Jan 1 2003

Dead Letter Office

Flood of anti-war mail to Congress fails to register in press


DC peace demonstrator, 9/02 (Photo: Elvert Barnes)

One of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who protested the Iraq War before it started. (Photo: Elvert Barnes)

In the weeks preceding the congressional vote on the Iraq war resolution, media reports continually emphasized poll results showing apparently solid support for the Bush administration. But below the radar screens of the pollsters and the Washington press corps, something else was happening.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were writing letters and e-mails, making phone calls, holding vigils, marching, meeting in anxious groups both small and large, and signing electronic and paper petitions–all to convey a very different message: no war with Iraq–certainly not unilaterally.

While not entirely unprecedented, the outpouring showed a citizenry defying stereotypes of apathy, using both time-tested and new electronic methods to make their views known, and willing to engage in the controversy about the war despite the risk of being branded unpatriotic.

In other words, by any definition that includes conflict, human interest and departure from the norm, this was news. It was also the counterpoint to the pro-war message blasted by the White House and the conservative talk shows.

But a database search of news articles and broadcasts during the period leading up to the vote and the massive anti-war demonstrations on October 26 shows that most major news organizations were either unaware of this citizen activity or did not deem it newsworthy.

If reporters and editors were looking for impact to make constituent mail a story, 26 congressional representatives provided that impact on October 3 when they called a press conference on Capitol Hill. They announced that they would defy Democratic leadership and vote against the Iraq resolution, and cited their constituent mail as a major factor in their stance. Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky literally dropped a foot-thick bundle of her mail on the podium to make a point.

Still, most of the Washington-based press corps yawned and didn’t write a word. Besides running on C-Span, the press conference was covered by National Public Radio (10/4/02) and the Washington Times (10/3/02), but not by the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, ABC, NBC or CBS.

For the public, this lack of coverage reinforced the image of a nation united behind George W. Bush. By failing to notice this citizen activity, the media made itself complicit in public apathy, sustaining and in effect promoting the view that ordinary Americans are powerless nonparticipants in the game of government. In this view, the press need cover only the professional politicians and bureaucrats while pollsters take on the temperature of a passive public.

‘Not a good barometer’

In an e-mail responding to a query about its coverage, the Washington Post’s congressional editor, Chuck Babington, noted that “both liberal and conservative lawmakers agree that mail calls are not a good barometer of the general public’s sentiments.” Asked if that sentiment reflected his opinion as well, Babington said, “There’s no question that polls are most representative of public opinion.” He added that he believed the Post “did a pretty good job” of covering public opposition to the war, noting a September 23 page-one story that reported on constituent opposition.

Of course, by the standard Babington expressed, general elections–with their turnouts of less than half of eligible voters–are also not a good measure of the general public’s sentiments. Further, people who respond to polls may be largely uninformed about an issue and may not have even formulated an opinion until the moment the poll-taker called. In contrast, constituent contacts reflect the views of people who are not only informed but are also motivated enough to call or write, who bother to exercise their right as U.S. citizens to self-government and participation in the public debate.

“The press is accustomed to reporting the most superficial representation of citizen opinion,” historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn remarked when asked about polls. “The press generally has a habit of ignoring petitions, rallies, demonstrations and teach-ins because they are more subjective, even though they give a deeper view of what people are thinking.”

Members of Congress are ordinarily highly sensitive to constituent concerns, but when an issue becomes national, the results of polls, often commissioned by the media, can trump constituent sentiment.

“A lot of people in the Congress staked out their position based on their belief in the media’s view that there was limited opposition,” said Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who played a major role in mobilizing House opposition to the Iraq resolution. “It’s like believing a weather report on TV that the sun is shining only to walk outside and get drenched in a downpour,” he told Extra!.

“The American people don’t want this war,” he continued. “If instead of spending time in the White House press room, the media had gone out to speak to people in Cleveland, or Seattle, or Kansas City, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or any of those places, they would have heard that.”

Monumental mail

The quantity of e-mail from constituents to Congress has become “monumental,” according to Brian Fitch, deputy director of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation. Last year, Congress received more than 117 million messages.

But no one except each member’s own staff keeps track of the opinions expressed in an e-mail or any other form of constituent contact. So there is no way to know how the mail was running on Iraq other than to ask or, at least, to pay attention when members choose to bring it up–for example, at the October 3 press conference.

For some members of Congress, no other issue has ever roused as many constituents. “We never received so much mail before about any single issue in such a short period of time,” Joel Barkin, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont Independent, told Extra!. Only 0.1 percent of Sanders’ 8,000 calls, faxes, letters and e-mails supported the Bush administration.

“The members whom we worked with, and not just from liberal districts, all had very similar numbers,” he added.

Kucinich said his constituent mail ran nine to one against the war and did not vary regardless of income group or party affiliation. The quantity of mail sent to his office on the issue was second only to the amount he received during the prolonged Clinton impeachment hearings.

U.S. Rep. Jim Dermtt, a Washington state Democrat, said his mail had been 300 to one anti-war until he visited Iraq. “When the White House turned on the PR machine to stomp out opposition, particularly using the talkshows, then we got phone calls from all over the country,” he said during an interview. “But even then it was 60-40 in favor of my position.”

Scattered stories

The Washington Times, to its credit, carried a story on October 3 about grassroots opposition to an Iraq war. Reporter Stephen Dinan reported that House and Senate members were receiving constituent mail that was “overwhelmingly against a unilateral attack on Iraq.”

The Washington Post ran a page-one story on September 23 that focused on a visit to his district by Rep. Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican. It noted that the “dominant theme of phone calls, letters and e-mail messages that have been pouring into Capitol Hill” had been “overwhelmingly against war.”

But it went on to say that some “questioned whether the communications accurately reflect their constituents’ views,” citing the results of a national poll.

The only other Washington Post story on the subject appeared on October 14, after Congress voted on the Iraq resolution. But its dateline was California, not D.C., and it focused largely on the anti-war protests and mail in that state.

As reported by staff writer Evelyn Nieves, the story told how the local representative of the American Friends Service Committee had been involved in so many teach-ins, protests, marches and forums that he could barely keep up. Reel also reported that California’s anti-war activists boasted that 10 of their 13 congressional representatives had heeded “their thousands of phone calls” and voted against the Iraq resolution.

An Oakland Tribune article on September 30 stands virtually alone in addressing the apparent disconnect between constituent mail and polls on Iraq. Under the headline, “Bay Area Speaks Out Against War,” writer Lisa Friedman revealed that constituent contacts to California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein were nearly unanimous in their anti-war sentiment. Of 16,000 contacts, only 2 percent were pro-war.

A spokesperson for Boxer expressed his amazement at the situation, saying, “I can’t remember seeing any issue bringing such a one-sided response….We’re getting this…from all over the offices…Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco. It’s all across the board.” A spokesperson for California Republican Richard Pombo quoted in the article insisted that the majority of his constituent contacts were pro-war, but said that the staff had not toted up the pro and con numbers.

Apparently recognizing that it was unusual to report on constituent contacts as opposed to public opinion polls, Friedman went on to label citizen opinons–which, by definition, of course, express a particular point of view–as “an admittedly biased measure of community thinking on any given issue.” Pollsters, she continued, know that “people with the most passion make the most noise.”

Protests around the country

The Boston Globe distinguished itself through its coverage of both constituent mail and other forms of anti-war protests. An October 9 article reported that mail to South Boston Democrat Stephen F. Lynch was running seven to one in opposition to war. The Globe‘s coverage also included articles on activists rallying at college campuses (10/7/02) and an article about 200 protestors demonstrating outside a hotel where George W. Bush was speaking at a fundraiser (10/5/02).

The Los Angeles Times also offered unusually consistent coverage of anti-war activity, according to the database search. Stories on October 2, 10 and 11 reported on constituent mail, taking note, for example, that mail to Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was running 40 to one against the war.

The L.A. Times was one of the only major news outlets to report on an Internet petition signed by 210,000 people, according to Eli Pariser, International Campaign Director for MoveOn.org. Staff and volunteers for the online activist group, founded during the Clinton impeachment hearings, delivered the petitions in person to senators and representatives all over the country. Again, most major media outlets ignored the petition, despite the press releases MoveOn.org issued.

“We got a good deal of local coverage, and a few national hits, but not national TV coverage or the New York Times,” said Pariser. “Our members made 140,000 phone calls. They report them to us. And there were hundreds of thousands of e-mails and thousands of letters to the editor. None of this sort of the usual peace movement.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Sept. 29 that hundreds protested the war. A rare story, it actually summarized the opponents’ arguments against the war resolution, and gave a sense of the diversity of the protestors.

Stories about local protests were also reported by the Associated Press. Local newspapers including the York (Pennsylvania) Sunday News, the Bergen County, N.J. Record, Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Salt Lake Tribune also carried stories about anti-war protests in the days before and after the Congressional vote.

Game over?

Washington state’s McDermott said he believes the media would have paid more attention had the Democratic leadership opposed Bush. “We’re back-benchers,” he said, referring to the group of House members who went public with their opposition, so we said, “we’ll have a press conference and show them.” But the editors didn’t think it was a story. We probably got buried under whatever else, a car chase.”

Once the Democratic leaders had announced support of the Iraq resolution, the game was over, as far as the Washington press corps were concerned. But when it turned out that 126 of 208 Democrats in the House voted against the resolution, an October 11 Washington Post story had a tone of mild surprise, noting that this was “a higher number than some had predicted.” The Post offered no explanation for the surprise.

Kucinich, however, had predicted that at least 100 Democrats would be opposed, and says he was not surprised at the outcome precisely because of constituent mail. “Most members were talking about margins of opposition that were anywhere from five-to-one to 100-to-one or more,” he said.

But this impact was generally not reported, a situation that Howard Zinn called “very discouraging” to the people who bothered to write, sign petitions and otherwise engage in exercises in self-government. Although when people think about the lack of coverage, he added, “they think that the media is biased, so I don’t think it has a permanent effect on their willingness to continue to protest.”

Indeed, many stories about the October 26 protest marches in Washington, D.C., and many other cities compared the turnout to anti-Vietnam war marches, noting that it had taken many years to mobilize as many people during that era. Zinn says the anti-war movement is growing rapidly now–with a second mass march on Washington planned for January 18–that he is unable to accept all the requests he is receiving to appear at teach-ins, forums and the like.

“So despite what the media has done,” he said, “the reality of what is happening is coming through.”

Frances Cerra Whittelsey is an independent journalist and author who teaches journalism at Hofstra University. She has been a staff reporter for the New York Times.

Version reflects correction of March/April 2003.