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Not on My Front Page

How the media have buried the news of widespread opposition to the war

Photo by B.A. Nilsson.

At the top of the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday, Jan. 28, the reader is immediately confronted with the stern headline “U.N. Inspector Says Iraq Falls Short on Cooperation,” followed by the even more final-sounding “Finds No Proof Hussein Has Disarmed.” The story relates the comments of U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who was critical of the level of Iraqi compliance with the United Nations’ mandate. Tucked way inside the paper on page 8, there is a completely contrasting headline: “Nuclear Inspection Chief Reports Finding No New Weapons.” The subhead on this story, halfway down the page, “No prohibited nuclear activities have been identified,” directly quotes U.N. nuclear weapons inspection chief Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Turning back to the front page of the same newspaper, there’s another bellicose headline, “Patience Gone, Powell Adopts Hawkish Tone,” referring to Secretary of State Colin Powell; buried deep on page 12, at the very bottom under the tiny word “Dissent,” there’s an interesting peace story: “41 Nobel Laureates Sign Declaration Against a War Without International Support.”

One might get the impression that a pattern is at work.

At least The New York Times published these recent stories in conflict with the pro-war stance of the Bush administration, however far removed from the front page. Most mass media, from daily newspapers right up through the big cable and network-news operations, have paid little attention to stories that question George W. Bush’s seemingly inexorable march to war in Iraq.

Adam Flint, a sociology professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, argues that this is partially a result of the “sheep-like behavior of the media post 9/11.” The Sept. 11 attacks themselves, along with the anthrax scare, Flint suggests, created a climate of fear—added to in no small part when Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft equated criticism of the “war on terrorism” with treason. This developed, Flint says, into a “post-9/11 contest between the CEOs of the major broadcast news organizations as to who was the most patriotic.”

The result? Stories about antiwar feeling were downplayed or ignored.

As documented in the public-interest group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting’s magazine Extra!, the media ignored the enormous volume of antiwar constituent mail received by members of the House and Senate in the run-up to the vote that authorized President George W. Bush to attack Iraq at his pleasure. Only the Oakland Tribune took note when California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein received more than 16,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls about the war resolution—98 percent of which were against granting Bush the power to wage war.

Flint also points to the heavy concentration of media ownership in the United States. “Concentration of ownership has also reinforced the strong tendency of the media to rely on sources from traditional elites . . . and downplay or ignore dissenting voices.”

Certainly, stories embarrassing to U.S. corporations have been downplayed. On Dec. 7, Iraq supplied U.N. weapons inspectors with a 12,000-page dossier detailing past and current weapons programs. While the major U.S. media were quick to report the Bush administration’s criticisms of the report, they weren’t so industrious as to try to find out what was actually in the report. It was the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung that broke the story, revealing which 24 U.S.-based corporations had helped—with the blessings of successive U.S. administrations—Iraq with weapons development. It certainly wasn’t widely publicized that Unisys, Dupont and Hewlett-Packard were associated with aspects of Iraq’s nuclear-weapons programs, or that Eastman Kodak and Honeywell supplied technology for Iraq’s rocket program.

It was also one of the largest cable companies in the country, Comcast, that refused to run antiwar ads during President Bush’s State of the Union speech earlier this week. Comcast spokesman Mitchell Schmale questioned the factual validity of the ads, and said that Comcast “must decline to run any [ad] that fails to substantiate certain claims or charges.” The group that paid for the ads, the Peace Action Education Fund, called this “an outrageous infringement on our First Amendment rights.”

Some of the most devastating criticism of the Bush administration’s headlong rush into war is coming from ex-military men. According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken in December 2002, support among the general U.S. population for sending ground troops into Iraq stood then at 58 percent. However, among members of the World War II generation, support was only 35 percent. The Times published an interesting follow-up article to their poll, and that was the end of it. At the time the film Saving Private Ryan was released, members of the “greatest generation” were regular fixtures on TV. Now, their voices seem largely absent from the “all war, all the time” cable news channels.

And elderly veterans aren’t the only ones with reservations. “I think it is very important for us to wait and see what the inspectors come up with, and hopefully they come up with something conclusive,” retired Gen. “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf told the Washington Post on Tuesday, Jan. 28. Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. forces in the last Gulf War and couldn’t be mistaken for a peacenik, isn’t impressed with the evidence offered to justify a redux. He’s even less impressed with what he sees as administration oversimplification of the political dynamics of the Middle East.

That part of the Post story was picked up by the various wire services. The part of the interview that wasn’t is even more interesting—and it concerns Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Apparently, Schwarzkopf is hearing complaints from his buddies at the Pentagon about Rumsfeld.

“When he makes his comments, it appears that he disregards the Army,” Schwarzkopf told the Post, adding, “it’s scary, okay?” He continued: “There are guys at the Pentagon who have been involved in operational planning for their entire lives . . . and for this wisdom, acquired during many operations, wars, schools, for that just to be ignored, and in its place have somebody [Rumsfeld] who doesn’t have any of the training, is of concern.”

The commander who won the victory over Iraq last time is worried that the secretary of defense doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing—it certainly seems like an important story.

Schwarzkopf isn’t the only high-profile figure to have questioned an attack on Iraq. Gen. Anthony Zinni, George W. Bush’s envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (and former commander in the Gulf War and Somalia), gave a speech in August 2002 that was sharply critical of an attack on Iraq. His reasons were strictly geopolitical: In the scheme of problems in the Middle East, he rated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first, followed by the war on terrorism, the stability of Afghanistan, support for the reformers in Iran and then Saddam Hussein. Zinni also contrasted the various former generals, including Schwarzkopf and Brent Scowcroft (then urging restraint with the hawks in the Bush administration who never even served in the military), commenting that “it might be interesting to wonder why all the generals see it the same way, and all those that never fired a shot in anger and are really hell-bent to go to war see it a different way.”

Zinni’s speech was covered by National Public Radio. Two months later, in October, Zinni spoke at a conference sponsored by the Middle East Institute, and was even more sharply critical of the proposed misadventure in Iraq. Salon.com covered this appearance, but, again, it didn’t receive much play in the major media. About the Bushies’ downplaying the importance of anger on the Arab “street,” Zinni said, “I’m not sure what planet they live on, because it isn’t the one that I travel.”

After his speech, Zinni took questions from the audience. Commenting on the limited value of armed conflict, and the sensible restraint of generals as disparate as George Marshall and U.S. Grant, the general sounded almost like a protester: “Like those generals who were far greater than I am, I don’t think that violence and war is the solution.”

Things have improved slightly of late, as it has become impossible—even for CNN, Time, Newsweek and their ilk—to ignore polls showing the growing opposition to a war in Iraq, and the ever-growing street protests. But it may be too little, too late. As Adam Flint says: “If the media had acted less like a ministry of information and more like journalists, analyzing the gaping logical holes in Bush’s case for war, it’s unlikely that Bush would have accumulated the early public support for the war. . . . In this sense, the mainstream media shares a great deal of responsibility for a lack of courage and journalistic integrity, should the war take place.”

—Shawn Stone

We Protest

Antiwar demonstrators fight to get their actions covered by the mainstream media, but it’s an uphill battle

Dig into a national news-paper any given day and check for dissenting opinions about President Bush’s rush to war with Iraq. Done? OK, did you find any warnings about the fiscal implications of regime change and the peacekeeping to follow in light of the looming federal budget deficit? How about a point-by-point counterargument to Washington’s logic for invading Iraq? You can find these voices, but you’ll have to check a number of newspapers, and you’ll have to dig deep.

In hopes of receiving exposure via the national news media for these views, dissenters have taken to the streets of cities throughout the nation and the globe in mass protest on a number of occasions. Recently, many in the antiwar movement have taken issue with the coverage given to their protests, saying the national news media have underrepresented and downplayed their efforts.

Domestic antiwar protests began in earnest on Oct. 26, as the U.N. Security Council was debating the Bush administration’s force-fed resolution OK’ing war as a means for disarmament and regime change. Coinciding demonstrations in Washington D.C. and San Francisco on that date brought together a few hundred thousand antiwar protestors, but if you looked in The New York Times or listened to National Public Radio for coverage, you never would have known.

According to the December issue of American Journalism Review, a lone NPR reporter in the midst of the D.C. protest said there appeared to be fewer than 10,000 people in attendance. Numerous angry phone calls and e-mails later, NPR ran an on-air correction and a column on its Web site apologizing for the station’s mistake. But the errors in the Times’ coverage seemed more egregious.

AJR reported that not only did The New York Times downplay the D.C. rally’s attendance (“thousands”) and bury its 326-word story on A9, the paper erroneously reported that demonstration organizers were disappointed with the turnout. It wasn’t until one of the organizers phoned the Times to let the paper know he was elated with the turnout, as it was double what was expected, that it learned of the oversight. In response, the Times ran a do-over story on Oct. 30 headlined “Rally in Washington Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement.” News outlets knew any coverage of future antiwar protests would be heavily scrutinized, not only for the amount of coverage, but its placement, editorial slant and so on.

As hundreds of thousands gathered for mass antiwar demonstrations on Jan. 18, it seemed that some in the news media were better prepared. Even though the Times didn’t run its protest coverage on the front page, it did run a color photo, above the fold, and wrote a favorable editorial behooving President Bush to listen to his people. NPR sent two reporters. But the sense of disregard, real or perceived, for the antiwar movement in the mainstream media reared its head again. Beneath the Los Angeles Times’ front-page photo of the 100,000 people that gathered in its city read the following caption: “Along with the usual anarchists, socialists and assorted professional protesters were many solid-citizen dissenters.”

Further, most papers focused their coverage on the antiwar protests in D.C. and San Francisco, making only passing mention of demonstrations in other cities. Nearly 50 cities throughout the United States and a number of European cities hosted protests of varying size. Hell, there was even a protest at the Mt. McDuro Station in Antarctica.

Meanwhile, nearly every news outlet nationwide keeps the imminence of war in your face. Jan. 18 may have generated one to two antiwar news stories in a number of national newspapers, but the days prior and following saw those same news sections saturated with stories of the war variety. The necessary evil of families torn apart by the massive troop deployments, officials from the Bush Administration wagging fingers and barking ultimatums, huge photos of high-gloss, American weaponry engaged in training exercises—some would call it propaganda. One begins to wonder, how can the antiwar message compete? According to author and historian Howard Zinn, it can’t.

“[The antiwar movement] doesn’t have the immense resources and access to the major media that the government has,” said Zinn, interviewed by e-mail. “It therefore needs to utilize every possible alternative media for getting the information to the public: community radio stations, community newspapers, teach-ins, rallies, the Internet. It also needs to have more and more militant actions, including civil disobedience, in order to get attention in the major media, which only pay attention when something drastic happens, like a mass arrest.”

Zinn said ours is a culture addicted to staged civic productions like elections, political parties and conventions. These are designed, he said, to concentrate “public attention on that area where the public has the least input and takes away attention from those means of political action outside the electoral process which are the only means for bringing about social change.”

As anticipation builds, plans are being made for the next antiwar protests of scale to be held at the United Nations building in New York City on Feb. 15 when “The World Says No to War.” Organizers said the protests in New York City will coincide with demonstrations in other U.S. and Europe cities, and more information can be found at www.unitedforpeace.org. In fact, demonstrations at the U.N. building in Manhattan began earlier this week when a number of people were arrested asking the U.N. Security Council to give weapons inspectors more time to do their job.

How will the media cover the Feb. 15 protests? What will the word counts be? Will the photos be above or below the fold? Will those in power be listening? If bombs are already falling on Baghdad, will any of this even matter?

—Travis Durfee

What March Were You At?

How the media manipulated the story of the Jan. 18 protest in Washington

How many people rallied and marched in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18? You can’t get an accurate count when you’re among the throng, I realized. The tide of people was too immense. Yet it’s one of the key elements in determining the success of the event, and the most elusive one in many of the newspaper accounts.

“In Washington, police said 30,000 marched through the streets, part of a much larger crowd that packed the east end of the National Mall and spilled onto the Capitol grounds,” reported Calvin Woodward in a Jan. 19 Associated Press story that ran on many front pages around the country. Both the Schenectady Sunday Gazette and Albany’s Times Union carried this story, but The Sunday Gazette omitted the paragraph that followed:

“Organizers claimed that the rally drew 200,000 anti-war demonstrators, but there could be no confirmation because police have stopped providing official estimates.” While such cuts are standard practice by a newspaper’s copy desk editor, they’re usually made near the end of a piece. This cut, comprising the fourth paragraph, is clearly an editorial decision, leaving a wildly incorrect impression of the turnout.

Even though Woodward attempted some balance (in the Times Union’s edit, or non-edit, at least), it’s shamed by the Washington Post’s Jan. 19 sidebar on crowd size. We learn that such estimates used to be provided by the U.S. Park Police, which employed aerial photographs to determine crowd density. The practice was stopped following the brouhaha over numbers from the 1995 Million Man March, when an estimate of less than half that number infuriated Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakahn into bringing a lawsuit against the Park Police.

“U.S. Capitol Police suggested [that the] antiwar street march drew 30,000 to 50,000 people,” wrote Washington Post reporter Monte Reel. “Protest organizers said the number was closer to 500,000. District police settled on ‘an awful lot of people.’”

Let’s turn to the paper of record. The New York Times put a photo of the rally on page one of its Jan. 19 edition. The caption began, “Tens of thousands of antiwar protesters . . .” The story itself was on page 12. Page one featured stories about heart disease, New York state’s missed deadlines for FEMA funds, the use of amphetamines by American military pilots, the endangered minnows of Albuquerque, polio vaccinations in India and, below the rally photo, a piece about Saudi efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The page 12 story was headlined “Thousands Converge in Capital to Protest Plans for War.” The only crowd count appeared in the lead sentence: “In a show of dissent that organizers said ‘shattered the false myth of consensus’ for a war with Iraq, tens of thousands of protesters representing a diverse coalition for peace converged here today . . .” Like many others, the Times wriggled around the issue.

So did The Washington Times: “Tens of thousands of protesters endured subfreezing temperatures yesterday to demonstrate on the National Mall . . .” The page-one story carries a one-column dwarfed to the left by a three-column photo accompanying a story on the future of charter schools.

The Washington Times piece jumped to page 10, where it noted that the Park Police have stopped providing crowd-size estimates, and that “Police officials said that organizers had a permit for 30,000 demonstrators.”

A sidebar story on counterdemonstrators was a 500-word paint-by-numbers piece that, by virtue of its length and position, gave far more credence to the handful of pro-war demonstrators than their numbers should warrant. The Chicago Tribune put it in a more realistic perspective by including a single sentence noting the presence of the pro-war faction in the midst of its Jan. 19 report.

The Baltimore Sun article duplicated The New York Times count, but the story itself, by Ellen Gamerman, was much more evocative of the feel of the event, noting the diversity of people and opinions, with many quotes from participants.

And people were delighted to talk. Although the endless-seeming procession of speakers caught the interest of a sizeable crowd during the rally, people also wandered the sidelines and struck up conversations with strangers with the easy familiarity of old friends—something I both observed and tried for myself.

Police presence was much more muted than during the inauguration protest two years ago. I watched as cops dissuaded some teens from scrambling up the side of the Jefferson Memorial, but witnessed no arrests. It turns out there were only two: a person who scrawled on the side of the Library of Congress, and another cited for disorderly conduct.

“There were two arrests,” Newsday reported, quoting a Chicago Tribune story also carried by the Detroit Free Press. But the Free Press edit retained a single extra word that gives a different slant: “There were only two arrests . . .” It doesn’t take much to alter a story’s effect.

Which is still more informative than Woodward’s AP piece, which in both the Sunday Gazette and Times Union became “few arrests.” Washington, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey was quoted in The Washington Times as saying, “If that’s the worst thing that’s going to happen all day, we’re in good shape.”

Mainstream newspapers boast of objective journalism, but a point of view is expressed whenever words are juxtaposed. What you omit can be as important as what you choose, and, with something like 40 speakers at the rally, reporters had to choose a few representative names.

Who spoke at the rally? The AP piece that ran locally quoted a welcome from Peta Lindsay, one of the organizers, and then went on to quote only the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson—pretty scary names as far as gun-totin’ middle-America is concerned. If this is a deliberate choice, it’s cleverly racist, letting two of White Conservative America’s most despised figures characterize a far more diverse speaker’s list.

There’s also a quote from an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees rep, but it reads as if she were just part of the crowd. Placed after the paragraph noting “few arrests,” it reads, “‘We don’t want this war and we don’t want a government that wants this war,’ said Brenda Stokely, a New York City labor activist. A sign branded America, not Iraq, a ‘Rogue Nation.’ Another said, ‘Disarm Bush.’” Stokely seems in that context to be standing amid the sign-wavers.

Note how the racist angle weaves through other accounts. The Washington Times:
“. . . the massive crowd listened to a series of short speeches by representatives of various interest groups, including the AFL-CIO, Free Palestine Alliance, United for Peace TransAfrica, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation.”

The Baltimore Sun: “Demonstrators bundled up and trudged onto the National Mall without the lure of many high-profile
speakers—such as Democratic lawmakers who endorsed the use of force against Iraq in Congress three months ago. Instead, it was that party’s squeaky wheels who addressed the crowd, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is preparing a presidential bid, and civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.”

The celebrity angle always plays well, and other newspapers used it to achieve a better more balanced overview of the speakers. The New York Times: “In addition to dozens of activists representing groups like the Muslim Student Association, Pastors for Peace and Global Exchange, there were several celebrity speakers.

“Among them were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the actresses Jessica Lange and Tyne Daly, and Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist.”

The Washington Post named Jackson, Sharpton, Lange and Michigan Congressman John Conyers; Intervention Magazine added former attorney general Ramsey Clark to the list.

Accounts from England seemed more comfortable with the variables. The Independent characterized the event as “the biggest peace demonstration since the days of the Vietnam War,” while The Guardian noted that “The spirit of the ’60s returned to the streets of Washington . . . with a massive protest aimed at stopping the war in Iraq.”

Here’s The Guardian on the turnout, with a brief account that offers the best portrait: “In the absence of turnstiles and ticket sales, exact numbers on these occasions are notoriously elusive. Police did not quarrel with the organizers’ estimate of 500,000, though that seemed excessive. Certainly, there can hardly have been less than 100,000, especially bearing in mind the day’s one undeniable statistic: the temperature never rose above 25F . . .”

Plenty of Internet-based reports of varying skill and credibility addressed the experience of spending a cold day at the rally; locally, both Metroland and the Times Union sent a reporter and photographer. Alan Wechsler’s TU story nicely portrayed the variety of travelers and gave good accounts of the numbers and speakers—much better than the Woodward’s AP story in that respect. But it was a personal-experience piece devoid of any personal experience, probably the result of the censorship that passes for “objective journalism” these days.

If The New York Times was tight-lipped about the rally, it redeemed itself with an editorial on Jan. 20 that praised the march and concluded, “We hope that spirit will endure in the weeks ahead if differences deepen and a noisier antiwar movement develops. These protests are the tip of a far broader sense of concern and lack of confidence in the path to war that seems to lie ahead.”

—B. A. Nilsson


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