Covering the Anti-War

While more than 100,000 soldiers in the Gulf are poised to march off to war, over 10 times that number seemed to be marching against it as protests erupted in more than 37 cities worldwide last weekend. A global anti-war movement is growing but the coverage of it in depth and dimension still lags.

When media outlets are given a choice of showcasing war makers or highlighting peace makers, the former always win hands down.

War, and the threat of war, sells newspapers. Peace does not. The "action" of War builds TV ratings. In contrast, the quieter work of diplomacy and negotiations is boring and not highly visual. War gives journalists a chance to show how brave they are in a macho sport where only the strong survive. Peace is far headier, an intellectual's vocation, a game for lawyers, softies and sissies.

So where does anti-war activism fit in the media equation? It usually doesn't. The militancy of most marchers today is ofen pictured as a dated throwback to the idealism of the 1960's. In our age, when history and ideology are said to be dead, antiwar slogans and mass mobilizations are portrayed as rituals, not resistance.

At the same time, they are becoming hard to ignore even if media outlets tend to play them down. In much of the US media, questions of war and peace have been the province of the punditocracy from the think tanks and war rooms where the issue focuses on how wars can be fought, rather than whether they should be fought at all. Hawks rule the TV studios even as doves line the streets.

When marchers in America first hit critical mass last November, the New York Times downplayed the size and significance of what was happening. Somehow a hundred thousand looked to their reporters as the a few thousand; National Public Radio followed the same script until a blizzard of emails flooded editors who took another look and admitted they had been wrong. The Times responded to similar criticisms by running another story some days later giving more weight to mushrooming cries against impending war.

As public opinion began to shift -- along with the president's approval ratings -- the story suddenly grew legs.

When another wave of marchers marked the Martin Luther King Birthday weekend with another mobilization on both coasts, with as many as 700,000 in the streets according to organizers, opinion makers paid even more attention. The New York Times later editorialized on behalf of the dissenters, while CSPAN devoted hours of coverage.

Behind the marches was the organizing power of the Internet, reaching hundreds of thousands quickly. As Wired Magazine confirmed, "the access to coalition-building tools via the Internet has revolutionized the anti-war movement." A masterfiul use of new media flooded the streets and spurred the old media into action.

There were still problems. US papers did not focus on the global scope of the movement, minimizing the protests in other countries. There were also perennial complaints of media outlets opting for far lower estimates that those claimed by organizers.

The Washington Post explained the problem this way : "The number is freighted with loads of political baggage and can fluctuate wildly -- tripling one minute, halving the next -- depending on who's talking. U.S. Capitol Police suggested yesterday's antiwar street march drew 30,000 to 50,000 people. Protest organizers said that the number was closer to 500,000. District police settled on "an awful lot of people." The truth might fall somewhere in between the guesses, or it might fall somewhere beyond the edges. That's because no one really knows how many people showed up.

"The methods used to determine head counts generally rest on rough comparisons to crowd estimates attributed to previous large-scale events. Those historical attributions, however, often resulted from ballpark guesses themselves. "I know everyone is skittish about saying a number," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "But this was big. An impressive number."

Even the papers that do give space to op-ed columnists who challenge the pro war consensus of just a few months ago are still not giving as much space in news columns to activists.

"It's all a matter of how you frame things," writes editor Tom Englehardt. "My hometown paper, the New York Times, had a front-page photo, 'Antiwar Rally in Washington,' but the actual story was on page 12, headlined 'Thousands Converge in Capital to Protest Plans for War,' even though paragraph one made it clear that 'tens of thousands' were there. Perhaps it's understandable that the editors tucked the article on the largest peace march since the late 1960s (maybe larger) away inside, what with 'Gains on Heart Disease Leave More Survivors, and Questions' or 'Fearful Saudis Seek a Way to Budge Hussein' panting for front-page attention. Imagine, however, this front-page headline: 'Fearful Americans Seek a Way to Budge Bush.'"

The media will likely become the new battleground in the war for public opinion. Until now, the Administration has skillfully orchestrated the coverage, but that is starting to change. Activists who have been left out of the news are buying ads, funding TV commercials, and even lambasting some media outlets.

I saw a "FOX News Sucks; CSPAN is A-OK" placard at the Washington March denouncing Rupert Murdoch's right-leaning network. This signals that the media will no longer come under pressure only from government.

Today critical readers and viewers are pressing the press to let the other side be heard.

"News Dissector" Danny Schechter, author of "Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror," writes a daily weblog for Mediachannel. org.


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