Sensationalism, almost as a matter of necessity now, drives traditional media in the 21st century. Ever since the media's competition has evolved from the battle of the titans, "yellow journalism", days of Pulitzer versus Hearst, to the media versus any one with a computer and an Internet connection, the battle for ad revenue based on clicks and page views has become an ugly one; a "you have to look at this article and share it" one.
For the companies, those "vertical conglomerates", at the top of the food chain that own the smaller media companies, the victor of these battles gets rich; very rich.
But the journalists, the front-and-center infantry of these conglomerates, only get a sliver of the ad revenue coming into websites, and are forced into a fight for the scraps that trickle down from these companies' pockets. Thus, they are the the first, but not only, casualties of the sensationalistic war; desperately fighting for a small piece of the advertising revenue pie.
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, unfortunately, have become a casualty of this media sensationalism war, and the Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly has unofficially declared himself General.
Reilly is, perhaps, most famous for his time in Ferguson as the reporter who posted a picture of earplugs on Twitter and asked if "anyone could confirm" if they were rubber bullets. Yes, he mistook general, run-of-the-mill earplugs for rubber bullets. From an outsider's perspective, any clear-headed individual could obviously tell the difference, but when you're out in the streets, desperately seeking something "shocking" for attention, it's easy to act on the urge to swing for a grand slam and whiff terribly.
"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take," Wayne Gretzky once famously said.
The following day, Reilly was arrested in Ferguson for loitering in a McDonalds. He claimed, after his release, that he was assaulted by the arresting officer, but the footage was deleted. When interviewed about the incident on HuffPost Live later that evening, Reilly shed tears, stating he thought, as a journalist, that he was in a position of privilege and never imagined he would be treated in such a way by police.
These incidents are all indicative of someone who doesn't understand what a true journalist is, but rather, someone who has a good understanding of how a journalist can make money.
I had never heard of James Foley until the news of his death, but I imagine I have seen a number of his photos in the Middle East. And, judging from what I have read about him, and what his family and friends have said about him, I imagine he preferred it that way. I would also think that, armed with just a camera and a bulletproof vest, Foley never believed he was in a position of privilege as a journalist, or immune to the consequences and horrors of war.
Foley, by all accounts, wanted to make a difference by photographing what he saw in the troubled areas of Syria; the good, the bad, and the tragic. There was no bias in what he shot, it was simply this is what it is and make of it what you want. And, sadly, it was this dedication to the love of his craft that cost him his life.
Based on what I read about Foley it seems that, even in the midst of a war-torn Syrian battleground, he would have never picked up earplugs and declared them to be rubber bullets.
Reilly, though, did, and now his latest publicity stunt is crowd-funding money to hire a "full-time" journalist to stay in Ferguson for a year and report what is happening.
The campaign is tied up in a neat, little bow entitled "The Ferguson Fellowship", but it essentially boils down to a company that recently sold its publication to AOL for $315 million, asking you to donate money to them; not to the stores or the victims of the community; to them, so they can continue to produce content that produces money, for them.
I am not a crowd-funding expert, but I imagine when the creators of Kickstarter came up with the idea of crowd-funding, they never imagined large, for-profit conglomerates would ask the public in a down economy for money (and suggest they sign up for recurring payments) to do their job. I would assume, they would think those companies would just hire employees out of their own pockets if they really cared that much about covering the physical and mental rebuilding efforts of a torn community.
But it's not really about the coverage; it's about the dollars.
In Ferguson, Missouri, it's not the community causing the biggest trouble, it's the attention vultures who have come from out-of-state to exploit a positive protest. For instance, the Communist Party's Gregory Lee Johnson, who has been attributed for instigating most of the nightly riots on the street. Not to suggest that Reilly, and many others in the media, are in any way, shape, or form inciting violence, but they, too, have come from out-of-state to cash in on an opportunity to exploit chaos in an, otherwise, peaceful demonstration.
Unfortunately, a peaceful revolution doesn't sell newspapers, violence does.
And in the wake of the media's tireless dedication to violence and unrest is a public that has become divided on whether or not Ferguson has become a representation of freedom and justice, or a party ground for looters and "thugs". And, either way you fall on this debate, the fact there is this divide is a serious blow to any one trying to do something positive in the community.
In the end, there is more than likely a much larger issue about our society at play here. Probably something about how the media is just giving us what we want; it's our blood-lusting demand that has caused sensationalism to thrive in journalism. And one could probably argue the other way, too. That the public has become addicted to the sensationalism because that is what we have been fed by the media; it's the media's fault, not the public.
But, if Ferguson can teach us anything, now is not the time to argue and divide over the birth of sensationalism; now is the time to change it.