Jul
01
2000

For Press, Magenta Hair and Nose Rings Defined Protests

The success of the Washington, D.C. demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank can be measured in part by how well activists communicated their message to the general public. Without a doubt, the Mobilization for Global Justice succeeded in intensifying the national debate on globalization. This April, mainstream media featured a more sustained and substantive discussion of World Bank/IMF structural adjustment policies than ever before.

That said, serious investigations of World Bank/IMF policies were still the exception rather than the rule. What’s more, this small broadening of coverage was accompanied by a formidable backlash on op-ed pages, and by a rash of reports more interested in tittering at activists’ fashion sense than in examining their politics.

One commendable investigation of the issues raised by World Bank/IMF protesters was Eric Pooley’s Time article "IMF: Dr. Death?" (4/24/00), which analyzed how the World Bank and IMF have affected Tanzania, concluding that their policies "have hammered the poor." Also noteworthy was a front-page Washington Post article about Haiti by Michael Dobbs (4/13/00), which took a critical look at the suffering caused by the gap between the IMF’s "free-market theory and Haitian reality."

On the same day, in what appeared to be an attempt at balance, the Washington Post also featured on its front page an article by John Burgess, "At IMF Headquarters, Embattled Staffers Wonder, ‘Why Us?’" Celebrating the altruism of IMF staffers, the article joined them in wondering whether critics "understand the basics of how the Bank and poverty alleviation work." The article also painted a glowing portrait of World Bank president James F. Wolfensohn, who is quoted as saying that he is "doing God’s work."

Individuals at the World Bank and IMF may well be principled, pleasant people. But is this relevant to an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Bank and IMF as institutions? Where Dobbs examined data about structural adjustment’s impact on Haiti, Burgess focused on the emotions of IMF employees. These two articles illustrate a trend in the Post’s coverage of the issues raised by the protests—solid journalism on real world effects of IMF/World Bank policies was often "balanced" by uncritical reportage of the IMF/World Bank perspective, or by cheap shots at protesters’ expertise and sincerity.

"Unwashed...dazed"

For example, the Post ran an article on April 16 on the G-77’s endorsement of the protests; most other outlets ignored this major story, and even the Post consigned it to page A31. On the front page that day was the article "Demonstrators Are United by Zeal for ‘Global Justice,’" which purported to examine the politics of the Mobilization, but instead inaccurately concluded that the protest was "a demonstration without demands." It noted activists’ "body odor," and reminded readers that "the fad factor cannot be denied. To have been in Seattle is to have reached a higher state of cool." Imagine if you can a Post news article making similar remarks about the way the IMF’s Wolfensohn smells, or the "fad factor" behind the IMF’s claim that it helps the poor.

One of the most striking reports in this genre was a National Public Radio report by Guy Raz (4/10/00), which opened with the sentence, "Rule one for a warrior in the fight against globalization: Take on a cool nom de guerre like... Mango." It went on to describe activists as "unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed." Raz’s tactic of interviewing Jane or Joe (or better yet, Mango) Protester and identifying his or her views as representative of what is, in fact, a complex global movement was common throughout mainstream coverage. References to hair color, body-piercing and clothing were also frequent.

It was in the op-ed pages, however, that the backlash was strongest. The New York Times was remarkable for its entirely one-sided op-ed page, which ran five pieces critical of the Mobilization and none that supported it or even treated its concerns respectfully. World Bank/IMF critics were not allowed to speak for themselves, but instead had their analyses caricatured by hostile commentators. In one op-ed (4/19/00), David Frum dismissed protesters as incoherent people who "hate dams and airports and economists." On the same day, Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman angrily declared World Bank/IMF critics to be "contemptible...economic quacks" who deserve to be given "the back of your hand."

The Washington Post did much better at balancing its op-eds, running four pieces critical of anti-World Bank/IMF activists, three supportive of them and one somewhat equivocal. Op-ed writers who opposed the protests, however, were given about twice as much space in the Post as those who supported them (3,780 words total versus 1,825 words). And as was true in other outlets, there seemed to be a lower quality bar for writing that opposed the protests than for writing that supported them.

Witness Michael Kelly’s "Imitation Activism" (4/19/00), a venomous tirade against the "tens of thousands of magenta-haired nose-ringers" whom Kelly accused of being "stupid" imitators of 1960s activism. "Actually, kids, not to be rude about it," wrote Kelly, "but it must by now have occurred to the swifter among you that you don’t possess anything that can coherently be called a cause."

This refusal to take World Bank/IMF critics seriously was also evident in articles not explicitly labeled opinion pieces. Strangest was the Washington Post "Style" section profile of Ruckus Society program director Han Shan (4/15/00), in which reporter Ann Gerhart admonished: "Please do not call Han Shan a hunka hunk of burning radical love. That would be trivializing him." It is difficult, however, not to come away with the impression that Gerhart delighted in trivializing Shan—she pointed out that his shirt "cleverly matches his eyes," suggested that his "great looks" were a "recruiting tool" for his cause, and noted with evident surprise that "he neither sounds nor acts like a lunatic."

Unsurprisingly, a Nexis search of major media for the month of April found no articles in which IMF or World Bank officials were referred to as "hunka hunk" of burning anything.