Media complacency helps normalize assaults on demonstrators
The tens of thousands of people who gathered last weekend to protest the G8summit in Genoa were greeted by a “ring of steel” manned by police, military and paramilitary forces; one protester, Carlo Giuliani, was shot in the head, run over and killed by police. U.S. media ran sensationalistic reports on the drama “in the streets of this gritty port city” (ABC World News Tonight, 7/20/01), but by and large showed little curiosity over about basic questions such as why Italian forces were armed with live ammunition.
This trend was particularly noticeable on the three major television networks’ nightly newscasts, which all managed to focus on the violence without seriously investigating its causes; when questions of tactics arose,it was usually in the context of whether protesters were too violent, not police. In addition, only superficial attention was paid to the substantive policy issues behind the summit and the demonstrations.
“Genoa is ready for war,” reported NBC Nightly News‘ Jim Maceda in the run-up to the protests (7/19/01). “Today over 20,000 Italian police on high alert, the port’s shipping lanes closed, surface-to-air missiles deployed at the airport. The site of tomorrow’s economic summit now a two-square-mile red no-go zone, shops closed, every resident’s ID checked.” Why such heavy militarization? Maceda gave the clear impression that Genoa’s intense security measures were a necessary response to dangerous radicals.”Organized, sophisticated, tens of thousands strong. Their mission: to do battle with the world economic powers…. With this chaos of environmentalists, young communists and extreme anarchists, officials here expect this volatile mix could lead to perhaps deadly violence.”
As in fact it did, though it was neither a wild-eyed tree-hugger nor a communist youth who pulled the trigger. All three networks reported Giuliani’s killing, but none raised questions about the use of live ammunition for crowd control. NBC Nightly News (7/21/01), while careful to emphasize that “the large majority” of activists in Genoa were “all non-violent,” sidestepped questions of police misconduct in Giuliani’s death by focusing on Giuliani’s links to the Black Bloc, whose members NBC tarred as “apolitical, often drugged, itching for a fight.”
The NBC report made clear that many police actions had been “extremely violent,” but also stated that Italian police were “learning” and had become “more careful” to target only “black-clad extremists” by helicopter, “then cutting them off before beating them.” The report provided no further analysis of this practice, leaving viewers to wonder if police beatings were perhaps the right way to deal with “extremists.”
ABC World News Tonight (7/21/01) also made an effort to explain that most protester violence was initiated by “small bands,” and that “the vast majority of protesters… came here to make argument, not trouble.” But like the other two networks, ABC failed to seriously address the question of police brutality.
CBS Evening News was perhaps the most careless with generalizations about”violent protests”: “Violent demonstrators laid waste to the city’s center”in a “frenzy of destruction,” reported CBS‘s John Roberts (7/21/01); the day before (7/20/01), Roberts told viewers that “violent protests transformed parts of this tranquil Mediterranean port city into a war zone today” in an episode of “civil unrest and trouble-making.”
The July 22 police raid on the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum–the umbrella group coordinating the protests–and the neighboring Independent Media Center (IMC) received largely indifferent coverage. Reports indicate that some 200 police officers descended on the Forum, brutally beating the activists sleeping there in an attack that injured 61 people, with more than a dozen of the 93 people arrested carried out of the building on stretchers,some unconscious (London Guardian, 7/24/01).
During the attack, journalists at the IMC were detained and searched (and therefore unable to document the beatings occurring next door); several reported that police trashed the IMC offices and confiscated files. A source at the Italian Interior Ministry told the London Guardian (7/24/01) that”the raid had turned into a revenge attack by police venting their frustration”; there have been calls in the Italian parliament for a commission of inquiry into the policing, and for the resignation of the interior minister.
ABC World News Tonight did not report the raid at all. CBS Evening News(7/22/01) mentioned it in passing, with John Roberts noting almost approvingly that “the tactics were heavy-handed, but the streets were quiet today.” Commendably, NBC Nightly News (7/22/01) devoted more significant attention to the attack, with Jim Maceda reporting that 66 activists had been “beaten mercilessly,” and noting that while police claimed the crackdown had been on “violent extremists,” protest leaders countered that all the victims had been non-violent and “the latest victims of police brutality.”
And what about the issues that brought so many protesters into the streets?CBS Evening News (7/21/01) lamented that “rock-tossing, firebomb-throwing anarchism” was all many people would remember about Genoa, but seemed utterly unconscious that news coverage might have had anything to do with this problem. The report segued into uninformative soundbites about debt relief from Bono and Bob Geldof, which prompted reporter Bill Plante to opine: “Sometimes it takes a rock star to keep your issue from being drowned out by violence. Other non-violent groups find themselves ignored.” CBS, of course, was one of the media outlets doing the ignoring.
Please contact the networks’ nightly news shows and urge them to conduct serious investigations into the growing trend of police violence at anti-globalization protests. You might also urge them not to wait for massive civil unrest to report on globalization issues.
NBC Nightly News
Phone: 212-664-4971 or 202-885-4259
ABC‘s World News Tonight
47 W. 66 St., New York, NY 10023
CBS Evening News
Phone: 212-975-3691, 202-457-4385