Last weekend, the vehicle that drives America’s democracy skidded to a sudden stop. There was no other option. A roadblock was stretched across all lanes of democracy’s information highway.
It blocked the far right lane, the center lane and the far left lane. Which is to say, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.
Virtually no news about Washington or the rest of the world was getting through to us on our all-news cable networks — except an unrelenting gush of non-news (see also: punditry and prattle) about a murder trial in Sanford, Fla. Never mind that there was really no news to report because the jury was deliberating behind closed doors.
For a day and a half until the verdict was announced Saturday night, all-news cable outlets gave us best guesses from experts about the legal issues of the case, with a special focus on the racial concerns about the case. Especially everyone’s inexpert predictions about whether a verdict of not guilty would lead to outbreaks of violence throughout America.
All that because this case involved a man, George Zimmerman, who is white (actually part Hispanic), who carried a concealed gun that he used to fatally shoot a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was carrying only a bag of fruity tea and candy from the 7-Eleven, as he walked to his father’s home at night.
Even after the jury’s not-guilty verdict was announced late Saturday night, all the all-news networks continued their fixation on all the racial angles of the Zimmerman case.
We saw a recurrence of a fundamental fact of news coverage that I have often written about. Namely: Too often, my colleagues in the news media cannot help but fan the flames when they cover the fires.
The media’s big eye can magnify the importance of what it is focusing upon just by keeping it as the center of its coverage. In covering the Zimmerman trial, choices made by cable news deciders of all networks were clearly driven by their company’s quest for market ratings. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and HLN (a spinoff of CNN) carried virtual gavel-to-gavel coverage. And even when the jury was deliberating and there was no Zimmerman case news to cover, no cable news network was willing to shift its focus to important events that happened in Washington and the world. Because no cable news decider was willing to lose Zimmerman-obsessed viewers to another all-news network.
The result: Some important events got scant coverage — or went uncovered. Indeed, during the past week and weekend, a number of major events got uncharacteristically short shrift because of cable news’ unrelenting outbreak of Zimmermania.
Among them: A Syrian rebel leader was reportedly killed by al-Qaida gunmen; new pro-Islamist protests erupted in Egypt; NSA leaker Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia; House Republicans reversed four decades of policy by removing food stamps from the House farm bill; and Obamacare’s health insurance mandate was postponed for employers, but not individuals. This is no way to keep our democracy’s electorate informed. So, once again, we must rethink the lessons we have just learned.
And we must hope that in the world of all-news cable networks, there are news deciders who are concerned enough to rethink and relearn the lessons that should govern our journalistic decisions.
But we cannot overlook the fact there was an element of unabashedly good news. It occurred in the form of what didn’t happen immediately after Zimmerman was acquitted.
Violence didn’t happen. Riots didn’t happen. Burning and looting didn’t happen — not even after the all-news cable network indeed fanned those flames just by virtue of their excessive coverage.
Yes, anger and outrage most certainly did happen. Spontaneous demonstrations and vigils occurred outside the Sanford courthouse and in many big cities. Thousands of protesters paraded through New York City’s Times Square, and other unscheduled demonstrations occurred in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Yet importantly, blacks and many whites paraded and protested side by side in these events. They conveyed their sadness, anger and disgust that the judicial system had freed the adult who killed the unarmed black teenager. But they conveyed all this peacefully.
And so we must honor all who conveyed their understandable outrage persuasively, yet nonviolently.
Even as we demand that cable news deciders respect their viewers’ intelligence by refraining from their unjournalistic, ratings-driven practice of putting their own news roadblocks on our democracy’s information highway.