U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday afternoon to assess the ongoing investigation into the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American who was reportedly unarmed when he was shot and killed by a police officer.
Brown's death has set the community, which is predominantly black, on fire, many residents taking to the street to protest what they believe to be a racially-motivated murder.
Holder, for his part, said he is determined to see that the investigation into the shooting death is both thorough and fair.
"This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson: Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent,” Holder said in a statement.
“And beyond the investigation itself, we will work with the police, civil rights leaders, and members of the public to ensure that this tragedy can give rise to new understanding — and robust action — aimed at bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve. Long after the events of Aug. 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community."
Now, although it's debatable whether Holder should even be in Ferguson, one thing seems pretty clear: His decision to assess the investigation personally is a direct response to the media's overloaded and frantic coverage of Brown's death.
And this frantic, ratings- and click-driven coverage is bad for everyone.
Indeed, even as all the facts surrounding Brown's death have yet to be revealed, many reporters already have rushed to focus intensely on race and supposed discrimination, often blurring the line between news and opinion. This injection of opinion has created the feeling that the media is focused more on being a part of the story than covering it.
“During the cable news networks’ live broadcast of events in Ferguson [Monday night], in which reporters filled the hours with increasingly frenetic prognoses about the worsening situation in Ferguson, it was impossible for the media to not become part of — if not central to — the story in Missouri,” he added.
Sandy Davidson, a professor of communications and media law at the University of Missouri, added to these sentiments.
“When you are on the scene, sometimes it’s kind of hard not to become part of the story,” she said in a Politico report.
“When you have a photographer who is overcome with tear gas and then, of course, you have other journalists from CNN, who are there to record it, journalists are getting swept up in it, and journalists are a part of the story, I do believe, in part because it’s a story of journalists feeling unduly restricted to report on a matter of very public interest,” she added. “I compare it to Gaza; it is like a war scene.”
Of course, in response to Davidson's point, one could argue that the heavy police response has been greatly exacerbated by the media's handling of the situation. That is, much of the violence that has occurred in Ferguson since Brown's death, violence that has reportedly involved the participation of dozens of out-of-towners, is likely a direct response to how the media has framed a story that it admittedly knows very little about.
And this is where we run into a separate but equally important issue regarding the media and its coverage of Ferguson. Namely, serious and deep-seated economic and political facts about the small Missouri city have seemingly taken a backseat to the media's reporting on the police and the spirit of protesters, rioters and looters.
Much of the anger and frustration currently on display in Ferguson is the invertible result of years of poverty and feelings of being alienated. Yes, what you're seeing in Ferguson right now is about the death of a member of the community, but there's a lot more going on here and the media needs to recalibrate its focus.
For starters, it's important to note that Ferguson has long struggled with crippling poverty.
The estimated median household income in for the small city in 2012 was $36,121, a slight increase from $35,647 in 2000, according to City Data.
The annual median income nationwide is roughly $51,000, far greater than the current rate in Ferguson. Further, the estimated per capita income for Ferguson residents in 2012 was just $19,775.
“Twenty-two percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line, and 21.7 percent receive food stamps. The unemployment rate in the town is 14.3 percent, or more than double that of St. Louis County and Missouri as a whole,” Newsweek reported, citing a study conducted by ArchCity Defenders, a group that provides legal services to the homeless and working poor in the St. Louis area.
The ArchCity Defenders report adds: “Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400.”
The Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and handled 12,018 cases in 2013, the report added, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”
Considering that the majority of Ferguson's authorities are white, compared to the city's overwhelmingly black population, data points such as this have lead to lingering feelings of frustration and anger.
“There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County that range from 12 people to 50,000 people. Eighty-six of them have their own courts. They have their own police forces,” said Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders. “What ends up being the product of all that is just a low-level sense of harassment on a daily basis. The clients that we represent feel that. It’s palpable for them.
“They resent it because it’s not about public safety,” he added. “These aren’t violent criminals. These are poor people.”
Further, many in Ferguson feel that they're not sufficiently represented by their local government.
As mentioned earlier, Ferguson is a majority African American city. Yet, the police force is mostly white, the city council is mostly white, the mayor is white, almost all the elected officials are white.
This has no doubt created the feeling that the people of Ferguson are underrepresented. But there's an important — and relatively obscure — detail in all of this: Ferguson municipal elections have terrible, terrible voter turnout.
Many of the city's residents simply don't vote, which likely explains the demographic contrast between voter and leadership.
"No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson’s mayoral and city council election are discouraging. This year, just 12.3 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7 percent and 8.9 percent respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative," MSNBC reported.
“I think there is a huge distrust in the system,” Leslie Broadnax, a Ferguson native, told MSNBC, adding that many African Americans think: “Well it’s not going to matter anyway, so my one vote doesn’t count,” she said. “Well, if you get an entire community to individually feel that way, collectively we’ve already lost.”
Obviously, until the people of Ferguson take control of their own community, they will continue to feel anthologized and marginalized. They must become more engaged and active in deciding who leads their community, and at least one national political party has realized this vacuum needs to be filled.
And as for the media, here's a suggestion: Rather than focusing exclusively on the police response to Brown's death, and rather than being active participants in events as they unfold, let's continue to investigate certain historical economic and political trends in Ferguson.
Understanding the roots of Ferguson's frustration will help everyone, the media, lawmakers and the American public, understand the mood and feeling in the city. More importantly, addressing these issues head on will move the community and its residents one step closer toward healing and reconciliation.