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Media Need to Move On

The media ignore the difference between real grassroots organizations and smear-happy front groups – the difference, say, between MoveOn and MoveOnForAmerica.
 
 
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This year’s presidential campaign has already provided many reasons to bemoan the state of American journalism. Here’s one more: the marginalization of grassroots activism.

This marginalization is caused by two reasons. One, the media does not cover instances of popular political expression, including demonstrations, issue-based activism and other organizing outside of the two-party system. Or, if these activities are covered, they are presented as spectacles – not as an integral part of our ongoing democratic dialogue.

Two, the media in contrast gives inordinate attention to fly-by-night groups with little evidence of real support. Why? Because these groups’ sensational claims make for entertaining and easily produced news stories. The result is that a Swift Boats Veterans for Truth has greater impact on the national debate than long-established activist organizations.

The United for Peace and Justice march outside this year’s Republican National Convention was the largest protest ever at a political convention. If journalists had treated that demonstration as politically significant, they would have devoted print space and air-time to issues that led protesters to travel from around the country to the streets of New York. Candidates in turn would be forced to offer their plans to address those issues, if elected.

The short-lived coverage of the RNC demonstrations focused instead on the remote possibility of violence, the legal back-and-forth over the rally permit, how angry the protesters seemed, and questionable police tactics. In under-covering the protesters, the media also in effect passed over the issues important to the nation. For example, a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that newspaper and wire reports on the presidential race during the week of the RNC mentioned Vietnam nearly as often as Iraq.

This warped sense of priorities also reflects the preponderant influence of the new, small and factually-challenged group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in shaping media coverage, which was driven by their false allegations regarding Sen. Kerry’s Vietnam War service.

As the presidential campaign enters its last month, more such dubious groups – and more ads – are likely to rear their ugly head. On Sept. 3, Associated Press reported on the most recent addition, MoveOnForAmerica.org. “Move over, MoveOn.org,” the article began. “The liberal-leaning group that has raised millions of dollars to run negative ads attacking President Bush now has a competitor on the right with a somewhat similar name.”

The AP report illustrates how lazy reporting helps media manipulators, at the expense of real concerns voiced by significant numbers of real people. The story lead suggests that MoveOn.org and MoveOnForAmerica.org are comparable organizations, running similar “negative ads.”

Even cursory research proves otherwise.

MoveOn.org is a liberal, grassroots-focused, Internet-based organization that has been around for six years. Its more than two million members support the group’s activities, mostly through small donations.

In contrast, MoveOnForAmerica.org is less than one month old. Stephen Marks registered the web site’s domain name on Aug. 25; he registered the group with the IRS on Sept. 3 – the same day that AP ran its story. Marks admitted that the group’s name was chosen “just to get the press’s attention. … We want to kind of do what MoveOn.org has done, but on the other side.” MoveOnForAmerica.org “was created due to the Bush campaign’s largely timid ads against Mr. Kerry,” according to its web site.

MoveOn.org, however, does a lot more than just run ads focused on the presidential race. It also organizes petition drives, Congressional call-in days, demonstrations, concerts and movie screenings, and raises funds for various Congressional and statewide races. MoveOn's self-declared goal is “to help each individual have the greatest possible impact” on issues of war and peace, the environment, and campaign finance, among others.

Another illustrative comparison is the groups’ fundraising clout. While MoveOn.org has raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on a wide range of projects, Marks told AP that MoveOnForAmerica.org had raised $200,000 for television ads. The New York Daily News was skeptical of his claim: “So far, they can be found only on the Internet, raising suspicions Marks is seeking buzz while shopping around for a big-bucks donor to pay for airtime.”

In my interview with Marks, he declined to say how many people were involved with MoveOnForAmerica.org or how much money had been raised. “We are approaching the big money people now,” he said, but it’s difficult, because “our ads are a little edgier” and the “stuffy, country club type of Republican” might be scared off. He admitted that the date for airing their first ad had been delayed, from early to late September.

Of course, this easy formula to influence a national election – scrounge together enough money to air a sensational ad a few times and then wait for free media coverage – is nothing new.

Remember William “Willie” Horton? The African-American man physically and sexually assaulted a couple while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The case was featured in 1988 ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate and then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Although now infamous, the original Horton ad aired on cable TV in just two New England markets.

Similarly, the Swift Boat ad ran just over 700 times in three states, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. The Project points out that only two percent of the U.S. population could have seen the Swift Boat group’s paid ads – meaning “most of the people aware of the content of these ads have seen them in news media coverage.”

Stephen Marks, among many others, is well aware of these examples. It's why the MoveOnForAmerica.org ads, as described by the San Francisco Chronicle, rely on “innuendo, leaps of logic and guilt by association.”

Journalists have a responsibility, of course, to cover real controversies. However, they do the public a grave disservice when they marginalize real grassroots efforts and concerns to focus on groups whose sole purpose is to introduce contrived controversies into political discourse.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy ’s Senior Researcher. More information on MoveOn.org, MoveOnForAmerica.org, Americans Against Hate and many other groups seeking to shape the public agenda can be found on the Center’s interactive research website, Disinfopedia.org.