Nov 1 2001

Covering the ‘Fifth Column’

Media present pro-war distortions of peace movement's views

Antiwar rally, Washington, DC, September 29, 2001

C-SPAN was one of the few outlets that allowed antiwar protesters to speak for themselves.

“These seem to be lonely days for the Birkenstock-and-beads set,” reported Newsweek magazine (10/1/01). It’s certainly true that anti-war activists, the apparent target of Newsweek‘s disdain, might have felt lonely–if they were counting on visits from mainstream news reporters.

In place of consistent coverage of the peace movement, some pundits and columnists sounded the alarm about the threat to America from within. New Republic editor Peter Beinart (9/24/01) thought critics of administration plans should either keep quiet or explain their loyalties: “Domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides.”

New Republic columnist (and former editor) Andrew Sullivan had a more ominous warning (London Sunday Times, 9/16/01):

The middle part of the country–the great red zone that voted for Bush–is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead–and may well mount a fifth column.

Washington Times columnist Robert Stacy McCain (9/27/01) was even more threatening, implying that military force should be used against anti-war protesters:

Why are we sending aircraft carriers halfway around the world to look for enemies, when our nation’s worst enemies–communists proclaiming an anti-American jihad–will be right there in front of the Washington Monument on Saturday?

Right-wing provocateur David Horowitz (L.A. Times, 9/28/01) chided today’s student activists with this reminder: “The blood of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans is on the hands of the antiwar activists who prolonged the struggle and gave victory to the communists.” Horowitz added that “this country was too tolerant toward the treason of its enemies within.”

At least one commentator blamed the left for the attacks themselves. Columnist Steven Schwartz (New York Post, 9/12/01) wrote that

the anti-globalist rioters seek to intimidate world capitalism into shutting down altogether, and the distance between breaking the windows of McDonald’s to achieve that end and blowing up the World Trade Center is pretty damned narrow.

Misquoting, miscounting

When an anti-war movement started to voice opposition to a military response to the terrorist attacks, reporters showed little interest. “Day of Action” protests were held at more than a hundred college campuses across the country on September 20, but coverage of the rallies was sparse. The New York Times did report on the September 20 campus protests, but the perspectives of the thousands of students who participated were almost entirely absent. Of the 11 students quoted in the article, only one voiced an anti-war opinion. Instead, the article was dominated by students who supported going to war, or those who could not recall seeing any anti-war sentiment on campus.

Taking the pulse of the peace movement at the University of Oregon, New York Times reporter Francis X. Clines (9/28/01) was heartened by the hesitation expressed by history professor Daniel Pope, who teaches a course on radicalism. Clines noted approvingly that “his uncertainty seems refreshing on a campus known for leftist agitation.”

When the Times did present the views of activists, it was sometimes a misrepresentation: After thousands gathered in Washington, D.C. on September 29 to call for a non-military response to terrorism, the New York Times (9/30/01) responded with a 10-sentence story under the headline “Protesters in Washington Urge Peace With Terrorists.”

The September 30 story also misreported basic facts, like the size of the crowd in Washington. The New York Times estimated that a “few hundred protesters” were on hand, while the official police estimate was 7,000; organizers estimated 25,000 (Washington Post, 9/30/01). One only had to watch the live coverage on C-SPAN to know the Times was way off.

The next day (10/1/01), the Times ran a slightly longer story about the second day of protests. The crowd estimates were more accurate, but the photo that accompanied the story was dominated by a sign held by a counter-demonstrator: “Osama thanks fellow cowards for your support.”

When an October 2 FAIR action alert critiqued this coverage, New York Times senior editor Bill Borders issued a spirited, if not entirely accurate, defense, writing in some of his e-mail replies that “as it often does, FAIR has, I think, distorted our position here.” Borders offered the following explanation of the September 30 coverage: “The crowd estimate of a ‘few hundred’ appeared only in the first edition of last Sunday’s paper. When the reporter wrote it, it was accurate. Later, the crowd grew, and the article was updated in all the other editions of the Sunday paper to ‘thousands.'” Borders added that “FAIR is aware of these facts, but chose to withhold them from the ‘action alert’ it sent you.”

As FAIR explained in a October 5 letter to Borders, the alert was based on the third edition of the Times (labeled “Late Edition”), as well as the online edition, which had not been changed to reflect what Borders called the “growth” of the crowd. Borders did not respond to FAIR.

Defining dissent

The distinction between “peace with terrorists” and a peace movement rooted in justice and international law was blurred by the media in general, which rather than airing the views of anti-war leaders generally had pro-war pundits explain–and belittle–those views.

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter (10/1/01) lectured that history had shown anti-war thinking “to be disastrous,” and two weeks later he upped the ante in a piece about left-wing “appeasement” (10/15/01): “Talk about ironic: The same people urging us not to blame the victim in rape cases are now saying that Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.”

In his September 26 column, the Washington Post‘s Michael Kelly borrowed George Orwell’s argument against World War II pacifists: Terrorists have attacked, and pacifists do not want to fight back. Therefore, pacifists are pro-terrorist. As Kelly boasts, “There is no way out of this reasoning.” Readers are left with the impression that dissenting opinion is dominated by a desire to do nothing to respond to the attacks. Given that one of the more common anti-war slogans is “Justice Not Retaliation,” it would be more honest for Kelly to address that position, instead of setting up a “do nothing” strawman. A few days later (10/3/01), Kelly was still on the case, explaining that the wider anti-war movement was “intellectually dishonest, elitist and hypocritical.”

The near-invisibility of peace activists has been particularly noticeable on television. To the show’s credit, Fox News Channel‘s O’Reilly Factor has done a much better job than most in featuring dissenting opinions. But the show’s host does not hide his disdain for peace guests. Bill O’Reilly told anti-war organizer Rev. Graylan Hagler that peace activists were actually responsible for stifling official investigation (Fox News Channel, 9/28/01):

These people who did this terrible deed 18 days ago are murderers, reverend. You are hindering our government’s search for justice. You, reverend, you personally are hindering them…. You’ve jumped the gun. You’ve insulted these families. And you really should rethink this.

Sadly, that kind of treatment is often as good as it gets for anti-war voices.