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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?

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good job!

by joe Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 12:39 PM
jeo hoe poe

great summary of chomsky and hermans' work! if you're interested, you might want to also check out Alex Carey's _Taking the Risk out of Democracy_.

moving on, it seems that the corporate media has stopped maligning and misrepresenting the protesters, and has decided to simply ignore the protests/protesters: if the events/causes aren't reported, they just don't exist and claims to the contrary appear as conspiracy, exaggeration, propaganda, etc. in reality, it's not much different than the way pravda operated. it's blatant class war.

now, based on chomsky's propaganda model, this is what SHOULD BE expected, and I think that this fact should discredit the liberal current within our movement that disavows radical action because it "gives us bad press". As the class war develops, the media, like the cops, politicians and social democrats, will all turn on us and do everything they can to squash us. the corporate press is not our friend and there is no logical reason for them to portray our message in a genuine fashion; indeed, its own institutional compulsions militate against it ever happening. so, can the liberals among us stop telling us that escalation leads to bad press. our ally is not "the public" but the oppressed working classes and minority groups. the corporate media will only lie to them. it's time to build our own fucking media and burn down the others. they are enemies of the revolution and should be dealt with accordingly.

no peace for the beast.

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New Club for Protesters!

by Tom-NYC Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 1:17 PM
tbustamante29@yahoo.com 212 233-9302

We need to use the internet in our advantage..wheter in planning, organizing, and launching. I formed a club so we ALL, no matter our views or stance, can post up on upcoming marches in our local areas. Also, post up any info you may have on what the corp media doesnt want you to hear. ope it helps >>> http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/protests

A big fat shout out to indymedia.org Great site, great work. Thomas Jefferson would have been proud of you guys!

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Chomsky is da' man

by Winston Smith Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 1:46 PM
The new Evil Empire's stolen land

One more thing I'd like to mention from Noam Chomsky's great work. I believe this is from Manufacuring Consent, don't remember that well, but I know it is from Chomsky. Watch your local and national news broadcasts, corporate media of course, NBC provides a good example of this. Time each story, to see how much time in the broadcast is given to each story, and notice how the weather segment and the sports segment of the broadcast are longer than any other segment, including politics. Chomsky says it is a real eye opener to the fact that they use insignificant subjects to take up most of the time and skew peoples attention away from the serious subjects of the news. I tried it, and he ain't lyin'. The protests are talked about for a little over a minute, and sports is talked about for almost 10 minutes in a half hour broadcast, and that was a Denver local news affiliate of NBC. If you know anyone who refuses to accept the fact that the corporate controlled media is dishonest to the public, and loyal to corporations, tell them to time the length of each story in news broadcasts. They may just catch on when they realize how much time is wasted on the news talking about sports and weather, even when nothing is happening with either of those subjects.

Also, note the fact that we have riots after sporting events, and consider the possibility that sports are merely a distraction tool that keeps the public uninformed, by skewing their attention to something insignificant like sports.

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Thomas Jefferson would have been proud?

by noah Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 1:59 PM

You mean the Thomas Jefferson who wrote about how African's were only 3/5th human beings? The Thomas Jefferson who had 24 children with slaves that he raped, and used some of the children as slaves in his own house? The Thomas Jefferson that worked on the constitution which legalized slavery? If you look past the propaganda, you'll see that America was build by racists so that they could keep the profits of exploitation, instead of the British.

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How do we get the message out?

by Janet Staiger Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 2:08 PM

You are right on point. I participated in the Seattle and DC protests and I too am appalled at the media coverage. From my vantage point, it appears to be getting worse.

Last night I tried to get some news regarding the protests and arrests that occurred yesterday. The only reports I received were from this web site. I listened to TV news and NPR. Nothing. This is a media black out on a very large scale. I did see one article in our local paper today, the Olympian. This article primarily talks about issues covered by protesters and the fact that their message isn't clear enough. In addition, it mentions that 45 people were arrested yesterday and that the protests weren't as violent as Monday night. Although I haven't heard any exact numbers,the reports I'm reading from indymedia indicate that many more were arrested yesterday.

Maybe it's time to be creative and think about new ways to convey our message without assistance from main stream media. Indymedia has been excellent but we need more avenues. Working locally on a grassroots level in addition to global protests is effective. If we start canvassing neighborhoods more often and speaking to people one on one, the "message" will get through.

I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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Thanks People

by Scott Stephansky Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 3:07 PM
sstephansky@yahoo.com Arcata,CA

I've only just begun learning about what the protests in Seattle, Washington, etc. were really about, and about what really happened. I've given up on "mainstream" media. They just protray things as hunky-dory in the world, but they are not.

Thanks people for the reading suggestions.

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Thanks People

by Scott Stephansky Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 3:08 PM
sstephansky@yahoo.com Arcata,CA

I've only just begun learning about what the protests in Seattle, Washington, etc. were really about, and about what really happened. I've given up on "mainstream" media. They just protray things as hunky-dory in the world, but they are not.

Thanks people for the reading suggestions.

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re: how do we get the message out?

by Rick Stahlhut Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 3:19 PM

A couple thoughts:

1) forwarding protest info to everyone you respect on the net--especially if you were there.

2) there seem to be a lot of small alternative papers out there, nationwide. If there was a web site, or a listserv, dedicated to collecting/forwarding essays for the alternative papers to use free, maybe they would start printing them. Of course, indy media is potentially that, but I'm not sure it's working that way.

I guess what I'm thinking is: if I had an easy way to offer my essays to every alternative paper in the country, I'd give them away free.

In the meantime, if you have access to an alternative paper locally that you think would like the essay--take it. And stop by my web site for more.

wild guess>
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my two cents

by Gish Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 3:45 PM

Just want to mention a few more factors I think are involved in the giant protestor-media gap:

1) Generational -- a lot of the protestors are younger and have relatively little investment in the system, while reporters, especially the most "respected" ones, tend to be older and very invested.

2) A sound-byte society is not usually very adept at communicating as complicated a message as ours. Easier to just dismiss it.

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Something Interesting

by Nat Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 4:44 PM

Just an interesting thing that I noticed today: The best and most unbiased (and this may not be saying much) report I have seen in the mainstream so far was in the following Reuter's report. The report is covering the suggested court battle between protesters and the LAPD. One of the ways we may be able to achieve some coverage is to focus some energy on court battles and their results. While alot of this political BS is distorted, the courts are still somewhat less (and I stress the "somewhat") biased and so is the way court decisions are reported. Thought that was an interesting observation. This is the caption from the article and the rest can be found at the web address...

Great comments and insights on this problem. "We will either find a way, or we will MAKE one" (Hannibal).

4 > Protesters, LA Cops May Face Off in


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As scattered

protests meandered peacefully through the

streets, furious civil libertarians said they

would ask a federal judge to 'take control'

of the police department after its

iron-fisted response to Monday's protest

violence outside the Democratic

Convention. Tuesday police continued to

maintain a strong presence throughout the

city's downtown district. But protesters,

marching in a variety of demonstrations

espousing everything from animal rights to

bicycle transit to an end to Iraqi

sanctions, were largely peaceful.


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Media Distortions and things to look out for

by Emma Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 5:18 PM

I think that in addition to creating our own media and appealing to the public that way, we must be awaire that because the corporate news is bending over backwards to discredit us, we can'tt give them the excuse. For example. I think that various actions could be disigned now around being humerously over clear to the point of rediculous huge spelled out cards stating the issues of corporate influence. This is not to say we aren't clear, I think the truth is that we are a little TOO clear about the problems and faults in this supposed democracy. I also think the media is disoriented because they can't really beleave what we stand for, it's too complex and radical for them. Nevertheless,

I think it was a HUGE mistake to have that concert, ESPECIALLY to have RAGE play for a number of reasons. The first is that they are CORPORATE ROCK, even though their lyrics are political. The second is they have followers who are rowdy, and aren't activists. Third, it gives the ENTIRELLY wrong impression to the people observing. AND THIRDEVEN IF IT"S SELLING DISSSENT> I'm so angry at the d2k organizers for being so "star-struck" and STUPID to try to have some "famous" people come foward and strut their corporate stuff. WE DON"T NEED THEIR HELP AND WE"RE BETTER OFF WITHOUT THEM OR ANY OTHER SELF-SELLING GROUPS> WE WANT ART AND CREATIVITY
Second, after the DNC we need to RADICAL re-think the method and tactics of our lovelly movemet or their won't be any movement left. This is a time for activism, humor, and festivals of resistance. Not dumb blowhard suito-musical groups. whew. just had to vent.

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living in a bubble world

by kaira espinoza Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 5:42 PM

sup everyone, i too remember how devastating it was when i first began to find out about how corporations control the media, government, and society in general. some of friends and relatives think i am crazy because they believe what they read in the newspapers or see on TV or hear from politicians or journalists' support of a politician. One thing that i think is extremely important is for us to create our own media (like this :) and get it out there to other young people. as a long time activist, i have noticed how well the "divide and conquer" tactics work for the powers that be. we have to educate each other about how they try to use that tactic on us and we have to learn about our similarities and be honest about the privileges that have allowed some people to learn about this before others. As a latina female, i hear too much from other youth of color that it is only white people they see at protests. i myself thought the same when i first began being involved in social justice, but we just have to be honest. growing up as a poor latina female in a deteriorating high school made me just want to fit in and buy all the cool clothes and that is the message that is thrown to poor inner city youth-"get money, be a thug, and don't care" well, i started to realize the trap and realized that more white people know about the issues going on because a lot have had access to good education and have time to be involved, unlike youth who are dealing with abusive parents, trying to make money to help family, etc. but once we teach youth how to critically analyze the messages they are thrown, then their priorities can change and more youth will see that it is not about clothes but about people before profits!!! and they won't care when they get made fun of for not wearing the NIke shoes because they will know they are helping to stop sweatshops...but the struggle continues....

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please not minority but people of color!

by kiara Thursday, Aug. 17, 2000 at 5:47 PM

sup peoples, just one comment. i really have issues with the word minority. people of color are not the minority, we are not minority groups; it's just a word the government has used to make us feel like we are in the minority. so, please respect and use people of color when refering to people of color as a group instead of minority. thank you!

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