April 19th 2001
By Michael I. Niman
originally appeared in Blue Dog Press
Unrest on the Way?
The Buffalo News on A22
In a front page article (April 9th), Patrick LaKamp of The Buffalo News all but promises a violent confrontation at Buffalo’s April 22nd Front Park rally against the FTAA. LaKamp writes of unnamed local officials who are worried about Internet sites that “hint” about “violence.” Rally organizers, however, claim to be unaware of any such sites and I can’t find any, despite using various Internet search engines. LaKamp also fails to cite or quote any such site. When I spoke with LaKamp, he indicated that Harold Litwin of the Buffalo Police Department told him of the sites – though it now seems they don’t exist.
This is the major fault of LaKamp’s article: an over-reliance on “official sources.” A full 96 lines were based on various government sources while a mere 17 lines were attributed to rally organizers. This is particularly troubling since this article, which itself hints at violence, is the first Buffalo News article making any mention of the April 22nd rally. Missing from the article are any quotes from organizers or the myriad groups backing the demonstration about why they will be demonstrating on the 22nd.
Violence and Vandalism
LaKamp treats the demonstration as a tactical event but fails in providing any context explaining the event (see http://www.a22buffalo.org or http://mediastudy.com/articles/seattlebuff.html). He also fails to mention that the event is endorsed by dozens of local and national church, environment and labor groups including the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Green Parity of Erie County, the Sierra Club, The Communication Workers of America Local 14177, SIEU Local 200, the St. Catherines Labor Council, the Western New York Council on Occupational Health and Safety, and the Western New York Peace Center.
LaKamp writes about the violence that broke out at the November 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, hinting that demonstrators here in Buffalo might incite similar violence. The above the fold photo in the Sunrise Edition shows a generic picture of anti-WTO protesters (with no clue as to who they are or where or when they were protesting), with a title promising that “local officials are taking precautions” to prevent “the violence and vandalism of the World Trade Organization protests two years ago in Seattle.” Both the caption and the article fail to mention that thousands of hours of video footage shot in Seattle, and two acclaimed documentaries show, without a doubt, that it was the Seattle police, and not the demonstrators, who rioted. The police chief has since resigned.
Organizers of the Buffalo event are taking precautions to prevent violence, including offering non-violence training to demonstrators. By all indications the Buffalo Police are a more professional force than their Seattle counterparts. Rally organizers say they don’t expect problems.
Riots On the Way
As is often the case in the Buffalo media, The News sets the agenda and the tenor for the electronic media. In this case WGRZ (ch. 2) and WIVB (ch. 4) TV both scrambled to develop their own anti-demo stories the day after LaKamp gave the demonstration its first local mainstream media coverage, breaking what demonstration organizers say was a corporate media boycott of the story (Alt Press, Blue Dog Press and Buffalo Beat have been reporting on the upcoming Demonstration for 8 weeks).
WIVB’s coverage was the worst, twisting and sensationalizing the story while all but promising riots. Again, the problem stemmed from an over-reliance on official sources. City Hall’s Peter Cutler followed an age-old media strategy and framed the demonstrators, who now represent dozens of local religious, labor and community groups, as out-of- towners. The WIVB crew listened attentively as Cutler explained that these “out-of-towners” will damage the integrity of the park – which he explained must be preserved for the people of Buffalo who will be here long after the protestors are gone. In reality, however, this is a homegrown event. If the protestors are supposed to be gone after it’s over, that’s news to them. Both Cutler and his superiors at City Hall know this, as the demonstration has been planned in the open with Buffalo Police representatives attending various planning meetings for the past six weeks.
There are two questions here: First, why is the city putting out a false story? Demonstration organizers say this is the same script government officials have been working off of in other cities where residents organized similar rallies. The second question is why can’t WIVB’s reporters see through it? Demonstration organizers say they’ve been sending out regular press releases for months to the local media who should be up to speed on the event. Again, the list of local organizations co-sponsoring this event is enormous. It should not take a sleuth to see through Cutler’s allegations. They should not have been reported as fact. Journalists should not be stenographers or ventriloquists’ dummies.
Who’s Trashing Starbucks?
Even more troubling were the visuals WIVB choose to run with this story. After giving a scant few seconds to rally organizers, they quick cut to scenes of people smashing store windows and spraying paint on news cameras as tear gas grenades exploded. These photos have nothing to do with Buffalo, the local groups organizing the April 22nd rally, or the rally itself. The anchors ended the segment with a bit of “I hope they can keep it calm” banter, driving home their point that the day should be anything but calm. Using these photos and inaccurately framing the story around violence is irresponsible. It is yellow journalism – a sensationalistic story based on rumor and innuendo. If the local media continues to insist that this demonstration will be violent, they might be creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. Their coverage will both scare peaceful demonstrators away, while inviting mayhem. It will instill fear among rank and file police officers as well, increasing the likelihood that they will over-react violently at the demonstration.
WGRZ’s coverage was a bit more balanced. When city officials insisted they were worried about the integrity of Front Park, WGRZ pointed out that it was the city that turned a portion of the park into a snow dump – now littered with shopping carts and other debris. WGRZ also gave more time to organizers to explain what the demonstration was about. Still, they led the story with the “Seattle; Can it happen here?” line. And like their counterparts at WIVB, they quickly cut to riot footage, showing a burning car and police officers arresting demonstrators.
Political riots in Buffalo would be a big boon for local journalists. For some, they may even provide 15 seconds of fame and a ticket out of town, as local footage goes national. WKBW skipped the story. They weren’t a party to this shameful sensationalism, but they get no kudos here because they’re still in blackout mode. FTAA…what?
Follies April 26th 2001
By Michael I. Niman
originally appeared in Blue Dog Press
Shameful but not surprising is the
best way to sum up The Buffalo News’ coverage of the Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA). It began on
April 9th with a classic piece of yellow journalism framing
Buffalo’s anti-FTAA protesters as violent out-or-towners (see MediaFollies
4/19/01). Not content with their
own poor reportage on the issue, The News shopped around, buying and
reprinting equally biased stories from The Washington Post and The Los
On April 16th The News ran a L.A. Times piece about the upcoming FTAA negotiations in Quebec City. The article devoted a scant 9 lines to the FTAA’s opposition, quoting no one and only hinting at reasons for opposition. They went on to devote a full 51 lines to biased statements supporting the FTAA, quoting cheerleaders such as the Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers and a representative of the Federal Reserve Bank. The authors also cited “most economists” as supporting the accord. This is a loaded statement and it means nothing. The authors did not cite any survey of economists to come up with this data. In fact no such survey exists – with distinguished economists from throughout the hemisphere speaking out against the accord. The authors also devoted 10 lines to echoing corporate media threats of violent demonstrators at anti-FTAA events, for a total of 61 lines either supporting the accord or attacking opponents.
Cheap Orange Juice
The same Buffalo News article promised, without citation, that the FTAA accord would shower Americans with cheap Brazilian orange juice and Chilean lumber. They did not mention, however, that as Brazil’s orange industry expands, much of the orange juice would be coming from areas that are currently ancient rainforests and indigenous habitats. Nor did they mention that, assuming the FTAA follows the NAFTA template, future local and federal US laws curtailing the use of products from denuded rainforests would themselves be illegal.
Yes, we might pay a few cents a gallon less for OJ, but the cost will be the destruction of Florida’s orange industry as well as Brazilian, Belizean, Guatemalan and Columbian rainforests. The biggest winner will be Coca-Cola Corporation, whose Minute Maid subsidiary is one of the hemisphere’s largest producers of juice oranges, with operations throughout the Americas. The article didn’t mention Coca-Cola. Nor did it mention that Buffalo News publisher Warren Buffet is one of Coca-Cola’s largest shareholders.
Warren Buffet and the FTAA
Buffalo News publisher Buffet has all bases covered in the orange juice industry. He is also one of the largest holders of Pepsi stock (Tropicana). And he’s one of the biggest investors in America’s largest lumber retailer, the Home Depot Corporation, a company that will no doubt prosper as Chile clear cuts their forests for cheap export. Buffet is also a major player in Philip Morris, the tobacco giant who makes the bulk of its profit now by exporting cigarettes. The FTAA would likely remove import tariffs on cigarettes. Buffet is also a major investor in both AOL Time Warner and Disney. Both companies are looking to the FTAA to force open foreign media markets, many of which, in an effort to protect their cultural identities, limit foreign broadcast programs.
Buffet is also a major investor in McDonald’s corporation. Currently McDonald’s opens four new “restaurants” daily, with three of them being outside of the US. The FTAA accord guarantees that these markets will stay open to McDonald’s investment as well as producing beef for McDonald’s consumption. Buffet is also a one of Wal-Mart corporation’s largest investors. Wal-Mart stands to profit both by opening foreign markets to its predatory retailing strategies as well as allowing more US manufacturing to be outsourced to foreign sweatshops, guaranteeing to keep American Wal-Marts full of cheap goods, even if the US relationship with China, Wal-Mart’s largest foreign supplier, continues to go sour.
In short, Buffalo News publisher Warren Buffet, the third richest person on earth, and his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, stand to gain more from the FTAA than any individual or organization on the planet.
An April 14th Buffalo News article (courtesy of The Washington Post) spends 23 lines trashing anti-FTAA protestors as violent radicals, going as far as writing how “protestors shut down a World Trade Organization meeting amid clouds of tear gas and rubber bullets.” Read that line again! Damn. Now The News is blaming protestors for their own well-documented abuse by the Seattle police. After 23 lines of attacks attributed to either no one, or a host of official sources, The News neglects to even give a single line to protestors to respond, or to anti-FTAA activists to state their point. The anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec, according to The News, constitute an “anti-capitalist convergence.” Not true. It is a pro-democracy pro-fair (not free) trade convergence consisting of a host of mainstream labor, environmental and church groups from throughout the hemisphere.
For Western New York, the FTAA story is possibly the biggest news story of the decade. Our economy took a beating from NAFTA. We now lead the nation’s metropolitan areas for population loss. FTAA could provide our deathblow. We are home to the most vulnerable industries in this playing field. We are not home to the Fortune 500 companies who stand to gain from FTAA. Our quality of life and environmental stability is tied to the Great Lakes watershed; the same resource that is being threatened by proposed NAFTA sanctioned water diversion projects. We are a main entry point into Canada and are now expected to build a new bridge to accommodate trade traffic, put up with diesel fumes and traffic and at the same time enjoy few benefits from expanded trade.
Our media is tied in with the very interests who will benefit (Buffalo News & ABC/Disney = Buffet; NBC = GE; CBS=Westinghouse) while area people are at the heart of the group that will suffer. Local news coverage has been either an outright slander attack on demonstrators or a misleading whitewash of the FTAA accord. We demand better!
BAN vs. New Millennium Group
The only reason an accord as far reaching as the FTAA is on our local radar is because of the work of the Buffalo Activist Network (BAN), the organizers of the A22 demonstration and two months of teach-ins at local universities, colleges and community centers. BAN is primarily comprised of young activists in their 20s, the same demographic that the media keeps labeling as either slackers or self-centered yuppies. BAN fits neither description. They’re the real heroes of the day. It’s BAN, and not the media-celebrated overdressed signature span obsessed New Millennium Group, who compromise Buffalo’s real forward thinking holistically oriented brain trust. We owe BAN a great deal of gratitude for assembling a coalition the likes of which this community has never seen. BAN has joined students, environmentalists, labor unions, churches, anti-racist activists, gay rights activists and pro-democracy patriots under one unified banner. If Buffalo is to have a bright future, it will begin here with this new movement.
The local media response to BAN has so far been disgraceful. For months they ignored BAN. Now they denigrate BAN. No local TV media outlet will put them on screen without following up with visuals of Seattle burning. The most recent incident was on WKBW TV where BAN spoke Maria Whyte specifically asked reporters not to follow her sound bite with photos of Seattle burning. Ha ha Maria. The WKBW folks showed Seattle burning both before and after her sound bite – a sound bite which itself was stolen out of context. Where’s the connection between Buffalonians fighting to better our collective future and a 1999 police riot in Seattle? Buffalo is a great city. We deserve better media.
Michael I. Niman
originally appeared in Blue Dog Press
News Improves A22 Coverage
Two weeks ago I lambasted The Buffalo News’ Patrick LaKamp for his tainted coverage of Buffalo’s then upcoming A22 anti-FTAA rally. I’m happy to report that both LaKamp and The News did a 180 degree turn-around. On Saturday April 21st, after a full day of peaceful local protests, LaKamp, joined by fellow News staffers, Jay Rey and Janice Habuda, penned a quality story, “Speaking out against globalization.” While still focusing on the demonstrations primarily as tactical events, they also provided space for demonstrators to explain their issues and concerns. In the end they attributed 79 lines to official (government) sources, and 67 lines to demonstrators, representing a vast improvement over previous Buffalo News articles.
On April 23rd Buffalo News reporter Henry Davis and legendary music critic Dale Anderson wrote a summation of Sunday’s events, allowing them 59 lines (official sources weighed in at 41 lines). While protestors’ key points and infobites made it into Davis and Anderson’s piece, information from their 33-page press packet didn’t. Taken simply as an article about a tactical event, however, it was solid balanced reporting.
Backpedaling on the 1st Amendment
As the dust finally cleared from the previous weekend’s events, The News printed an editorial (April 26) praising City Hall’s response to A22 demonstrators. But the question lingers, why should we praise police for not attacking non-violent demonstrators? It was not that long ago that we took the right to protest for granted. Now it’s newsworthy if people are not gassed.
The News praises Mayor Masiello for “giving protestors a place to vent their anger.” In reality, however, Masiello gave the protestors nothing. They have a constitutional right to peaceably demonstrate. The NCLU was preparing to go to court to force the city to recognize this right when Masiello relented and ordered the Parks Department to issue a permit for Front Park. Front Park, with its close proximity to the Peace Bridge and its large concrete parking lot is the logical public venue for such a demonstration. As a newspaper, The Buffalo News should not be so quick to backpedal on the First Amendment.
Spies, Cops and Puppets
The same editorial also praises the police for keeping the peace, pointing out that they had been meeting with organizers for months before the event. In actuality, they weren’t meeting, per-se. They were spying. Protest organizers documented the presence of undercover Buffalo Police officers at their planning meetings for weeks before any official communication with the Police. Many organizers say they would have reached out to the police sooner if it wasn’t for this “spooky” silent police presence. Police also harassed demonstrators in the days leading up Sunday’s event as they entered and left an East Side home where they were making puppets and signs. At one point three days before the event, police, acting without a warrant, demanded to see the puppets. Organizers claim police promised not be in riot gear and not to carry gas or pepper spray, though they reserved the right to have these weapons close at hand. On Sunday, this promise was broken, as Police lined up in riot gear and closed the Peace Bridge entrance before any protestors ever left Front Park.
I agree with The News, however, that the police still deserve praise. Not one of the 150 officers on duty made an offensive or threatening move toward demonstrators despite the occasional taunt. The threat made by this unnecessary show of force, however, should be taken into consideration before doling out unconditional praise. The News also should have praised the demonstrators, who kept their end of the bargain even after seeing the heavily armed riot police. Their weeks of nonviolence training paid off and they too should be commended. We faced a bad situation on Sunday, and the people of Buffalo, police and demonstrators alike, all deserve praise.
Kudos to WKBW
On Friday April 20th, local TV news coverage also changed tenor. Gone were the horrific images of riots that tainted every mention of upcoming local protests. Instead, all three channels replaced those images with the voices of local activists explaining why they were protesting. WKBW (ch. 7) led the pack Friday with reporter Melanie Pritchard’s excellent piece which both stressed the peaceful nature of the local protests and explained who was protesting and why.
WIVB (ch. 4) covered the day’s protests as tactical events without much context, but still gave a voice to the demonstrators. WGRZ’s (ch. 2) Scott Levin, however, started his report with a load of horse dung by saying, “Protestors also promised to cause a commotion right here in Buffalo starting today.” I challenge Levin to come up with footage of a Buffalo Activist Network Spoke promising “commotion.” Ron Plants, covering a City Hall rally that day, seemed afraid of demonstrators, instead opting to interview passers-by who knew nothing about the demonstration or the issues. When a local communication professor asked him why he insisted on interviewing a man who insisted he didn’t know what was going on, Plants became aggressive, practicing “attack journalism” by following and pestering the woman until she screamed “aaggghh” at his camera man. Her expression of frustration with Plants was stolen out of context and transformed into a soundbite for the 11PM news. Plants’ coverage improved after the incident, however, as he interviewed other demonstrators as well. He wound down his report, however, proclaiming, demonstrators “achieved their aim of getting media coverage,” tacitly acknowledging the blackout his station had on the FTAA issues during the weeks leading up to the demonstrations. Plants closed his report calling the demonstrators “well behaved.” That’s more than I can say for Plants.
More Kudos to WKBW
WKBW continued their excellent (ch. 7) reporting on Saturday, aided by a resourceful cameraman who went to Pilgrim St. Luke’s Church to film a nonviolence training session and interview out-of-town activists on the eve of the demonstration. The Channel 7 team produced an excellent in depth report giving background and context to the demonstration and the demonstrators while adding a human face to the previously vilified out-of-towners. Way to go. WIVB’s (ch. 4) Lani Le also produced an excellent piece on Saturday, allowing protestors at the day’s events time to make their points. Le and Pritchard both ended their reports by stressing that they expected Sunday’s events to be peaceful.
TV coverage remained good when the 22nd finally arrived, though anchors at channels 4 and 7 both credited or blamed protestors for closing the Peace Bridge. In actuality, police closed the bridge, with demonstrators practicing nonviolent civil disobedience by attempting to open it, a point made clear later in the WKBW broadcast by Melanie Pritchard, who again led the pack with superb play-by-play reporting of the day’s events.
Snipers Aim at a Blurry Message
Channel 2 invented a police “sniper,” that to the best of my knowledge didn’t exist. Their reporting focused on the Buffalo demonstrations as a tactical event devoid of context. They were the only news team, however, to cover the sister demonstration in Fort Erie organized by the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Anchor Mike Corbin reported that the Canadians’ message was “more focused” than their Buffalo counterparts, ignoring the union leaders, clergy, academics, environmentalists and human rights activists who spoke at the Buffalo event, a group which ironically also included the organizer of the Canadian event.
Generally in the final days leading up to the 22nd , Buffalo’s media came through with good solid reporting. Too bad the damage and fear from their previous sensationalistic reports still permeated the air, frightening many Buffalonians from participating in the weekend’s events. Let’s all hope as a community that we see more of the media’s good side and less of their bad side in the future. I’d like nothing better than to not have to write this column.