Month: August 2014

Watching Ferguson, Mo.

For the past few years one of my main interests of critical inquiry (and a a subject I am interested in reporting on) has been urban policy and conflict. As the economy has become increasingly globalized, we’ve seen a significant increase in interurban competition for infrastructure projects, foreign investment and jobs. I’ve been seeing, think we’ll continue to see, a growing conversation about who cities exists for; are they to cater to the interests of businesses and foreign investors, or are they to prioritize the interests of the people and help even the playing field for everyone? 

The media is going to be able to play a crucial role in facilitating and framing this conversation. And of the many threads in this complicated discussion will have to be whose interests the police really serve.

A few days ago an unarmed 18-year-old black kid in Ferguson, Mo. was shot to death by a police officer. According to witnesses, Mike Brown had his hands up in the air when they fired the fatal shots. 

As human beings are want to do in situations like this (which are not as rare as they need to be in America), members of the Ferguson community demanded answers from the police by protesting and even beginning to organize a boycott of businesses in Ferguson. 

Sunday night, the community held a peaceful candlelight vigil in Brown’s honor. Increasing already high tension between the wounded community and city officials, the Ferguson police showed up, allegedly to keep the peace during a peaceful vigil. They were wearing riot gear, presupposing the violence of the night.

Headlines this morning focused on vandalism, property damage and looting that ensued throughout the night. At one point I saw a story on how police had protected a Walmart from the “angry mob.” Although these types of stories offer little to help us understand underlying issues in our society that make police shootings of unarmed black men frequent occurrences, they say a lot about how many journalists view urban conflicts.

Reporting from the end of history

I’ve been working on a research paper about representation and the use of non-elite sourcing in community newspapers and I keep running into the same issue of how we, as journalists, deal with a lack of interest that many readers seem to have for stories about the lives of other people, particularly the more vulnerable populations in our own cities.

It’s common in journalism school to hear that either people are too busy to read about things that don’t directly affect them, or that stories about vulnerable populations are competing with fun buzzfeed style content in the information age.

But I had a thought yesterday that perhaps the lack of interest, and consequent spoon-feeding approach to giving the public information about their own communities, has a lot more to do with the way our society is structured. A lack of interest in one’s own community could very well be the result of being socialized into a society in which we are taught to be motivated by material rewards; a way of life that isolates people from their communities and neighbors, who we are led to see as competition.

In his famous post-Cold War essay The End of History, Francis Fukayama claimed humanity had reached the climax of its sociocultural evolution, marked by the conquest of Western liberal capitalism over Marxist-Leninist communism. “And the death of this ideology means,” Fukayama claimed, “the growing ‘Common Marketization’ of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.”

The era of neoliberal economic restructuring that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has meant not just the common marketization of international relations (although the continued instance of wars contradicts Fukayama’s claim that this would all be peaceful), but also the marketization of social relations between people, a quest to privatize all space and commodify all natural resources. The dismantling of the welfare state throughout the 80s and 90s was a product of this ideology. Evolutionarily and traditionally social creatures, human beings were atomized to compete as allegedly free acting individuals in accordance to market laws.

In the introduction to the booklet “Trashing the Neoliberal City: Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago 2000-2005,” the editors describe life in Fukuyama’s post-historical era:

“Neoliberalism refers to the historical transformation and recent extension of capitalist market domination into every corner of the globe and into every moment of our waking lives. Its dominant logic of free-market fundamentalism corrodes social solidarity as it rejects social justice in favor of individual ‘freedom’ to compete and consume.”

Community-minded and civic-minded journalism is antithetical to this ideology, and thus we as journalists are up against far more powerful forces than the distraction offered by buzzfeed quizes and cat youtube videos. It sounds romantic and idealistic, but affective and powerful journalism has the potential to reweave the social fabric that has come undone in the neoliberal era. Newspapers and media have an emancipatory potential in their ability to get people interested in their neighbor’s or fellow citizen’s lives. Community journalism can show people not just how public issues hurt or benefit the readers themselves, but also the affects they have on people living on the other side of town.

Fukayama wasn’t entirely deterministic about the hegemony of the neoliberal social order. He ends his famous essay with a lament for the creativity, intellectualism and cooperation that marked the ‘historical era.”

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

In the early part of this century, when everyone was pronouncing it dead in the wake of the Internet’s rise, journalism could have easily been thrown in there with art and philosophy. But of course, just as history didn’t really end, neither did the desire of more than a handful of people around the world to produce quality and powerful journalism. Just as moments like ousting of fascist dictators in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, the rapid spread of the occupy wall street and the Arab spring show that resistance to the dominant “post-historical” order is not dead, so too does the enduring existence of journalists who want to inspire interest in their local communities (as evidenced in my research and interviews with editors).

As Fukayama said at the end of his essay: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

Journalistic detatchment

It’s not a unique experience, but growing up in post-9/11 US had a profound effect on the formation on a lot of my world view. Having been in Texas in 2003 and the lead up to and throughout the US invasion of Iraq, I’m not really a stranger to cognitive dissonance, emotionally fueled arguments the fly int he face of logic and casual racist nationalism. But I still manage to be shocked each time I witness any of these things (and they usually aren’t alone).

I covered a Jewish community event Sunday evening the explicit purpose of which was to show support for Israel in its Operation Protective Edge. Several of the speakers at this event offered pretty nuanced testimonies about their conflicted loyalties to Israel, comparing it to a family that you don’t always agree with but still love and support. Others gave the kind of speeches that took me back to 2003, when I would get dragged along to my mom’s church and hear people beat their chests and act as if ‘freedom-hating, anti-American terrorists’ had developed in an a-historical vacuum.

An Israeli woman spoke about how she remembers visiting Gaza in the 80s, insisting everything was peaceful between the Israelis and Palestinians before the first intifada. It was as if she didn’t connect the military occupation, the demolition of homes to build settlements, or the large-scale detention of Palestinian youths to the build-up before the intifada. She also denied that there was before protective edge an occupation of Gaza, when in fact the Israeli government has been blockading the strip and restricting almost all economic and personal border-crossing since 2005. The people can’t even fish in their territorial waters, a traditionally large part of the Gazan economy.

Another speaker, a local pastor no less, very loudly proclaimed that the Israeli Defense Force is doing the Palestinians a favor by ridding them of Hamas, who he said (right out of the Israeli PR department handbook) do not value the lives of the civilians in Gaza. I’m certainly no fan of Hamas. But I don’t get what people who insist that Hamas doesn’t care about civilian life think the point of Hamas is. The pastor went on to recycle the same ‘human shield’ rhetoric that essentially blames Palestinians for their own deaths and denies any Israeli role in pushing Palestinians into such a precarious position that they would vote for Hamas.

For better or worse, I was unable to stay for the entire event because I had to file a story by 9. I pondered how to frame this story while I drove back to the newsroom. Having a recording of the speeches I’d heard, it certainly would have been possible to parse every logical fallacy, historical inaccuracy and instance of blatant racism and victim-blaming. But there isn’t really anything to gained by using a small paper in mid-Missouri to essentially mock perfectly well meaning people who have an emotional and personal attachment to a place that is the center of an ongoing conflict. Had there been a pro-Hamas rally, I could certainly have done a similar parsing. But these types of articles, in small papers, don’t really serve to change anyone’s mind.

So I let the people’s quotes speak for themselves and framed the article as a community coming together to support each other just as much as Israel.

 

 

 

Using the language of our sources

We’ve been talking a lot in our lectures about language. It is easy and safe to borrow the language of our sources. But the job of a journalist is to parse what we’re told be our sources — especially PR people and PIOs — to get at some approximation of the “truth.”
I was concerned and excited this morning to catch professional journalists making the mistake of taking language right from the source. Concerned, because it showed laziness on the part of the professional journalists; Excited, because noticing it is kind of a sign it’s becoming easy for me to recognize this sort of thing.
The news from Gaza this morning was that the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that was supposed to last 72 hours didn’t make it much longer than a few hours. According to NPR News, the Israelis called it off after Hamas kidnapped one of their soldiers. Renee Montagne, the host of Morning Edition, kept repeat this phrase with the verb “kidnapped.” Even when she’d speak with journalists on the ground who would use the more appropriate verb “captured,” she kept saying “kidnapped.”
The connotation around the word ‘kidnap’ is that the abducted person is an innocent who probably didn’t have any connection to the people who took him or her. Soldiers in an active battle don’t get kidnapped.
Captured is more fitting because the abduction, according various sources, happened before the cease fire began, and it’s likely the soldier was involved in some form of fighting.
I’m not trying to justify capturing anyone, but it is important to call it what it is. The Israeli military surely has a calculated reason for using the word kidnapped when talking to the press about the incident. Journalists should know better than to be complicit in the distortion of information.