The radio host asked over the phone whether I was in Ferguson. “No,” I told him. “I’m watching the news unfold just like your listeners.”
By the time the first caller asked his question—why I and others were ignoring the role an “anti-social culture of thuggery or gangster rap” plays in teaching young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to have no fear of consequences—the mistake in my assumption was clear. It seemed as if I was watching the news from Ferguson from a vantage point a universe away from that inhabited by host Jim Bohannon and, possibly, many of those who listened in on more than 500 stations nationwide Tuesday night.
I expected a reasonable discussion in which Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster, would take a position to the right of one I had taken in this space on the topic of Ferguson. What I got instead was some perspective on the challenges of having such a conversation across race and political divides at moments like this, when facts are so hard to come by.
The findings of recent polls on public perception of events in Ferguson run by Pew Research Center and The New York Times in partnership with CBS News reveal vastly different understandings of what’s happening depending on the race of the person polled. According the Pew report, four in five black Americans believe that the shooting of Brown by Darren Wilson “raises important issues about race,” compared to 37 percent of white people polled. Sixty-five percent of black people polled said the police had gone too far in responding to protesters in the wake of the shooting, compared to a third of white people. On Tuesday night, the host’s arguments and his selective reading of the coverage offered some context to the numbers. Among his arguments and framing of the issues were the following:
The primary problem in Ferguson is violent protesters.
The first question Bohannon asked was what police might do to quell the crowds, which seemed to me an odd place to start the conversation. Of the 163 arrests that have reportedly been made in Ferguson since Wilson killed Brown, 128 of those arrests have resulted in charges for failure to disperse. Just four have been for assaulting officers.
Audio from a correspondent in Ferguson that Bohannon played at the start of the segment confirmed that protesters are overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet the host still wanted to frame the conversation as one about violent anarchy raging in the Midwestern suburb. It’s a perspective similar to those described in a recent report from St. Louis in which white residents interviewed characterized the Ferguson protests as the result of “misplaced anger” and “bullshit.” They appear to be primarily concerned about how protesters’ actions (not Wilson’s) make their city and region look to the rest of the world.