By way of invitation to a Portland area forum on the Trayvon Martin case (details available here)), Dr. Paul Louis Metzger asks “Why did this case receive so much attention, especially while other similar cases never got so much as a mention?” From my vantage point, isolated at the time in the mountains of Northern California, dependent upon mass media for details of what I first noticed in social media postings, I can only offer observations and conclusions bounded by those limitations. But here they are.
I first saw mention of the shooting in someone’s vehement reaction to Geraldo Rivera’s infamous claim that part of Martin’s attire, a hoodie, was responsible for his death. Mass media’s habit of covering media’s coverage almost immediately raised an impenetrable fog around any hope of finding facts about the case online. Too few quaintly preserve the ancient journalistic endeavor in our country: piecing together a story with some congruence to the events being reported. This archaic ideal, however, has little place in the competition to be the first to report any new sliver of conjecture by anyone, even when that conjecture is not being made by witnesses, law enforcement, or expert observers, but simply by another media-staff commentator weighing in on “facts” not yet in evidence.
So, one reason for the attention to this case appeared to be nothing more than our macabre glee at having fresh bodies to feed to the selachian (“of or pertaining to sharks”) demands of the news-cycle. But there were at least two other details that prompted the furtherance of the feeding frenzies.
Trayvon Martin, and to a lesser extent (as a Prussian-surnamed, self-identifying Hispanic) George Zimmerman, provided a concrete metaphor for the fears of blacks, Hispanics, and whites alike. This fear of “the other” (xenophobia, as discussed previously in this blog) comprises the potential for such deadly misunderstandings on the basis of preconceived stereotypes. The logic seems self-evident that “the stranger” should fear me at least as much as I fear them. And should some chance exchange inadvertently provoke a confrontation, then I should be prepared to do to them as they, I imagine, would do to me, should I appear ready to do it to them. Add to this the minority status of both parties, and for many white Americans the potential for discussion was opened more broadly. (This is likely the primary factor that kept this story at the top of the editorial priorities, above other, similar cases in the interim.)
According to Herschell Gordon Lewis, there are four great marketing motivators (some of us prefer the term “manipulators”). In his estimation, as I recall, greed, guilt, and exclusivity follow well behind fear as a means to influence others. And self-promoters who feed on our society’s fears in order to raise ratings, sell books, fund studies, and otherwise scavenge the carrion of tragedy were in abundance for weeks and months after the death of Trayvon Martin. Their number includes activists as well as commentators, news-readers as well as politicians, and, too frequently, religious leaders as well as regular citizens. But before we decry the growing school of sharks, we should remember that the profits they divide among them do come from somewhere. And it is those sources of their resources who bear responsibility for the actions we support. Real consequences in real lives result from our decision to watch incessantly, trying to be among the first to share, or like, or tweet, or otherwise prattle on about whatever suppositions are painted across the backdrop of the next new tragedy.
There is much more to be said, no doubt, about the reasons for such attention being raised over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story. I pray that the forum in Portland will be fruitful in recognizing a variety of other issues as well that may diminish the potential for similar tragedies in the future. Among the issues addressed, however, should be my personal culpability (and yours, too) for the consequences of continuing to consume “news-like products.”
Human beings are regularly distilled into fuel for fact-less fires signaling only the same, dangerously stereotypical perspectives. And when there are too few suppositions to report, we watch reports of what others have either chosen or failed to report regarding the too-few suppositions already available. Know this, though: some will base their actions tomorrow on the fears we have helped to instill in them today. Lest we sacrifice even more of our brothers and sisters to the gods of technological gossip, we are overdue to disconnect ourselves from this media machine.