Complicated Media Priorities at the World Social Forum

Millions of people are still in the dark about the World Social Forum. And why? As many media critics would have you believe, media are part of the problem, complicit with the forces of globalization. Lack of reporting press at the World Social Forum reflects the incestuous relationship between international corporate media, multinationals and global capital flow, and political power.

However, although the massive media entities in the United States regularly filter out stories that challenge status quo sensibilities, in this case it would be extremely unfair to say that US coverage of the World Social Forum was nonexistent. After searching the online versions of major news outlets, I discovered that the event was covered, by the wire services Reuters, Associated Press and Dow Jones, and then later reprinted in the Boston Globe, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Forbes, Los Angeles Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. Original works that discussed or featured the World Social Forum could be found online-in CNN, Forbes, National Public Radio, Newsweek-or rather its daily web magazine "Daily Davos", Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

That's not to say the coverage was impressive or in-depth.

Media's attention to the event was definitely low both in terms of how the issue was reported as well as how many times media outlets picked up or ran a story. By comparison to European media -- especially Swiss and British media, US major media barely scratched the surface. Rather, the Americans half-heartedly took the World Social Forum into account with little credit to the intent, accomplishments or context of the meeting. More often than not, these stories were schizoid or superficial. In some instances, reports of the number of people in attendance in Porto Alegre varied from 4000 to 10000. In others, the organizers credited with conceiving of the idea ranged from Bernard Cassen (Le Monde Diplomatique) and Workers Party (Porto Alegre) to the Public Media Center in Washington DC.

Possible explanations for the poor performance by the American press?

I looked at the larger context in which the World Social Forum had arisen -- a counter-event, against the World Economic Forum, global elitism, and closed-door proceedings on the globalization. What I found was not the usual global media blackout, but a set of factors that revealed both the faults of major media outlets and the fissures the anti-globalization movement itself.

Competition from protesters (or lack thereof) in Davos

Anti-globalization protesters made headlines in Davos, not Porto Alegre, because of the unprecedented security measures taken to preempt "another Seattle". So while democratic, inclusive, and at times chaotic discussions may have been ongoing at the World Social Forum, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN and others were drawn to the potential public relations meltdown at the World Economic Forum. Journalists and their editors -- whether they admit to it or critics lambast them for it -- abide by "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality, and Davos was the perfect setting for a big standoff between the global elite and "neo-anarchists" as Newsweek/DailyDavos.com called the protesters. The more police, barbed wire, fences, shields, water cannons, liquid manure cannons, et cetera, the better.

Given the protest action and subsequent high security operations in the Swiss Alps, US major media treated the World Social Forum as a sideshow, rather than a main event. So, while the American press waited for action in the streets, it also looked to Brazil to flesh out the drama happening in Davos. The World Social Forum was mentioned in the same breathe as the anti-globalization demonstrations and succinctly presented as the "counter" or "alternative Davos" with social aims versus neo-liberalist ones.

More often than not, reporters and editorialists remained loyal to the annual meeting in Davos, where they felt real decision-making take place and solutions to anti-globalization concerns would be met. " ... The protesters have failed to offer practical, pragmatic solutions to the issues they raise. The actual solving will be left to the Soreses and Annans, Foxes and Gateses of the world," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune in an editorial piece. A commentary found on the Wall Street Journal site, "The Davos Disorder" -- a piece that originally ran in the European version of the paper -- lashed out against anti-globalization protesters, saying "The antiglobalists clearly don't agree [on a way to alter the path of globalization] and the poverty of their ideas is only matched by the brutishness with which they try to inflict them on others."

Similarly -- although much less opinionated, Newsweek's "Daily Davos" web journal seemed to diminish the significance of the World Social Forum by suggesting that the two Forums were both striving for inclusion and diversity at their conferences (see The Anti-Davos).

Are the mainstream media guilty creating competition between protesters in Davos and Porto Alegre? Of conspiring with multi-nationals and police authorities to draw attention away from an important historical occurrence? I'll go out on a limb here and say yes AND no. Yes since media do not know how to deal with protesters ... either organizing a conference or taking to the streets. As Todd Gitlin once wrote of media and student activists during the anti-war protests, protesters' aims will rarely be scrutinized in the press. Quite the contrary: media would rather present them as irrational and disorganized than investigate the essence of their dissent.

No surprise, then, that the media were more attentive to the action in Davos. The Chicago Tribune, CNN, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Newsweek, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, amongst others, became engrossed in the drama between "good cops" and "bad cops". Protesters, more often than not, were tagged as the "bad cops", more inclined to irrational displays of violence or, at best, "professional troublemakers" (see the New York Times, Davos Braced for Protests).

And if they simultaneously lent an ear to the protests in Porto Alegre, the media clung to the potential signs of disorder or contradiction of the World Social Forum. CNN (with help from Reuters) wrote in a piece called "Protesters invade 'anti-Davos'": "The 'anti-Davos' forum in southern Brazil got a taste of its own medecine Sunday when protesters stormed a press conference to demand greater participation for blacks."

Yet, while media are prone to dilute and distort the aims of protesters, they cannot be fully blamed. Is it unreasonable for people, media included, to associate the World Social Forum with anti-globalization protests in the street with NGOs trying to input in globalization processes and meetings such as the World Economic Forum? I would argue no. Painful as it may be to some of the hardcore anti-globalization proponents, the link is there and it helps explain why press coverage of the World Social Forum often took place under the umbrella of the anti-globalization protests at the World Economic Forum.

This underscores the second reason for the lack of coverage of the World Social Forum:

Competition from NGOs/Civil Society representatives in Davos

Non-governmental organization (NGO)/civil society representatives in Davos may have stolen the show from the conference participants/organizers in Porto Alegre. Although less in number than the protest stories, coverage of the NGO and civil society representatives attending the World Economic Forum could be found after trawling through many of the major media web sites.

Newsweek/Daily Davos and CNN both emphasized and celebrated the World Economic Forum's spirit of inclusion. The NGOs and civil society representatives came to Davos due to an effort by conference organizers to address social, humanist concerns that proponents of economic globalization largely ignore. Much of the American press in Davos eagerly included the fact that up to 40 NGOs and representatives of civil society-oftentimes counterposing this fact with the threat of protest and the high security measures.

With that said, however, the coverage was lacking. Very few NGOs were named outright. Excepting an article in Newsweek that quoted Lori Wallach from Public Citizen, a CNN piece that listed Amnesty International, and an article in Chicago Tribune that mentioned Thilo Bode (without mentioning Greenpeace) NGO coverage was pretty superficial. Obviously, people in Porto Alegre -- let alone around the world -- had no idea what NGOs were doing in Davos.

This gap in coverage between non-business advocates in Davos and conference participants in Porto Alegre came to a head during the videobridge organized by Madmundo, an independent French TV outfit. The event, as many of you may have read or perhaps witnessed, was designed to engage participants at Davos and Porto Alegre in a constructive dialogue about the globalization divide.

Rather than achieve what producer Patrice Barrat intended, the event was a vicious slanging match, and thoroughly a disaster. By the conclusion of a 90-minute haranguing session, World Social Forum participants basically discredited all of the NGOs in Davos. "We would not choose you [the NGOs in Davos] as our messengers," shouted one World Social Forum panelist to Anuradha Vittachi of Oneworld.org, which just the day before had featured a statement by Walden Bello.

Following the heated tension between Porto Alegre and Davos, much of the press focused on more irrational portrayals of people in Brazil such as when Hebe de Bonafini called George Soros a "hypocrite and a monster" or when Walden Bello suggested that everyone from the WEF be shipped off into space (see CNN's Insults Fly). Not one journalist mentioned Tobin Tax or debt cancellation -- issues that Brazilian conference participants did manage to convey.

In a sense, coverage on the World Social Forum might have been bolstered by coordination, not competition between NGOs and civil society representatives in Davos and Porto Alegre. Rather than becoming estranged, the two groups could have collectively ensured that certain concerns to the table, either in the media or in Davos. Media exacerbated the divide by limiting its reportage on in Davos, but the two groups might have independently communicated with each other to better understand each other. But instead, the NGOs were alienated, World Social Forum participants angry, and the anti-globalization movement still perceived as illegitimate, or at best "problematic".

Media do not understand civil society

The competition from Davos NGO and civil society representatives -- or otherwise put, lack of coordination -- speaks to a larger problem for World Social Forum participants questioning the lack of coverage. US media still have a long way to go in understanding civil society as a whole. It's not just that protesters are typecast as professional troublemakers, but that unofficial voices of democracy struggle for airtime, column space or hyperlinks.

One of the most revealing pieces to be published during the World Social and World Economif Forums appeared in Newsweek/DailyDavos encapsulates this very point. Entitled "NGOs: the Good, the Bad and the Illegitimate" and written by Michael Elliot, Editor-in-Chief of eCountries, the article trudged through the reasons why the world -- global institutions and media megaliths in particular -- remain wary of civil society. Elliot raised two matters: first, it is difficult to separate the valid critiques of NGOs, the ostensible spokespersons of civil society, from the vitriol and violent threats of "neo-anarchists", and second, NGOs that engage in dialogue with global elite such as the World Economic Forum suffer credibility loss amongst their own constituents.

If Elliot feels troubled by the schizoid nature of the anti-globalization movement, he will have to get used to it (see Naomi Klein's World Social Forum: Actions Speaking Louder than Words). Civil society, whether the media and others like it or not, includes your ordinary protester as well as your articulate NGO representative. As I first critiqued in this article, he fails to mention the sensationalized reportage of protest activity. But he is right to discuss the two different types of anti-globalization protesters. I would go out on another limb and argue that one of the reasons that the World Social Forum got less coverage than it deserved stems from the fact that conference organizers did not address head-on the violent public image of anti-globalization protesters.

As for his second concern on NGOs and the "sell-out syndrome", he describes what seemed to be happening between Davos and Porto Alegre during the videobridge. But, while NGO and civil society representatives had their backs up against the wall, the "sell-out syndrome" could be seen as a false dichotomy of legitimate and illegitimate anti-globalization voices that the media use to polarize the movement. NGOs have been fighting and working in the thick of things even before a critical, popular mass emerged against the global elite. If the World Social Forum participants feel snubbed, part of the reason seems to stem from the horrible precedent set by media with NGOs and social causes.

The implications of all this?

Do something. For sure, the World Social Forum 2002 might take a proactive stance towards media coverage the next time around. Armed with the knowledge of why media hesitate to investigate anti-globalization with the same zeal as, say the World Economic Forum, conference organizers should be able to generate more public awareness through the media. This is not public relations campaign for which global elite pay millions of dollars but an effort to get the true story across. There is real and pressing need for paying attention to social and cultural impacts of the economic globalization. Media can be biased but they can also be confronted, called out and improved. To criticize them from within is not nearly enough to make a change. The public and members of the anti-globalization movement deserve better.

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