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January 23, 2001

The news media and political protests

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by Carla Binion

Protests were effective in the 1960s because the news media covered them. Today media organizations often ignore protest demonstrations. When TV news networks do not cover a protest, the demonstration cannot move public opinion. The various news media organizations serve as the public's eyes and ears. When the media fail to report any given event, the public remains blind and deaf regarding the story.

Most Americans get their news from television. Day after day during the 1960s, TV news networks showed close-ups of such atrocities as innocent black children marching into police fire hoses. Television news people ran Martin Luther King's speeches, and discussed and dissected them. The American people's eyes were opened, through the media's lens.

By contrast, during recent post-election protests in Florida, TV networks kept a distance from Jesse Jackson and other like-minded demonstrators. Few networks aired Jackson's speeches in their entirety. Television news commentators did not explain and clarify the protesters' grievances or give them sympathetic coverage. Fox Network's Bill O'Reilly and many other commentators frequently maligned Jackson as a troublemaker.

During last year's Seattle protests of the World Trade Organization, TV networks also kept a distance from the demonstrators. Commentators on MSNBC and other cable news talk shows said repeatedly that they did not understand why people were demonstrating. They often said that the protests seemed to be a hodgepodge of vague and cranky quibbles and implied it would be impossible to grasp the details of the complaints.

No wonder the commentators did not understand. They simply never asked. Few TV networks conducted any in-depth interviews with spokesmen for the protesters. The networks did not often show close-ups of peaceful protesters being tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets -- incidents widely reported on the Internet and in alternative news publications.

In the same way, TV networks gave little coverage to Jesse Jackson's recent complaint that a mob of hired Republicans used violent tactics to try to break up a peaceful post-election demonstration in Florida. If the networks had spent adequate time examining that information, the public would better understand the reasons for Jackson's protests.

During the 1960s, public opinion shifted when the media showed the people the truth about anti-war and civil rights demonstrations-especially when the media explained the reasons behind the marches and sit ins. Once public opinion changed, the people urged legislators to take action.

Because the following example from history is a useful illustration of (1) the media's impact on public opinion, and (2) the importance of having a fully informed public, it will help to digress and explore it at some length:

Deborah Lipstadt researched the behavior of the American press during the coming of the Holocaust in Beyond Belief (The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc., 1986.) Lipstadt says, "During the 1930s and 1940s America could have saved thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of Jews but did not do so."

Lipstadt points out that the U. S. was slow to recognize the Nazi threat to the Jewish people and asks what might have been done to initiate rescue operations sooner. She quotes Adlai Stevenson: "I believe that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the American people will make the right decision-if and when they are in possession of the essential facts about any given issue."

The problem was, during the early Holocaust years, the American news media did not present "the essential facts" to the public in a timely way. Washington might have acted sooner to assist the Jews, says Lipstadt, if the American public had known -- via the media -- what was going on and then urged politicians to act.

The U. S. press treated Hitler's early anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jewish people as "sidebar" news stories. Although Hitler's Final Solution was known to the media by 1942, the press did not fully convey the fact to the American public.

Deborah Lipstadt points out that in The Washington Post, March, 1943, William Shirer criticized the public for thinking that reports of Hitler's atrocities were only propaganda. Lipstadt also mentions that in January, 1944, Arthur Koestler cited U. S. public opinion polls showing that nine out of ten Americans believed that reports of a Nazi threat were propaganda lies. (Arthur Koestler, New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1944.)

Lipstadt notes that the Christian Century (February 16, 1944) said in response to Koestler that there was no use "screaming" about atrocities against the Jews, claiming it would only "emotionally exhaust" those who wanted to use their energies to build peace after the war. Could the media have been quicker to report the truth about Hitler in a way that the American public understood? What did the media do wrong?

In general, the media reported stories about the Nazi threat in piecemeal fashion, instead of showing the public a complete picture all at once. Lipstadt says newspapers did not allocate enough space for stories of Hitler's increasing threats. Relevant news stories were buried in back pages of the newspaper rather than given front-page coverage.

The January 1943 LA Times ran a review of the "Black Decade," meaning the preceding ten years. However, the newspaper failed to mention Kristallnacht, and did not mention the extermination program that had been included in the paper's 1942 listing.

Kristallnacht was the night of November 9, 1938, when Nazi mobs shattered the glass in Jewish homes, temples and places of business. Many U.S. newspapers initially took the event lightly. Some papers said the Kristallnacht mobs were merely spontaneous rogue fanatics, and that Hitler knew nothing about them.

The New York Daily News thought that Kristallnacht was merely random expression of popular anger by Germans under financial stress, and wrote that Hitler "can no longer control his people." (New York Daily News, November 15, 1938.) Many newspapers claimed Kristallnacht had nothing to do with racial hatred.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch said Kristallnacht was simply about greed, or the "looting of a people." (St. Louis Post Dispatch, November 25, 1938.) The Baltimore Evening Sun described it merely as a "money collecting enterprise." (The Baltimore Evening Sun, November 14, 1938.)

What does the media's handling of the early years of the Holocaust have to do with today's media coverage of political protest? Here are some connections: The threats posed by the World Trade Organization's policies, and by the voting irregularities in Florida, are not the exact equivalent of the threats posed during the years leading to the Holocaust. However, whether they are the precise same threats is not the point.

The point is, the demonstrators in Seattle and in post-election Florida were voicing their concern about what they see as current threats to democracy and civil liberties. If TV news commentators had done in-depth research, they would have understood the reasons for the protests and conveyed those reasons to the public.

Armed with all the facts, the public could then develop an informed opinion and respond accordingly. Absent the facts, public opinion on issues raised in Seattle and in Florida will not be well informed, and the public response will not be purposeful.

Media critic Michael Parenti says in Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media (St. Martins Press, 1993) that the media do more than omit important news regarding political protests. For example, they also often undercount the size of political demonstrations. As one example, Parenti mentions that in 1991, shortly before George H. W. Bush began his air attack against Iraq, ABC reported on opposition to the war.

Anchor Ted Koppel said there were "small groups" of protesters-one group in Iowa and one in Berkeley, California, holding candlelight vigils. Says Parenti, "ABC ignored the large and dramatic demonstrations occurring that same day in the San Francisco Bay area in which 10,000 people shut down the federal building and 2,000 shut down the Bay Bridge, the latter resulting in hundreds of arrests."

The media also often trivialize and marginalize protesters. Michael Parenti notes that media pundits frequently mislead the public by attributing irrational or trivial motives to demonstrators, characterizing protesters as an unrepresentative sampling of the American people. News pundits sometimes marginalize groups by falsely claiming they are violent, or pundits try to discredit protesters as people merely trying to foment chaos.

For example, when a few anarchists in Seattle broke store windows, some TV news commentators suggested the peaceful demonstrators were also contributing to violence and chaos. As another example, lately when Jesse Jackson speaks out about Florida voting irregularities, commentators often say he is trying to stir up conflict for no purpose.

Thousands of people plan to attend marches in Washington to protest the upcoming Bush inaugural. The general public will not learn anything about the reasons behind those protests if TV news networks and other media organizations fail to report the reasons. Remember that even after Kristallnacht, nine out of ten Americans believed the Nazis were no threat, because the media did not report the complete story.

It is important that people phone and write news organizations and encourage them to give ample air time to protests of the inaugural, with an emphasis on explaining the reasons for the demonstrations. Those of us who would like to see the protests covered in depth should urge various TV news organizations to air speeches by Jesse Jackson and other attendees, and ask the networks to include as guests on news talk shows people who represent Jackson and other protesters.

Deborah Lipstadt said that Alexis de Toqueville believed that "the press fulfills its highest purpose when it is a beacon to bring together people who otherwise might ineffectively seek each other in darkness." Television networks, newspapers, newsmagazines and other media organizations could light the beacon during the protests of the Bush inaugural. They are more likely to do that if large numbers of people write and phone them in advance to let them know what we expect.

(Re-printed with permission by Online Journal. Copyright © 2000 Online Journal. All rights reserved.)


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