“Did one look at what one saw
or did one see what one looked at?”
– Hart Crane

This question seems especially striking in light of the ongoing struggles in Ferguson, Mo., and the media’s response.

“Forgetting MLK’s Message: Protesters in Missouri Turn To Violence” – FOX News chyron (Yep. That’s the takeaway, right there.)

“I’ve seen the video. It looks to me like you don’t need to bother with that particular factor because they all appear to be of a single, you know, of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin might be the way to phrase that.” — Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), addressing concerns about racial profiling in Ferguson.

“Ferguson, Missouri Looks Like A Rap Video” – Headline on Thought Catalog

What amazes me is the sheer number of people sitting at desks miles away who gazed into the news from Ferguson and saw there only confirmation of their previous biases.

Every time there is a story like this it reminds me of the tale of the blind men groping at an elephant. The elephant, one reported, was exactly like a tree (he had gotten hold of the leg). The elephant, another said, was exactly like a fan. (He had the ear.) The elephant, another said, was like a snake (he’d gotten the trunk). You can grab the same thing and come away with a completely and radically different idea of it — not even because you went in with any bias, just because the picture you saw was incomplete and you framed it for yourself as best you could.

This story is not about the press or about the Thing You Want It To Be About. This story is about the people of Ferguson.

But it is, a little bit at least, about the difference between looking at and seeing.

The situation in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson has been gaining attention. This is the kind of story that doesn’t always make the national news. The fact that it’s something we’re hearing about is because people are making a point to pay attention and keep it trending.

This is the power of social media. This could have not been a story. Or it could have just been a local story. Or it could have been something that we saw only from a distance, through the usual filters. Instead, it gathered steam. Read this. Follow this. Look at this. No one’s been telling you this story. Listen. There have been clear efforts by the police force in Ferguson to keep the media out. But they haven’t succeeded.  That this has become a national story both because and in spite of the efforts to shut down the media have reinforced what an important story it is to tell.

But there are many ways of diverting attention from it. And one is to make it about only what you want to look at.

The images coming out of Ferguson have been breathtaking. Tear gas. Police in riot gear. Police wielding military equipment. Protesters with their hands up. Police arresting members of the media. Angry protesters.

But a picture can hide as much as it reveals. Look on Twitter and you’ll hear conflicting opinions about who’s throwing what in this image? Is this a molotov cocktail?

(A: A protester is tossing back a canister of tear gas.)

Is this a picture of Michael Brown that “they” didn’t want us to see? (No. It is not. It is someone else entirely.)

As the hashtag “IfTheyGunnedMeDown” illustrated, the selection of image says a lot. Are you judged by your mistakes or by your triumphs? Who curates how you’re seen? What is the story that the picture tells? And what is the story that people read in the picture?

A picture can settle neatly into your understanding of how things were. It’s a magic-eye picture. Do you focus on these images or these? What emerges from the clouds of smoke? Is the story here that this is “Fergustan”? Is the point of the picture that this looks like Somewhere Else? Is this about Gun Control? Is this Selma 1965?

This story is not about the media, clearly. This isn’t about the reporters (including one for The Post) who got arrested or detained. It’s about the people of Ferguson. But it does illustrate why we need the media: to tell the story that does matter. These have not been the kindest years to our trust in the national media. But still, when people are trying to take reporters into custody when they are just doing their job, we know it’s a sign that something is wrong. When police are shutting down cameras, it is a sign that they know the truth is not going to be kind to them. As another night of protests approaches, it matters that this is a national story. It matters that the media are there to go in and capture as much of the truth as possible. It is possible to assemble a narrative for yourself, brokenly, on social media, only seeing what you want to look at, coming at it with your biases loaded, amplifying what you agree with, muffling what unsettles your viewpoint. That the Ferguson police are terrified of a media presence is a reminder of how much that presence can matter and help tell an important story, as honestly as possible, looking at everything. We fall short often. We can only do so much. But it’s worth striving.

Contrast this video to this one.

Did one look at what one saw or see what one looked at?

Protests over the shooting of Michael Brown were boisterous but peaceful Thursday as Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson took the helm in Ferguson. (Reuters)

 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.