SAN DIEGO – As the parent of three young children, I want my kids to get in the habit of following current events. While I cook breakfast, they’ll often sit on the couch and watch the morning news.
But I’m also determined to teach my kids to take responsibility for their actions. When they misbehave, I’m tired of them pinning the blame on an invisible sibling named “Not Me.” As when I ask: “Who left these toys on the floor?” And everyone answers in unison: “Not me!”
More than anything, I want my kids to learn how to say: “I did it” and “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry.”
So, it would be nice if, in watching the news, my kids were not bombarded with messages that help those who misbehave avoid accountability. Like “Admit nothing.” Or “Blame someone else.” Or “Deflect responsibility.” Or “Play the victim.”
Those were the messages that much of the media sent after Ferguson, Mo. – along with a number of other cities around the country – erupted in violence following the decision by a grand jury to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of teenager Michael Brown.
The media responded by turning in a mediocre performance that excused the misbehavior of rioters and looters by advancing the narrative that such a reaction was justified.
Wilson, who recently resigned from the Ferguson Police Department, further inflamed the situation when he sat down for an exclusive interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. At one point, Stephanopoulos asked Wilson if he would do anything differently. In a response that probably surprised many people, Wilson said that, no, he would not.
Stephanopoulos asked the right question, but he should have put it to himself and his colleagues as well. It’s the media that should have covered differently the story of the grand jury’s decision and the ensuing riots. Much of the coverage was biased, sloppy, incomplete and overly simplistic.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough wasn’t concerned with why people looted businesses, damaged property and pelted police with rocks. In fact, he called the reaction “predictable.”
For Scarborough, the real culprit was Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, and city officials in Ferguson. The commentator claimed that they were guilty of poorly timing the release of the news that Wilson would not be indicted.
“It’s mind-boggling that a community and a state that had so mishandled this case from the very beginning continued to mishandle it at the very end,” Scarborough said.
Others zeroed in on the police, who are going to get criticized no matter what they do. During the summer, the criticism we heard most often was that they were too heavy-handed in trying to quell the unrest that erupted in the days after Brown was shot. Now, the criticism is that police didn’t do enough to stop the looting and violence.
That is what worried Amy Goodman, a liberal author and radio host who asked Rev. Al Sharpton if he thought police deliberately allowed the city to be destroyed.
“Last night, as we covered the protests in front of the Ferguson police station, it was packed with riot police, state troopers were there, all the advanced weaponry was there,” she said. “When we went over to West Florissant 1 / 8Avenue 3 / 8 and expected to be stopped there by the police as we were at the protests months ago, it was wide open. We saw no state troopers and we hardly saw police. Do you think the authorities let Ferguson burn?”
Sharpton said the answer should be obvious, and so he didn’t bother answering the question. No matter. Goodman had answered her own question, and made up her mind.
Conservative journalists have already offered two specific criticisms of the media coverage: that it was blatantly anti-prosecutor and anti-police, and that it so sensationalized the violence and unrest that it might have encouraged more of it. Anyone who has watched the news in the last several days knows that both critiques are valid.
But the media’s greatest failure in covering the unrest in Ferguson was failing to hold the rioters accountable for their actions and showing viewers that misbehavior has consequences. For instance, instead of glorifying those doing harm, why not profile those business owners who were harmed? Why not show rioters getting arrested and hauled off in handcuffs?
If that happened, who knows? I might just come around to the idea that it is safe to let my children watch the news again.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.