By the time the events surrounding the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri began to dominate news reports last month, Mugsy and I had just turned onto a segment on the return leg of our most recent cross-country road trip that was new to us.
As it almost always does during a feeding frenzy when far too many news outlets resort to speculation and grasping at anecdotes and dichotomies such as saint and sinner, those with agendas tend to usurp attention.
Running Durham’s organization responsible for serving the news media at the time, I had a front row seat to this formulaic pattern during the the now infamous claims of a stripper against some Duke Lacrosse players.
The police and the local newspaper had rightly closed the case, but the paper in nearby Raleigh threw gasoline on the embers, inflaming listserv advocates in Durham anew and within a day, a similar national frenzy ensued making it very difficult year to be in the “calm down business.”
Predictably, racism had become the storyline in Ferguson and I wondered as we cut southeast from Dubois, Wyoming along the Wind River Range if any of those producing stereotypical reports that day had ever read the report I did before I left home entitled Being Black Is Not A Risk Factor.
It’s being poor but it is even more complicated than that, which came to me the next day when my thoughts turned to another study on the stretch from Lincoln to Nashville including an unexpected stop.
The report is the kind of analysis of African-Americans by African-Americans that seems to quickly divide those eager to show progress in the struggle to overcome stereotypes from those who won’t let them go for fear of losing leverage to continue the struggle.
I first witnessed this in the early 1990s when an African-American, Dr. Shelby Steele, now a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, first published a remarkable book entitled The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America.
There is a coarseness in news coverage surrounding race that for me is at the root of why 80% of blacks think Ferguson raises important issues about race while nearly 50% of whites think it got more attention than it deserved.
It isn’t because these whites are all racist, although plenty of both blacks and whites are. It is due to the fatigue that stereotypical and anecdotally-frenetic news coverage creates reminding me somehow of a verse in Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the School Yard:
In a couple of days they're gonna take me away
But the press let the story leak
When the radical priest come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek
Apparently the BBC refused to lay it because it mentioned Newsweek by name.
That stretch I was driving that day of US Route 26 crosses the reservation for Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho people along its way to Casper near where two of my great-great grandfathers and a great (x3) stopped to build a ferry across the North Platte River in 1847.
When I watch television, it is entirely via streaming now and I find I am drawn to shows and movies where the landscape also serves as a character such as Longmire, The Killing, Wallander, Endeavor, Night Train to Lisbon, etc.
This part of Wyoming is a gently rolling sagebrush steppe of the Great Plains filling a gap between the fingers of the Middle and Southern ranges of the Rockies.
I have always been on the least intolerant end of that spectrum but still within a few hours that afternoon, I was able to catch fleeting glimpses of my own prejudice, one while crossing the reservation and one during dinner that night during a layover in Casper.
Until the end of the 1850s, a decade or so after all but two of my sixteen fifth generation ancestors had made the cross-country trek from various parts of America to settle along the western slopes of the Rockies, news coverage simply reported events.
Oh, there was plenty of vitriol and opinion too, but in July 1859, a new dimension was added when the first-ever news “interview” was conducted by Horace Greeley of Brigham Young during a stop in Salt Lake City by the New York Tribune publisher.
In Manhattan, Kansas, in route from New York to San Francisco, the then 48-year-old Greeley had caught up with Tribune journalist Albert Richardson to take a new, quicker route just opened with partners by the founder of the Pony Express.
As Richardson had earlier passed by what would become Ferguson, Missouri, land had just been donated to the Wabash Railroad coming down from Toledo on the condition that a station be built there.
At the time, nearby St. Louis had a population of around 160,000. But the surrounding county, including around Ferguson, was still very rural.
While Richardson notes that city streets there were filled with debates between pro and anti-slavery residents, out in the county, including where the Ferguson Train Depot would soon rise, there were still 1,156 slaveholders holding 3,346 African-Americans in slavery.
The Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Company ran its stagecoaches along part of the route one of my great-great grandfathers had captained a wagon train five years earlier, but then along a much faster route through just-founded Denver and then up and over the Southern Rockies.
Not only states, but towns within states such as Kansas, were divided as free or pro-slavery at the time and a fascinating read is the book entitled Beyond the Mississippi written by Richardson two decades later from notes in his journal.
Downloadable free including into a Kindle app, Richardson’s narrative, a first-hand snapshot of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and California in the pivotal years just before the Civil War, is a great cross country travel companion.
The news interview is rapidly becoming a thing of the past when it comes to news reports. There are still quotes and sound bites but mostly anchors now interview other reporters who respond to questions by substituting opinion and conjecture as stand ins for others who were directly involved or with direct knowledge.
Tomorrow, more about those fleeting insights into my own stereotypes and the real risk factor.