Jul
01
2008

Carrying a Torch for Anti-China Protests

When an official enemy is targeted, media take notice

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/mermaid99

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/mermaid99

For once, mainstream media have found an anti-government protest to embrace. When the Olympic torch arrived in San Francisco on April 9 and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to decry human rights abuses by the Chinese government, journalists descended on the scene like ants at a picnic.

CNN led the feeding frenzy. The cable network gave the torch and related stories more than 40,000 words of coverage throughout the day, according to a Nexis search, and it frequently played as the top story of the hour. During the three hours of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, five different correspondents and producers reported from the streets of San Francisco, one “Internet reporter” tracked protesters’ web and text messaging activity, and a correspondent in Beijing relayed Chinese reaction—which was minimal, since the action unfolded around 4 a.m. in China. Live feeds came in from several different helicopters circling over the city, and Blitzer boasted that “CNN is watching every angle of this developing story right now.”

In many ways, it was a coup for protest organizers, whose message reached far and wide. Despite much shallow coverage and inane speculation about the whereabouts and path of the rerouted torch (Daily Show, 4/10/08), CNN actually did provide a number of different angles on the story and acknowledged its importance. “We will stay with the story, given the international ramifications of what’s going on,” explained Blitzer. “There’s so much at stake right now, not just the Summer Olympics, but a lot of diplomatic and economic ramifications, as well, as we watch very, very closely to see what’s going on.”

And CNN did give the story more context and explore both background and ramifications. They interviewed an Olympic historian on past games-related protests; they turned to senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour on the international political repercussions of the protests; and they briefly explained the situations in both Tibet and Darfur, interviewing high-level ambassadors and U.N. figures about them. They sought out the positions of the presidential candidates on the issue as well as those of George W. Bush and House Leader Nancy Pelosi. They explored the potential fallout for big U.S. companies like Coca-Cola that sponsor the Olympic Games. They even made their audience poll of the morning about whether an opening ceremony boycott would be an effective protest method to change Chinese policy.

Not that the coverage strayed entirely from typical protest coverage. As usual, relatively few protesters were interviewed—along with a similar number of pro-Chinese government counter-protesters. And journalists seemed particularly enthralled by the potential for violence by protesters, particularly after attempts to grab or put out the torch along the London and Paris torch relays. Well before the relay began, CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield announced, “Something else we’re watching—about an hour-and-a-half from now, it’s expected that protesters, whether it be pro-China or perhaps free Tibet demonstrators, will potentially clash as the torch run makes its way through San Francisco.”

Anchors repeatedly returned to the theme, looking for scuffles: “Are folks rowdy or are they pretty much under control right now?” asked anchor Don Lemon. Blitzer even interrupted a correspondent’s interview to track a minor confrontation between some protesters and police officers during the run. In the end, like most peace protests, the San Francisco protests were almost entirely peaceful, with only a few scuffles and arrests despite the massive police presence (L.A. Times, 4/10/08).

Not inherently fascinating

CNN’s torch protest coverage reveals an important lesson about protest coverage in general. Repression and violence in Tibet, Darfur and other areas under Chinese control or influence deserve much more media attention than they receive. But surely protests targeting a pre-emptive war launched by CNN viewers’ own government, either with the aim of preventing it from being launched or ending it after hundreds of thousands of lost lives and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, would be significantly more newsworthy to an American audience than protests targeting the Chinese government’s actions.

And yet, comparing word counts on the day of each protest, CNN gave the torch nearly five times the coverage of the most recent large-scale anti-Iraq War protest in January 2007, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to Washington—and, as Extra! reported (3-4/07), more coverage than most previous anti-war demonstrations. Even the unprecedented protests that took place in February 2003, in which up to 30 million people in more than 600 cities around the world demonstrated against the imminent Iraq War (Guardian, 2/17/03)—the largest anti-war protests since the Vietnam War—only edged out the thousands of San Francisco torch protesters, in the number of words CNN devoted to them, by about five to four.

It’s not that the media find the torch itself inherently fascinating. Before the last Summer Games in 2004, when it passed through four different U.S. cities, the torch run generated little media excitement. In fact, media outlets’ own involvement in the torch run seemed to determine its newsworthiness to them: The only broadcast network to give it more than a passing mention was NBC, which owned exclusive rights to the games, and CNN only gave it a brief spurt of attention when it came to CNN hometown Atlanta and a network correspondent acted as a torchbearer (6/18/04).

Was it the unique mix of torch relay and protests? Olympic historian David Wallechinsky (4/9/08) told CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield: “In terms of protesting, you’ve never seen protests before on a torch relay. This is really the first time.” Whitfield replied, “Yes, you’ve never seen it take place like this, which means that’s why it’s kind of, in part, getting a lot of attention, because this is a moving target, and these protesters have been very aggressive.”

In fact, just two years ago, the torch was the moving target of more than 33 protests as it wound its way through Italy for two months preceding the Winter Games in Turin (London Independent, 1/25/06). The majority of these focused on the environmental impact of a planned high-speed train from Turin to Lyons, France, which would tunnel through mountains containing asbestos and uranium (AFP, 12/10/05), though others protested the commercialization of the games and their cost to Italian taxpayers (London Guardian, 2/9/06). The torch was rerouted at least four times in Italy because of protests; it was grabbed from a torchbearer’s hands momentarily, and once protesters threw a flag over it in a failed attempt to put out the flame—all remarkably similar to what happened to the 2008 torch in Paris and London.

But U.S. media couldn’t have cared less. According to a Nexis search, NBC, which had rights to the games and devoted significantly more airtime to them than the others, mentioned the protests twice (NBC Nightly News, 2/5/06; Today, 2/9/06); CNN devoted less than 400 words to the story, and just about everyone apparently found the mix of the Olympic torch, protests and violence so unremarkable that they had completely forgotten about it by the time the 2008 protests rolled around.

When hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters took to the streets in September 2005, CNN’s Aaron Brown admitted that “it’s true they didn’t get any coverage” from his network, which only made passing mentions of the protests, because “the national story today and the national conversation today is the hurricane”—meaning Rita, a storm that struck Louisiana and Texas (Media Advisory, 9/27/05). It’s a common media excuse—something else more important was happening, so we just didn’t have the time.

Of course, what’s deemed important is a judgment call made by the media themselves. The day the torch hit San Francisco also happened to be the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, and though the Iraqi city was under a tight curfew to prevent protests or violence, at least 23 Iraqis and five U.S. troops were killed. Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker appeared before Congress for the second of two days, calling for an indefinite halt to troop reductions and framing Iran as the top threat to the U.S. in Iraq (New York Times, 4/10/08).

In newspapers, coverage of the embattled torch edged out coverage of Petraeus and the Iraq policy debate during the week of April 7-13. Despite the fact that no protests happened between April 10 and April 13 and thus coverage dropped dramatically, cable still managed to give the Olympics 6 percent of its news- hole for the entire week, less than the 11 percent they gave to the Iraq policy debate, but double the coverage they gave to events in Iraq (PEJ News Coverage Index, 4/7-13/08).

Different target, different coverage

There is one crucial difference between the protests: their targets. While the San Francisco protesters did hope to send a message to their own political representatives, the Chinese government was their ultimate target, and targeting China is firmly in the mainstream at a time when that country’s economic and political power is growing in the face of U.S. economic weakness. China certainly has far more critics among journalists’ favored sources and the pundit class than does the U.S. government in a time of war, making it a much more comfortable target of criticism for the media.

On the day the torch visited San Francisco, in fact, the U.S. House of Representatives called on China to “end its crackdown on nonviolent Tibetan protesters and its continuing cultural, religious, economic and linguistic repression inside Tibet,” and encouraged the State Department to include China on its list of “the world’s most systematic human rights violators” (House Resolution 1077). Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has spoken out in support of Tibet, and in a politically significant move, George W. Bush received Tibet’s leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, at the White House.

The U.S. government has a history of quietly providing limited support to Tibet freedom struggles when strategically useful in its political chess game with China, beginning with CIA support for the 1959 Tibetan revolt, and evident today with National Endowment for Democracy support for Tibetan groups in exile (AlterNet, 5/14/08). The Free Tibet movement calls for much greater and less opportunistic support, but its general message is rather easily accommodated or appropriated by politicians in Washington and their media enablers.

Those journalists also have biases of their own, and it was sometimes difficult to disentangle journalists’ backing for protesters from anti-China sentiment. Many made references to “Communist China” and some even drew starker parallels. Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s legal analyst, argued:

Whether it was the Nazis in 1936 or the Chinese Communists in 2008, they are all using [the Olympics] to promote their country. And if we want to take a stand against that kind of repression, not going to the opening ceremony is a very appropriate way of doing it. . . . It does say the United States government doesn’t approve of the Chinese government. And that seems like a very appropriate message to send right now.

CNN’s Jack Cafferty then jumped in and took it even further:

We continue to import their junk with the lead paint on them and the poisoned pet food and export jobs to places where you can pay workers a dollar a month to turn out the stuff that we’re buying from Wal-Mart. . . . I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.

Host Wolf Blitzer chuckled and went to a commercial break.

CNN was quick to point out, too, the media repression in China surrounding the protests that they themselves were reporting with such vigor. Coverage in China was “very limited indeed,” CNN correspondent John Vause reported, with state-run media ignoring the protests and mysterious “technical difficulties” blacking out foreign broadcasts at key times. “So, what you’re having here in China is essentially one line being carried by the government. Any other voices are being censored out.”

In the United States, government censors don’t block out coverage of protests they don’t like, but they scarcely need to, since the corporate media like CNN so reliably drown out those “other voices” that directly challenge the government’s line.