Ferguson, and the Media That Divides Us

Vishal Khetpal, junior anthropology major in Arts & Sciences, Washington University

If St. Louis had been hit by a hurricane last Monday night (November 24), then my university’s campus must have been in the eye of the storm: surrounded, but unaffected, from its chaos. Multiple school-wide emails sent over the past few weeks had prepared us for the protests that would inevitably come to our community, regardless of what the grand jury presiding over the fate of Darren Wilson would decide. The warnings to stay away from the city’s subway system, and that if we planned to protest, to “take a charged cell phone and travel in groups,” added weight to the air that already hung unusually still within our island of Missouri granite buildings. On our campus, just down the street from the hearings, we also watched on with the rest of America, listening to what Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would have to say.

The fear on Monday night last week was certainly real for the citizens of Ferguson, as well as the rest of the St. Louis community. For media networks, however, it was just another night of primetime television. Reporters trickled through Lambert Airport throughout the day, talking up the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision long before there was an outcome to discuss. After the decision not to indict had finally come, television producers made a decision of their own — electing to show President Obama’s call for peaceful demonstrations in split-screen with violent protesters, who threw bricks and set fire to a police car. To the world, it seemed as if Ferguson and St. Louis were rapidly descending into hell.

For the past three months, I’ve sat back and tolerated the fear mongering about what has unfolded in Ferguson, excusing it as good intentions mistranslated. While at a barber shop on a Friday in August, I had the chance to witness this hysteria first-hand, when the woman cutting my hair mentioned rumors she had heard from customers, including a retired DEA agent, about a “Purge” that was to happen that weekend throughout St. Louis. Though her reference to the plot of a horror movie seemed outlandish at the time, the blending of entertainment with news has become the norm for media networks, as they continue to capitalize on this tragedy to boost TV ratings and website traffic.

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