From Put-Down to Catch-Up

After months spent diligently not noticing -- or belittling -- the anti-war movement, mainstream news media are suddenly listening up. But their sluggishness and incapacity illustrate a more general flaw: the inability of journalists to connect dots and put together big pictures.

The movement's sudden arrival on media radar screens comes about partly because the movement is spreading, becoming "more of a story." But the movement was already spreading last Oct. 26, when large demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco got rather short and snippy shrift. Lynette Clemetson's New York Times page 8 piece of Oct. 27, under the headline "Thousands March in Washington Against Going to War in Iraq," astoundingly -- and falsely -- claimed that "fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for ... ," and in a sudden plunge into explanatory journalism, theorized that what had kept attendance down were the sniper attacks. The accompanying photo, meanwhile, exceeded the article in size.

Many protests poured in, and three days later, the Times ran a rare nonapology apology story under the peculiarly passive headline, "Rally in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement," stating that the demonstration had drawn "100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers'," this time declaring that the numbers "startled even organizers." "Go figure," wrote the Columbia Journalism Review's Gloria Cooper, bestowing an uncoveted "dart" on the nation's newspaper of record.

Various other newspapers also lowballed or ignored the Oct. 26 demonstrations. One observer wrote in the Nov. 3 Washington Post:

Last Saturday, some 100,000 people, and possibly more, gathered in downtown Washington to protest against possible U.S. military action against Iraq. The Post did not put the story on the front page Sunday. It put it halfway down the front page of the Metro section, with a couple of ho-hum photographs that captured the protest's fringe elements. A photo of a larger crowd of demonstrators ran in the lower right-hand corner of the paper's front page. But that picture did not have a headline. Rather, it was linked to a story and headline from Mexico about a meeting there between President Bush and the leaders of South Korea and Japan. The article was about problems dogging U.S. efforts to lead a multilateral coalition against Iraq and North Korea.

The author of these lines was Michael Getler, the Post's own ombudsman, who noted that "dozens of readers e-mailed or telephoned to complain that, by any measure, the antiwar rally should have been front-page news in the hometown paper." Getler argued that competition from other stories was the reason why the Post's report ran in the Metro section, but concluded:

I'm with the complaining readers on this. Washington gets a lot of protest rallies, and most go into Metro. But this was one big demonstration -- a lot bigger, these Post editors acknowledge, than they expected -- and it was not about some narrow special interest. People had traveled here from all over the country. Post editors, in my view, fumbled this one, not because they are pro-war but because they were surprised at the turnout, and talked themselves into a compromise solution that pushed the story inside.

The downgrading of these demonstrations was so widespread, it begs for an explanation deeper than surprise. Journalists are supposed to be attentive to surprises, right? Don't men bite dogs anymore? But there are more inhibitions at work. There's journalistic squeamishness at the unscripted disorder of protest. There's disdain for outsiders, weirdos, out-of-stepniks. There's deference to Bush, to his policies and his mis-overestimated popularity that journalists continue to assume. For reasons of state, Teflon is always at hand and -- in never-ending atonement for what they take to have been their iconoclasm over Vietnam and Watergate -- journalists have not been reluctant to spray it, at least on Republicans. What was that again about the liberal media?

Given this unprepossessing history, it's a matter of some interest that the news media pulled out plenty of stops to cover the larger demonstrations of Jan. 18. "Tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators converged on Washington yesterday," wrote Manny Fernandez and Justin Blum on the front page of the Jan. 19 Washington Post, which also ran five sidebar stories. Demonstration coverage also made the Times' front page. Nightline devoted a show to anti-war advocates. CNN spent a good deal of time on the protest. And on the networks, mainstream anti-war demonstrators were more visible, anti-Israelis and '60s relics less so. Just about wherever you looked in the news media, mainstream demonstrators were the stars of the show.

In fact, you had to listen to C-SPAN (or read Post columnist Michael Kelly's "Marching With Stalinists," from Jan. 22) to realize how many of the platform speeches were devoted to Mumia Abu-Jamal and the devilishness of Israel and how seldom was heard a discouraging word about Saddam Hussein. Kelly made full use of the North Korea- loving, Saddam Hussein-excusing, Slobodan Milosevic-cheering sponsors in order to damn the entire anti-war cause, but in the main, reporters didn't care much about the platform speakers at all (except for the Hollywood types, whose most noteworthy statement was that they were there). In this indifference, reporters resembled most of the demonstrators themselves. A few days passed before attention turned to the politics of the anti-war organizers, and to International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), a pro-Hussein group that controlled the speakers' platforms.

Why this round of largely respectful coverage? Not, as Kelly says, because "there is, increasingly, much that happens in the world that the Times feels its readers should be sheltered from knowing." (I suppose he'd have to say the same about the paper that runs his column, the Post.) Journalists were playing catch-up, and the big story now -- an accurate one, judging from opinion polls -- was that the demonstrators were plain folks, not usual suspects or, for that matter, Stalinist stooges. The more industrious journalists knew about smaller demonstrations outside their home metropolises. They knew that mainline Protestant and Catholic churches had joined the anti-war cause, as had businesses that bought space in The Wall Street Journal to say so.

So, over the course of recent months, the established media became cognizant of the fact that the present-day anti-war movement is complicated, diverse and sloppy, and that platform speakers are not the reasons why demonstrators show up (though they may be the reasons why others stay away). As George W. Bush growls more insistently, allies and American citizens shy away more consistently, and Democratic politicians such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), [see Harold Meyerson, "The Tough Dove's Moment"] who earlier voted to authorize war, stride away from Bush, the anti-war movement naturally comes to look like "more of a story."

Still, while demonstrations in Washington have become hard to ignore, other anti-war actions, especially elsewhere, don't easily flash onto many journalists' radar screens. The major media, immured in their cosmopolitan hubs, miss what goes on outside. The San Francisco demonstration of Jan. 18, which by many accounts outnumbered its Washington counterpart, received precious little attention in national media -- partly because of the time difference but more because of routine prejudice against the West Coast.

Moveon.org's updating of the scary "Daisy" ad attracted all the attention that buzz-worthy TV ads always attract -- that is to say, a lot. But when Chicago's city council passed an anti-war resolution on Jan. 16, the news didn't get very far for a couple of weeks. The Associated Press moved a story but, aside from the hometown papers, only a handful of small-town dailies ran it. The New York Times and The Washington Post ran 1-inch snippets in their national-roundup sections. Chicago might have been Berkeley, Calif., or Cambridge, Mass., for all they noticed.

You can defend a local emphasis for papers that insist on staying defiantly local, but when a national paper misses the rest of the country, it misses the country. Thus, when a Jan. 18 demonstration of some 5,000 in Santa Barbara, Calif., goes without national attention, as do, for example, 60 demonstrators in Lubec, Maine, pop. 1,652, the news is missing the proverbial big picture. The Times and other major papers cover France as a bunch of quaint Beaujolais vintners and lovable crackpot conservators of la bonne langue fran├žaise. No wonder French politics strikes them as an inconvenient -- though sometimes amusing -- sideshow. But sometimes they don't take the currents of American opinion any more seriously.

Still, January's anti-war jolt did make some reporters decide to pay closer attention. The Times played catch-up again. On Feb. 1, Times readers read a well-reported Michael Janofsky roundup headlined, "Antiwar Sentiment in County Seats and City Halls," which ran complete with a list of anti-war venues and the valuable point that, alongside Berkeley, Madison, Wis., and Santa Fe, N.M., the anti-war councils included Des Moines, Iowa, San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Blaine County, Idaho, which "have large numbers of Republican voters." This survey put the lie to International ANSWER's (and Michael Kelly's) claim that Hussein's apologists represent the anti-war movement. As Janofsky failed to report, by the way, the Chicago resolution noted that "Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who should be removed from power" and worried that "a U. S.-led war in Iraq would compromise our current action in Afghanistan" before opposing "a pre-emptive U. S. military attack on Iraq unless it is demonstrated that Iraq poses a real and imminent threat to the security and safety of the United States."

The major media are much less major than they used to be, but the coverage of dissent within their circles hasn't changed much since the 1960s. When elites coalesce, the media readily follow suit. Then it takes a strong surge of public opinion to shift the sense of what is speakable. (Even that may not suffice to bend the press: It didn't, for example, during the Republicans' impeachment campaign.) After a summer of hearty Republican dissent, a pro-war consensus formed last fall, and the media concluded that those who had the bad taste to crack the consensus deserved to be treated as minor-league cranks. For whatever reason, it would appear that something has turned now. The bloom is off the bush.

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