The nation’s unrest has made for an unprecedented nightly action show on television, with control rooms that switch quickly between cars ablaze, police officers advancing on demonstrators and ransacked stores in cities across the country.
What’s easy to get lost are peaceful protesters concerned about police treatment of minorities — the raw wound reopened by George Floyd’s death.
Floyd’s brother, Terrence, publicly asked Monday for those people outraged by how George died last week after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his brother’s neck to make their feelings known peacefully.
That’s daytime television, however.
When darkness falls and prime-time television begins, earnest activism is replaced by tense scenes of conflict unique in their breadth. Scenes of urban unrest have been visible before in the nation’s history — the 1968 riots were more frightening and deadly — but not in so many cities at the same time, with so many cameras to observe.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said Monday that he’s worried about a backlash caused by the attention paid to violent demonstrations.
“If you only display that, in this whole ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ media obsession, than in many ways you are hurting George Floyd all over again,” said Sharpton, an MSNBC host. “Because he becomes a side story to the tragedy of what happened and to the pursuit of justice.”
What’s happening in the cities need to be covered, but not at the expense of losing Floyd, he said.
What appeared live on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC the last few nights was gripping and absorbing. In Washington, people stood holding cell phone cameras above their heads Sunday night, capturing flames shooting in the air, the way they would at a concert in more peaceful times.
MSNBC’s Garrett Haake walked through the streets reporting live and viewers could see what perhaps he couldn’t: police officers waving at him to get away.
Suddenly, bang! And an expletive. Haake had been hit by a rubber bullet. He kept trying to talk but his crew had separated, and anchor Katy Tur told him to find a safe refuge.
Switch to CNN and reporter Shimon Prokupecz is in New York’s Union Square, watching a roiling crowd in a tense standoff with police. He’s almost trampled when people suddenly run in his direction.
In Santa Monica, California, MSNBC’s Gadi Schwartz is in an outdoor mall, watching people stream out of a sporting goods store, carrying as much plundered merchandise as they could hold.
A police siren wails nearby, and everyone scatters.
Networks have done strong work covering demonstrations and speaking to peaceful protesters during the day, but what comes later is hard to compete with, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“The dominant pictures in 2020, as it was in 1968, are of fire and looting,” said veteran journalist Dan Rather, who reported for CBS News during the rioting 52 years ago. “That skews the coverage, as it did in 1968. It gives the impression that the whole country is in collapse. But the whole country is not in collapse. The whole country is not in flames.”
The challenge for journalists is to continue covering what prompted the demonstrations and the violence, he said.
“That gets lost in a newscast that goes from city to city, and scenes of looting or violence,” Rather said. “That’s part of the story. But the core of the story is why is this happening? What’s this all about?”
CNN, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, wasn’t around in 1968. Neither were Fox or MSNBC. Live coverage of rioting was rare. For one thing, television crews usually had to carry large, clunky cameras and race back to the office to have film processed.
Even during the 1994 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, the dominant image was somewhat removed: a helicopter shot of a driver being pulled from his truck and beaten. Portable, lightweight equipment now permits journalists to get in the middle of the action.
Rather was memorably manhandled while reporting at the raucous Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. That’s mild compared to what happened this weekend. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is investigating a stunning 78 reported cases of physical attacks on journalists over the past three days, in at least 25 different cities.
In many cases, journalists made it clear to authorities that they were members of the press, and were attacked anyway, said Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
It’s one reason why Sally Buzbee, executive editor at The Associated Press, stressed safety to the company’s news managers in an internal call on Monday morning.