Michael Tracey, Medium, July 26, 2020
We are now approaching the two-month mark since the riots that erupted across the United States in late May and early June. There is a reasonable argument to be made that these riots were unprecedented in U.S. history — or at the very least, since the 1960s. Yet if one surveyed the national media today, you’d barely even know anything happened. Nor would you likely be aware that those who bore the brunt of the destruction — largely minorities whose sensibilities don’t fit into any neatly-delineated ideological category — are still acutely suffering from the fallout.
Yes, civil unrest has of course occurred before. But the riots of 2020 exhibited features which belie any easy historical parallel. For one thing, consider their enormous geographic scope. While the most extreme riots in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and particularly Minneapolis did receive considerable attention — however fleeting, incomplete, and unnecessarily inflected with knee-jerk partisanship — there were also smaller-scale riots in surprisingly far-flung places that you hardly would’ve known about unless you lived in the area, happened to visit, or intentionally sought out what remains of the bare-bones local media coverage. To take just a small sampling: Atlantic City, NJ, Fort Wayne, IN, Green Bay, WI, and Olympia, WA all underwent significant riots, at least per the normal expectations of life in these relatively low-key cities. Did you hear anything about them? Because I hadn’t, and I’m abnormally attuned to daily media coverage. Only because I personally visited did I learn of the damage.
These riots exploded with such intensity, across so many jurisdictions, and within such a contained period of time — roughly speaking, a one-week stretch beginning May 28, the day the chaos in Minneapolis/St. Paul reached a grisly apex — that no other instance of past civil unrest seems quite analogous. Complicating matters is that the riots occurred in tandem with a protest movement now believed to be the largest ever in U.S. history — one which saw demonstrations, vigils, and general rancor extend even into the most unassuming expanses of suburban and rural America.
On some level, you can understand why the ramifications of all this has still yet to be fully processed. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming, for one thing. And coupled with a worsening pandemic, along with the daily antics of Donald Trump, sustaining national attention on any given topic might be impossible. But it’s also clear that the severe ramifications of these riots have been widely ignored — if not consciously obfuscated — by a media class that was near-unanimous in its approval of the accompanying protest movement. That they could have so quickly “moved on,” particularly from the wreckage of Minneapolis/St. Paul — where residents commonly told me that their lives are still in “agony” — is galling.
I’m not a rocket scientist, and it doesn’t take some kind of profound journalistic acuity to walk around riot-affected areas, talk to citizens, record their stories and impressions, take some photos and record some video, and compose some tweets. And yet, I heard from hundreds of people across the United States and world who were shocked that they’d have never been aware of what happened in Minneapolis/St. Paul if not for my dinky little Twitter thread. When I visited a month after the peak of the riots, much of this major American metropolis still lied in ruins. Not that normal life hadn’t mostly resumed; it had. But it’s resumed in the way that war-torn areas configure some ad hoc routine that enables the resumption of semi-normal activity amidst the rubble and despair. In speaking with locals, many of whom have lost their livelihoods and/or had to plead for their children not to be burned alive, it often seems like the extent of the ruination they’ve experienced was barely ever appreciated in the first place. There are several potential explanations for why:
- The media, in its characteristic insularity and myopia, has instead chosen to pathologically fixate on a constant stream of Culture War inanities that stem loosely from this ongoing “movement” — such as the propriety of various statues and monuments, whether various food brands and sports teams are racist, and whether various micro-celebrities need to be “canceled” for some imagined transgression. They are also beset by the various hyper-moralizing staff revolts within their own elite institutions, leading them to adopt an inordinately “inward” editorial disposition on account of their own neurotic personnel issues. Under these narcissistic conditions, real-world human suffering becomes less of a pressing concern
- Journalists, editors, and pundits believe — either consciously or subconsciously, probably some half-scandalous combination of the two — that highlighting the harmful after-effects of these historic nationwide riots would somehow redound to the political benefit of Trump, which to them would be the most disastrous outcome of all. This probably isn’t even correct — Trump is currently seizing every opportunity to shoot himself in the foot all on his own — but the media class is nonetheless mortified to even contemplate the possibility that anything they might do could conceivably “help” him
- These same media class members are themselves deeply invested in what they regard as “the movement,” however diffuse and ill-defined this “movement” may be, and they are extremely reluctant to produce any coverage which might reflect poorly on said “movement” and potentially undermine its moral and political legitimacy
I don’t claim to have a complete answer for what explains this dynamic. But what I can do is simply share some of my observations and encounters. Then you can decide for yourself whether there’s been a conspicuous paucity of coverage — and if, say, a “national conversation” is warranted.
[Editor’s Note: This is the introduction to the article. Please click the “Original Article” link below to see the photos and read the full commentary.]