The Daily News' Press Crimes Against Humanity
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Ok, I got your attention, tabloid style. You've just had a small taste of the media manipulation dynamics at play in the Big Apple in the run up to what Time Out: New York has called: "The Barbarian Invasion."
In an editorial decision that boggled the mind of even the most cynical New York media watchers, The Daily News' huge headline on Thursday screamed, "Anarchists Hot for Mayhem: Police on Guard vs. Violent Tactics." That headline was followed by an incredibly thin, "exclusive" story by Patrice O'Shaughnessy, based completely on unnamed sources in the police department.
Question: Is this reporter being used as a tool of the police propaganda machine? The Daily News is a slightly more sane, more Democratic alternative to Rupert Murdoch's right-wing rag, The New York Post, but O'Shaughnessy's article beats the Post for its journalistic irresponsibility. The article began, "Fifty of the Country's leading anarchists are expected to be in the City for the RNC... each of the 50 have at least 50 followers who are willing to [be] arrested."
I wonder how the NYPD picked their top 50 – sounds like an idea they borrowed from the military with their Iraq deck of cards – and the 50 followers. Fifty has a certain symmetry – perhaps a numerologist picked it.
The New York Post must have felt the heat to compete with the Daily News for bad journalism. The Post's Saturday edition led with " Two Nailed in Herald Square Subway Blast Plot," another story skimpy on the details with audacious claims, anonymous police quotes, and a stunning reference to what was likely a confidential memo from the federal government: "The threat was taken so seriously by officials, that it was mentioned this week in a Department of Homeland Security Memo."...Huh, mentioned in a memo?
This is exactly the kind of hysterical hit piece reporting – along with a slew of other media reports that have distorted the aims and intents of protesters – that activist leaders feared would dominate the news in New York City. And these stories and many others like them have been repeated on local news shows as well. In fact, protest leaders became so concerned about the distorted media environment that they took the unprecedented step of trying to engage journalists with a preemptive initiative to open up a dialogue on coverage.
An open letter released on Thursday urges the media to ensure fair, balanced and accurate coverage of the RNC demonstrations. Organizers appealed to members of the news media to cover the upcoming protests with the utmost care and diligence.
The letter begins:
"We write as representatives of peace and justice organizations that will convene in New York City during the Republican National Convention to express our dissent to the current administration's policies and practices, including the occupation of Iraq, attacks on our civil liberties, the impoverishment of our communities and the destruction of our environment. We are concerned by the slant of some of the media coverage that has focused on potential violence or made unsubstantiated and sensationalist claims about the activists who will be demonstrating during the Convention."
The letter is signed by more than 50 prominent individuals representing peace, environmental, religious, immigrant, youth and community organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Organization for Women to Military Families Speak Out. The letter suggests several ways for journalists to ensure the most fair and balanced coverage of the dissent in the streets. It urges reporters to:
– Scrutinize the behavior of law enforcement officials as well as demonstrators
– Not to repeat unsubstantiated allegations
– Depict the diversity of those in the streets
– Seek out personal stories that best convey the activists' issues
– Emphasize the actions and sentiments of the many, not the few.
"In the past, the media has focused on a few people burning an American flag or smashing a Starbucks window instead of the creative and non-violent actions of tens of thousands of concerned citizens," says Medea Benjamin of the women's peace group CodePink, who signed the open letter. "We are urging the media to provide coverage that reflects the passionate, but non-violent commitment of the majority."
"We understand that the job of reporters is to provide interesting, compelling stories," says Andrea Buffa of the human rights group Global Exchange. "Our movement is full of fascinating people with compelling stories, and we have happy to help journalists find those people." Such compelling stories could include:
– Marchers from Iraq Veterans Against the War, former soldiers who are aghast at how their comrades are dying for what they say is a war built on lies.
– Demonstrators from September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who decry what they say is the Bush Administration's cynical attempts to reap political gain from their personal losses.
– Workers from the Communications Workers of America, who oppose the Bush Administration's policies that favor giant corporations over working families.
The battle for the media frame in NYC will remain intense during the week of the convention. The message of a beleaguered, terribly dangerous Manhattan that requires massive protection has been the dominant frame for days, starting with The New York Times' August 20 front page article "Anarchists are the Convention's Wild Card."
A good sign is that anti-Bush New Yorkers don't seem to be taking the fear bait. They strongly support protest as essential to the vital fabric of the City, according to a Quinnipiac University poll issued on August 26th. Seventy-one percent of the respondents support civil disobedience in Central Park – as long as would be nonviolent – believing it a time-honored tradition that ought to be protected.
"Most New Yorkers, 81 percent, approve of lawful demonstrations during the convention, and 68 percent approve of nonviolent civil disobedience, and 11 percent plan to go to a demonstration themselves," according to the Quinnipiac poll. Most of the poll results make sense, since 70 percent said they disapproved of the job President Bush is doing, compared with 25 percent who approved. But "19 out of 20 New Yorkers draw the line at violence," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, according to the Associated Press. Two-thirds think the convention and the protests surrounding it will cause major disruptions, but just 10 percent plan to leave during the event, the poll said. Half said they were worried about the convention being held in the city.
"The city is rolling out the red carpet for the Republican delegates, but most New Yorkers would roll out the green carpet of Central Park for the anti-Republican demonstrators," Carroll said.
Despite the positive numbers about protesting, the scare tactic oriented media coverage and messages from elected officials may have had an impact, since " 31 percent in the poll said they thought a major terrorist attack during the convention is "very likely" or "somewhat likely."
New Yorkers also seem fed up with Mayor Bloomberg for bringing the Republicans to town and for screwing the protestors, while kissing the butt of the visiting Republicans (although for one brief moment Bloomberg offered those wearing "peaceful protestors buttons" discounts at Broadway shows and restaurants like Appelby's – then promptly ran out of buttons). According to the poll, as reported in AM New York, Bloomberg's approval rating dropped 5% in the past month to 44% – his lowest of the year.
The newspaper scene in New York makes for sometimes maddening but lively coverage. Whether or not you are in New York this week, be sure to check the tabloids (especially The New York Daily News and the New York Post, as they are interesting place to track the action). Because the tabloids are mostly interested in ginning up the hysteria and producing shocking headlines and photos to sell papers, they go to where the action is. And for the moment, before the Republicans really start their own show, the media scene is wide open.
Wednesday's audacious banner dropping on the facade of the Plaza Hotel received enormous press – the banner had an arrow pointing right with the word "truth" written above it and below it, "Bush" with an arrow pointing to the right. Unfortunately, it looks like the protesters who did it face some major legal complications. According to Liza Featherstone in the Nation:
"The four activists are charged with felony assault because a police officer was injured trying to arrest them. The officer was nowhere near any of the protesters when he injured himself falling through a skylight; in fact, the protesters standing on the Plaza roof had warned him that the skylight was broken and not to stand on it. We hear that Dick Cheney was supposed to stay at the Plaza, so the Secret Service is upset with the NYPD for letting things get out of hand; embarrassed, the police are scapegoating the protesters with trumped-up charges. The four protestors were let out of jail with no bail on Friday, but face major jail time. The two men reported a harrowing time in the pen where other inmates stole their money and intimated them."
The tabloids have been giving broad coverage to creative and photo-op-style protests – hence the widely exposed "nude in" by Act up to protest the Bush's administrations AID policies – a photograph even landed in The New York Times. Friday night's wild and wooly Critical Mass Bike ride, ending up in more than 260 arrests, got full front-page treatment in the Daily News.
Apart from the ride on Friday night, the bikers also plan to ride around ground zero Saturday night for "Ring Out the Republicans," a protest expected to draw people ringing bells on the streets (the group suggests riders meet at Union Square before the march for details). Time's Up! has also called for a Bike Bloc on Sunday in solidarity with the large Midtown antiwar march that's been organized by United for Peace and Justice. Finally, Times Up! plans to devote Tuesday to civil disobedience. All this could amount to a lot more coverage for the protesters, but it remains to be seen how the New York press will play it.
The bottom line is that no city in America has as much local media as New York. NYC media is feisty, covers a wide range political positions, and is the target of the struggle for the message – the column inches and the air time – for thousands of protestors and pols, all of whom have a story to tell.
Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.