Rodney King: The death of a media myth
A 47-year-old man drowned in his swimming pool in California on Sunday and his untimely passing made worldwide headlines.
If that was all of the information you knew about the story you might naturally assume it was one of those Hollywood celebrity types. If it wasn't some A-list celebrity (or at least a Kardashian) you might next think it would take a the untimely death of a professional athlete to garner global headlines when he dies. In fact it was neither.
The drowning victim was a common criminal. A man who had served prison time for robbery, who had threatened a store owner with a tire iron for $200, who had endangered countless innocent people while driving under the influence of alcohol on multiple occasions and who struggled to hold a steady job. So how does someone with such a dubious resume draw widespread attention upon their demise? Well, if you are Rodney King, you thank the media.
King, you undoubtedly recall, was the California motorist who was beaten by police officers back in 1991 during a traffic stop. A partial videotape of the event led to widespread outrage and when the officers in question were acquitted, it sparked the L.A. Riots.
From the legal perspective, what I find most interesting about Rodney King, is how he was transformed from a drug-using, violent ex-con who was driving drunk, into some sort of folk hero whose death has warranted an outpouring of remembrance.
As a member of the media, I will choose my words carefully as to avoid painting my industry with too broad a brush. That said, newspapers are in the business of selling papers, television networks need to draw in viewers and radio programs need listeners.
The best way to attract all three is with drama. Drama sells, and in the case of Rodney King, the media sold it so hard, I would argue that the media bias in the case was at least partially to blame for the riots that caused an estimated $1 billion in damage and left 53 people dead.
If there is any question as to the power the media holds to influence people's perception, the King case is a shining example. I followed the case from the release of the videotape clear through the acquittals and the riots. The vast majority of news accounts portrayed the officers that were involved as thugs who beat a defenseless man completely unprovoked. We love a good-guy bad-guy story line. It sells in Hollywood and it sells in the media. The hero and the villain is an age-old theme, and when it isn't there, a little manipulation of the details can often create the story line.
Take the King case. Here are two possible paragraphs that could describe what happened on that fateful night back in 1991.
Four or more armed white police officers surrounded black motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop last night. After removing King from his car, the police used a taser to subdue King and then took turns beating him with their police batons, leaving the victim with lacerations and broken bones. The police may have gotten away with their actions had it not been for the quick-thinking of a nearby resident, who grabbed a video camera and recorded much of the beating.
On its face, that paragraph is factually correct. It is the type of lead that was run in papers and new broadcasts across the country in the wake of the incident. It also leaves the reader/viewer with the distinct impression that Rodney King was an innocent man randomly singled out for a beating, possibly because of the color of his skin.
Juxtapose the first account with the following and see if it leaves a reader with a different view:
A California man who was driving under the influence of alcohol led police on a high-speed chase through residential neighborhoods that ended in a violent confrontation. Rodney King, who was on parole following a robbery conviction, refused to stop when police attempted to pull him over for a driving violation. King, who had been drinking, took off and led police on a lengthy chase, before finally pulling over. After initially refusing to exit his car, King did so, but was acting erratically, leading the officers to believe he was under the influence of drugs. He repeatedly refused to obey the officers' commands, leading the supervising officer to use his taser to subdue the suspect. King got back up after being tasered and was refusing to allow police to handcuff him. Officers then used their service batons to strike King, eventually subduing him and making the arrest. Due to the number of times King was struck by the officers, the case is raising accusations of police brutality.
Which version is more likely to draw in readers and viewers? A drunk ex-con trying to evade police, or a poor black man savagely beaten by four white officers for apparently no good reason? The answer is obvious and the media latched on and made the King case the synonymous with all that was wrong in America. He was suddenly the poster child for race relations and his criminal past, along with his criminal behavior that night, were swept under the rug, a series on facts that got in the way of the media telling the story it knew would sell.
After securing more than $3 million in a settlement with the City of Los Angeles King spent the next two decades driving drunk, striking a woman with his car and wearing out the revolving door of rehab. Through it all, the media kept him atop a pedestal, unwavering in his status as a victim right through to the bitter end.
Today, King is being remembered across the world as the face of a dark time in American history. What is being conveniently forgotten, is the role he played in creating the darkness.
Sadly, the case of Rodney King isn't an isolated example. Locally, we have seen the same sorts of reporting in high profile cases. Several media outlets did everything but Photoshop devil horns onto Dr. James Corasanti in an effort to whip the public into a frenzy. His money, high-priced attorney, luxury automobile and country club membership were front-and-center in nearly every report. From the photos that were used to the fact that were reported (and omitted) the case was again, good versus evil and though the jury wasn't swayed, the general public certainly was.
A few months back I was tasked with photographing then-presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich who was in town for a fundraiser. As I walked into the Ellicott Square Building for the event, a Gingrich supporter was handing out large lapel buttons that shouted in all capital letters, "DON'T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!"
I smiled and shrugged off the offer of the pin, but it did give me pause to wonder. How did we, as journalists, fall so far? There was a time in the not-so-distant-past where the news media was a trusted source for information. Today, the lines seem blurred, the facts negotiable and the pressure to sell outweighs the pressure to get it right at times.
While I feel fortunate to work for a publication that I can honestly say never puts cheap views ahead of objectively reporting the facts, I fear that puts us in a dwindling group of media outlets.
If you need any more proof of that, look at the reporting, both locally and nationally, of the legal cases surrounding Casey Anthony, O.J. Simpson, Dr. James Corasanti, the list goes on and on. And at the top, our felon-turned-folk-hero, Rodney King. He may be dead at age 47, but he will live on, larger than life, thanks to his friends in the media.
Somewhere, I imagine Al Sharpton hurriedly picking out his finest suit and getting his make-up done, ready to hit the talk circuit to weigh in on the tragic loss of a great American.