Derek Chauvin plays the villain for corporate media: Where's the discussion of systemic racism?

Corporate media talks about racism — and that's good. But Derek Chauvin didn't cause systemic racial inequality

By Jeff Cohen
April 27, 2021 10:00AM (UTC)
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A journalist watches their mobile phone showing Derek Chauvin as the verdict in his trial over the death of George Floyd is announced in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 20, 2021. - Sacked police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter on april 20 in the death of African-American George Floyd in a case that roiled the United States for almost a year, laying bare deep racial divisions. (KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Let's acknowledge at the outset that corporate liberal media — owned and sponsored by the mightiest economic forces in our society — have increased their talk about race and racism in recent years, especially since the rise of Donald Trump.  

They've even learned to throw around the phrase "systemic racism," while avoiding scrutiny of the corporate systems that propel and reinforce racism.  

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The view of the world projected by such coverage is typically that of victims without victimizers. Although it's acknowledged that Black people and other people of color are consistently at the bottom of the caste system, there's no examination of the powerful interests that put them there — the profiteers who, for so many generations, have had their knees on the necks of poor people of color. 

Enter killer-in-uniform Derek Chauvin.  

Let me be clear that I'm heartened by the media coverage of George Floyd's murder, and even more heartened by the mass protests that erupted in the wake of that murder. But Chauvin's willful, sadistic public execution of a handcuffed Black man ended the beloved life of a single individual.  

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At the same time, Chauvin has played a useful role for corporate media — a rare villain who could be identified and named, a symbol of deadly racism in news outlets that are structured to refrain from identifying the economic forces responsible for far more hardship and death in communities of color than Chauvin could ever inflict.  

Even before COVID, for example, we knew that the profit-driven U.S. health care system was causing the premature deaths of people of color, with substandard care leading to 260 premature African-American deaths every day, by one estimate. Mainstream media will occasionally show us the victims of inadequate health care, but they never identify the villains — those powerful corporate interests that have lobbied so hard for so long to ensure that we live in the only "advanced" country on earth without universal health coverage. 

 If you watch the network newscasts on ABC/NBC/CBS and count the commercials, you'll notice that the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry is the No. 1 sponsor. 

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Let's turn from health care to housing. We have a homeless crisis far worse than any other advanced industrial country. Gentrification in major cities disproportionately causes the evictions of people of color. Our longstanding housing crisis was made worse by the "Great Recession" begun in 2007, which most affected homeowners of color and African Americans in particular — a disaster sparked by a handful of greedy Wall Street firms and their allies in Washington.  

Unlike Chauvin, not one of these Wall Street criminals was given a televised trial. Corporate media sometimes showed us the victims of the housing crisis, but hardly ever their victimizers — and the policymakers behind the Great Recession, like Robert Rubin, are still served up as media experts today.  

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Wall Street banks aren't just major sponsors of news media. They're also major donors to politicians of both parties, heavily to Democrats. So are big urban real estate interests responsible for gentrification – donating to Democratic officials who might criticize "systemic racism" while consistently enabling it. 

Black, Latinx and Native American communities are the ones hit hardest by pollution, cancer-causing refineries, and extraction. Death and disease have flourished, but the polluting corporations responsible don't go on trial — and mainstream media rarely name the politically-connected perpetrators. Indeed, oil and gas companies have long been major sponsors of media, including "public broadcasting," and coverage often reflects that coziness.  

With his knee on George Floyd's neck, Derek Chauvin became a symbol of racism for mainstream media, but he's a mere symptom of the deadly problem of systemic racism.  

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The main perpetrators and beneficiaries of systemic racism — whether in health care, housing, environmental pollution, employment, education or criminal justice — include powerful corporations that sponsor news outlets that have aimed a bright spotlight at this killer cop.     

It's no surprise those corporations don't get the mainstream media spotlight they deserve. 


Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is co-founder of RootsAction.org, a retired journalism professor at Ithaca College and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” In 1986, he founded the media watch group FAIR.

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Capitalism Commentary Corporations Derek Chauvin Economy George Floyd Health Care Media Police Violence Racism