Nov 1 2002

“Why Is Dissent Not Fit for Coverage?”

CounterSpin interview with talkshow host Laura Flanders

CounterSpin: Mainstream U.S. media love dissent. They love to report about it and editorialize in favor of it–when it happens in places like China or Cuba. The Washington Post and the New York Times have even endorsed armed dissent, editorializing in the 1980s in favor of aid to rebel armies. But when dissent comes home, there can be a gaping double standard. The attitude of journalists to dissent at home seems to be: We have freedom to dissent, so hey, you protestors, shut up!

Speaking of dissent, Laura Flanders joins us now to talk about coverage (or non-coverage) of recent demonstrations against a war with Iraq. Laura, a former host of this show, currently hosts her own show called Working Assets Radio on KALW in San Francisco.

Last Sunday, October 6, the New York Times ran a sprawling piece about the mixed feelings many across the U.S. have about another Iraq war. They commented that protests in San Francisco had been small and muted, when in fact 10,000 people gathered at the Golden Gate Park for an anti-war rally just a few weeks before. USA Today (10/7/02) repeated the same canard, that Bay Area demonstrations have been small and muted–showing, I guess, that sometimes, even when they do report on dissent, they get it wrong. Laura, you spoke at the October 6 rally in New York’s Central Park; tell us what you thought of the coverage following that.

Laura Flanders: First off, you had to find it. I think I, like many people, woke up the next morning looking for coverage in our newspapers of record. There had been a few clips from the protests the night before on local television, but one always, I think, looks for coverage in the paper the next day, just to confirm that where we were really did happen and that we were really there.

And I, and many other people around New York, looked through our paper of record, the New York Times, and found nothing until we got to B3 of the Metro section, in fact the City part of the Metro section–which suggests this is not a national story–where they talked about “thousands rallying” without using any of the numbers that had been debated, between 10,000 and 25,000 depending on who you listened to. So again, those of us who were there–and I think the march, the demonstration, was about 20,000 strong–we came home to find our reality simply not, as the New York Times would say, “fit to print.” And I think the question is, why is that? Why is dissent in this country not fit for coverage, when as you said dissent anyplace else is well worthy of attention?

CS: And indeed, the Central Park demonstration was just one of many that took place across the United States, so this should have been a national story.

LF: Well, it certainly should be; some websites have done us the favor of compiling the places and the numbers of protests on that day, October 6. And I’m looking at one list, it’s alphabetical, it starts with Asheville, N.C. 150 people rallying; Austin, Texas 1,200; Birmingham, Ala., 200; in Colorado, in Greeley, three nuns were arrested for attempting a weapons inspection–I love that–at an air base. You had 3,000 marching in Chicago, 10,000 in Westwood, Los Angeles; you had 25,000, they say, in Central Park; another 10,000 in San Francisco, this time Union Square; 8,000 in Seattle, and Seattle protestors have turned out twice in a week.

These are tremendous numbers, and what they press is doing, in my view, is belittling not just the numbers but the significance of this kind of protest occurring before an all-out war, shall we say, has actually begun. You see these comparisons to the Vietnam War period, and the protests that confronted politicians and the press during those years, and the comparison is only ever made to sort of put down the protestors of today, to suggest their numbers pale in significance in comparison to the numbers who marched years ago.

In fact, I think there’s a real story in what is an accurate mechanism for comparison: If you were to compare the anti-Vietnam War period at the same stage, if you were to compare that movement at the same stage that the peace movement in this country is at now, how in fact would they contrast and compare? I think that is the story that the press is missing, and instead we’re getting these very simplistic comparisons, and not really the national picture that the public deserves.

CS: The same story that you point out that was on page B3 of the Metro section of the New York Times was covered in the Washington Post in  a “Nation in Brief” squib. You know, recently FAIR sent out an action alert about how the New York Times (9/30/02) and Washington Post gave more coverage to a large British fox-hunting demonstration than it did to the big London antiwar demonstrations. On October 5, UPI reported that 1.5 million Italians took to the streets against the war in cities across Italy.

That story got very little pickup here. You’ve touched on this before, but let’s talk a little bit more about why reporting on this sort of dissent is important.

LF: I think it is important that we see dissent covered in the same way as we see our reality covered as accurately as possible–in this case, however, for even more important reasons than usual. We need to be seeing what the real expression of popular feeling is out there in the streets, in this country and the world, in part because we are in a situation where we are being told national security is at stake. To my mind, politicians who decide now to go to war that their constituencies do not support–that becomes a threat to national security, that becomes a threat to the public security, when more and more people feel they’re not represented, more and more people drop out of the political process.

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Washington Post, that’s the Post of October 10, where those who doing direct mail campaigns for the Democratic Party in the run-up to this November’s elections are realizing that they are seeing a drop-off in contributions that several of them say may be caused by the discontent over the acquiescence of many Democratic leaders to Bush’s preparation for war with Iraq. So politicians need to get the message about where their constituencies stand; more broadly, you and I need to know that we’re not alone in our views.

So many, political perspectives are diminished in this country or made invisible. We’re familiar with the story from no end of different political debates: The effect when you eliminate or make invisible or silence certain points of view is that people are forced to choose between very limited options–in this case, war now or war later–and they’re led to believe that if they fall outside that spectrum of opinion they just don’t count, there’s nobody who agrees with them, they’re all alone. That has obvious political implications.

CS: Picking up just for a second on that disconnect you mentioned between the public and politicians: In fact, the program Democracy Now! (9/27/02) canvassed dozens of senators offices and asked them how the calls were running, and generated the I think terribly interesting fact that calls were running 10 to one or in some cases a hundred to one against a war with Iraq. So there was an alternative journalist picking up on just that disconnect between public opinion and the political process.

LF: You know, the amazing thing about that is that Democracy Now! did that research….I think Amy Goodman, the host, said that her producer had spent the better part of an afternoon gathering that data. They did that several weeks back; has one mainstream journalist chosen to do that same piece of research? Not that I’ve seen. But clearly this is a country that calls out for follow up, particularly, as I said, in the run-up to a vote on the question of granting the president the permission to wage war in an election.

CS: Tell us a little bit about what you’re hearing from call-in listeners to your show.

LF: We’ve heard the same, really, for a year. People in the listening area of KALW in San Francisco, and increasingly those listening online, have wanted this country to engage in a discussion about, how did we get where we are? What are our options? They’d seen the debate be slimmed down, be shrunken, be diminished throughout the year. Now, I’ve not heard from one caller who supports unilateral U.S. military action against Iraq. Every caller has questions, has concerns, has fears. Many are outright against a war under any circumstances. Many would like more discussion, but theirs are the voices we’re just not hearing in the mainstream media, and frankly, at this point, it’s hard to understand why. What’s in it for the journalists to ignore this rising chorus of voices saying we want to stop and think?

Laura Flanders, a former FAIR staffer, is the host of Working Assets Radio, heard weekdays from 10 to 11 a.m. on KALW in San Francisco and at She was interviewed October 10, 2002 by Steve Rendall and Janine Jackson.