How the media discovered Ferguson
By: Byron Tau
August 16, 2014 07:05 AM EDT
FERGUSON, Mo. — Score one for the Beltway media.
After several nights of intense community outrage over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, it wasn’t until two Washington-based reporters from The Huffington Post and The Washington Post were arrested by heavily armed local police that the political class in D.C. and Jefferson City started paying attention.
Days of Twitter dispatches and Instagram videos from the protesters themselves had done little to change police behavior. But Wednesday night, tweets and stories about the arrests of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly, along with harassment of other journalists, got the mainstream media machine moving.
An important story — involving the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a police officer, public anger over the lack of details from the police and a heavily armed response to protests — had become something that hit home to journalists.
And they got results. The next morning, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had state officials take over policing of the community, to amazing effect: The police playbook toward the town’s security was rewritten overnight and the mood in Ferguson changed appreciably. Friday night, however, saw a chaotic situation with looting and riot police once again called onto West Florissant Street.
“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they are seeing on the ground,” Obama said.
Lowery and Reilly acknowledged their arrests helped change the storyline.
“Any good reporter placed in a position that Ryan and I were in likely would have ended up in custody that day,” Lowery said in an interview in the very same McDonald’s where he was arrested on Wednesday night. “It’s a good thing that new and renewed attention has been brought to Ferguson because of our arrest.
“However, it is disappointing that it was our brief detention — as opposed to the unrest, police clashes and tear gases of Monday and Tuesday night — that finally caught the attention of the Beltway media,” he added.
“I believe the outcome would have been exactly the same for any other reporter that was facing the same situation that we did,” Reilly said. “Certainly the fact that the D.C. and reporter Twitter-world is so interconnected — that had a lot to do with the fact this got so much attention.”
But, he added about the arrest and the ensuing controversy: “This isn’t why I came down here.”
Social media interest in the event peaked on the night the reporters were arrested and other journalists were denied access to the site, threatened with arrest or chased off the scene by tear gas and riot police. According to Twitter analytics engine Topsy, the search term “Ferguson” got about 200,000 mentions Tuesday night. Wednesday night, there were nearly 700,000 mentions.
Ferguson has become a true media circus since the arrests — with reporters often outnumbering protesters during the daylight hours at the site of a burned-out gas station. Journalists continue to turn fast food restaurants into impromptu filing centers — buying power strips at the Family Dollar to keep their computers charged.
CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes have broadcast live from the site. Reporters from tiny A.M. radio stations or student journalists from nearby colleges mingled with national reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO, The Associated Press and other media outlets. The Taiwanese company that produces animated versions of news events even dispatched a reporter to the scene.
Lowery and Reilly are now local celebrities. The customers and management at a local bar took turns buying Reilly rounds of free drinks this week. Both are approached constantly by other reporters, filmmakers and protesters who recognize them from television. Strangers come up to them to take photos. And yes, both gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers from the incident.
The quick response and the de-escalation of the crisis constituted a rare showing of power and muscle for the D.C.-based establishment media in an age in which digital evangelists brag about the ability of ordinary citizens on social media to drive the conversation and hold the powerful to account with nothing more than a smartphone and a Twitter account.
Social media sites like Twitter and Instagram had long been filled with chaotic footage and photographs of the military-style police occupation in the town. Local media outlets made their livestreams available for anyone who was interested. Before Wednesday, not as many people were.
Holding up his cellphone at a Thursday community forum, Brown’s uncle, Charles Ewing, told a crowd that the phone “is a powerful tool” — explaining that smartphones had the ability to document wrongdoing and hold public servants accountable for it.
Brown’s family — facing new revelations that the 18-year-old may have robbed a nearby convenience store before his arrest — expressed their reservations about the way the story has been been played out amid the sudden presence of national and international media in the small town.
“I do not feel like it’s been fair,” said Eric Davis — a cousin of Brown — about the media coverage. He declined to elaborate further.
The family’s attorneys held a Friday news conference after Ferguson police announced that Brown was a suspect in a nearby robbery and that evidence from the theft was found on his body. The Brown family’s attorneys sought to put the media glare back onto the police — not on the details of Brown’s life or behavior.
“This family has never said that Mike Brown Jr. was a perfect kid,” said Anthony Gray, a local attorney. About the Friday revelations, he added: “That is just a major distraction about an 18-year-old child. He probably did 15-year-old stuff. I don’t think there’s anybody at that particular age who is proud about everything that they’ve done from the day that they were born to the day they were 18.”
Local police and politicians have now acceded to most of the media demands — allowing reporters free access to the protest zones, holding an open news conference on Friday and releasing the name of the police officer who shot Brown. For the first time, Nixon appeared in the town and answered media questions for a significant period of time. The Highway Patrol officer placed in charge of the situation, Capt. Ron Johnson, has earned plaudits for his straight-talking manner and his accessibility to both reporters and the public.
But amid the changes, local residents express mixed reactions to the media storm. While many are glad to see the national glare focus on the problems of police abuse and racial tensions, there is skepticism about the he-said, she-said nature of the coverage about Brown.
“It’s been helpful and it’s been hurtful,” said Christine Martin, a Ferguson resident who has lived in the town for seven years. She cited some of the new reports — “untruths,” she said — as a frustration with the tone of the media coverage, but was grateful for attention on the cause.
“The people that we pay our tax money to are not serving us. And we’re outraged about it,” Martin said.