The Media Today

The funeral of George Floyd

June 10, 2020

On Monday, the Fountain of Praise church in Houston held a public, open-casket viewing of the body of George Floyd, the Black Houston man whose killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis two weeks ago has invigorated a worldwide movement for racial justice. More than 6,000 people lined up to pay their respects. Among them was Bryan Washington, an essayist and fiction writer from Houston. He reflected on the viewing in a piece for the New Yorker.  “It’s strange… to know as much about someone as we know about George Floyd, a man who isn’t our kin, and then to stand before him, never having known him. The feeling escapes words,” Washington wrote. “Above all, what I felt was cold. Not despair, exactly. But here was a man who had actually changed the world. He had done it. It happened because he was murdered by the state, and now he was not here to see it.”

Yesterday, from noon, the world was invited in to witness Floyd’s funeral, which was broadcast live from the same church. The service was by turns personal and electrifyingly political, and was highly poignant. There was art and music, as well as speeches from Floyd’s family, members of the local community, and local and national public figures. Joe Biden spoke by video. Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, announced a ban on police chokeholds. The Reverend Al Sharpton, the veteran civil-rights leader and commentator, gave a eulogy; at one point, he asked relatives of other victims of racist brutality—the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, the fathers of Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery, the sister of Botham Jean, and the family of Pamela Turner, all of whom were in attendance—to stand. Brooke Williams, Floyd’s niece, asked from the podium, “Why must this system be corrupt and broken?” She added, “Someone said ‘Make America Great Again.’ But when has America ever been great?”

Related: The Story Has Gotten Away from Us

MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News carried the funeral live, as did ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, BET, and C-SPAN. Major print outlets streamed it live on their websites. It led the nightly network newscasts; on cable, reflections on the funeral continued into the evening. On CNN, Anderson Cooper choked up during a moving interview with Cornel West. “That’s what we saw today: we saw the humanity,” West said of the service. “They were ascribing significance to this precious person, made in the image of God, whose body was now undergoing extinction, and his soul ascending.” Later, Don Lemon quoted a line from Sharpton’s eulogy, about the unequal value of white and Black life in America. “It has to be said that racism is killing us, keeps killing us,” Lemon said. “It’s not a problem for African Americans to solve; it’s a problem for all Americans to solve. And if that makes you uncomfortable…” He paused. “It is the reality of racism.” Over on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell called Floyd’s funeral “fit for a president,” and interviewed Sharpton, who was still traveling home from Houston. Sharpton said he was feeling hopeful about this moment. “I think this movement has too much energy and vigor that legislators are not going to have any choice but to pass new laws,” he said.

It’s not unusual for several major networks to cut to the same external programming at once—think Congressional hearings, presidential press conferences, and other affairs of state. And their motives for doing so are never pure public service; ratings always count. Still, the simulcast of Floyd’s funeral was a powerful and cathartic moment—a chance to cut away from the daily babble of ceaseless punditry, to reflect, to be moved. In a media landscape that has come to be defined by its balkanization, it was a moment of shared reality—a communal viewing experience rooted in the value of human life. Clearly, not all viewers interpreted it through a reality-based prism; a glance at social media will show you that. Sometimes, though, the most affecting news material comes when we step back, take ourselves out of the story for a while, and allow the world to watch.

It remains the media’s job, of course, to tie Floyd’s life and death to the much broader issues his death has illuminated, the range and reach of which seem to grow each day. Away from the funeral, racial justice was at the center of many of yesterday’s other big stories, including in Georgia, where many voters in the Atlanta area faced long lines and technical glitches with voting equipment. (Restrictions linked to the pandemic didn’t help matters.) The story, like Floyd’s funeral, was a chance to look both backward and forward—to the history of Black voter suppression, including during Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, and the certainty, as yet undercovered, that it will be an issue again in November.

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Speaking with Jake Tapper on CNN, the commentator Bakari Sellers laid out the stakes. “If we learned anything from the juxtaposition of us in Georgia trying to vote and us laying George Floyd to rest with his family, surrounded by all of those other families hurt from racial violence, by god, Jake: we’ve got so far to go in this country,” he said. “So we’ve got to get to work today.”

Below, more on this moment:

  • Detained: Last night, Andre Lamar, a Black journalist with the Dover Post in Delaware, was detained while covering police arrests of protesters in the area. A video that Lamar filmed on his cell phone shows police forcing him to the ground; Lamar repeatedly shouts “I’m with the press,” and “I can’t breathe.” Lamar was taken to a cell before being released. John Carney, the governor of Delaware, condemned Lamar’s arrest.
  • Surveilled: Wendi C. Thomas—a Black journalist with MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism in Memphis, Tennessee—wrote for MLK50 and ProPublica about her experience of being spied on by police. In 2018, Thomas found out that she was among a number of Black activists and journalists surveilled by Timothy Reynolds, a white police sergeant who posed as a “man of color” on social media. A judge ruled that the surveillance violated a consent decree. It still isn’t clear why police monitored Thomas.
  • In other police news: Yesterday, New York state lawmakers repealed a law that kept police disciplinary records secret, meaning such records will be made public for the first time in decades. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on police brutality today. Democrats will call Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother; Republicans will call Dan Bongino, a Secret Service agent turned motormouth Fox News contributor. And the unscripted TV series Cops is canceled. For CJR last year, Nick Pinto profiled Running From Cops, a podcast that interrogated Cops’s questionable ethics and cultural impact.
  • One America?: Yesterday, Trump tweeted the lunatic conspiracy theory that Martin Gugino—the 75-year-old man who was violently shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo, New York, last week—may be “an ANTIFA provocateur.” “I watched,” Trump wrote, “he fell harder than he was pushed.” Trump picked up the theory from a “report” by Kristian Rouz, of the right-wing One America News Network. As the Daily Beast reported last year, Rouz has also worked for the Russia-backed broadcaster Sputnik; for more on OANN, read Andrew McCormick’s recent deep dive for CJR. Politico’s Burgess Everett confronted GOP senators with a printout of Trump’s tweet. Many declined to look at it.
  • A style question: Going forward, the LA Times and BuzzFeed will both capitalize the word “Black” in their copy when referring to members of the African diaspora. The National Association of Black Journalists endorses capitalizing the “B”—because doing so “properly recognizes the identity of Black people”—though opinion within the news industry is split on the question. Several outlets (including CJR) allow for the discretion of individual writers.
  • A reckoning at Condé: Yesterday, management at Condé Nast convened an all-staff town hall meeting amid employee anger at the company’s pay and diversity practices; Roger Lynch, the publisher’s CEO, promised to conduct a pay-equity review, and accelerate the company’s “first ever diversity and inclusion report.” (The word “first” here did not go unnoticed.) During the meeting, one staffer asked about offensive old tweets posted by Oren Katzeff, the head of Condé Nast Entertainment; afterward, Katzeff apologized. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani has more.
  • An appointment: Samira Nasr, executive fashion director at Vanity Fair, has been named as the new editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar. “Nasr’s appointment marks the first time a black editor will lead Harper’s Bazaar,” Chantal Fernandez writes for Business of Fashion. At Vanity Fair, “Nasr has been part of a rebirth of a title that highlights a much more diverse slate of contributors than is typically seen in mainstream magazines.”

Other notable stories:

  • According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a for-hire hacking collective known as Dark Basin has run campaigns targeting thousands of individuals and institutions worldwide, including journalists. A large group of targets had campaigned against the oil giant ExxonMobil; others, including reporters from Reuters and the Financial Times, had been scrutinizing the controversial German fintech firm Wirecard. The FT has more.
  • For CJR, Alissa Quart, of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, details her organization’s efforts to provide financial assistance to journalists who are struggling economically due to the pandemic. While such private philanthropy is “critical,” Quart writes, “what we really need is something akin to the Federal Writers’ Project”—a New Deal program that supported 6,600 writers, editors, and researchers to produce work.
  • The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald will vacate their offices from August through at least the beginning of next year, and operate entirely remotely. Aminda Marqués González, the top editor, said the papers were investing in “people over place” amid the present economic crisis for news, and would find a new home “once the commercial real estate industry has sorted itself out with regard to new standards and approaches.”
  • John Hendrickson, an editor at The Atlantic, is developing his powerful recent essay on his and Joe Biden’s shared experience of a stutter into a book. “I never really wrote (or even spoke) about my stutter until I interviewed Biden last fall,” Hendrickson wrote on Twitter. “And I never expected stutterers all over the world to send me letters about their own lifelong struggles with this disorder.” The book will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.
  • For CJR, Bob Norman tells the real story behind “Truth from an Iranian,” a viral video in which Saghar Erica Kasraie, a self-proclaimed “human rights activist,” claimed that the people of Iran were delighted with Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, the country’s top general, in January. The video lit a fuse in conservative media—but Norman found Kasraie’s claims to be shaky, and that she has deep right-wing ties.
  • And Dick Johnson, a veteran anchor with NBC5 in Chicago, has died. He was 66. Carol Marin, NBC5’s political editor, called Johnson “the best kind of newsman. Smart, thorough, nimble when deadlines were crashing around him. No clichés. Just facts, fairness, and great writing. And he was funny! What a loss to all who knew him.”

ICYMI: How the right-wing response to Iran set the stage for 2020’s misinformation campaign

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.