Just a few weeks ago, the mainstream American media caught onto the Jena 6 controversy in Louisiana. Thousands of Americans followed suit, finally paying attention to what many consider just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial tension in the United States. Somehow, the Jena 6 situation ended up at the right place at the right time, a phrase I use here with caution as I am referring to the increase intensity of media attention and the controversy surrounding more than the personal experiences of the boys involved. They were "lucky" for a moment, the exposure yielding a formal protest for racial justice to be served by way of charge dropping or jail release.
But at the end of all the increased attention, little has changed. Mychal Bell found himself back in prison for violating parole, and, surprise!, people are still racist. It makes me wonder whether the 15 minutes of fame, just enough time to the cameras to click and move on, was really worth it? Even more so, I wonder what did we miss in the time that the Jena 6 case broke beyond the blogs and into American homes? For what other stories that led to 5 minute media darlings were we receiving little to no follow-up coverage?
Does anyone remember Stepha Henry, the black student gone missing in Florida?
What about Genarlow Wilson, the black teenager charged with rape simply for receiving oral sex from a fellow high school student?
Do they names seem remotely familiar? How much information can you recall about either story? More importantly, part of me wonders what has happened with regard to those two people since the media deserted them for another hot topic?
In a wonderful cnn.com piece about the role of race, class, and gender in the media attention given to missing persons reports, the Miami Herald police reporter set to give an interview about the Stepha Henry disappearance notes the following:
"Ovalle says his interview was canceled because of breaking news about socialite Paris Hilton.'I think the people I write about are important. I take my job seriously,' he says. 'I know people watch that stuff [celebrity news]. But you have a responsibility as a serious news-gathering organization, with all the things going on in the world, with all the tragedies there are; our priorities are a little skewed.'"
I wholeheartedly agree with Ovalle here. Our priorities are dramatically skewed. I'm sure more people can tell you what color Britney Spears' panties are today than the name of the new President of France or locate Iran on a map. I am even more sure, however, that this problem is linked not only to poor prioritization, but also a desire to be constantly entertained. For the general public, the nightly news rarely fulfills this need, unless, of course, the coverage evokes fear, incites xenophobia, or is chock full of lies. All such stories have high ratings, I'm sure. But for the most part, the news is the same every night: one group is being oppressed somewhere far away, that's tomorrow's weather, someone was elected into office who will be just like the last guy. . . and the list goes on. Thanks to the monotony of REAL news, tv networks have made the attempt to make the news more like an E! Entertainment Network show, equipped with bright colors and even brighter smiles, but with very little news, beyond the content that fills the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen every now and then.
Unfortunately, the "underground" press suffers from a similar syndrome: a reliance upon the same stories for as long as their respective audiences can be entertained and leave the aftermath empty for us to fill in the blanks. The blog coverage about the Genarlow Wilson case ceased to exist when the Jena Six issue garnered more attention. And um, whatever happened to that big community discussion blacks were supposed to engage in about rap after the Imus debacle? The hottest mainstream hip hop song on the charts right now is about performing sexual acts with a woman sans her consent. Just look up what it means to "superman" someone and you'll quickly realize that the discussion might need some refreshing. Why did we know more about Megan William's writing bad checks than we did about her kidnapping and assault? Did anyone hear about the brutal gang rape and assault that occurred in West Palm Beach, Florida's Dunbar Village community?
Of course, that is not to say that we should discuss the same topics to death, not at all. But give an update here and there. Remind your readership or viewing audience that as overwhelming as it may be to take in, there are far more things going on beyond what's reported around the clock for 3 days straight and that they can access that information at any time. Try starting now.
For more information about Stepha Henry as well as other black women whose disappearances receive little media attention, go here: Black & Missing, but not forgotten.
- Wendi Muse