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Petri: What exactly are we seeing in Ferguson?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

“Did one look at what one saw or did one see what one looked at?” – Hart Crane

This question seems especially striking in light of the struggles in Ferguson, Missouri, and the response by members of the media and others. Three examples:

“Forgetting MLK’s Message: Protesters in Missouri Turn To Violence,” Fox News chyron.

“I’ve seen the video. It looks to me like you don’t need to bother with that particular factor because they all appear to be of a single, you know, of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin might be the way to phrase that,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, addressing concerns about racial profiling in Ferguson.

“Ferguson, Missouri Looks Like A Rap Video,” headline on Thought Catalog. What amazes me is the sheer number of people sitting at desks miles away who gazed into the news from Ferguson and saw only confirmation of their biases.

Every time there is a story like this, it reminds me of the tale of the blind men groping at an elephant. The elephant, one reported, was exactly like a tree (he had gotten hold of the leg). The elephant, another said, was exactly like a fan (he had the ear). The elephant, another said, was like a snake (he’d gotten the trunk). You can grab the same thing and come away with a radically different idea of it – not even because you went in with any bias, but because the picture you saw was incomplete and you framed it for yourself as best you could.

This story is not about the media or about the thing you want it to be about. This story is about the people of Ferguson.

But it is also, a little bit at least, about the difference between looking and seeing.

Ferguson shows the power of social media. This could have not been a story. Or it could have just been a local story. Or it could have been something that we saw only from a distance, through the usual filters. Instead, it gathered steam. Read this. Look at this. No one has been telling you this story. Listen.

There have been clear efforts by the police in Ferguson to keep the media out. But they haven’t succeeded. This became a national story because and in spite of the efforts to shut down the media, which have reinforced what an important story it is to tell.

But there are many ways of diverting attention from it. And one is to make it about only what you want to look at.

The images coming out of Ferguson have been breathtaking. Tear gas. Police in riot gear. Police wielding military equipment. Angry protesters. Protesters with their hands up. Police arresting members of the media.

A picture can hide as much as it reveals. As the hashtag “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown” illustrated, the selection of an image of a person says a lot. Are you judged by your mistakes or your triumphs? Who curates how you’re seen?

A picture can settle neatly into your understanding of how things were. It’s a magic-eye picture. Is a protester throwing a Molotov cocktail or returning a tear gas canister? What emerges from the clouds of smoke? Is the story that this is “Fergustan”? Is the point of the picture that this looks like Somewhere Else? Gun control? Selma 1965?

This story is not about the media, clearly. This isn’t about the reporters (including one for The Washington Post) who were arrested. It’s about the people of Ferguson. But it does illustrate why we need the media: to tell the story that does matter. These have not been the kindest years for our trust in the national media. But still, when people are trying to take reporters into custody when they are just doing their jobs, it’s a sign that something is wrong. When police are shutting down cameras, it is a sign that they know the truth is not going to be kind to them.

It matters that this is a national story. It matters that the media are there to capture as much of the truth as possible. It is possible to assemble a narrative for yourself, brokenly, on social media, only seeing what you want to look at. That the Ferguson police are terrified of a media presence is a reminder of how much that presence can matter and help tell an important story, as honestly as possible, looking at everything.

We fall short often. We can do only so much. But it’s worth striving – to look at everything, and to see.

• Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.

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