newspapers—but really, newspapers and democracy are both manifestations of the same phenomenon, of living in an egalitarian society where no one is rich enough or smart enough or respected enough to cruise through life without having to justify their actions to the other human beings they live with.
And with the track record of public figures who go around decrying “the media,” the next time someone starts complaining about busybodies on Twitter or “hit pieces” on CNN, I’m going to raise an eyebrow.
Because the vague, deflecting pooh-poohing of “the media” is how Bill Cosby can have over a dozen women going on the record about his history of abuse and have people shrug their shoulders and decide it’s not their business. It’s how black teenagers and children can be gunned down by cops all over the country, every day, as a matter of public record and until one particular case goes viral thanks to those busybodies on Twitter white America treats it as business as usual.
It’s another manifestation of the numbing, enervating “not-my-problem” apathy that enables all the world’s ills to continue.
So sorry, Mr. McCulloch. There are a lot of specific criticisms of the culture of the “24-hour news cycle” and “social media” I would agree with.
But when I hear you invoke the tired clichés about how “the media” is making meddling busybodies of us all, I hear you telling me to trust you to do your job, to shrug my shoulders and go about my day confident that whatever’s happening in Missouri is someone else’s problem, to leave the status quo well enough alone.
And maybe I’ve just seen one too many viral images of brutal murder gone unpunished, heard one too many lurid press accounts of rape and violation and injustice at which the world shrugged its shoulders and kept on walking. Maybe I, too, have been “brainwashed by the media.”
But I’m not turning off the TV.