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MEMBERS ONLY: The Media Wanted To See Trouble in Ferguson, but Not for the Reason You Think

Were cable news outlets actually hoping for a nightmare in Ferguson last week because it would bring in ratings? Yes and no.
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(Photo: Robert Cohen/St Louis Post-Dispatch)

It's raining in L.A. If you know anything at all about this city, you know that it very rarely rains here and given the drought most of California has been suffering through over the past few years this is especially true right now. Heavy rain in Los Angeles can bring with it mudslides, flooding and some truly dangerous driving, but really any rain sends this city into an apoplectic tailspin considering how its residents are confused and terrified of any weather that isn't 78-degrees and sunny. It's because of this that even the threat of a few dark clouds is heralded by local news stations declaring, via a ferocious attack of splashy graphics and ominous music, that they're on "STORMWATCH" and their evil weather supercomputer, the Mega Doppler 7000 Rain Master, is fully armed and operational. When I worked in local news out here years ago, my argument was always that, as rain has been happening since the dawn of the planet and it's not like it's something that sneaks up on you in Southern California, you just couldn't get away with calling it "Breaking News." I was voted down every time.

I bring this up to make a point about how television newspeople, and really newspeople in general, think. I bring it up because over the weekend, on CNN's Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter and two guests debated the question of whether the media wanted to see a violent reaction in Ferguson, Missouri because it would make for "good TV," which would of course make for high ratings. Stelter pointed out that the ratings across cable news on Monday night of last week were indeed huge, as millions tuned in to watch Ferguson explode following the decision by a grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Mike Brown. He therefore wondered about the motives of cable journalists in descending upon the town, discussing it with ex-CNN correspondent and current director of the George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Cesno and St. Louis Media History director Frank Absher. It was a good and important conversation, but one in which no one was willing to admit to reality.

Right off the bat Frank Sesno called any consideration of how the audience might strongly respond to images of rioting "cynical." He declared, "People don't sit around in editorial meetings... saying, 'We hope there's violence so that it drives the ratings up.'" He's right about this -- to an extent. It's true that you're unlikely to find a responsible TV news organization where producers and managers talk openly about how they want to see terrible things happen so that they can capitalize on them. But that doesn't mean they don't secretly want to see terrible things happen -- and unless you're an executive far removed from the newsroom the reason usually has nothing at all to do with the ratings. Sesno's correct when he says it's cynical -- it's cynical as hell -- but the truth is that newspeople often want to see the worst possible outcome to a situation because then they've got news. It's the nature of the beast that it hunts for blood. This isn't to say that all journalists are the same, but especially when they can be removed from the danger -- as TV producers sitting in a control room are -- they'll usually long for the excitement of an ongoing breaking news situation over a quiet resolution to a story any day of the week. Even if they're not willing to admit it to themselves.

What this says about newspeople, particularly those in TV, is maybe even more disconcerting than the notion of them pushing violence in the name of ratings. At least if numbers are the goal you can blame the audience, but if you're someone who can actually cop to enjoying the rush of covering an incident that's far more than just a "TV show" for the real people it's impacting, that says a lot about who you are as a person. Maybe this is part of the reason I never even tried to get back into TV after leaving CNN: my ability to detach from the story I was covering and my willingness to admit that I enjoyed the rush -- to the point where I actually wanted to see bad things happen -- started to get under my skin after a while. It takes a certain kind of person to be a journalist who sucks the marrow out of his or her job and that person is generally not somebody you want to be good friends with. As Matt Taibbi once said, journalists are supposed to be assholes.

There's a hype machine that winds up whenever a big news story arises; it happens at both the local and network levels. There are departments within a news organization whose job it is to promote that organization's coverage and to sell the organization itself as the one and only place you should be turning for news. There are people, in other words, whose careers consist of coming up with clever names for the weather radar and producing coverage testimonials after the fact. But these people aren't usually connected with the day-to-day editorial decisions and therefore they often don't have the disposition of the producers, executive producers, writers and so on. They think in terms of the big picture or the post-mortem impact rather than coverage itself; they're not in the control room for hours on end when news is breaking. The hype they create is therefore manufactured rather than being the result of genuinely powerful television or journalism as it happens. Most people I know who work within a newsroom could never imagine something like this. Their adrenaline comes straight from the action and their role in it.

But you have to have that action in order to feel that way. In other words, yes, whether it's a rainstorm or a riot a big story is thrilling and it's easy to get hooked on the rush. The notion that a newsperson might actually be rooting for things to go horribly wrong because it makes for a better story may sound borderline sociopathic, but to a point that's simply how it is. You don't go into TV news to cover cats being rescued from trees. You go into it hoping the tree is on fire, the cat is a bengal tiger and the guy trying to rescue it is being shot at. It isn't about the ratings -- it's about the news.

I'm watching the local station right now and someone is standing near a house that looks like it might be destroyed at any moment by a mudslide. There are people who live in that house, who call it home. And yet somewhere on the other side of town, right now, there's a producer sitting in a control room who's secretly hoping it gets washed away live on the air.

Go ahead and say it: it's despicable. Trust me -- we already know.