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 demonstrating worldwide.

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 approach.

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 wrong."

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 a democracy.

(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 three fronts:

* 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 the following:

* "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 lever;

* 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.

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