SEEMA MUSTAFA | 3 JUNE, 2020
CNN Catches the Racism Bull By the Horns - Lessons For Us All
Trump Vs People
The play out of sheer democracy in the United States carries a message for all countries that claim to follow the same form of government. A President clearly on the side of racism and the use of force against dissent is being confronted stoutly by the media that has given a platform to Governors of States, Mayors, Bishops, the Opposition,the people of the country who are refusing to be cowed down despite his threat to use the military to quell protests.
The murder of African American George Floyd by cops, with one sitting on his neck for over eight minutes while he gasped “I cant breathe” over and over again as life went out of him was shot by passers by on their mobile phones. The days since have exposed the two faces of America, the one represented by Trump who has made it clear through a series of tweets --and what he did not say---that one, he has little compassion for Floyd and his family; that he has no time for protestors who are ideologically driven “they are not right wing” ; that the law as he understands will be made to prevail; that domination is for him essential; that he will move in the military even into states that do not want it if he finds they are not being able to “control” the protests and so on and so forth.
In between he used the police to clear the White House of peaceful protestors so that, as the media there put it, he could walk down to a church and hold up a Bible for a brazen photo opportunity. As any number of experts and journalists pointed out, including the Bishop of the rather famous historical church he chose to pose outside, the President did not even go into the church, or for that matter open the Bible that he held up as some kind of trophy. More so as the presidential elections are around the corner, just five months away.
On the other hand Joe Biden, former vice president and now the Democrats candidate for these elections, spoke with compassion, questioned the President’s attitude, spoke of the need for Americans to come together against racism, pointing out that “I can’t breathe” carries a message for all. We are a nation in pain, he said emphasising the need to come together. He said that he would not traffic in fear and division. “We are in a battle for the soul of the nation,” he said adding that it was time to open the heart and not clench fists and counter racism once and for all.
But it's the role of the American media, and specifically CNN that showcases journalism as it is and ought to be. And exposes those who have crossed the barriers into the world of reality propaganda as masqueraders and certainly not journalists. This includes most sections of the Indian media and some in the US as well, that have flouted and violated the basic tenets of journalism.
I am going to be specific to CNN as I have been watching it around the clock ever since Floyd was killed, and not being able to find a single flaw in the professional spot coverage by teams on the ground, with the narrative being threaded together by a host of seasoned anchors. The news channel has brought into play what is the best in journalism with coverage that is factual, courageous, bold, honest, compassionate. And weaves the micro into the macro, speaking for the victims and those at the receiving end of racism, namely the Black community. The anchors are not hysterical or screaming, but questioning even as they prod the reporters on the ground for more details, and ask experts what many might consider awkward questions. US President Donald Trump is getting it as good as he gives, with the channel performing the role of the fourth pillar of democracy by raising questions, and castigating the President for all that he has said and not done.
So in full play CNN has established:
1. For journalists everyone is accountable, from the President downwards. To be fair to Trump he has before this violence been holding regular press conferences as part of White House tradition, although his interactions with the media have been often angry and bitter. Since Floyds death, it is the media that has pointed out that Trump’s ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ is a throw back to the ugly racism of the 1960’s; has pilloried the President for the Bible photo-op; has questioned his decisions to use force on protestors; and kept him firmly in the dock for not showing sufficient compassion to the impacted family and concern for the Black community’s angst. His every action is discussed with Twitter also bowing to media pressure to flag one of Trump's tweets as controversial.
2. CNN has provided a big platform for Governors, Mayors, Bishops, police chiefs amongst ordinary citizens to air their views. A police chief went to the extent of saying that it would be best if Trump were to shut up, A Bishop came on to question the photo-op at great length. Governors and Mayors have been speaking out on the issue of racism, an unresolved issue, and providing insights into protests in their respective states. The Opposition has been given space through it all, but in a perspective and context of national unity, democracy, equality and justice. It has been done very professionally and brings out what I have always maintained, that good journalists are trained, they just dont drop from the top to deal with the top.
3. CNNs reporters and crew have been covering all major cities providing rare insight into the protests, speaking to protestors, bringing out the problems being faced by them, interviewing cops about their limitations and concerns; and even while condemning the looting and violence that no one can support taking care to point out---over and over again---that one, the majority of protestors are for peace with chants for peaceful protests recorded by the cameras; and two, the crowds are mixed and not just Black as Trump was trying to project. This is a major, and clearly two lies of right wing propaganda, that CNN has taken an editorial decision to bust. Not through commentaries alone, but through the cameras on the ground that have been focusing on the fact that the crowds are a young mix of both communities.
4. Amazing radical and progressive voices have been given space on the channel. Young writers, poets, activists; seniors who bring in the historical perspective of racism; experts who have been slowly building a case for resolving the issue once and for all in the run up to the presidential elections; even as the channel and its journalists weave together the thread of a community, discriminated and marginalised and pushed out by White supremacists (their words not mine) from decision making. Voice after voice has established the case on CNN, Black and White merging into the channels ‘we are one’ mandate.
5. The editorial policy is brought through clearly and eloquently by the anchors in the narratives that they have so professionally been weaving through the days and nights without once losing the plot or getting carried away by at times nasty images - there is compassion and not hysteria; there is complete support for the minority Black community; there is a clear statement that racism needs to be resolved with equality and justice; there is the decision to support the cops where required but to grill the state’s police force at every juncture; there is unhesitating questioning of Trump and his decisions.
Journalist compassion was first visible when Floyds family came on CNN and the anchor assured them of full support, and told them that they should just say and they would stop the interview immediately. And has stayed through the reporting throughout.
Professionalism was so very visible when a CNN reporter was arrested along with the crew and taken away by the cops without explanation ---the manner in which he handled being handcuffed without losing his cool, just asking them why they were arresting him; and in the immediate support he got from the anchors and the channel that secured his and the crews release within hours. Not just that the Governor came on to apologise, and the channel pointed out repeatedly that their reporter had been arrested as he was a person of colour, as their other reporter who was white and also reporting from the vicinity had not been touched. The anchors did not hesitate to say this through the course of the day as without hysteria but firm determination CNN made it clear that their team had to be released.
This is classical good journalism. The kind we did see in India in the past in brief flashes, but saw it nevertheless. Where editors told young reporters that you stand up for no one---not even the Prime Minister of India--- except the President of India as he represents the nation and the flag. That you do not address anyone as sir and ma’am. That you question everyone, regardless of power and authority and status. That you are from a profession that exists as a watchdog, as a fearless and honest messenger, as the fourth pillar that needs to be strong and bold to keep democracy vibrant and alive. And that you stand for the underdog, those who are at the receiving end of power, who are marginalised and victimised, and whose rights are trampled upon.
It is interesting now given the twist and turn of American politics, that if Trump wins the elections those who stand for his ideology and thought (or rather lack of it) process will be strengthened across the world. And if he loses those supporting and standing for equality, justice, liberty, freedom will perhaps return to the centre of the political stage. The polarisation seems to be complete.
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