Black Protest and Television News: How Much Has Changed?

Curator's Note

Nearly a month ago, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO, inciting a torrent of community protest and national news coverage. Images broadcast from Ferguson – clouds of tear gas, police in riot gear – not only evoked contemporary war zones like Syria and Ukraine, but also vividly recalled the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, wherein black demonstrators were harshly beaten by white police on “Bloody Sunday,” the National Guard was called to Little Rock, and race riots erupted in cities like Watts, CA. Though these were Ferguson’s response to black violence against police, in contrast to the 1950s-1960s’ suppression of nonviolent protest and enforcement of segregated political structures, the televised confrontations between black demonstrators and white police remain strikingly similar. As cultural myth has made clear, television crucially helped garner the civil rights movement exposure outside the south, national public sympathy, and federal support. Yet television news not only created a space for national debate and revolutionary change, but it also participated in the discursive construction and positioning of black and white subjectivities and bodies in the pursuit of national, i.e. white, sympathy as well as entertaining drama. And despite its sparking of a discussion of race and police brutality in America, news coverage of Ferguson has not functioned much differently. The lasting impact of the events in Ferguson, and its media coverage, remains to be seen, though these images make me wonder how televisual representations of race and the role of television news, changed as it is since its start in the late 1940s, in fostering debate and social change has evolved since the 1960s. The “Television: Looking Back, 1970-2014” Core Conversation, at the upcoming 2014 Flow Conference in Austin, TX, will ask just such important questions, and more, as it explores significant changes in television since the momentous decade of the 1970s in a dialogue with Horace Newcomb, emeritus director of the Peabody Awards, David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), Michael Zinberg (The Bob Newhart Show, The Good Wife), and Howard Rosenberg, past LA Times TV critic.

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