Sunday, May 27, 2007

Meet the People, Not the Press! Media: FULL STORY

Can You Hear Us NOW?
Anti-war march gets more coverage—but the message is still muted

by Frances Cerra Whittelsey, FAIR Extra!

The stage had been set up in front of the reflecting pool below Capitol Hill, facing the length of the Mall and the Washington Monument. Just behind the stage, in a space set aside for media interviews, huddles of reporters moved scrum-like from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to actress Susan Sarandon to Rep. John Conyers before each took their turn addressing the January 27 antiwar rally and march in Washington D.C.

Out in front of the stage, two multi-step risers held a phalanx of TV cameras and their operators. Still photographers and reporters edged in for a few inches of space, trying to see the extent of the crowd that poured in from all sides. On this sunny and blessedly mild mid-winter day, with police watching benignly from the sidelines, the full apparatus of the media seemed poised to show the U.S. public a full-throated example of democracy in action, of people who had sacrificed sleep and comfort to collectively affirm their role in the political process.

Tired images

To its credit, this literal mass of media did provide more and better coverage of the January 27 Iraq War protest than of ones preceding it. However, with some excellent exceptions, the coverage was narrowly focused—and, among conservative media, radically biased. Story after story, whether print or broadcast, focused on the small picture: soundbites or short quotes from celebrities, other speakers, individual protesters.

Despite the many previous protests against this war, most stories conjured tired images of tie-dyed, Vietnam-era protesters, and used actress Jane Fonda’s appearance to support that story line. Conservative media inflamed their audience by playing up the appearance of “Hanoi Jane” and a single exchange of spittle between a marcher and a counter-demonstrator. (See sidebar.) Many stories noted the absence of Democratic presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton, and pegged the number of demonstrators at just “tens of thousands,” diminishing the importance of the protest.

Many of the stories failed to put the demonstration in political context, even though Conyers, now the powerful head of the House Judiciary Committee, couldn’t have made it easier. Conyers, one of more than 40 speakers, described the protest as a continuation of the antiwar vote in the mid-term elections, and said, “Not only is it in our power to stop Bush, it is our obligation.” He—along with other Democratic House members, including Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey, both from California—promised to block continued funding of the war.

The protest also reflected the steady, determined antiwar effort at the grassroots that continued after global protests in February 2003 failed to stop the U.S. invasion, despite their prescient warnings of the consequences of war. Rather than despairing at that failure, the antiwar movement stayed alive in churches and community organizations across the country. Members of these groups repeatedly responded to calls for mobilization by United for Peace & Justice, and others. But the actions and organizing of these antiwar groups, with the major exception of Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside the Bush ranch, went largely unreported by media that shunned coverage of dissent as unpatriotic.

Blink and you missed it

As a reporter with 30 years of experience, now freelancing and teaching journalism at Hofstra University, I hung my press pass around my neck for this demonstration so I could compare my observations with the versions of events reported by my colleagues. In recent years, I have been a participant in several antiwar demonstrations rather than reporting on them, marching with the crowds as another concerned citizen. Afterward, I have been disappointed with the news coverage because it either made the protests appear inconsequential or failed to report sufficiently on the violations of protesters’ civil rights.

For example, I participated in the September 2005 protest in Washington, D.C. As FAIR reported a few days later (Media Advisory, 9/27/05), if you relied on television for news, you’d hardly have known about it. The NBC Nightly News (9/24/05) devoted 87 words to the story. CNN anchor Aaron Brown (9/24/05) used coverage of Hurricane Katrina as the excuse for his network’s near-total silence about the protest.

I walked with another enormous crowd in New York City on that bitterly cold day of global protests in February 2003. Denied a permit to march, we were making our way to a rally just north of the United Nations. Suddenly, we found our progress blocked. Police barricades held us locked in a side street where we shivered, shoulder-to-shoulder, for two hours. We were never able to reach the rally. At one point, without warning, stony-faced police rode horses at a trot through the tight crowd just a few yards from where we stood.

The next day (2/16/03), the Times’ page-one story, an overview of the global protests, explained that New York police had prevented thousands of people from reaching the rally. Why? Because the pens set up for protesters near the U.N. were full. It went on to report the arrests of protesters who had “tried to breach the police lines.” There was no mention of the hardships endured by the demonstrators, the hostility of the police or the total absence of communication with the crowd.

A separate Times story that day devoted one short paragraph to the police handling of the event. Three days later (2/19/03), a follow-up story reported on a videotape showing police using pepper spray and night sticks on protesters. But since no Times reporter had apparently witnessed these incidents in the paper’s front yard, the story described “complaints” of being corralled, and worse, as mere “allegations.”

Political context

This time around, the New York Times’ editors used a front-page teaser on the protest to lure readers to a story on page 21 (1/28/07), judging other stories, including one about Barack Obama’s college days, as more deserving of the front page. The protest story, once again, consisted primarily of quotes from a wide range of protesters and speakers, but did place the protest in the context of antiwar sentiment in Congress.

The Washington Post (1/28/07) distinguished itself by assigning six staff writers and a researcher to the protest. Its page-one story conveyed the upbeat mood of the crowd and its diversity. It gave prominence to protesters with relatives in Iraq, let us hear a mother explaining the protest to her son as an exercise in free speech, and reported the crowd chanting for impeachment of George W. Bush.

But the paper went beyond human interest, explaining the protesters’ political goal of prodding Congress into action. By naming 10 of the organizations that have come together under the umbrella of United for Peace & Justice, which coordinated the event, it showed the political blending of the agendas of feminists, religious organizations, farmers, active and retired military members and others.

The Post’s coverage also included two sidebars, one about college student protesters and the other a collection of pictures and quotes from a variety of protesters.

The lead of the Associated Press story (1/28/07) told of the presence of a “half-dozen lawmakers,” and was one of the few to quote Conyers, albeit selectively. In AP’s version, his remarks about Bush ended with, “He can’t fire us.” It left out the continuation: “But we can fire him, we can fire him.” At that, the crowd roared, “Impeach! Impeach!” This political message was apparently deemed not to be taken seriously—or else too serious to be reported.

NBC’s Nightly News (1/27/07) offered viewers a brief view of protesters chanting for peace, inconsequential soundbites from Conyers and Fonda, and then brought in a political analyst to talk about Bush’s effort to distract Democrats from taking action against the troop build-up.

ABC’s World News (1/27/07) offered a similar group of soundbites from Fonda and actor Sean Penn. The story did note that “antiwar demonstrators” had raised $1.5 million to support a lobbying effort that would follow the demonstration, but there was no mention of any organization involved in that accomplishment.

The CBS Evening News (1/27/07) similarly settled for soundbites and avoided speaking to any of the leaders of the multitude of organizations involved. It did, however, emphasize that amorphous “activists” were “determined to raise the profile of military families opposed to the war.” It went on with an interview of Larry Syverson, whose three sons have collectively served in Iraq five times, and ended with a line right out of the Bush playbook: “Military families like Syverson’s can provide important political cover here on Capitol Hill, especially for Democrats who are concerned about looking unpatriotic if they stand up to the president,” said reporter Joie Chen.

Same old protest

When I was still in journalism school, a veteran City Hall reporter told me something I’ve never forgotten: When stories all start to seem the same, it’s time to find other work. The reporters, pundits and editors who saw little new about the protest on January 27 should consider his advice.

A major storyline for coverage of the protest was that it was a repeat of the Vietnam-era protests by the very same long-haired hippies—only now their ponytails are gray. Fonda’s appearance at the rally made this slant easy. Ironically, as she explained herself in her brief remarks, she had stayed away from antiwar marches for 34 years knowing she made such an easy target for conservatives. Selectively emphasizing the “same old protest” theme meant avoiding mention of the political goals of the demonstrators, including the demand that Congress bring the troops home by de-funding the war. That focus, of course, is why the march this time did not pass the White House. (Protesters instead circled Capitol Hill.)

Despite this clear message, CNN began its morning coverage the day after the protest (1/28/07) with reporter Gary Nurenberg intoning, “The comparison to peace rallies to end another war 40 years ago was a constant theme among demonstrators who want to end the war in Iraq.” Segue to Fonda, the two dozen pro-Bush supporters who staged a tiny counter-protest, and a pro-Bush pundit who drew a bloody contrast with the Vietnam era: “There is something they [the protesters] don’t understand,” said former RNC spokesperson Clifford May (identified as representing the Foundation for Defense of Democracies). “Ho Chi Minh at his worst never thought he was going to send suicide bombers to America to kill American children. The people we’re fighting in Iraq, they intend to do that.” Nurenberg asked for no evidence for such a horrific prediction; none, at least, was provided.

Later in the day, CNN showed an interview with an active member of the Navy who had taken part in the protest. But unlike May, who was not challenged, Petty Officer Jonathan Hutto was asked if he wasn’t supposed to simply follow the orders of his commander-in-chief.

The headline on the New York Daily News’ protest story (1/28/07) said, “Fonda Leads Army of Celebs at Antiwar Rally.” Accurate if five people make an army.

Salon’s Alex Koppelman (1/28/07) wrote that the demographics of the war protests had changed, with “more yuppies, more families with small children, more older people and even a fair number of stylishly dressed young girls.” Still, he felt compelled to take a swipe at “professional protesters . . . the kind for whom protests are a lifestyle choice.”

The numbers game

Accused in the past of biased counting, neither the National Park Service nor the D.C. police will give any count of the number of protesters at any demonstration in Washington. The government, of course, could provide an excellent count by analyzing photos taken from the helicopters that always fly over demonstrations. Looking at the crowd from the ground does not help. When I stood on the top step of the camera risers and peered the 1.5 miles to the Washington Monument, there were protesters as far as I could see. But I could not tell how close together they were.

Noting the absence of any official count, the Washington Post (1/28/07) described the crowd size as “thousands.” The Associated Press (1/28/07) settled on “tens of thousands,” and quoted an anonymous police officer saying “privately” that attendance was less than 100,000. The “tens of thousands” estimate was also used by the New York Times (1/28/07), Reuters, NBC, ABC and CBS (all 1/27/07). Only the Los Angeles Times (1/28/07) dared to estimate 100,000. Newspapers that in the past would probably have had their own reporters covering the story used the AP story and therefore its count. That included papers like Newsday (1/28/07) that have suffered major staff cuts.

Perhaps the most telling story about turnout was reported on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered broadcast at 7 p.m. on the day of the protest (1/27/07). Jacki Lyden introduced the story this way: “Today’s antiwar protest may be one of the largest in years, but while polls say that most Americans are against the war, most people have not been taking their politics to the streets.” The news staff at NPR seems to have decided on this theme the day before the protest, when reporter Melissa Block, conducting an interview with Judith LeBlanc, co-chair of United for Peace & Justice, said to her:

When you look at what the antiwar movement has done over the last four years of the war, it seemed like there was a big presence at the beginning. And then for a lot of people, maybe it drifted away. It was hard to see where you were. What do you think the problem has been there, in terms of your presence and people’s recognition of what you’re doing? Why haven’t you been able to push the debate forward more?

It does not seem to have occurred to NPR’s news staff that they, like most of the rest of the media, had ignored protest after protest, and now, suddenly awakening, are wondering at the blank in their memory. They might be surprised to learn that the January 27 protest was the eighth since 2003 that “had at least 100,000 people,” according to Leslie Cagan, LeBlanc’s co-chair at United for Peace & Justice.

LeBlanc responded to Block by pointing out that if one travels the country as she has,

what you see is that there is a grassroots movement that hasn’t always gotten the attention of the national media. So . . . in between these big demonstrations, there are people doing some very heavy lifting, showing films and having discussions, and doing door-to-door work in their neighborhoods. . . . We do have the attention of the national media now, and what is going on in our country is a reflection of all of that work that goes on under the radar.

LeBlanc’s response was a diplomatic way of saying that the news media suffer from a chronic lack of interest in covering grassroots organizations, preferring public opinion polls with their bloodless and controlled questions to actually reporting on community activists. Grassroots activism has not only pushed the war debate forward but also contributed to the election of many antiwar members of Congress., for example, reported that in 2006, volunteers made 7 million phone calls, organized 7,500 house parties, and launched 6,000 in-district events.

Antiwar activists, of course, would love the opportunity to “push the debate forward” by participating in media discussions of the war. But as study after study has shown (Extra!, 5–6/03; Extra! Update, 6/99; Extra!, 5/91), they rarely get the chance.

How big?

So how big was the crowd? Cagan estimated the number of protesters at a minimum of 350,000, based on “collective experience over many years of doing large demonstrations.” She pegged this march as “a little bigger” than the September 2005 demonstration in Washington, which she gauged at 300,000, but smaller than the demonstrations in New York City in February 2003 and in August 2004, during the Republican National Convention. She estimated participation at both of those at more than 500,000 people.

It’s impossible to know if Cagan is correct, since the media outlets with the financial resources to do an independent count made no effort to do so. It wasn’t the only squandered opportunity, as the reporters and camerapeople massed around the stage on January 27 neglected to interview organization leaders who could have enlightened the public about their ideas for bringing the war to a close.

They could also have asked individual protesters about the groups to which they belong and for whom they volunteer, finding out whether there really has been an absence of protest as this war has mercilessly gone on. They could have wondered at their own failure to listen and observe the vigils, local government antiwar resolutions, the barrage of e-mails and letters to members of Congress and the White House.

They could have speculated about the health of democracy in America when the executive branch can so easily ignore the voice of the people. And, instead of disdaining protesters of any age or hairstyle, they could have shown respect for people who got up off their couches on a mid-winter day to affirm the right of the people to be part of the political process.

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