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Ferguson Storm Brewing? When Media Began Twisting Death into Political Points

With a grand jury decision on whether to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown imminent, coverage reflects cable news politics

Cable news and name brand websites have chosen their horses long ago.

On TV, Fox went right, MSNBC left, and CNN opted to stay smack dab in the middle, give or take the occasional program that allows for a left vs. right.

On the left spectrum of your desktop, laptop, iPad, and iPhone, you’ll find The New York Times, Huffington Post, Salon, TheNation, etc. On the right, The Wall Street Journal, Drudge Report, The National Review, The Blaze, Breitbart, and more.

These sides, lined up like a middle school Phys-ed dodgeball game, have for years become a predictable movie, with the actors –anchors and journalists — providing the same old monologue responding to the political crisis of the moment.

But something has changed over the last few years — the characters of the movie. No longer are politicians, political parties, activist groups and movements the characters the aforementioned media supports or opposes.

The shooters and victims of high-profile crime time stories have begun to attract the media’s usual suspects, with the right seeming to grant its benefit of the doubt to those that pull the trigger — George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson to name a few — while the left rage over the victims, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, zealously covering protests and rallies that demand justice for perceived killings based on race.

And depending on the results of the imminent grand jury decision on the latter two, Wilson and the deceased Brown, viewers and readers might be met with a polarized media storm of unprecedented proportions.

“What I think is really going on is this is a conflict between institutional racism and prejudice and unfortunately it’s not often talked about in those terms in part because I think sometimes the people arguing don’t really understand what they’re fighting about,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans told TheWrap.

Deggans, an African American who’s covered media for decades, boils it down to the differences in the world views of liberal vs. conservative media.

“At the heart of it is the idea that Fox News and conservative media outlets in general believe that the playing field of society is pretty even and that if there is racism or prejudice, incidents are outliers, and they need to see really extreme examples of prejudice before they’ll believe it exists or it’s an issue for the people subjected to it.”

On the other hand, Deggans says, liberal outlets like MSNBC don’t need to see extreme examples, as they already instinctively feel the playing field is stacked against minorities.

A protester is carried after being overcome by tear gas, Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 17,  2014 (Getty Images)

A protester is carried after being overcome by tear gas in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 17, 2014 (Getty Images)

“MSNBC believes in institutional racism and prejudice and believes there’s a possibility institutions have a bias against people of color and that bias should be exposed when it happens, particularly if it results in someone’s injury or death,” Deggans continued.

But the bias isn’t solely based on political ideology. Psychological factors also come into play, according to Jeff Gardere, assistant professor for Behavioral Medicine at Touro College.

“There are many conservatives who do not believe that prejudice and racism still exist on a large scale,” Gardere told TheWrap. “It is not because they are prejudiced or racist themselves, this is more about unconscious racism and institutionalism. Therefore they do not see any possible racial motivation or factors in some of these high-profile cases, especially when those in authority are being accused.”

The sides liberals and conservatives choose also seem to coincide with their moral fiber of right vs. wrong; rules vs. abuse.

“I believe that conservatives will sympathize with perpetrators because they represent authority, structure and institutionalism,” Gardere added. “Liberals sympathize with the victims because it highlights perceived injustices in our society. Many of these injustices are based on poverty, caste, class and race.”

Over the last 20 years, politics has become a very financially lucrative partner for TV news and the Internet. Networks and websites have capitalized on their viewers and readers’ passion and anger toward political figures, parties, and D.C. culture.

The evolution from media polarizing politics for big business to politicizing murder scenes in Sanford, Florida or Ferguson, Missouri is a new development in modern media. And the main difference is the stakes: the former blurs the lines for consumers trying to get information and understand issues relating to the economy, healthcare, terrorism, and more.

The latter blurs the lines on when an individual has the right to shoot and kill someone and when an individual has become too aggressive that they deserve to be shot in self-defense.

Whatever decision comes down in the case of Michael Brown, one thing is for certain. An 18-year-old teenager is dead. A police officer’s life is forever stained. And conservative media will defend Wilson while liberal media will side with the victim.

So you already know the plot of this movie. Still want to watch?