How Did TV Remember the '92 L.A. Riots?
Jill A. Edy is the author of Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest. She is an associate professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma.
Twenty years ago last week, Americans were transfixed by TV images of Los Angeles burning. It was no Hollywood disaster movie. Four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating an African American motorist were acquitted of wrong-doing. Hours later, the city erupted in riots that left 51 dead and over $700 million in estimated damages. Last weekend, television news remembered, offering its particular brand of popular history.
It may seem counterintuitive to think about news as a repository for history; after all, the main point of news is supposed to be to tell us what’s “new.” Yet news, and particularly television news, is a vital resource for developing publicly shared understandings of the recent past. For most Americans, a lot has happened since their last U.S. history class, and to get perspective on what happened and what it meant, many of them will turn to the narratives created by TV journalists. What do these TV histories teach us about the past?
There are reasons television loves the recent past. TV is a fundamentally visual medium, and remembering events like the Challenger crash, the Los Angeles riots, 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina offers opportunities to re-air spectacular images that would otherwise just take up space in film vaults or hard drives. Indeed, in perhaps the creepiest television remembrance I have ever seen, MSNBC has replayed the events of September 11, 2001, in real time every September 11 thereafter. Older events and those without much visual appeal are recalled on television, but television news is especially drawn to the allure of visual spectacle. Any local TV reporter will tell you fires make great television.
The characteristics of visual media like television lend themselves to the personalization of history, and when it comes to telling a story about the past, no one subscribes to the “great” man theory of history quite like television. Interviews with the individuals who “made” history, or who witnessed it, are a mainstay of television histories in both news and documentary forms. This may not always result in a focus on powerful individuals (although it often does), but it does represent history as the product of individual actions rather than social forces. Two of the most powerful actors during the 1992 riots have since died, Police Chief Daryl Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley, but last weekend’s coverage of the L.A. riots was dominated by interviews with Rodney King, the man who was beaten and author of a new memoir. Conversations with others who had been caught up in the riots also aired: clergy members, the staff of a radio station, the man who rescued truck driver Reginald Denny from an angry mob in one of the riots’ best remembered incidents. As eyewitnesses to history, these men’s memories have special status in the news.
Because it relies so heavily on personalized stories to construct remembrances of the past, television history is made by those who show up. City officials are typically averse to commemorating a controversial or negative past. Dallas is reluctant to sustain memories of the Kennedy assassination; Chicago works to avoid its connection to Al Capone. Similarly, LAPD officers were interviewed as part of the riot anniversary coverage, but current, high-ranking police and city officials who might speak about policy changes in the department (and put the riots in historical context) were missing from the coverage. Also missing were the officers who were tried for beating King, although their attorney was interviewed as part of CNN’s hour-long special on the riots. As a result, King himself and members of the community affected by the riots were the main focus of television remembrances. In some respects, this was empowering for a historically disempowered group of citizens who were able to present their perspective without much challenge. Yet the personalization also had its downside for those featured in the coverage.
To see why, one must consider how personalizing history affects public understanding of the past. Researchers who study the effects of media have found that when it comes to covering public issues, personalizing narratives encourages audiences to praise or blame individuals for their own problems and successes. Describe the hold-up of a convenience store, and people want to punish the thief. Stories that put specific events in a broader social or historical context encourage audiences to support or demand social solutions, like policy change. Describe a crime wave in a particular part of the city, and people demand more police patrols in the area. How might this play out when television remembers? Since television is dominated by personalizing narratives, audiences may come to see historical events as the personal responsibility of particular individuals.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1992 riots, a struggle broke out over naming them. Some called them the “Rodney King riots,” but others objected that this term suggested King was responsible for what had happened. Making King the central figure in remembrances of the riots two decades later once again opened up the possibility of blaming him for them, especially since other individuals who might have been blamed could not or would not cooperate in the commemorative coverage. By agreeing to participate in the media’s remembrances, King could tell his story but also became a potential target for blame. For example, coverage of the L.A. riots anniversary by The Root, a website published by Slate that presents an African American perspective on public affairs, featured a portrait gallery of several of the riots’ key figures, beginning with Rodney King. User responses to this visual, personalized representation of the riots overwhelmingly blame King for the riots, arguing that he was driving under the influence and failed to obey police commands -- in other words that he was responsible for the beating that served as a flashpoint, not the officers who struck him.
Watching the anniversary coverage of the riots over the weekend was a lesson in the strengths and weaknesses of television as a medium for conveying history. It is vivid, emotional, and engaging, and its reach is broad. Yet it has difficulty portraying the social forces that most modern historians recognize as key to explaining the past. Instead, it envisions history as the responsibility of specific, identifiable actors. The strengths and weaknesses of the medium almost certainly influence not just how but what television remembers.
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