St. Louis TV News Asleep At The Switch During State Of Emergency Call? (COMMENTARY)

Six pictures of media outlets in St. Louis, Missouri hours after a State of Emergency was called by the St. Louis County Executive, Steve Stenger. The top 5 are local terrestrial TV stations showing regular programming, and the bottom picture is a screen capture from Huffingtonpost.com reposting a tweet from the largest local public radio station commenting on the declaration of the SOE.

Six pictures of media outlets in St. Louis, Missouri on the afternoon of Monday, August 10, 2015, hours after a State of Emergency was called by the St. Louis County Executive, Steve Stenger. The top 5 are local terrestrial TV stations showing regular programming (Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, Ellen Degeneres [a re-run], Family Feud, and Hot Bench), and the bottom picture is a screen capture from Huffingtonpost.com reposting a tweet from the largest local public radio station commenting on the declaration of the SOE. ©Rod Milam 2015

For a little over three years now I’ve been cable TV free…a cord cutter. After a 12 month weaning period, I paid for tons of programming that I didn’t need for years for the last time and immediately wondered why it took me so long to do so.  I did this while I was in New York City and had long since abandoned looking at local TV news (save NY1) in favor of online outlets and social media contacts for more relevant, up-to-date, and in-depth information.

When I returned to St. Louis after being gone for a bit over 14 years, I continued my relatively new rules regarding TV consumption:

  1. Only turn on TV for severe weather threats
  2. Only turn on TV for acute terrorist/civil unrest threats/transit events
  3. Only turn on TV for Cardinals playoff and World Series games
  4. Don’t bother with TV for almost anything else at all

I was in NYC around eight months after the September 11th attacks, I went through area closing blizzards and hurricanes, and I made it through multiple MTA shutdowns, blackouts, and World Series appearances during my Big Apple tenure, and I was able to pretty much follow these four rules even before I formalized them toward the end of my Astoria adventures.

Back in the St. Louis area after less than two years I’ve been through big ice storms, a record hail storm, a tornado touching down less than a quarter of a mile from home, near Biblical rainfall this past spring, all of the initial Ferguson activity less than eight miles away last year, and another playoff appearance by the Cards.  I still followed the rules.  I found out what I needed from TV news when it was urgent, but still got the bulk of my info elsewhere.

Now one year and one day after the killing of unarmed Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and a half a day after overnight gun play between police and someone proximate to demonstrations from the day before in Ferguson, the St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger made a midday announcement that many of the one million plus residents of his county were under a State of Emergency because of the shooting incident from the night before and the protests and arrests of many people in Downtown St. Louis.

How did I find out about this SoE and the arrest and protest activity initially?  Facebook.  Where did I initially follow up to find out more information? Twitter.  What did I feel the need to do next?  Invoke Rule #2…turn on the local TV news.  What did I find on local TV channels hours after the announcement by the County Executive?  Non-sense.  As Public Enemy’s frontman, Chuck D., put it way back in the late 1980s, I found “Channel Zero”.

As of the 3 o’clock PM hour, more than two hours after the announcement and more hours than that after the protest arrests, ALL of the local TV stations with big news rooms must have felt that these events weren’t pressing or important enough to preempt the showing of their regularly scheduled programming. I turned on the 1920×1080 box and was greeted by the likes of old TV hot messes like “Jerry Springer” and “Dr. Phil”, some new-to-me hot mess called “Hot Bench”, and general innocuous fluff in the form of “Family Feud” and “The Ellen Degeneres Show” [a rerun].  I just caught the end of “Days of Our Lives” before the top of the hour and was stunned that it was both on during this time of unrest and on television STILL at all.

I had to take a picture of the screens to prove to myself and others that the big local TV newsrooms along with their parent stations combined their thought processes and wound up concluding that it was best to continue to “sell soap” instead of informing a total of nearly three million citizens that a huge swath of residents that their lives had been fundamentally changed by a government official in response to renewed civil unrest.

This isn’t to say that all local media ignored the story as it was happening. I snapped a screen shot of the largest local public radio station’s, KWMU, Twitter post that I saw, and I also saw a retweeted link from the St. Louis American, the largest weekly newspaper in the state which also focuses on the Black community.

Eventually the TV stations posted items on their websites on social media feeds, but that’s hardly the point. They’re huge local TV stations with the widest local reach.  Locals should be able to find out huge things like this from them on their largest platforms.  There should be no reason why I should see and hear about all of this first on large national cable news outlets and my friends in 5 different states on Facebook before that. These stations are chartered by the federal government to serve the public interest…so I can hardly think of many things more in the public interest than a State of Emergency declaration versus the possible 3,891st episode of the freakin’ Jerry Springer Show.

How seriously is anyone in the area supposed to take TV news channels seriously when they say that they want to convey and do what’s best for their viewers when they are quick to show “visually-attractive” fires during protests but pass off more “cerebral” announcements by officials of state-of-emergencies as something that can wait until the audience finds out which family knew that 54 out of 100 men found boxers the most comfortable form of underwear?  I would say here, but I don’t know if that’s against the rules of the State of Emergency because I’m still waiting to see when they’re going to talk about it on-the-air.

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How Citizens & Police In St. Louis Peacefully Handled A Large Protest In 1999 (audio)

In the last five days, Ferguson, Missouri, USA has played host to many scenes of violence involving citizens of the greater St. Louis region and the police from the city of Ferguson and those from the St. Louis County Police Department.  The initial incident that sparked subsequent protests and clashes with police was the Saturday shooting of an unarmed, Black teenager by an officer from the Ferguson police department.

Since that shooting, there have been peaceful protesters that have taken to the streets of the St. Louis County suburb that demanded answers to many questions from the police about the shooting.  Simultaneously, there have also been other individuals that have come to the town and caused large scale property damage and burglary during a vacuum in police presence.

Subsequently, there has been a consistent ratcheting up of tension between protesters/reporters on the scene of daily demonstrations and police as the local and county departments have increased both the number of officers in the area and the tonnage and strength of materiel.  As of the writing of this post, there is no reported movement by the police to stop the escalation of weaponry that they display or decrease it even while there has been no direct violence shown by protesters nor continued property damage by people from outside of the city.

I report the above as undisputed facts in what has been occurring without commentary.  The clashes between police and protesters has gone from peaceful daytime marches to tear gas being deployed to disperse residents of the area.  I will not introduce opinion (at this time) into how this has gotten this far down this road and what the outcome may be.

However, I was a reporter at CBS’ largest owned and operated radio station, KMOX, back in 1999 during the time of another protest that caused, arguably, a larger disruption to the entire St. Louis area that involved issues of race and received national attention.  During a summer protest 15 years ago that involved Reverend Al Sharpton, people walked onto one of the area’s main arterial highways during morning rush hour to demand more minority participation in construction projects.  This protest shutdown the highway for hours and caused major backups on all of the area roads.

But, in that demonstration, the interaction between the City of St. Louis Police Department, the Governor of the state, and the citizen protesters was totally peaceful, even while more than 100 arrests were made since the protesters were actually breaking the law by walking on and blocking the highway.  (The protesters in the past week have not been breaking any laws during their protests, but the looters clearly were.)

The message of disapproval was heard by the state from the citizen groups and changes were subsequently made.  Here are two reports (one live on the highway and one after the fact) that I made on the scene on the highway and back in downtown St. Louis.  First the beginning of the arrests, starting with Al Sharpton:

This clip is a post event report to the CBS network with finalized numbers and statistics surrounding the highway shutdown:

While these two protest scenarios are not totally analogous, they do share a good deal of overlap.  It also shows that it is possible inside of the entire St. Louis Metropolitan area to have large scale protests take place without the perpetration of violence by the police toward peaceful citizens or the committing of crimes by criminals that take advantage of decreased police attention.

I MAY come back to this blog with a much, MUCH longer and broader set of posts to contextualize some of the drama that is occurring now in St. Louis (because SO much is needed now), but I have not 100% decided to do so.  I want to make sure to separate my  opinion, as much as possible, from facts on the ground when talking about this very sensitive subject while providing as much information as possible to the people I know are reading and listening around the world to these events.

Feel free to spread this link, if you choose.

(h/t to KMOX and CBS)