There are No Protestors Here:

It was a dramatic scene for all of those who attended the September 15th (2007) anti-war protest in Washington D.C.  Members of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War led a march of tens of thousands of activists from the White House to the Capitol building to deliver a petition demanding that Congress cut off funding for the Iraq war, now in its fifth year.  After a symbolic “die in” in which thousands of protestors laid down on the Capitol building grass to show their solidarity for those killed in Iraq, the Iraq veterans attempted to cross a police barricade to deliver their anti-war petition to Congress.

Inspired by the Veterans’ actions, dozens of protestors also tried to cross the police line, knowing that they would be arrested, subdued by D.C. police, and taken away up the steps of the building.  These protestors went non-violently, one-by-one, over a wall towards the Capitol building – some holding up pictures of loved ones killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In all, hundreds of Anti-war activists were arrested under “disorderly conduct” charges, as thousands cheered them on with chants of “Arrest George Bush” and “Stop the War.”


The September 15th protest retains a special symbolism in that it represents a dramatic shift in anti-war activism toward more vigilant, confrontational resistance, with a greater reliance on civil disobedience and direct action.  Cindy Sheehan voiced this new opposition well, as she explained that protestors had grown tired of simply marching and congratulating each other on their anti-war placards.  Anti-war efforts would now focus on nonviolently “shutting the city down,” so as to force Washington‘s political leaders to pay serious attention to the anti-war movement.


This protest narrative is potentially powerful for those Americans unfamiliar with the eclectic nature of the anti-war movement.  In a country where “supporting the troops” is often assumed to mean supporting the Iraq war, increased coverage of anti-war veterans threatens to destroy conventional stereotypes and dogmas.  The American public’s access to information concerning the veteran anti-war movement has generally been restricted, however, at least if the media reaction to the September 15th protest is any indication.  A systematic review of local and national mass media coverage of the event reveals a picture of the protest that is virtually unrecognizable to those who attended.  On nearly every major point of coverage, the mainstream press systematically distorted the news so as to convey serious misrepresentations of the reality on the ground.




1. A Lack of Issue Salience


Media coverage of anti-war protests can be described as minimal at a time when the majority of Americans support an end to the Iraq war.  The September 15th protest coverage fits well into this pattern.  While the protest was covered by most major media outlets, it was generally regarded as a story not worthy of front-page placement.  As the papers closest to the protest, the Washington Times and the Washington Post did run small, bottom-page pictures with captions on page one about the protest, but neither bothered to actually run a front page story (the Times and Post instead ran the stories on pages A7 and A8 respectively).  Other major papers’ coverage appeared as follows: the New York Times (on page A21), the Los Angeles Times (A16), the Chicago Tribune (A4), and the Atlanta Journal Constitution (A3). 


Headlines that were deemed more deserving than the anti-war protest of front-page printing included: stories on Baby Boomer retirement, Pig Disease in China, and Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu (all in the Washington Post), an article on cheating in professional football (in the Chicago Tribune), and stories on renovations in a Washington D.C. marketplace and the Colorado Episcopalian Church’s controversy over Gay and Lesbian Representation (in the Washington Times).  Such uniformity on the part of mainstream papers in consistently downplaying anti-war protest generally contradicts reporters’ and editors’ claims that they are independent from pro-war government influence.




2. The Myth of Left-Right Political Conflict


Television media coverage of the September 15th march has created a false image of the protest – one in which there is supposedly intense conflict between pro and anti-war activists.  Coverage on Washington D.C.’s Local News (Channel 8) cut back and forth between protestors opposed to the war and counter-protestors (along the march route’s sidelines) supporting the occupation.  Such coverage gave the impression that the demonstration centered on conflict between the two groups.  On CNN Newsroom, anchor Suzanne Malveaux situated the debate in terms of “both sides” that are “convinced they’re right.” She introduced the alleged conflict between the pro and anti-war groups by airing a debate between pro-war military mother Deborah Johns and anti-war mother Tina Richards (who had spoken at the protest rally).  The CNN story, while providing an estimate of 1,000 pro-war protestors, failed to present a comprehensive number for the anti-war side (this trend was actually quite common to many news sources).


Conservative media coverage emphasized pro-war groups over anti-war ones.  Fox News Live, for example, focused its coverage on the plans of pro-war organizations Free Republic and Gathering of Eagles to protest the anti-war protestors.  While Fox’s emphasis was clearly on pro-war groups, even that emphasis was subsumed by sensationalistic coverage of O.J. Simpson’s arrest and a British child’s abduction (as both of these tabloid stories were the primary subject of the newscast, while the mentions of the pro-war groups originally appeared as a blurb on the bottom of the screen). 


Print coverage also followed a Left-Right frame.  The Washington Times implicitly conveyed the impression that anti-war and pro-war groups were of roughly similar size, by claiming that pro-war and anti-war protestors were “equally energized” in their demonstrations, and that anti-war “crowds appeared significantly smaller than the tens of thousands of organizers had promised” (the paper, like CNN, projected a 1,000 person pro-war turnout, while failing to provide a number for anti-war activists outside of vague low-ball estimates).


Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times pursued a false balancing of sources.  The Post ran the headline “Dueling Demonstrations,” suggesting that the protest coalesced primarily around confrontation between the two groups.  The paper printed an equal number of statements (7 each) from both pro-war and anti-war individuals, while citing two pro-war groups participating in the protest (Free Republic and Gathering of Eagles), and only one anti-war group (ANSWER).  Similarly, the Times printed six statements from pro-war individuals, and only four from anti-war figures.  Such depictions leave the impression that the demonstration was divided equally between the two sides, or even leaned slightly toward pro-war advocates.


The Left-Right frame is problematic from a factual perspective, primarily for two reasons: 1. Anti-war protestors vastly outnumbered pro-war ones, as tens of thousands of activists showed up to challenge the war, whereas a maximum 1,000 pro-war protestors (possibly less) attended the event.  One would not know how lop-sided the turnout was, however, from reading print media coverage.  The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, for example, reported inaccurately that “several thousand” anti-war protestors attended, although the number was really in the tens of thousands.  The Washington Post uncritically repeated pro-war activists’ claims that anti-war protestors (rather than the pro-war protestors themselves) were the “vocal minority.”  The paper chose to run a photo of pro-war protestors that was four to five times the size of the anti-war picture run alongside it, again reinforcing pro-war prominence.  2. Contrary to media reports of high-levels of political conflict, the overwhelming majority of anti-war protestors ignored the polemical attacks of pro-war protestors, choosing instead to walk by the demonstrators without engaging them.  In reality, conflict with pro-war activists was only a miniscule part of the protest, and certainly not a main goal of those opposing the war.  Protestors came to D.C. to demand that political leaders reconsider their support for the war, not to engage in heated arguments with a small but vocal group of war supporters.  Such basic facts are largely lost in media coverage portraying the locus of the event as a conflict among two equally-sized groups.




3. Predominance of the Law & Order Frame


Highly dependent upon sensationalistic news reporting, much of the media coverage gave the impression that the protests were chaotic, violent, or lacking seriousness.  D.C. Local News 8 highlighted a scene whereby a pro-war protestor punched the station’s video camera, while CNN Newsroom reported that the demonstration, although peaceful, was “noisy,” “loud, angry, and did get physical.”  The New York Times and Washington Post described the event as “raucous,” “unruly,” and “chaotic.”  The Chicago Tribune claimed that the “event took on an almost circus-like atmosphere,” in part because protestors were calling for the impeachment of President Bush.


D.C. police officers were depicted merely as providing security during the protest, rather than systematically preventing anti-war protestors from entering the Capitol building to deliver the anti-war petition.  The New York Times reported “officers struggled to keep demonstrators from breaking through their ranks and began arresting those who tried.”  The Washington Times emphasized the “heavy” law enforcement presence, as “heated exchanges between the two camps…were separated by barricades manned by lines of police officers.”


In reality, the law and order frame does not come close to representing the orientation of the protest.  Again, the majority of anti-war marchers ignored the small pro-war group; few engaged them in hostile rhetoric and even fewer in violence.  While D.C. police were surely helpful in preventing any potential conflicts or violence between a few protestors on both sides, this police role was of relatively minor importance, as the march was overwhelmingly peaceful and orderly.  In fact, those protestors who did choose to cross the police line did so in an organized, orderly, and peaceful manner, one by one, and did not resist arrest when detained by the police.




4. Absence of Substantive Arguments and News Developments


Finally, news coverage suffered from a lack of context in terms of providing the main reasons for the protest’s undertaking.  Major themes repeated by anti-war marchers – who criticized U.S. policy as terrorist, imperialist, aggressive, illegal, and driven by lies and a lust for oil – were for the most part omitted from coverage that was heavily episodic, rather than thematic.  Of all the stories and programs reviewed above, only three substantive arguments against the war appeared – one from the Los Angeles Times, and two from the New York Times.  Two of the statements from the protestors criticized the Bush administration for its “false assertions about Iraq” (New York Times) and for a policy that “will continue to kill thousands of US service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis” (New York Times).  In a rare moment of introspection about the motives of the peace movement, one anti-war activist argued, “The Iraqi people do not see us as peacemakers.  They see us as occupiers and murderers” (Los Angeles Times).  Such claims were the exception rather than the norm in coverage.  The narrative discussed at the beginning of this study (that of anti-war veterans leading tens of thousands to the Capitol to demand an end to the war) was largely ignored in most media coverage.  Only the Los Angeles Times presented this event as pivotal to the protest, reporting that Iraq Veterans Against the War organized the “die in” in front of the Capitol building. 




Accounting for Poor Coverage


Reporting of the September 15th march was lacking in nearly every area, at least if one expects media coverage to accurately portray the reality of what is really happening on the ground.  Anti-war voices were minimized through crowd underestimations, the absence of substantive anti-war arguments, the failure to report Iraq veteran leadership, and the general lack of salience of the protest altogether. 


It is certainly no accident that mass media reporting routinely fails to adequately report on the activities of the anti-war movement.  Reporters are often lazy in terms of pursuing accurate details of the events and developments they cover (such laziness has been institutionalized in corporate media outlets seeking to increase profits by reducing costly investigative journalism).


This deterioration of journalistic values and norms has its consequences.  Newsreaders and viewers may be correct in assuming that general aspects of a reported story are accurate (in this case, for example, the press was correct in reporting that there was actually a protest, and that anti-war protestors did attend it).  However, it may be too much to expect that important, fundamental details appear in news stories when the subjects of coverage are challenging the claims of American political leaders and elites.


Aside from the problem of institutionalized laziness on the part of American media corporations and reporters, there is the more fundamental issue of ideological biases that are institutionalized in the mass media itself.  One of the major biases is the nationalistic disposition toward reinforcing foreign policy initiatives, with only tactical or pragmatic criticisms or challenges.  In the two papers most closely situated to the D.C. protest story (the Washington Times and the Washington Post), one can clearly discern ideological biases favoring key Bush administration assumptions in the “War on Terror.”  A review of editorials and op-eds appearing on the same day as reporting on the war protest shows this clearly.  Of the Washington Times’ three op-eds on Iraq (by Ken Connor, Elton Gallegly, and William F. Buckley Jr.), none were substantively anti-war in orientation.  All three supported the surge in Iraq and warned of dire consequences if the U.S. should pursue a timetable for withdrawal in the near future.  Of the four op-eds run by the Washington Post on Iraq and Iran (by Henry Kissinger, Jim Hoagland, David Ignatius, and Wesley Clark), none were anti-war either.  All four uncritically repeat administration claims, either about the dangers of Iran’s alleged development of nuclear weapons or Iran’s “meddling” in Iraq.  Of the two pieces that specifically discuss Iraq (by Kissinger and Hoagland), both repeated the warnings of the Bush administration that withdrawal from Iraq will lead to bloodbath, civil war, or genocide, in Iraq.


This pattern of pro-war editorials indicates a strong disposition toward reinforcing administration claims at the expense of serious criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.  It is no wonder then that anti-war protests are the subjects of coverage that is so systematically distorted.




Anthony DiMaggio has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  His forthcoming book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” is due out in December.  He can be reached at: [email protected]





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