A Tale of Two Rallies


by Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 5/2/02


Question: How do you make 100,000 people invisible?


Answer: Call the New York Times!


That in a nutshell is the all too predictable tale of the April 20th Washington DC “Stop he War” mobilization for peace and global justice.  Four separate rallies drew protestors to DC on the 20th.  One, at the Washington Monument, organized by a broad coalition of anti-war groups, called for an end to the so-called “War on Terrorism,” both at home and abroad.  On stage, people spoke out against our new war in Columbia, US military adventurism in Central Asia, the US financed Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities, and human and civil rights violations carried out under the banner of anti-terrorism. Within earshot, across from the White House at the Ellipse, another group held much the same rally, but with different speakers.  At the World Bank’s Washington headquarters, anti-corporate globalization protestors ringed by a perimeter of postmodern riot-turtle costumed police, sought to re-ignite the global democracy movement that was derailed in the wake of the 9-11 global flipout.  At the Hilton, Palestinians and Jews gathered to protest against a meeting of pro-Israel groups.


All four of these groups coordinated their events and led simultaneous marches through the streets of DC, with all four groups converging at Freedom Plaza in front of the Capitol Building at about 3PM for a massive rally.  Given the recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, the Israel/Palestine war dominated the afternoon rally, with protestors and speakers calling for an immediate secession of hostilities and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.


Invisible Revolution


I’ve relived this day again and again over the years.  The rallies.  The banners.  The endless chanting and shouting. The drumming.  The bubbles.  The puppets.  These DC demos are Mardi Gras-like festivals.  But they usually occur at our darkest hours.  Three Mile Island melts. Carter brings back draft registration.  Reagan slashes social funding and pumps up his porky military machine.  Daddy Bush heats up his oil wars and launches a few vendettas against his old CIA drug running buddies.  Clinton initiates a corporate orgy of industry-authored labor and environment-trashing trade pacts.  And finally there was that little Darth Vader wannabe’s after-the-coup inauguration ball.   The situation always seems hopeless.  But being in the company of good, caring, angry, loving, screaming, fed-up, optimistic idealists always breeds a bit of hope.


And yeah, by now we all know the script.  Travel all night.  March all day.  Can’t believe your eyes.  Think we’re on the brink of changing the world.  Rush home (someone’s home, anyone’s home) to watch the tee vee news – and nothing.  Grab a paper the next day – and nothing.  No mention of the tens of thousands of kindred souls who just launched a political new age.  No shaking quaking meanies running for cover.  Nothing.  Just the same old mindless chatter at 11. 


So when I woke up in DC on Sunday Morning and grabbed the New York Times and found virtually NO coverage, I wasn’t surprised.  In fact, at a speaking gig a week before the DC actions, I predicted there’d be little or no national coverage.  I make a lot of political predictions and I’m usually right, though honestly I’d often rather be wrong.  I’m not a seer.  I’m just not a moron.  If you see something happen 10 times, it’s a safe bet it’ll happen an 11th time.  It’s called making book.  The corporate media won’t give honest coverage to anti-corporate activists.  And when the national press corps is genuflecting toward the White House, shamelessly acting as wartime cheerleaders instead of acting responsibly as critical journalists, don’t expect them to cover your anti-war demonstration.


Folks are often pretty upset when confronted with the reality that not even 100,000 of us screaming in unison will be listened to.  One person asked me, “If you know in advance the media won’t cover the demonstration, then why do you go?”  The answer is simple.  We’re not dancing for the media.  We go because we have to go.  Fighting against injustice is celebrating the dignity of human life.  We go because we know we went, and that’s good enough.


Toxic Censorship


Yes, such censorship is toxic to a democracy.  When people exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest, and are ignored, they often feel disenfranchised.  Unheard cries usually lead to apathy.  In rare and extreme cases, they lead to violence.  Both apathy and violence are lethal to a democracy.  By ignoring peaceful demonstrations, no matter the cause, the media subverts our democracy – but this is only if we let them.


I go to demonstrations assuming the media will either ignore or twist our message.  But they can’t undermine us.  Mass demonstrations are still a success since they empower people who come from a host of isolated communities who need to know that they are not alone.  And these demos also serve as crash courses in media literacy.  A person, who is part of something that is both powerful and beautiful, who then watches as the media degrades or outright ignores it, learns more about the media then they ever could by taking a class or reading a few books.  If you know you were part of a movement with a clear message, only to be told your message was silly or immature, you learn something about the media.  If 30,000 people are orderly, and a monolithic media focuses entirely on the three nihilists trashing a Starbucks window, you learn something about the media.  After a weekend in DC, many people will never again believe the corporate media – and that’s one of the most powerful outcomes of a mass rally.  Such folks now total well over a million people.


Not All The New That Fits In Print


As for The New York Times, they will argue that they did indeed cover the rally, only not in their morning edition.  There are a few problems, however, with this logic.  First, the feeder demonstrations had already amassed, by conservative estimates, about 50,000 people by noon on Saturday.  Hence, there was plenty of time to get a story into the following day’s paper.  Moreover, however, the story that appeared in their final edition was miniscule and buried in the bowels of the paper.  This is a recognized form of censorship – one that is more effective than outright censorship.  With outright censorship, when a story is not covered at all, the censorship becomes obvious and is inexcusable.  By downplaying a major story, and by only running it in one edition of the paper, The Times can argue that they did not censor the story – hence the argument becomes more complex, and The Times’ offense, less clear.


The Times, like much of the US media, has a strong bias when it comes to Israel.  The White House supports Israel, and The Times supports the White House.  A quick analysis of their coverage of both the April 20th anti-war rallies and the previous week’s demonstration supporting Israeli policies is telling.  First off, it is important to understand that demonstrators at the April 20th events were unified in their condemnation of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.  Among the demonstrators, were tens of thousands of Palestinian-Americans, who were joined, in a promising show of solidarity,  by thousands of Jewish-Americans.  


The article that finally appeared in the final edition of Sunday’s (April 21st) New York Times, under the headline, “Thousands march in Washington in Support of Palestinians,” was a mere 376 words long (by comparison, this article is 2,291 words long).  That’s 376 words to describe the biggest US protest since 9-11, covering issues as diverse as third world debt, the Afghan war, the Columbia war, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the erosion of domestic civil liberties and Bush’s military spending and cuts to social programs.  By contrast, The Times ran two concurrent articles on April 16th, about the previous day’s pro-Israel march.  These articles totaled 1,760 words, or more than four and a half times the size of the coverage of the April 20th peace rallies.  It gets worse.  On April 21st, the same day The Times ran their paltry 376-word blurb on the peace rally, they shamelessly ran a 1,926-word piece, entitled, “American Jews unusually unified in solidarity with Israel.”  Not only is this piece five times the size of the rally article, but it directly contradicts the reality demonstrated by the large Jewish presence at the April 20th rallies, that Jewish-Americans are anything but “unified” on this issue. 


Mediated Anti-Semitism


This article, intentionally or not, also fuels anti-Semitism, by inferring that Jewish-Americans, unlike African-Americans or Italian-Americans, are “American Jews,” being more Jew than American.  It paints a politically and culturally diverse ethnic group as a monolithic group of warmongers, blindly supporting Israel no matter how repulsive their actions.  By doing so, The Times ignores the long-held Jewish commitment to social justice, which is a cornerstone of Jewish identity.  Such propaganda is not only a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of Jewish-Americans who are vocally opposing the Israeli regime, but also ignores the 1,000+ Israeli soldiers and reservists who have signed declarations stating that they will not participate in what they view as an attack on a civilian population and attendant actions that constitute war crimes (more than 65 of these soldiers have been imprisoned by Israel - see the May 2002 issue of The Progressive).


The media coverage of the two rallies was a different as the rallies themselves.  First, the rallies were quite different.  Quite simply, the April 20th event was a call for peace, and “pro-Israel rally,” despite what naive participants might have hoped it would be, turned out to be a pro-war rally.  On April 20th, participants rallied before a banner proclaiming, “Stop the War on Terrorism.”  On April 15th, by contrast, President Bush’s Deputy Defense Secretary, like other speakers, addressed the crowd, thanking them for coming out to support “the global war on terrorism.”  Speakers on April 15th supported an indefinite occupation of Palestinian territory, while people in the crowd chanted “no independence.”  When a speaker at pro-war rally tried to point out that Palestinians, like Israelis, “are suffering and dying in great numbers a well,” people in the crowd booed.


It’s difficult to term the April 15th rally as “pro-Israel.”  The message was pro-war more than it was pro-Israel, since endless war, such as that supported by sentiments expressed at the rally, promises only suffering and destruction for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.   Yet, this demonstration supported US foreign policy as outlined in “The War on Terror,” while the April 20th demonstration opposed US policy.  Hence the media legitimated the April 15th event, focusing on the individual stories of protestors and families that traveled to Washington.  Many media outlets, by contrast, focused on the April 20th events from a law enforcement perspective, reporting that they were peaceful and that there were no arrests, while mostly ignoring the speakers and the individual stories of the demonstrators.  

The Numbers Game


And finally, there’s the old numbers game.  How many people went to each rally?  There’s a corporate media consensus that the “pro-Israel” rally drew a neat and even 100,000 participants.  The mainstream media, by contrast, described the April 20th peace events as drawing either “thousands,” or 75,000, a number published by The Washington Post.  Other media sources such as the liberal-left journal, CounterPunch, estimated 200,000 participants.  People on the ground in Washington who witnessed both rallies say that the April 20th mobilization was clearly larger.  Douglas Turner of The Buffalo News’ Washington Bureau, for example, who reported on both rallies, writing two comparably sized fair and even-handed stories, writes, “Participation in Saturday’s various rallies easily topped the crowds drawn to Monday’s pro-Israel event.”  Interestingly, Turner quoted Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who gave a conservative estimate of 35,000 to 50,000 participants for the large April 20th events, putting the 100,000 number for the “pro-Israel” event into serious question.


So where did this number come from?  The conservative American Prospect describes the “pro-Israel” event as drawing “a crowd estimated at 100,000.”  But their passive voice source obfuscation doesn’t answer the question, who did the estimating?  The New York Times, in their April 21st piece about “unified” Jews, reports that the “pro-Israel” rally “attracted a crowd estimated at 100,000.”  Again, the passive voice.  Five days earlier, The Times simply wrote, “more than 100,000 demonstrators rallied yesterday at the capitol.”  Again – no source.  The New York Daily News was a bit more honest in their coverage of the “pro-Israel” rally, describing a crowd as that which, “organizers estimated topped 100,000.”  The San Francisco Chronicle also used numbers provided by “organizers.” Now we’re getting somewhere.  When has the mainstream media ever used crowd estimates provided by organizers of labor, environment or peace demonstrations? 


And then there’s The Washington Post.  They clearly used the crowd estimate provided by organizers of the “pro-Israel” event, but bizarrely attributed it to an anonymous “official,” who quoted unnamed “authorities” who “believed” 100,000 people attended, writing, “a local official said authorities believed that 100,000 people attended.” 


The bottom line is, as The Buffalo News’ Douglas Turner reported, there were a lot of people at both demonstrations, though there were clearly more folks at the April 20th peace rallies.  But The Buffalo News was the only major US paper to clearly report this fact.  Most other corporate news outlets used deflated numbers for the April 20th events while using inflated numbers for the previous week’s “pro-Israel” event.


Michael I. Niman’ previous ArtVoice columns are archived at http://mediastudy.com/articles.  As always, hate mail may be sent to hatemail@mediastudy.com.


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