1992: We Weren’t Listening
By not tapping into rap’s message of violence media failed to prepare public for rampage.
[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of Nieman Reports.]
Conversations with blacks and whites during the three days of mayhem that followed the April 29 verdicts in the Rodney King police beating case revealed a difference of opinion that pollsters were late to record.
While whites were shocked and appalled at the assaults, the looting, the firebombings, many blacks were only appalled. The subtle difference is that a lot of blacks weren’t really surprised at the violent reaction to the innocent verdicts given the cops accused of beating King.
That most whites had not previously realized the degree of rage among black youths that exploded in the Los Angeles riot can in part be attributed to the media’s ineptness in reporting why that rage existed. It didn’t start with the Rodney King case.
White readers, watchers and listeners of the daily news absorb the fact that homicide has become the leading cause of death among young black men as easily as they wipe up a kitchen counter spill with a Bounty towel. The media have failed to provide them with the perspective to be genuinely touched by such numbers.
The carnage occurring in America’s cities daily is not normal; rage is its fuel. But because of the way it is reported, as news from the urban war front, far removed from where they live, many whites simply don’t care to know why the people involved are killing each other. They don’t know them.
Even black suburbanites, however, can’t help identifying with what is happening in the inner cities. Many of them came from such surroundings. Some have personally witnessed the disregard for human life that would allow someone to uncaringly shoot anyone within range of a speeding car or stomp on the head of another human being.
The media daily provide glimpses of such aberrant behavior, but those glimpses were not enough to prepare TV-watching white America for the sight of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck, beaten bloody, then shot in the leg.
Perhaps white America would not have been as surprised had the media done better reporting the messages being sent to black youths, messages that tell them violence is an acceptable means of expression.
It was almost comical to see news staffs across the country tap the usual suspects, the “black leaders,” to explain the anger expressed not just in Los Angeles but in many cities from San Francisco to Atlanta.
These black leaders, usually men, usually 50-plus years of age, could relate to what was happening in the streets but they did not have the perspective of the young people participating in spontaneous anarchy.
Why didn’t the media go to today’s leaders whose messages more closely resemble Bobby Seale’s than Martin King’s, the leaders whose messages have made violent reaction the chosen form of protest among many young blacks? Why didn’t they go to the rap music artists?
It is a mistake for mainstream, white media to write off this music form as sheer entertainment, totally frivolous. Rap is often political, it is often philosophical, many of its artists have the power to motivate masses of people. In fact, some do just that.
O’Shea Jackson, the rap artist who calls himself Ice Cube, released a song last year titled “Death Certificate,” that included the words “Oriental one-penny motherfuckers… Pay respect to the black fist/Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.”
Was that not the attitude of blacks who sacked Korean shops in Los Angeles? Their anger was not just jealousy that Korean merchants were doing well in black neighborhoods. They believe the Korean merchants only see blacks as customers or robbers, never as people.…
Some listened to the electrically charged rap of Ice Cube or other proponents of violence as a solution, artists such as NWA (Niggers With an Attitude), Sister Souljah and Public Enemy, whose “By the Time I Get to Arizona” video depicts Arizona public officials being killed for opposing a Martin Luther King state holiday. News reports about Ice Cube’s “Death Certificate” and Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” primarily concerned white reactions or the artists’ defense of their work. Left unexplored was the racial climate, the anger among black youths, that would make it profitable for record companies to promote songs with those subjects.
The media usually find it convenient to paint rap artists with the same stereotypical brush they use for many things African-American in nature. They want to place them in a niche that does not take into account their complexities.
Reporters need to point out that artists such as Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) are more political activists than rap stars. A former member of Public Enemy, Sister Souljah makes fiery speeches that reflect her being both streetwise and formally educated. She spent four years at Rutgers University, with overseas studying stints in Spain, Zimbabwe and the Soviet Union.…
Whites might not have been as surprised by the violent reaction to the King beating verdict had the media given them more than occasional disjointed reports on the violence that has so consumed the lives of many young black people that it even includes their preferred music.
The media don’t hesitate to report the results of that violence, someone being maimed or murdered. They even occasionally report on the violence found in rap music, but rarely do those reports take into consideration the conditions that have created an audience for this vitriol to a hip-hop beat.
Some might argue that every time there is a new release of statistics showing the depths to which America’s black citizens are still assigned, the media report it. Indeed, they have reported that black unemployment, at more than 15 percent, is twice the rate of whites; that blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, but 27 percent of the chronically unemployed; that nearly one in four black men aged 20 to 29 is either in prison or on parole or probation; that the median household income for black families is $20,000 compared to $36,000 for whites.
Perspectives Needed on People’s Feelings
Numbers and more numbers are reported and reported. But what is lacking in the analytical stories that accompany the statistics is the perspective that makes people realize what those numbers say about how people feel about themselves and others.
Missing are enough stories about the people in those statistics that have nothing to do with numbers, positive stories that make the reader or listener feel empathy for that person when the statistics are released.
In retrospect, the King beating case verdict should not have been unexpected. It is very difficult to get people who feel this country has given up too much to criminals to punish their protection against crime.…
A jury would not convict police officers of brutality in the case of Don Jackson, the private investigator who videotaped his arrest three years ago in Long Beach, California. The police pushed his head through a plate glass window. And The Chicago Tribune reported during the Los Angeles riots that only six cops there have been charged with abuse in the last 10 years and only one was convicted, an officer who shot an unarmed man in the back of the head during a 1983 traffic stop.
But just as the King beating trial verdict might have been expected, especially given the change of venue to a suburb popular with police retirees, the aftermath of the verdict should have been anticipated, too.
And perhaps it would have been had the media done a better job of connecting the dots, a better job of reporting that the violence being played out in urban neighborhoods daily is not just about dope deals and domestic arguments.
This violence has at its roots not just criminality but a common despair, a common belief that the system only responds to anger. That anger exists in this country wherever there are people who feel they don’t count, that they are not being treated fairly, that they are not being heard. If the media doesn’t listen to them and report what they are saying, then who will?
The 1960’s riots saw the number of black reporters and photographers rise in cities where the media found a brown face could go where a white one could not. But the violence that broke out in cities after the King beating verdict included attacks on journalists regardless of their color.
The media are no longer trusted to tell the whole story of the neglected communities where violence is most likely to occur. The media must regain that trust.
Harold Jackson, a 1991 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, is with The Birmingham News. A journalist for 17 years, he has also worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, United Press International, and the Birmingham Post-Herald.