Press The Press
by Lydia Sargent
Z magazine, March 2003
The only surprising thing to me about
the mainstream media coverage of the worldwide anti-war demonstrations
on February 15 is that it was more positive than usual. A few
news reports actually communicated some of the politics behind
the protests and a certain amount of respect for the people who
had come out. This isn't saying much, I realize, but front page
photos with headlines "Millions March Against War" (Boston
Globe, 2/26/2003) and "From Melbourne to New York, Cries
for Peace: Vast, Far-flung Protest Against War on Iraq" (NYT,
2/16/2003) almost made the media seem anti-war itself when compared
with the skimpy, anti-left coverage of past years. The New York
Times article even mentioned how diverse the crowd was (contrasting
it, of course, with the "hippie-dominated" 1960s marches),
remarking that the demonstrators had no love for Saddam Hussein.
TV news shows opened with peace marches as the lead story. Regardless
of their preferences, it was hard to ignore over ten million people
Of course, I also watched three hours
of coverage of the New York demonstrations broadcast on World
Link satellite TV produced by a coalition of media groups, including
WBAI, Pacifica, Free Speech TV, Working Assets Radio, and more.
Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now," among others, hosted
the televised event. This coverage was very well done, included
many of the speeches and interviews with a broad cross-section
of people (feminists, labor activists, etc.), proving that we
can do it much better.
There is no question that February 15
was an important day. It revealed to the world, perhaps even more
than the anti-capitalist globalization actions, that there is
an international movement of movements and that it is working
in solidarity. The demonstrations were made up of a more diverse
group than ever before and happened in surprising areas, such
as small conservative towns that had never had a demonstration
of this kind before.
That said-there are two main things that
concern me. First, many of the people interviewed at the NY demonstration
expressed the feeling, "now, the government has to listen
and stop this war." (Oddly, in a kind of illogical dysfunction,
most people speaking and being interviewed indicated that they
thought the war on Iraq was inevitable.) A similar dynamic occurred
during Vietnam antiwar demonstrations. People began to believe,
despite all evidence, that one or two or three huge demonstrations
would make elites stop pursuing their militaristic agenda and
would actually stop the war. What happened, then, when such outpourings
failed? Many people's post-demonstration emotional highs turned
to resigned fatalism in a matter of weeks. Instead of seeing that
progress was being made, people grew despondent over not being
at the finish line. The same could happen here: the government
rides this out, demonstrations get smaller and more isolated,
the media becomes more contemptuous, and that's that. The alternative,
of course, is for activists to have a more patient and long-term
Second, marching against this particular
war and even stopping this war without building a lasting movement
will not alone change broader imperial policy or imperialist institutions
that will surely bring more wars. It will not alone change an
economic system that wages war on a large portion of the world.
Our movements need to diversify, deepen, and persist.
I hope that the millions who came out
on February 15 continue to protest, even as the inevitable government/media
propaganda about poison gas and nuclear threats and orange alerts
of imminent terrorist attacks increases. Perhaps the power of
the Internet will make a difference as people get emails like
the one I received from Flagstaff, Arizona where 1,450 protesters
turned out. "The organizers were astounded," said Claudette
Piper, an activist during the Vietnam War who headed the committee,
which planned the demonstration. "The several peace organizations
in Flagstaff plan a continual round of events and demonstrations
until the U.S. administration abandons its bellicose course of
war." This is encouraging and hearing of others is inspiring.
But in addition to ongoing demonstrations
and teach ins, the protests must become more varied, creative,
militant, and disruptive. They must happen at all levels of society.
Laura Bush having to cancel a poetry reading because she found
out that 2,000 poets were ready to read anti-war messages is an
example of people being engaged where they live and work and go
to school. If students strike on March 5; if hundreds of thousands
of women join hands around the capital to protest war and campaign
for peace on March 8; if teachers begin teaching about the war
and the real reasons the U.S. wants to go to war; if ministers
preach anti-war messages; if community groups canvas; if city
councils pass resolutions and pressure state and federal governments;
if petition campaigns are set up; if labor unions strike against
war and for peace and justice (as is already threatened in England,
Ireland, Australia and numerous other countries), then there will
be a climate of social unrest that can stop a militaristic government
from running its agenda.
But there is something else that has to
happen. We have to go after the media. For years activists have
been complaining about and critiquing mainstream media. Even while
making these critiques, many seem surprised, even upset, by the
way our events and politics are covered in the very media we have
long been describing as incapable, institutionally and ideologically,
of ever giving our agenda any kind of legitimacy and credence,
much less coverage-as if we don't believe our own analysis. We
forget at times that mainstream media (when not informing elites)
is to (quote Chomsky) "keep[ing] the rabble in line. [It]
make[s] sure that we are atoms of consumption, obedient tools
of production, isolated from one another, lacking any concept
of a decent human life. We are to be spectators in a political
system run by elites blaming ourselves and each other for what's
Many of us have long known that coverage
of mass demonstrations or other progressive challenges to U.S.
institutions would usually be framed along the following lines:
(1) Shots of the crowd before everyone
had arrived, making the event look sparse.
(2) Suggestions that the demonstrators
don't really have a clue what they want, they're just out there
because of some genetic disposition to dissent, or some issues
with their fathers, or because they've got nothing better to do,
or because they're high, or just want to party.
(3) The linking of the word violence with
peace demonstrations, as in, "30,000 people marched today
to protest the war. The protests were peaceful, there was no violence."
The suggestion here is that the left is about to erupt at any
moment, which also implies we are hypocritical about wanting peace.
It scares people from attending demonstrations or similar events
by suggesting that where peace activists gather there is often
violence, could have been violence, and isn't it surprising that
there wasn't violence. Compare this with coverage of a football
game where there is violence on the field (much admired by all)
and violence in the stands (considered part of the culture and
okay), but it is never referred to as such.
(4) Announcers proudly proclaiming that
the demonstrations mean we live in a democracy where people can
march freely. These patriotic media pronouncements are usually
coupled with semi-sneering (is this possible?) remarks such as,
"of course this demonstration will have no effect whatsoever,"
not realizing that this reveals that they know we don't live in
(5) Equal time to minuscule counter-demonstrations.
This is the media's idea of objective reporting (that's their
out, anyway). A million demonstrators worldwide get two minutes
of coverage; five counter-demonstrators get two minutes of coverage,
or more if there is some special human-interest story about patriotism
or the Vietnam Memorial to be had.
Interestingly, given our analysis of how
media exists to sell audience to advertisers for profit, how it
replicates and incorporates the values and structures of corporate
control in its own operations, and how it is owned by and serves
the same elites that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell
represent, our media activism has often been confined to critiquing
the mainstream media, coupled with attempts to get our 20 second
sound bytes on the networks, as if that will solve the problem.
Others are happy when their work gets published in the mainstream,
little realizing that this isn't necessarily a good sign. It often
means that what that person wrote was acceptable within the mainstream
media spin or that the writer censored her/himself and the result
is that mainstream media can claim to be showing "both sides"
(both sides meaning 2,000 articles/books/whatever from the conservative/corporate
viewpoint; 1 from the self-censored radical perspective.
Others have created "alternative"
or "independent" media (not all of which is so radical)
and they try desperately to distribute it with little money, in
a society where methods of distribution are under the same control
as the mainstream media itself. Many of these efforts have been
incredibly successful (considering the odds), but many more have
folded for lack of funds or from burn out. Those that have survived
are kept small and can only be found by people who go looking
for them, which, ironically most often happens during a crisis
or a war.
Edward Herman, who understands the media,
states in his online article "War-Makers, Bribees, and Poodles
Versus Democracy," "this movement could stop the war
if it had any kind of support from the mass media in focusing
on the illegality of the Bush plan, the serial lies used by the
war party, its compromised position in prior support of Saddam's
weapons of mass destruction, the hidden agenda (oil, support of
Sharon, cover-up of Bush's internal policies), and the recklessness
and human and material cost of this forthcoming aggression."
Herman also points out: "four-fifths of the U.S. public believe
Saddam was involved in acts of terrorism against the United States
[according to a December poll] and a majority today fear him and
think this regional bully, who has been almost entirely disarmed...actually
poses a military threat to the pitiful giant. This is the ultimate
propaganda system at work. "
So it is time to direct more of our protests
toward the media. What's needed now is a long-term campaign to
"Press the Press." Not we can get 1 of our "experts,"
buried among 10 of their "experts" to explain U.S. motives
in 20 seconds on an 8:00 AM Sunday morning TV and/or radio show.
What we want is for mainstream media to
include peace and justice programming, prepared by the peace and
justice movement, in their daily reports. If they do not agree
to this demand, we picket their offices, occupy them if necessary,
and shut them down. What on earth is the justification for their
continued existence? There is no moral, ethical, or humanitarian
reason for them to continue giving us casualty estimates (from
500 to 1,000,000), as if they were discussing the weather; or
for them to debate calmly whether to assassinate the head of a
sovereign country, and then to take a poll on it, for Christ sakes;
or for them to act as if peace and justice are weird, idiosyncratic
concepts that they can't quite grasp. (And, by the way, for ease
of local organizing, mainstream media outlets are everywhere,
in every city, every town, every campus, and every locale).
During the 1991 U.S. Invasion of Iraq,
50 or so local activists (most of them involved in media) met
together to form Boston Media Action (BMA). Based on the skills
and inclinations of the people involved, we decided to work on
* To "Spread the Truth" through
an aggressive poster and leafleting campaign throughout the area,
combined with stepped up attempts to disseminate alternative media;
* A Media Watch that would monitor local
radio, TV, and print media and produce periodic reports to be
distributed to activists;
* A Press the Press campaign to ensure
that peace and justice reporting and analysis by activists and
writers appear regularly in local media outlets.
Press the Press Campaign
In January 1991, the BMA's Press the Press
campaign began with a teach-in on the truth behind the propaganda
and the real U.S. reasons for going to war. The event, attended
by 500 activists, was filmed and recorded for purposes of approaching
local public radio and television stations, as well as a local
cultural newspaper to demand two hours a week of material prepared
by BMA. At that same time we circulated a Press the Press declaration
for people to sign, which would be submitted to the managers of
these stations along with the tapes. The declaration included
* "Whereas the mainstream media refuse
to allow alternative views of U.S. motives in the mideast such
as that the war was pursued to make the U.S. world cop with the
bills paid by the American people and/or whatever country we can
pass them on to; to dispel public desires for peace (called the
Vietnam syndrome); to legitimate future wars of U.S. intervention;
to undercut demands for a redistribution of income to education,
housing, and the general betterment of U.S. citizens; and to retain
U.S. domination over oil and oil pricing as an international economic
* Insofar as mainstream media has not
seen fit to comment on such obvious facts as the U.S. government's
response to Saddam Hussein cannot possibly be based on rejection
of a violent despotic leader since being a violent despotic leader
is generally a valuable credential in gaining U.S. support;
* "It is therefore right and proper
that peace and justice activists have programming on mainstream
radio and TV, and reporting in print media, that includes discussions
of peace, anti-militarism, conversion, and justice issues, presenting
views of critics of the Administration's policy; that challenges
the morality of war, domination, empire, and other inhumane relations
serving the rich and powerful; and that presents alternative morality
and vision that might better serve communities in need, and everyone."
We submitted thousands of signed declarations
and the sample videos to the local public radio and TV station,
using them to lobby for programming. We also organized a one-day
conference to gather more material and spread the truth. After
a period of time, if we didn't get any response, we were prepared
to picket the target media. If this had no affect, we were going
to escalate to civil disobedience, followed by occupations. But
the U.S. military had annihilated Iraq by the time we got past
the first step and we were not able to continue the campaign.
It is time to start a new campaign to
Press the Press, this time nationally and internationally, in
addition to continuing to create and distribute our own media.
It should be a long-term, strategic effort aimed at changing existing
repressive media institutions, just as we struggle to change repressive
financial institutions and governments. This Press the Press campaign
should also go after mainstream media distribution companies.
The latter ensure that our peace and justice views are not visible
in stores or on newsstands, TV, and radio.
This campaign cannot wait. After the 1991
"Gulf War," TV Guide revealed that much of the TV war
coverage was produced by a public relations company, who sold
the war to the American people. When that news came out, why didn't
we set out to occupy or shut down every single mainstream media
institution in the U.S.? Because we didn't respond then, they
continue to do it now, selling war as an exciting TV drama ("Showdown
With Saddam"), selling fear, selling U.S. imperialism as
our patriotic duty, even promoting it as a victory for feminism
(complete with military fashion statements) because "with
war looming, they [women] are closer to combat than ever."
(NYT Sunday Magazine, 2/16/ 2003). Let's begin a campaign to Press
the Press, because the news should keep us informed, not in line.
Lydia Sargent is co-founder of South End
Press and Z Magazine, where her column "Hotel Satire"
has appeared since 1988.
Media Reform page