Dear America, Please Shut Up.
We are starting to witness the effects of crap journalism and an ignorant population.
I need to deviate from my normal cabin ramblings for a day and say something that’s been on my mind for a while now. And quite frankly, by saying what I’m about say I’m ignoring my own advice. You’ll have to forgive me for my hypocrisy. I’ve honestly been trying to talk myself out of this, but it’s been long enough and I still want to say it so I’m going to do it. I can’t say it will be polite or short. I would say that I’m sorry but I’m not.
America, please shut up. It’s become embarrassing. It’s become painfully obvious that you don’t know what you’re talking about and yet you continue to keep babbling on. This detail has become crystal clear in the fiasco that has become Ferguson, Missouri. And before you jump to the conclusion that I’m taking your side on this, don’t get ahead of yourself. The response after the Ferguson grand jury decision was simply out of control. A friend of mine put it best when he said it wasn’t a protest, it was a tantrum. What we are witnessing is what happens when an increasingly ignorant population is fed more and more bad information and then provoked to response. And before you start formulating your indignant or supportive response, I want you to do something for a moment. I want you to listen to me and I want you to try and think objectively. Ignore the fact that you have already made up your mind on what “truth” is.
Normally I stay out of this stuff. I have no use in getting into arguments over things I have no control over. But every day I see more “expert commentary.” I see more and more people going to social media to voice their support or outrage. Yes, I have an opinion about most things and generally I keep my mouth shut about it because I recognize that I don’t necessarily have all the facts. In this case, I have a unique perspective that I want to share.
So let’s just establish a couple of details about most people, which probably includes you.
1.) You have no idea what the job of a police officer is really like.
2.) You have no idea how the media really works.
I spent five years of my life as a police officer and the past fifteen years working in communication, the last eight of which as a journalism professor at a state university. Which means I have some pretty good insight about how a tragic day became a global media circus and a complete cluster f#%k of the rule of law.
Because the thing you need to understand was that the tragic event that occurred on August, 9th 2014 was not about racism. It was about survival. But you also need to understand that the media firestorm that followed wasn’t about racism either. It was about ratings. Here’s why.
In the past months I’ve seen more unwarranted demonization of police than I’ve ever seen in my life and it needs to be addressed. The first thing you need to get your head around is the mindset of the average police officer. Typically, they’re in their 20’s and they got into the job because they want to serve their community in some fashion and they just want to help make it a little safer for people. These (mostly) guys are typically underpaid, work ridiculous hours, and are generally very well trained. They are very aware of the pecking order of the legal food chain and how low they are on it. One bad move can ruin a career and one bad lawsuit can ruin a life. They all know this. Most of the guys out there with badges are wonderful human beings. Some are assholes. Just like any other profession.
Something else you need to understand is that day in and day out police officers daily see and deal with things that are disturbing. Fatality traffic accidents, to domestic abuse, to violent crime are all events they have to deal with at a moment’s notice. On Thanksgiving day my last year as a cop I pulled up on a fatality accident scene just in time to watch the EMS guy drop a lady’s brain into a ziplock bag. Two hours later I was sitting down to dinner with my family. Police also, never deal with anyone who is in a good mood. Think about it, when was the last time you called the police because you were feeling good about yourself? Their role in society is to hold people accountable from everything from speeding to rape. Because of which, police take fairly consistent verbal abuse on a daily basis. People call you a pig. People call you racist. People call you a hypocrite. People threaten you. People threaten your family.
And then after all of it, you have to figure out how you’re going to pay this month’s bills because the politicians in charge of your salary aren’t willing to risk re-election in order to give you a raise.
So to say there is plenty of bitterness, depression and alcoholism among police officers is a bit of an understatement. But understand this, none of them are looking for pity. They signed up for the job and they do it day in and day out.
And this is where the training comes in. Lots and lots of training. When you do something and when you do not do something. When you use force, what level of force and when you do not use force are all beaten into their heads. Of all the things that are on their minds, the last thing is to go try and pick a fight and kill someone. I’ve known hundreds of police officers and some of them have had to take a life and absolutely none of them wanted it.
Police follow something called a “use of force continuum” which means that force is broken down on a scale from verbal commands to deadly force. An officer is allowed to raise their use of force one step above the force the force used against them. So if someone hits them with their fist, the officer is allowed to hit them with a baton. An officer is only allowed to use deadly force if they are in fear for their life or the life of someone else. Part of that level is if there is a threat that the officer is going to be knocked unconscious because if they are incapacitated, because then their weapon can be used against them which means they won’t get to see their kids anymore.
Which brings me to a phrase I’ve read over and over describing Michael Brown as, “an unarmed, black, teenager.” He was. No one is arguing that detail. But, if you believe that an unarmed individual isn’t capable of killing you then:
1.) You’ve watched too much TV
2.) You’ve never been confronted with someone who wanted to kill you.
One of those times the guy was 30 pounds lighter than me, half crazy, stronger than me, and unknown to me at the time, did not feel pain. Oh and he thought he was Jesus. It was ugly and I was all by myself.
In my case, my training saved me. He went to jail and I only went home with a few bruises.
So when I read the police and witness reports that officer Wilson was being attacked and eventually fired the first shots while still sitting inside his police car, this tells me a few things.
1.) Officer Wilson didn’t believe Michael Brown was a major threat. Otherwise, he never would have let himself get into that proximity and situation. Either that or it was a stupid mistake. From an officer safety standpoint, that’s a no brainer. You’re too vulnerable sitting in a seat with someone standing outside your window.
2.) Whatever happened to trigger the attack, happened very quickly.
3.) Michael Brown was not rational. Why he wasn’t rational is irrelevant. Witness statements, forensic evidence and the autopsy report confirmed that he attacked a police officer who was sitting in his car. The attack was bad enough that the officer felt the need to draw and fire his weapon.
To take this a step farther, Brown ran after the first shot hit his hand, Wilson then got out of the car and chased him. But did not fire at him. Which legally speaking he had every right to do. It wasn’t until Brown turned and charged him that he shot and eventually killed Brown.
And that’s the story. Period. An officer responded to a call. That officer encountered an individual and was attacked by that individual. The officer did what he had to do to survive the encounter. I’m not going to demonize either side. I don’t know anything about Michael Brown or Daren Wilson and my guess is they didn’t know anything about each other. To add speculation of a sinister motive is irresponsible at best.
In comes the media circus…
If you take a libertarian view of democracy, it hinges on the idea of a self-righting principle. That a population that is well informed will be able to govern itself effectively and wisely. To help ensure this, the founding fathers did something really interesting. They set the first amendment to the Constitution that granted the press almost unrestricted freedom to say what they wanted to say. Journalism is the only industry that is granted constitutional protection. In addition, the press was set in place to act as a fourth but unofficial branch of government to act as an additional level of accountability of the government for the people.
Because this way society had a means to keep itself well informed.
That is, if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
I’m not going to preach that the media has always done its job. It hasn’t. But it has done its job better than this.
When CNN came on the scene in 1980, it brought something new to the world of journalism. The 24 hour news cycle. So no matter what time something happened, CNN was able to report on it immediately. Before, broadcast news outlets and newspapers had to wait until air or publication time to get the word out. Which slowed down the rate in which people got their news, but it allowed journalists to do something.
Collect facts. Do research. Get the story right. Provide context.
The 24 hour news cycle didn’t allow for that. The news goes out as it’s happening whether we know what it is or why it’s happening. In the age of Twitter, everyone with a phone can post something, even the networks can’t keep up.
And in the absence of facts we slide toward speculation. With speculation comes slant. And slant means bias. We move from telling the facts of a new story to applying meaning to that story based off our own world view. The shift moves farther because the marketing teams realized that reporting news based off a particular world view will attract a like-minded audience. The media can now tailor its audience.
Enter Fox News, MSNBC and the like. There is money to be made when we connect to a specific demographic of people. Lots of money. The better the ratings, the more money.
The fathers of broadcasting struck a deal with the government. The broadcasters would be able to use publicly owned airways for free as long as their broadcasts were good for society. This was solidified in the Radio Act of 1927 with the obligation to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” In the early days they had to prove they were doing it. These days they fill out a form once every decade or so. Not to mention that the cable networks aren’t bound by the same obligation because they don’t use public airwaves.
Since that time investigative journalism has all but died, newspapers are dying because they fought web technology instead of embracing it and “news” has been reduced to 90 second package stories about controversy rather that substance, sound bites and commentators telling us how we should feel about it.
This means media has become a business based off ratings and ad revenue, not serving the public interest, convenience and necessity. As I tell my students, the only reason a particular news outlet has a particular political bias is simply because they know they can pull more income from it.
All the while, the public becomes increasingly ignorant. Right wing or left wing, facts are ignored and attacked if they don’t conform to the demographic’s world view. We stop asking what actually happened and instead start asking how we feel about it.
Social media adds gasoline to the fire
When social media came around in the early to mid 2000’s one of the big buzz words in the communication world was “tribes.” People could connect to other people based off interest and were no longer confined to geographic limitations. Tribes were established in the digital frontier. This allowed for further segmentation of the population because what ultimately transpired was more and more people connecting to people who thought exactly like them. There was no need for conflict, just don’t connect with the people who have a differing world view.
And then the tech industry learned how to use all that demographic data we were generating and then started selling it off to marketers who could further send messages our way that appealed to our particular tribe.
But it seems like a classic case of not learning from history. Because the tribes eventually did what tribes do. Tribes go to war with each other.
We demonize the other tribes that aren’t like-minded enough. Our tribe is right and your tribe is stupid. We turn against one another and strip away any semblance of humanity. We call our President a Muslim, Nazi, Kenyan, Socialist and we call a police officer a Nazi, racist, hell bent on killing an innocent black kid. All the while we are constantly reaffirmed in our beliefs by the thousands of like-minded voices who are cheering us on.
When someone, somewhere should have been telling us all along that we were all completely full of shit.
The result is that we get the U.S. Congress. We get Ferguson. We get a tantrum. We substitute the rule of law for a twenty first century lynch mob and burn our own house down when we don’t get what we’d been convinced was ours.
Because nobody ever bothered to tell us the truth. Nobody had time for facts. Nobody wants to believe them when they’re presented. Because it’s always a conspiracy. It’s always a cover up. There’s always someone to blame. God forbid the idea that we may be wrong. God forbid we have to do some soul searching. God forbid we seek truth instead of validation.
This is what happens when we disconnect from each other. This is what happens when we become ignorant. We do stupid things because we’re not paying attention to anything but ourselves. We cling to our ideologies like Gollum with his ring.
I wish I knew how to get us out of this. I wish I knew how to repair the damage. But of all the things we’ve demonized, reasoning and moderation have been damned alongside so many other virtues. The truth is we’re not educating ourselves in things that matter.
So I guess the only thing I know to do now is tell you to stop. Stop making it worse. Stop demonizing the other. Stop passing along bogus information no matter how much you want it to be true.
And start thinking. Start understanding that you may be wrong. Learn to recognize that someone may be profiting from your worldview. Start seeking the truth. Because a well informed society can effectively govern itself. But if we’re looking to Rasputin for guidance, we’re going to get what we deserve.
In the meantime… live well…laugh often…love always.