When President Obama made his uncomfortably cautious statement on Monday night about the grand jury decision in Ferguson, one line felt both characteristically detached and especially true. “There is inevitably going to be some negative reaction,” the president said. “And it will make for good TV.”
In fact, the entire experience on Monday felt designed for TV, from the choice to announce the grand jury’s conclusion at 8 p.m. Central time — the heart of prime time — to the breathless, hours-long buildup on the cable channels. By early afternoon, CNN was in high-alert, breaking-news mode, even though it was clear that no actual news would be breaking for hours. It was the ultimate coming-next preview: “Will there be violence? Find out after the break!” And you got the sense that everyone would have been disappointed if the answer had been “no.”
As it turned out, there was violence: 61 arrests in Ferguson and 21 in St. Louis, 14 people injured, store windows broken and buildings burned, a few cars telegenically destroyed. There were also thousands of people who protested peacefully, in Ferguson and dozens of other cities, but who didn’t make the endless loop of TV highlights.
And there was, in general, a lack of context about the way street riots happen. Yes, destruction was likely in Ferguson that night, given the circumstances, the pent-up frustration, the events last summer after Michael Brown’s death. Yes, the warnings were necessary. Police were right to establish a presence.
But mayhem is predictable in other situations, too. As one person bitterly noted on Twitter on Monday, police gear up and public officials issue warnings every time a big-city sports team looks about to win a championship. People still wind up arrested, and cars destroyed, and sometimes worse. What we don’t get, in those cases, is an hours- and weeks-long frenzy of anticipation.
It’s easy to see those differences and draw sad conclusions about the state of our country: The way drunk college students are viewed and discussed, compared to low-income minorities; the way the Ferguson narrative played into storylines much older. In recent weeks, the Ferguson story created a kind of arms race of its own: The media speculated about urban riots, suburbanites bought up guns.
And when the news from the grand jury finally came on Monday night, the cameras remained a part of the story, hovering in the periphery of nearly every shot. They were bearing witness, but also serving as amplification. And they were creating a kind of record: On Tuesday, CNN kept re-airing the same shot of one building in rubble. This is the video evidence that will live on.
The whole thing reminds me of another bit of video from earlier this month, addressing another intractable social problem. It came from Hollaback!, a group that aims to end street harassment of women. It purported to show a woman walking through New York for 10 hours straight, facing catcalls and comments from men at every moment.
The video revealed something very real: yes, street harassment happens, unwanted and unwarranted. But there was plenty the video didn’t show. Ten hours were reduced to selective clips; the majority of the catcalls we saw took place in a single neighborhood. The creators eventually apologized for what looked like racial bias. Their intentions were probably good. But the mess was a reminder: The camera tells the truth, but it’s usually not the whole truth.
The media knew this, too. Some reporters who have spent a lot of time on the ground in Ferguson have noted how orchestrated the protests sometimes seem to be, how much action has been taken with full awareness of the cameras’ presence and power.
Charlie LeDuff, reporting for a Fox News affiliate in Detroit, has covered the media presence with a weird mix of self-aggrandizement and clarity, pointing out the phalanxes of cameras nearby, noting that sometimes reporters outnumber the protesters.
“I don’t know if they’re really into exploring the American soul,” he told an anchor, a few days before the grand jury decision came down. “It’s more about a riot watch.”
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.