Shut It Down


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” (B


, 2/26/2003) and “From Melbourne to New York, Cries
for Peace: Vast, Far-flung Protest Against War on Iraq” (


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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

there is something else that has to happen. We have to go after
the media. For years activists have been complaining about and criti-
quing 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.”

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
    a pro- Vietnam war story to be had.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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 thento 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).

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.

the Press Campaign


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.”

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.

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.

campaign cannot wait. After the 1991 “Gulf War,”


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 Magazi



2/16/ 2003). Let’s begin a campaign to Press the Press,
because the news should keep us informed, not in line.

Sargent is co-founder of South End Press and

Z Magazine

where her column “Hotel Satire” has appeared snce 1988.