Disturbing Distortions: why the media fails to cover the protests fairly

by Rick Stahlhut, MD Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 11:44 AM
stahlhut@net-link.net 616/373-4149 1125 Piccadilly Road, Kalamazoo MI 49006

The severe disconnect between the reality of the ongoing peaceful protests and the "violent, ignorant revolutionaries" portrayed in the media can be easily explained in terms of the model of media function put forth in Herman and Chomsky's book, Manufacturing Consent.

When Seattle awakened me from my political sleep last winter, I began reading first-person accounts of the protests and technical descriptions of WTO atrocities. I was convinced, so I attended the Washington DC protests against the IMF and World Bank in the Spring, as well as the recent Philly protests. I was a medical observer and "street medic" in the middle of the action. The protesters impressed me with their dedication, their commitment to non-violence, and their enthusiasm. The issues are also real and incredibly important.

But I've been stunned by the response of the media, because what I saw and what the media has reported have been very, very different. The distortions are so large, and so disturbing, that my confidence in national news is gone. Perhaps you'd have to see it yourself to believe it. But I've seen it. Here's the story:

Uniformly, the media talks of "angry, violent protesters" or even "revolutionaries". Stories have been invented of extreme violence, and irresponsibly circulated by major media. In June, for example, the New York Times reported: "In [Seattle], demonstrators, some wearing gas masks, hurled Molotov cocktails, rocks and excrement at delegates and police officers." Confronted with their journalistic malpractice, they retracted it three days later: "The Seattle protests were primarily peaceful.... No protesters were accused of throwing objects ... at delegates or the police."

Serious Philly police misconduct has been reported through the Internet-based alternative press, but totally ignored by the mainstream. According to respected activist, Leslie Cagan, "There are numerous accounts of arrestees who have been isolated, verbally abused, punched, kicked, thrown against walls, bloodied, and dragged naked across floors.... There has been a reported sexual assault by a female officer who pulled and twisted a prisoner's penis, as well as reports of people dragged by their genitals and nipples being twisted by guards. Seven witnesses saw one woman dragged naked and bleeding." [from ZNet] The Philly legal support team verified this to me personally. You can find detailed accounts at independent media centers like www.phillyimc.org.

The media also ignores the issues. Why were 50,000 people in Seattle, or 20,000 in DC or Philly? What are the arguments of their "thought leaders" (there are no action leaders), their world class experts? Presidential candidate Ralph Nader spoke to 3,000 marchers for healthcare reform in Philly. The media blacked him out.

The protesters are intentionally cast as hippies yearning for the bygone protests of the 60's. Sindu Srinivas, president of the American Medical Student Association (the world's largest medical student organization with 35,000 members) noticed at the healthcare rally that the national media was there, but only interviewing "unusual looking" people. Frankly, I love the alternative people. Their rejection of the dominant, greed-based culture is a breath of fresh air. No Nike sweatshop shoes on these folks. And I really would like blue hair (but no piercings!) if I had the nerve.

But the movement is much broader than that. Anyway, the media's interviewing strategy was so obvious, and annoying, she angrily asked why they weren't interviewing her (one of the speakers!) or the people marching in doctor's white coats. "Not good enough," they replied. "You need a costume."

So the media's outrageously distorted "frame" is this: the protesters are angry, violent revolutionaries. They destroy property and attack innocents with their thuggery. They are stupid and immature and look funny. The issues aren't important. They are not like you and me. They should be ignored and suppressed.

When I see a reality-disconnect this big, my world spins. I start groping for answers. Why is the media lying? Weren't they there like I was? Didn't they talk with the protesters for more than a sound bite like I did? Have they studied the issues? Is it just laziness--maybe they've already decided on the story before they arrive? "OK, we've let's say they're violent and angry and unusual-looking. Can we find a heavily-pierced anarchist wearing black for the photo?" Is "violence" just sexier than telling the truth? What is going on??

Finally, I was driven to read Herman and Chomsky's darkly brilliant book, Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media. You scarcely hear of Noam Chomsky in America (for reasons that will become clear), but outside the US he's widely considered to be the foremost intellectual on the planet today. An MIT professor, he has ideas about how our world really operates that are not, shall we say, "welcomed" by everyone in power.

The media, according to the authors, has five filters through which all news must pass to become "fit to print." These filters are not written down. They are not agreed upon at some vast conspiracy conference that meets every winter in Argentina. They are simply common pressures, facts, and attitudes that shape all major news organizations, and shape (and select) the people hired by them. I won't try to convince you here, but the book uses the many convenient examples history has provided, and hundreds of references, to show how plausible, even inescapable, this theory is.

The first filter results because all national news media companies are big businesses. Huge businesses. Greater than billion dollar businesses in fact. Some are owned by even larger businesses like GE. And most local news outlets--radio, TV, newspapers--are owned by one of the few huge media conglomerates. Therefore, they are unlikely to cover stories harmful to themselves. You will never see a TV special on Manufacturing Consent, for example. It's too dangerous.

Second, all major media today is almost completely supported by advertising, even public TV to an ever increasing degree. When a public TV station ran a documentary which revealed ugly big business practices in the developing world, an oil company supporter dropped their sponsorship of the TV station. Lesson learned.

Third, journalists don't have time to chase the details and verify every story. Much less expensive to get "news" from official sources, like the State Department, the Pentagon, the local police chief, the Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce. If the police chief says the protesters were only "slightly injured", it must be true. If I tell the reporter I saw protesters beaten to the ground and dragged away (which I did), the journalist has a lot of work to do if they want to report it, because I'm not "official." The result: the press unwittingly become "public relations" (less nicely: propaganda) arms of government bureaus and large corporations.

Fourth, media organizations are kept in line by flak. Some of this flak is visible, like letters to the editor. Other times it's more subtle, like a phone call from a government official or a major advertiser. When a UPI friend of mine reported news of a worker injured at a local nuke plant, her bureau chief immediately got angry calls from the electrical utility AND the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Fifth, all news must be "anti-Communist". Anything suggesting weakness in capitalism or free markets, or anything good about socialist or communist concepts, must be removed. Sounds crazy? Do you like interstate highways without toll booths? Are you glad the 911 operator doesn't ask your credit card number before sending the police? Isn't it right that poor or orphaned children can attend grade school and high school at no cost? Welcome to socialism, comrade (basic services provided without regard to ability to pay). A pure capitalist society would have none of this. But you won't hear that on the news. Nor will you hear that the Nicaraguan Sandinista government treated its people much better than the previous Somasa dictatorship (backed by the US for over 40 years), or that it was making great strides in education and healthcare before Reagan's illegal war destroyed their economy.

Now, we can begin to answer the question: why does the media consistently distort the message of the protesters? Because it violates nearly every one of the filters. A major message of the protests is that massive global corporations are too powerful. Of the 100 largest economies on Earth, 48 are countries and 52 are corporations. These corporations are creating international trade agreements and financial institutions--like the WTO, NAFTA, the World Bank, the IMF--that serve their interests and undermine democratically elected governments. They also directly influence our government through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the media itself. These are messages of the protesters--and they all violate filters one and two. They also suggest serious flaws in unbridled capitalism, which violates filter five. The journalists rely heavily on official sources (filter three), like the Philadelphia police, rather than spending serious time in the streets to learn what's really happening. This allows the police to spin the story their way. And flak will punish any deviance from these unwritten rules.

So, there you have it. Hard to believe, perhaps, if you haven't seen it yourself. But disturbing and permanently life-changing when you do.

How can democracy work when the people aren't properly informed?

Original: Disturbing Distortions: why the media fails to cover the protests fairly