Anti-war activists lament a dearth of media attention
So, did you read about the 1500 or so Vermonters who went to Montpelier Oct. 26 in a cold rain to rally against a U.S. invasion of Iraq? Did you hear interviews with any of the eight busloads of Vermonters that joined the 100,000 anti-war protesters in Washington, D.C., the same day? How about seeing pictures of the 42,000 marchers in San Francisco? Or of the 4000 in Denver, the 2500 in Augusta, Maine, or the thousands of others who turned out in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Berlin?
No? You're not alone. The following day The Burlington Free Press ran a 483-word story from the Associated Press on the Montpelier rally; the same 483 words appeared in the Times-Argus in Montpelier. The Rutland Herald ran the same AP story, as well as another report on the Washington demonstration from Knight-Ridder News Service. Coverage by the Brattleboro Reformer was more extensive and "very good," according to Ellen Kaye, a peace activist with the Brattleboro Area Peace and Justice Group. The paper ran a firsthand account by Marty Jezer about riding a bus with other Vermonters to Washington, D.C., in his first march in the nation's capital since 1968.
The anti-war protests in Montpelier and Washington were the top stories on Burlington's WVNY-TV Channel 22 news that night. WPTZ-TV Channel 5 reported only on the protests in Montpelier and Plattsburgh, but didn't lead with it, while WCAX-TV Channel 3 opted to forgo the demonstrations entirely, sending its two weekend news crews to cover Democratic and Republican campaign events instead. Vermont Public Radio gave the protests more in-depth coverage, reporting both before and after the marches. Elsewhere in Vermont, local coverage was spotty.
"This is an example of a huge movement. We had some of the biggest rallies since the Vietnam War [on Oct. 26] and they were scarcely reported. It's almost a conspiracy. It's really kind of scary," says Chris Meehan, executive director of Burlington's Peace and Justice Center. Meehan points out that a peace protest held in Burlington a week earlier drew 600 to 700 people in heavy rain but attracted scant media attention. This despite the ubiquity of coverage on the War on Terrorism and a possible invasion of Iraq, she says.
"Maybe it's not flashy enough... Maybe peace hasn't become sexy yet," suggests Kim Ead, peace and human rights project director at the Peace and Justice Center. "It's not blowing people up. It's not killing people, and that's what the media likes to show you."
Organizers grousing about bad press coverage is as old as rained-on parades, and lately about as common. "It is a typical lament of activists, and has been for generations as far back as I've seen," says David Mindich, chairman of the journalism department at St. Michael's College. "Saying that, it doesn't mean they're wrong."
Historically, the press has often been slow to take notice of grassroots organizing, from the anti-Vietnam War rallies of the 1960s to the women's movement of the 1970s to the nuclear disarmament campaign of the 1980s.
"Grassroots movements don't always lend themselves well to hierarchical structures, and oftentimes the press may resist covering them because of that," Mindich says. "It's not as easy a soundbite as working within the normal political structure."
Many of Vermont's peace activists are quick to point a finger at a familiar culprit: the increasing consolidation of the news media, which has left most of the nation's newspapers and TV networks in the hands of about a half-dozen corporations.
"I just think that corporate media is not interested in organized citizenry," says Joseph Gainza, program coordinator for the Vermont office of the American Friends Service Committee in Montpelier, which helped organize the Oct. 26 march on the state capital. "Something that questions the status quo is not of interest to them."
If Vermont peace activists are feeling frustrated in their attempts to get the attention of local editors and news directors, they're in good company. An Oct. 27 story in The New York Times about the Washington, D.C., march referred only to "thousands of protesters" but included no official crowd estimates. "Fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for," the article stated, suggesting that the recent sniper shootings in the D.C. area may have kept people from attending. About half the article focused not on the march itself but on a recent poll about Americans' support for, or opposition to, an invasion of Iraq. Only in passing did it mention that protests were held elsewhere in the country and around the world.
Initial coverage of the D.C. protest by National Public Radio similarly downplayed the turnout. During an Oct. 26 broadcast of "Weekend Edition," NPR's Nancy Marshall commented, "It was not as large as the organizers of the protest had predicted. They had said there would be 100,000 people here. I'd say there are fewer than 10,000."
"As far as the national press goes, I'm disgusted," says Ead. "The sniper was more important than 10,000 or 100,000 or a half-million people out in the streets who are really upset about U.S. foreign policy. It's very disappointing."
Peace activists elsewhere were equally incensed. The New York-based media watchdog group FAIR -- Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting -- sent out an "action alert" condemning the coverage and urged its members to contact the Times and NPR with their complaints.
Three days later, Times readers were treated to an entirely different story. That article, which ran on page A13, included crowd estimates of 100,000 to 200,000 "who formed a two-mile wall of marchers around the White House." It noted that the "turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers. They expected 20 buses and were surprised by about 650, coming from as far away as Nebraska and Florida."
Editor and Publisher, a journalism trade publication, suggested that the Times had "blown" its initial coverage, and said the follow-up story had "'make-up article' written all over it."
"This is a huge change journalistically," says Peter Hart, a media analyst with FAIR. "I think this is a dramatic case because the difference between the two [New York Times] stories is so glaring that anyone who's read the two pieces together walks away thinking something was wrong." Several days later, NPR issued a rare correction of its first crowd estimate and apologized to its listeners for the error.
Still, local activists aren't predicting a sea change just yet in coverage of the anti-war effort, especially in a post-9/11 environment where dissent is often demonized as unpatriotic and un-American. Members of Vermont's peace groups -- at least 11 statewide -- insist that they will keep taking their message to the streets. Weekly vigils are held in Burlington, Montpelier, Hardwick, St. Johnsbury and elsewhere, regardless of whether the media attend.
"It's important that the peace movement continues to have a public presence, to strengthen the resolve of people who may not be political in that way, yet agree with our positions," says Gainza. "To know that we're out there gives heart to people."