I was all set to write about something else, which I may write about later, but then something happened. I saw the news on Sunday that 19 people were shot at a Mother’s Day parade in New Orleans, and that made me extremely sad to hear, but that’s not actually the something that happened that made me not write about the something else. Because I felt like plenty of people were going to write about that, right?, a shooting in broad daylight at a large group of people—one that injured 19 people, including children, at a parade, three gunmen and the sun shining down. That story would get told, I thought, and so I continued to think about this other thing, a topic entirely unrelated to diversity and demographics, sitting with my family and celebrating Mother’s Day, periodically checking the news.
On Monday morning, I woke up and pulled up my news aggregator on my phone and noticed that there was no mention of the 19 people shot in New Orleans. I went to the front page of the New York Times and couldn’t find a single mention of the shooting of 19 people in New Orleans. I did a search and learned that they ran an AP-written story on the shooting of 19 people in New Orleans in Monday’s print edition on page A11, 200 words. So far, except for an editorial by Frank Bruni, that seems to be the only article they’ve run.
The FBI spokesperson was very clear that this was “just” street violence.
“From all of our intelligence,” she said, “ we have no reason to believe it was an act of terror, just street violence.”
On Sunday, CNN and the New York Times had it running on their front pages for a while. So did the Washington Post. Monday, from some informal polling of friends, that coverage was mostly gone—in the case of the New York Times, the shooting was entirely absent from the front page of their website by midday Monday, and it has remained absent since.
In that same informal polling of Facebook friends (and friends of friends), 51 people told me how they had learned about the shootings in New Orleans. Over a third of the people said they didn’t know it had happened, and had found out from me.
“I had no idea, and I watched the news last night.”
“I always check CNN and this is the first I heard of it.”
“It is so weird and silent that I assumed I was missing something…”
I don’t really know how to write about what I’m feeling here. It is a mixture of outrage and profound sadness.
Another incident happened a while ago. It was a public event, lots of people around, violence that interrupted joy. It was terrifying. It was labeled terror. Twelve people died, 100 or more were injured. A full-scale manhunt ensured in which a city was locked down, people forced to stay indoors. A guy wrote a story about how he got stuck with a one-night-stand all day because of the lockdown. James Taylor and Aerosmith participated in a fundraiser with New Kids on the Block. Barack Obama went on television and, having learned what happens when you take too long to call something an act of terror, called it an act of terror. At least one state senator called for the torture of the suspects (Quote: “So, scum bag #2 in custody. Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk to save more lives?”). A whole lot of people got Chechnya and the Czech Republic mixed up. The New York Post and Reddit, among others, were suddenly filled with vigilantes who started digitally hunting down a high schooler and a missing college kid who ended up dead. The New York Times has over 151,000 results if you search for “Boston marathon bombing.” And it deserved all the coverage it got and more.
But what it got me thinking about was why one incident, a massive violent attack, would get tremendous and sustained media attention while another similar attack would not. In a country where 78% of Americans go online and 46% of Americans have smartphones, within 24 hours of the bombing I swear I read, though cannot now find, an article that indicated that about 75% of the entire adult US population knew it had happened. And now, here, a third of my highly-connected, social-media and traditional-media-savvy friends didn’t know that 19 people got shot in broad daylight.
So what are the similarities and differences here? Both were mass attacks, though the Boston one (1) took place on a weekday, (2) was a bombing instead of a shooting, (3) had fatalities, (4) occurred at a famous event, (5) took place in a major northern city, (6) injured/killed predominantly white people, (7) was perpetuated by two foreign-born brothers who were Muslim. The New Orleans attack occurred on a weekend, no one was killed (though two children were among the injured), and was perpetuated by three black men against a bunch of black people in a southern city.
The New Orleans story wasn’t sexy. No one died. There weren’t photographers there to capture heartbreaking images of men with their legs blown off being saved by good Samaritans. For a while, there wasn’t even video, though they’ve found some now. But also, and crucially, it wasn’t “terrorism.” It was “street violence.” Which means it happened down there, to those people, the way it has been happening for so long. Nevermind that 19 people getting shot at should always be classified as a type of terrorism. And so the story, after less than 24 hours, was subsumed by discussions of the IRS going after Tea Party groups and various Republicans trying to come up with enough about Benghazi to pin it on Obama. Joyce Brothers died. Angelina Jolie got a preventative double mastectomy.
The media, increasingly, follows what people latch on to. It attempts to secure its survival by measuring readership and impact and choosing this story over that story based on what people are most likely to read. The New York Times, precariously balanced on the precipice of insolvency, moves on to something else that its loyal readers will read, that will draw the attention of those inside that demographic that is most precious to the advertisers that keep the company going now. Some of this may sound familiar to us in the arts. It should; this is sometimes (often?) how things seem to work now.
We must constantly fight against the impulse to only tell the stories that our current fans want us to tell.
My naïve frustration at the disparity in coverage between these two incidents leaves some of my friends and colleagues of color frustrated in turn that I can be so surprised that such disparity might still exist.
“Clayton,” one says, “black people got shot by a black person and nobody died. Why would you expect that to be news? Why do white people always think that black folk are joking when we say that THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT US!! Are you starting to believe me?!”
That breaks my heart. And it makes it hard for me to discuss the need for us to create a safe space in which we can be clumsy, in which we can navigate stumbling towards a better understanding of the world, because as another black colleague put it during a panel session I moderated (paraphrased from memory), “I am so angry that we are still having this conversation. You keep saying we need to offer up a safe space for this conversation. It is hard to feel unsafe, isn’t it? I know I am tired of feeling unsafe as a woman. I am tired of feeling unsafe as a black woman. And now you white people want to feel safe to talk about it?”
And yet, yes, I am frustrated, and perhaps that frustration emerges from a naïve and narrow understanding of the realities of the world. And yes, it must be exhausting to have been shouting at the top of your lungs that inequality exists everywhere for decades and to now, now, have to graciously nod as a few white people emerge groping and begin, just begin, to understand. It must be strange to feel ragged and tired of feeling unsafe much of the time, and then to be asked by those who sometimes make you feel unsafe for safety, time to process, the patience to make mistakes.
I am ashamed to have to ask, but I will anyway: my anger is genuine, as is my hope that we can start, haltingly, to make it better. I don’t deserve your patience, and you don’t deserve to have to wait to see a day when 19 people being shot would last 24 hours of a news cycle regardless of circumstance. I know my belief that change is possible grates against your hard-set and long-learned belief that we can’t really change.
There are places in the world where New Orleans made instant and front-page news. Friends in New Zealand and the Netherlands let me know that they knew instantly, that it was blared on the radio, that it was covered and covered and covered. In some places, “street violence” is still shocking enough to warrant air. In some places, the nuance of north and south, of black and white, of dead and wounded, of bombs and guns, is still lost amidst the general grief that such bad things can happen to people.