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20 years

Filed in: General, Mon, Apr 30 2012 09:07 PT

20 years ago, I was working in a newsroom in Arizona. The first sign we were in for a long evening was the AP feed chirping to us with the message:


For the next hour and a half, the bulletins kept chirping every few minutes, but the “RODNEY KING” slug soon gave way to a new one: “L-A RIOT”.

Meanwhile, we all watched the NBC News Channel feed, which went from background video and scripted packages on the verdict to live KNBC helicopter footage of people in LA taking to the streets – first to vent about the verdict, then to walk out of abandoned storefronts with whatever they could haul. It wasn’t until early evening that we saw Reginald Denny, the truck driver who had been pulled from his car and brutally beaten under the helicopter’s watchful eye.

I was 17, doing an internship for my senior year of high school. There were few events in my life up to that point that rated a where-were-you-when. I can only remember the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, which happened on a sick day, and the Challenger explosion, which happened on a half-day. The previous year, we’d seen the launch of the Gulf War, the Scud Stud, and the streams of tracer fire and clouds of smoke rising up from Baghdad. Unlike these other events, however, it wasn’t a single event, or set up with choreographed team coverage. It was a chain of events that spun out of control as we watched. And from the newsroom, we scrambled to make sense of it.

I’ve been a spectator to a lot of news since then, all from outside the newsroom. The internet-connected individual has faster and higher-quality access to news today than we did back then. What we lack as a society is the ability to synthesize all of those voices. And there are very smart, connected people who are using that fact to distract and divide us. It’s not enough to have access to al-Jazeera or the BBC or Russia Today; we need to develop a level of news literacy few of us have to understand the forces at work, what they want us to believe and why.

The narratives of the LA Riots are generally known: a black man was pulled out of the car and beaten by five white officers, who were recorded by a bystander in the act, but were acquitted of police brutality charges, sparking five days of rioting in Los Angeles during which 53 people died. There’s so much more to the case than that, though, and if it were to have happened last night, we’d hear another story in parallel: one of a convicted felon (King served two years for robbery) who led officers on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles while drunk and disobeyed the officers who stopped him, leading to the well-documented efforts to subdue him. Numerous polls would be taken, and the public would get to vote on which side was right.

What’s wrong with today’s media is that they so pander to the audience that viewers feel their opinion is valid, however poorly-informed. That’s anathema to a journalist. While we struggle to process all this information we have available to us, we need to realize that cases like Rodney King, or today, Trayvon Martin, are not episodes of American Idol. There are no pure good guys or bad guys. The stories can’t be boiled down to a 30-second synopsis. The information we consume today is stripped of all the conflict and nuance that journalists were meant to help process for us, and instead, we’ve seen the rise of stripped-down storylines that lead the viewer to an emotional appeal – opinion as news.

Twenty years later, the societal problems brought to light (however briefly) by the Rodney King beating are still there. We will never even begin to approach them if, each time a case like this comes around, we talk ourselves into a deadlock over conflicting narratives about who did what to whom. It reaches far deeper than most of us ever get to hear, even when we have access to more stories than ever. Access to instantaneous news should not lead to the production of instantaneous opinion. And that’s why we need to seek out that information, even from sources we distrust, and start working it out. Together.

On April 29, 1992, that was my job. It still is. Only now, it’s yours, too.

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