A television moment seemed surreal. Here was President Barack Obama quietly addressing the news of the night — a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Acknowledging that the decision displeased many people, Obama cautioned that protesters should make their voices heard without violence. Of course, on CNN’s split-screen coverage of Obama’s speech, the other image carried the outbreak of chaos in Ferguson. A police car on fire. Smoke and tear gas clouding the streets. The beginning of another long night of rage.
Fifty years ago, in 1964, we had the Freedom Summer, where civil rights workers in the South made their stands and even died in the pursuit of a better America.
We also had, that year, theorist Marshall McLuhan’s examination of television and other media and how they influenced society and one another. On Monday night, the TV news may very well have been McLuhan’s cool medium demanding viewer engagement, but it was also the hot medium, zeroing in on anything that burned and burst and lit up the night.
Think of that. Fifty years ago. And here we are again. Hot and cool at the same time. For a few minutes on Monday, we had the cool president on one side of the screen and the hot cauldron of Ferguson.
We live in a split-screen society.
In the Ferguson case, some people believe the grand jury came to the right conclusion. Others believe justice was far from done.
For viewers on one side of the screen, the president’s six years in office have seen significant strides in social progress, be they in health care, the latest turn in immigration and other efforts to improve the lives of everyday Americans. On the other, Obama is believed to be the worst president in history, deserving of unrelenting disdain for being the architect of “failed policies” in this country and abroad.
On one side of the screen’s divide, too many people still suffer from a lack of opportunity, income, education and basic comforts of life. On the other side of the divide, “those people” are looked at as moochers and failures who ought to learn the ropes of boot-strap independence.
Both Obama and Ferguson are symbols of something significant, each interpreted differently — and polar oppositely, no doubt — depending on the side of the screen to which one chooses to adhere.
But there is another place on that screen, the thin gray area that separates the two images. It is where conversation should happen, where coming together and reaching compromise on the difficult tasks of our nation could and should reside.
Yet, that gray area seems to get thinner all the time. We must, paradoxically perhaps, widen that gap and make it big enough to build a bridge that connects the split screens of America.
One thing everyone should agree on is that the nation needs to get past Ferguson. In the parlance of the brief stillpoint of optimism that followed the midterm elections, common ground must be found. And mutual trust. Perhaps a commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon will have some real answers. More likely, grass-roots conversation and local institutional change could have a greater effect.
It was encouraging to hear that people, mostly out of the range of heat-seeking TV cameras, are indeed working to bridge divides and make things better for Ferguson and the environs. Major employers are considering ways to expand work forces. One good news story out of Ferguson this week is about the love sent toward the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, which has provided a haven for citizens and children as schools were closed and nearby properties burned. (To climb on that holiday gift-giving trend, find the “Donate” button atop the library’s website.)
In this split-screen, black and white world, we should come to understand that gray is very good.