This is what journalists have been saying privately about the violence in Ferguson:
What if we all just went home? What if we turned off the cameras? Would the protestors disappear—especially all the out-of-town agitators who have descended on the Missouri town just to make trouble?
The answer is, probably, yes—and yet that can’t and won’t happen.
I’m not suggesting for a second that the killing of Michael Brown and the eruption of anger and violence in Ferguson isn’t a hugely important story. But we all know how the massive media machine, once it clanks into action, changes the very thing on which it is reporting. The journalistic invasion of Ferguson is absolutely inflaming the situation on the streets, drawing troublemakers who want the exposure. They see the bright lights, they see correspondents who are openly sympathetic to the protestors, and it’s become a nightly reality show.
Of course, every news organization wants to be there. And for Fox or CNN or ABC or CBS to just pick up and leave would be meaningless, because everyone else, including freelancers and bloggers, would remain behind.
There has been some solid street reporting by journalists who have had to dodge tear gas, rubber bullets and at least one cursing cop issuing threats. Some have also had to deal with taunts and rock-throwing from demonstrators. It can be dangerous work.
But I’ve also been troubled by the degree of grandstanding by certain journalists who want to be provocative or make a scene—in short, to make the story about them.
The temptations are obvious. The news business feasts on the misfortune of others. Wars, plane crashes, murders—this is when journalists make a name for themselves.
Think of the perverse incentives. If violence flares, people are shot, arrests are made, that produces dramatic footage, which in turn is "good television." If the night is quiet, there's little news to report. A few quiet nights and some media folks begin to pack up. Nobody is rooting for violence, but that is why these media teams are in the St. Louis suburb.
Obviously there are benefits to journalists serving as eyewitnesses. When there are police excesses, or demonstrators out of control, they are there to record them. But the cumulative cacophony in Ferguson right now has reached the point that it’s almost drowning out the story. Agitators are hiding behind press people, which yesterday caused police to order journalists to disperse on grounds that their safety couldn’t be protected.
Capt. Ron Johnson, the man in charge, told MSNBC that when a “criminal element” wanted to “agitate” the crowd, its members would “stop in front of the media, the media would swarm around them, give them a platform and glamorize their activity.”
I don’t agree with that last part—nobody is glamorizing the thugs. But we are giving them the spotlight, and we, as well as the cops, need to exercise restraint.