FERGUSON, Mo. — The revolution, or whatever happens here, most certainly will be televised, but until then, every part of the lead-up will be, too. In recent days, shop owners boarding up stores have found themselves giving impromptu news conferences. Media galleries form to listen in on church sermons. Television trucks hum in the parking lot of a tire shop, a front-row seat across from police headquarters.
The national media has again assembled in Ferguson, but this time, they’ve been drawn here not by something that just happened but something that’s about to, with a grand jury deliberating whether to indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black teen. The any-day-now anticipation, coming with ever-revised cable news speculation, has returned this city of 21,000 to a spotlight it both understands and sometimes bristles at.
Media mega-events come and go. But this one stands out because it has gone on for so long, because it’s so emotionally charged, and because cameras have seized on a place that once considered itself ordinary. Some 3
Many residents, business owners and elected officials have welcomed the increased scrutiny, saying that a media presence helps expose systemic, race-related problems in the police force and the justice system. But others, particularly those who haven’t taken part in the protests, say news organizations have produced a warped portrait of Ferguson, a small city with middle-class homes and a historic shopping district.
They’re worried, too, that reporters are here to document the next round of violence, if there is one, not the underlying problems. “Riot porn” is what Democratic committee member Patricia Bynes called it, referring to images of young black men with their shirts off, using them to guard their faces from tear gas.
Bynes rejected any characterization of Ferguson as a failed community. “You aren’t seeing this city if you think this is a ghetto,” Bynes said. “And you are missing the story, which is that this could happen anywhere, including the suburbs.”
The grand jury, after a weekend pause, could meet again as early as Monday to discuss the case of Darren Wilson, the officer, who has not spoken publicly since the shooting. CNN anchors Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper both revealed Sunday on Twitter that they had met secretly with Wilson to solicit an exclusive interview. Several other networks and channels are in the running, said CNN’s Brian Stelter, who first reported the off-the-record negotiations.
A Wilson interview would provide a missing version of events that led to the shooting, but the negotiations themselves are noteworthy, given how tightly Wilson’s whereabouts and activities have been kept under wraps.
So, “literally only journalists know where [Wilson] is at?” one Twitter user asked Cooper after the anchor acknowledged “meeting briefly” with Wilson.
No matter what happens after the grand jury decision, many feel the wall-to-wall coverage has overplayed the extent of misbehavior in the aftermath of the shooting. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted rather pointedly this week that the property damage stands at $5 million — one-24th as much as that from a hailstorm two years ago. The newspaper also referred to The Washington Post’s description of Ferguson as a “burned-out symbol of racial and class divisions in America.” But only one building has burned.
“A lot of the press corps is looking for that kind of [violent] action, and that is contributing to the nonstop narrative of expecting violence,” said Mervyn Marcano, a communications strategist who works for several St. Louis grass-roots organizations. “I think that actually undermines the community-building work people are trying to do here.”
Many reporters and Ferguson residents say a complicated relationship has formed since the shooting in August. Some restaurants have benefited financially from the droves of hungry reporters. Other businesses, such as barbershops and dollar stores, say the media presence has at times emboldened protesters to be more violent, forcing owners to board their windows and costing them business.
Barber Thomas Bradley estimates that he has lost 80 percent of his business, in large part because many regulars want to avoid the neighborhood where the shooting occurred until things calm down. The boards covering the windows and the newspeople often hovering outside, he added, don’t necessarily help.
“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “You want justice, and you want people to have their voices be heard. But I also need to pay my bills.”
Derek Shaeffer, 55, a concrete laborer who has participated in protests, said, “I don’t mind having you guys around.”
Shaeffer explained: “There might be more harassment and beatings if the cameras went away. Our focus should be keeping you guys around. If the cameras had been here initially, Michael Brown wouldn’t be dead.”
Because of the media frenzy in Ferguson, many residents — even those with no direct connection to the shooting — have given multiple interviews. Charles Davis, who bought the Ferguson Burger Bar one day before the shooting, has told some version of his story to The Washington Post, USA Today, CBS, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN and Al Jazeera America. On a more disturbing note, several days ago, a passenger van nearing a protester-erected barricade was swarmed by cameramen, who turned into a barricade that prevented the van from backing out.
CNN has several dozen reporters and crew members here. The Post has four reporters, one photojournalist and one videographer. Some nights in Ferguson, media employees outnumber protesters. There are 166 reporters and editors on an e-mail list who have asked the St. Louis County prosecutor to notify them directly when the grand jury has reached a decision.
“A media circus,” said David Carson, a Post-Dispatch photographer. “When I was driving down West Florissant the other day, I saw three or four people being interviewed in the span of a half-mile.”
Carson said he has experienced the deep suspicion that the community feels about the media. On Sept. 23, he arrived at the spot where Brown was killed — where a memorial of candles and stuffed animals had been erected — to take pictures of another potential crime scene.
Part of the memorial had caught fire — accidentally or deliberately — opening fresh wounds among residents on Canfield Avenue.
“Some people came at me and told me to delete the pictures on my camera,” Carson said. “. . . They said, ‘You guys are just down here being vultures.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been down here since the first day.’ ”
Carson said some residents and protesters, who had seen him working for weeks to document the community’s response to Brown’s shooting, vouched for him, and the crowd backed off.
David Montgomery contributed to this report.