Mainstream Media Betrays Racist Tendencies Covering Zimmerman Verdict Protests

Friday, 26 July 2013 00:00 By Bethania Palma Markus, Truthout | Op-Ed
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Mainstream media coverage of Los Angeles rallies and marches against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the slaying of Trayvon Martin betrays racist biases.

"Unrest." "Violence." "Danger."

These are some of the phrases employed by local mainstream news organizations to describe last week's rallies and marches in Los Angeles against the acquittal of George Zimmerman. While it's no surprise when overt racism spews from the mouths of right-wing media personalities, a disturbingly large number of conventional outlets chose to trigger white paranoia in a revealing week of coverage that saw at least two major papers, The LA Times and LA Weekly, using the infamous, racially-charged word "wilding."

Most played up and focused on isolated incidents of disturbance and seemed so desperate for violence, they just made it up, even as the vast majority of demonstrators contained their activities to rallies and marchers.

"The overall portrayal is racist. It's heavily criminalizing," said Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, an organizer for Justice for Trayvon Martin LA (J4TMLA) that led marches throughout Los Angeles last week. "It's dangerous to want to see people riot. There is a group of people grieving nationally, why not document that?"

Using words like "unrest" instead of "demonstration" suggested media outlets were gearing up for a repeat of 1992, when Los Angeles went up in flames in the wake of despair over the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were caught on videotape brutally beating black motorist Rodney King. King's beating was seen as typical repression and police brutality in LA's poor communities of color.

But activist Tiffany Wallace noted that last week's activities were nothing like 1992, though LA media coverage would have had its consumers believe it was a 1992 redux.

"I think it has a lot to do with people living through the unrest of '92. People have pride in their community. They didn't want to burn it down; they didn't want to break it down. They wanted justice. They wanted to march in their community, but they didn't want to destroy their community," said Wallace, who participated in demonstrations both Saturday and Sunday. "That distinction did not get made by the media. They wanted things to be sensationalized, but they didn't show the police terror - how they kettled us in on Crenshaw and St. Charles and wouldn't let people out, or when they shot at us with rubber bullets at close range with people trying to run away from them - they (the media) weren't there to cover that."

As protesters peacefully marched miles through the city demanding justice for the 17-year-old Martin, who was shot dead by Zimmerman in Florida last February, NBC 4 was menacing its viewers with an Orwellian news package from reporter Tena Ezzeddine, who, in tones usually associated with dramatic movie trailers, announced: "It was the moment tensions started to rise. Fury unleashed as protesters and police began to battle."

While Ezzeddine's cinematic narrative described danger and anger amid menacing nightfall, the actual video footage contradicted her, as noted by blogger Brad Friedman. It shows LAPD officers wildly swinging batons at protesters and a young woman with wounds on her chest from police projectiles. It then shows a completely empty street in South LA's Leimert Park neighborhood after Ezzeddine hyperventilated about a citywide tactical alert because of "masses gathering" and "trouble brewing."

In the same post, Friedman reported that NBC 4 had unquestioningly aired LAPD Commander Andy Smith saying protesters had stormed the W Hotel in Hollywood, causing $15,000 in damage with things like graffiti and broken glass. When contacted by Friedman, though, the hotel denied the incident occurred, and an LAPD spokesman conceded that it had not.

Misleading headlines, waiting for a "riot"

Even after a weekend of spontaneous marches, where thousands of people took to the streets in South LA and marched miles with broad community support, The Los Angeles Times chose to blare this headline the following Monday morning: 

"Activists Urge Peace for Evening Trayvon Martin Prayer Vigil"

It was a strange decision considering the preceding marches had been completely peaceful, except for confrontations with police where they hit people with batons and shot them with bean bag guns.

Monday evening, as if on cue from the Times, a group of young people broke off from the main demonstration. While the media quoted police saying that the group of opportunists numbered 150, aerial chopper footage never shows more than roughly 40 people actually involved in causing trouble. The incident then served as a pretext for a collective crackdown on other protests and an excuse for newscasters to act surprised that the diverse but majority black demonstrations were peaceful.

Around this time, police made the arguably questionable decision to resurrect the term "wilding" while mainstream outlets unquestioningly picked it up. They began to use it freely in fear-mongering about groups of young black men going on crime sprees that never materialized. The word has an ugly, racist history. It originated with the miscarriage of justice that was the racially-fueled Central Park jogger case of 1989, where five teenagers - four black and one Latino - were railroaded and wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman amid a crime wave and white hysteria plaguing New York City. After serving their entire sentences, all five were exonerated when another man, whose DNA matched that found at the scene, admitted to the crime.

Not missing the problematic point that police and media employed the word in relation to events primarily involving LA's communities of color, a majority white group of supporters organized the "Smash White Supremacy Fun Run" aimed at exposing "a sensationally racist media narrative that suggests a specific and pernicious danger posed by black bodies running through streets and employs racist dog-whistles like 'mob' and 'wilding' in order to trigger white panic," according to the event's invite. It worked.

Ironically, the police responded to the 15 sneaker- and spandex-clad joggers with a massive show of force, and for the most part, the media went along with it.

White "fun runner" Craig Toennies said he got involved in the event after observing how black people in motion near white-owned property like Walmart on Crenshaw Boulevard engendered the same panic that motivated Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin.

"Dennis Romero (at the LA Weekly) wrote exactly what the organizers wanted him to write. He even quoted the LAPD saying, 'wilding.' It's like the people who organized the event were playing chess, and the state was playing checkers," Toennies said. The LAPD ended up bungling the 'Fun Run' exactly as the organizers hoped they would - even down to the racist dog whistles they spread. They followed the script exactly as written."

One immediately visible result of criminalizing the verdict protests has been an enormous police presence amassed in the Leimert Park area, especially Crenshaw Boulevard.

"Leimert Park looked like a war zone," Cullors-Brignac said. "The LAPD brought drones to last Sunday's march."

This reporter saw at least 50 police cruisers, foot patrol and motorcycle officers still lining Crenshaw Boulevard between Exposition and Leimert Park one week later.

Creating a vulture-like environment where the media is circling and speculating on whether people will riot, and seemingly hoping they do, dehumanizes and criminalizes a demographic with serious grievances while distracting from and minimalizing their demands, Cullors-Brignac said.

"We have a set of demands we purposely said 100 million times so the media would pick them up, and the media hasn't picked them up," she said.

The organization's demands according to their Facebook page are:

1. Federal Charges against Zimmerman (civil rights charges now)
2. Pardon Marissa Alexander (she did not hurt or kill anyone)
3. No More New Jail and Prison Construction (put money back into poor communities)
4. End Gang Injunctions & Database (stop racial profiling)
5. Community Control Over All Law Enforcement With an Elected Civilian Review Board

Rapidly changing media landscape fuels fear mongering

Angelo Carusone, vice president of Media Matters, echoed Cullors-Brignac's sentiment and elaborated on why, in an age when almost any information is at our fingertips, the media seems to be driving society backward by exacerbating racism instead of enabling progress.

"In some ways, the headlines reinforce the point that we have trouble talking about race issues in this country in a productive way," he said. "The media, which is the arbiter or convener of this conversation, is part of that problem. There's this false notion that's been perpetrated by the media that black people are more dangerous or there's some reason to be afraid of them. That's what those headlines tap into."

In an era of rapidly-transitioning media still grappling for revenue generated by web clicks and ratings in a 24-hour cable news environment, reliance on sensationalism in leads and headlines has become the new norm, he pointed out. Media outlets keep viewers and readers engaged by creating anxiety, and often that means tapping into racial stereotypes to feed undercurrents of subconscious fear.

Almost insidiously, mainstream news spread message after message urging people not to riot when the verdict came out. As Carusone noted, that's an underhanded way of generating bigoted misperceptions.

"If you say that so many times, it in some ways builds and reinforces the impression this is a violent community even if you never state explicitly that they are, even though there was no evidence that (violence) was taking place," Carusone said. "That to me was very revealing. If I'm sitting there as an average consumer and I have my false impressions, and I hear every pundit say over and over that now is not the time for violence, it's just going to reinforce the idea that this community is more risky and violent than others."

The results are harmful on a large scale. As long as racism pervades media images and messages, serious social problems like racial profiling and the massive over-incarceration of people of color, black men in particular, can't be addressed.

"We're not immune to media, and there are constant portrayals of black and brown people doing crimes and being characterized as bad people in bad neighborhoods," Cullors-Brignac said. "That definitely perpetuates mass incarceration."

As long as people are fed a steady media diet of black and brown criminality, they'll demand politicians like district attorneys, mayors and city council members be "tough on crime," she said. Being "tough on crime" translates to high incarceration rates of perceived criminals. And people get their ideas of who criminals are from the media - in spite of statistics that show whites commit the same crimes at the same rate, but are punished far less than blacks.

Carusone said studies by Media Matters show the point of view expressed in news programming is largely white and male, which isn't a surprise considering his organization found a very small and stagnant number of people of color working in newsrooms.

Overall, the lesson is that this is hardly a post-racial country, as jubilant pundits and media personalities hoped after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first black president.

"Racism is far from gone. It creates verdicts like a 'not guilty' verdict for someone who kills a young black boy." Cullors-Brignac said. "It's alive and awake, and it breathes inside people's bodies."


*Editor's note: After press time, Markus received a  very nuanced and heartfelt response to her request for comment from Sarah Fenske, the editor of the LA Weekly. We print it in its entirety below:

- I think every newspaper struggles to adequately cover underprivileged neighborhoods. It's something we've focused on over here at the Weekly for years, without ever making as much headway as we'd like. Part of the problem is that we have a very small newsroom, and it's a constant challenge to find ways to cover a city as sprawling, and diverse, as Los Angeles. 
It's also important to me that we not just jet in when there're crime or something scandalous going on. I think if you look at our calendar coverage, the features we write, and the profiles subjects we choose, you'll see we've been actively trying to increase coverage in those areas. Patrick Range McDonald just wrote a beautiful profile of Aja Brown, the up-and-coming mayor of Compton; we recently had a groundbreaking story about a young gay activist in the Imperial Courts housing project. We need to do more, though, and doing it is an ongoing goal we think about every day here at the Weekly.
- As for our coverage of the Zimmerman verdict's aftermath, Dennis Romero, who is our only full-time blogger, did an excellent job balancing coverage of the peaceful protests with the unrest. As a person of color himself - and part of the team that covered the 1992 L.A. Riots for the LA Times - Dennis was enormously sympathetic to the importance of covering the story fairly and with restraint. He covered the freeway being shut down. Even though he's basically stuck at his desk in case there's breaking news, he personally drove to Beverly Hills to cover the protests there. And then, yes, he covered the unrest, but he did it in a way that conveyed the facts without being sensationalistic. Some outlets in town, I think, got a bit dramatic in how they were describing things - you won't see that in Dennis' reporting.
- Yes, an LAPD captain, who is herself a woman of color, did use that phrase in an interview with us, and I believe other police spokespersons used it with other media outlets. LAist's Emma Gallegos did a good job of explaining the problems with such usage - which I think may go a long way to reminding news outlets to think twice before they characterize unrest with such a word, much less put it in a headline (as we saw at least one station do). That said, if the LAPD uses that word again, we are absolutely going to report on it. The unrest was part of the story; so is the LAPD's response. And when we're writing for our news blog, we're covering things as they happen - it's only when we can take a step back and reflect that analytical pieces (like Emma's, and like this one by our awesome columnist Henry Rollins) can take a look at the bigger picture. It's a challenge - one not unlike the difficulties of covering underserved communities - but we're going to continue to do the best that we can and hope each day we get a little closer to good.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Bethania Palma Markus

Bethania Palma Markus is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist.

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