Dec
07
1999

WTO Coverage: Prattle in Seattle

As an estimated 50,000 protesters rallied in Seattle to shut down the opening conference of the World Trade Organization meeting last week, mainstream media treated protesters' concerns with indifference and often contempt. That hostility translated into slanted coverage of both the demonstrations and the police reaction.

In mainstream reports, "anti-trade" became a common--though wildly inaccurate--label for the demonstrators. "A guerrilla army of anti-trade activists took control of downtown Seattle today," a Washington Post article (12/1/99) began. ABC News reporter John Cochran (11/30/99) said Seattle had become a "home for protests against world trade." ABC anchor Jack Ford (12/1/99) pitted the demonstrators against the city hosting them: "No American city exports as much, President Clinton was happy to point out today, which helps explain why a good many people in Seattle are angry--at the protesters and their very anti-trade message."

Even coverage that did attempt to describe the protesters' goals dealt with them in only the vaguest terms--and often at a level of generalization that rendered the descriptions inaccurate or meaningless. An ABC News story by correspondent Deborah Wang in Seattle failed to address the activists' concerns with anything more than platitudes:

"They are fighting for essentially the same issues they campaigned against in the '60's. Corporations, which they say are still exploiting workers in the Third World. Agribusiness is still putting small farmers out of work. Mining companies, still displacing peasants from the land.... But what is different is that, for these protesters, this single organization, the WTO has come to symbolize about all that is wrong in the modern world."

More helpful than such generalities would have been a summary of some of the protesters' specific complaints: that the WTO has issued rulings forcing member countries to repeal specific laws that protect public health and the environment; that it proposes new rules limiting countries' freedom to regulate foreign corporate investors; and that its decisions are made in secret by an unaccountable tribunal.

The lack of understanding of the demonstrators' concerns was unsurprising, given how seldom the media spoke with them. When the police first started using tear gas against street blockades, CNN reporter Katherine Barrett (11/30/99) turned for comment to Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Jasinowski confessed that he was "struck by how loopy some of the protesters were" and observed that they were "shouting a lot of crazy different messages."

Perhaps the single WTO opponent who received the largest amount of time on CNN to expound his views was Pat Buchanan, who was interviewed, one-on-one and at length, by Inside Politics anchor Judy Woodruff (11/30/99). Though right-wing nationalists appeared to make up--at most--an infinitesimal fraction of the actual protesters in Seattle's streets, the media seemed to anoint Buchanan as a major leader of the anti-WTO movement. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote (12/1/99) that "knaves like Pat Buchanan" had "duped" the demonstrators--"a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix"--into protesting the WTO.

"What's driving [the protests]?" CNN political analyst Bill Schneider asked on Inside Politics (11/30/99). "Resentment of big business for its irresponsible behavior, a resentment shared by the left"--followed by a soundbite of AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney--"and the right"--followed by a soundbite of Pat Buchanan. This type of right/left "evenhandedness" concerning the protests did not appear to be justified by the actual composition of the anti-WTO movement.

Media outlets seemed unconcerned by Buchanan's less-than-sterling record as an advocate for labor. As co-host of CNN's Crossfire (7/3/91), Buchanan once grilled public-sector union leader Gerald McEntee--one of the labor officials present at the Seattle demos--on "the suicidal impulses of American unions":

"A lot of the jobs now have disappeared--they're gone. One reason, one complaint, is the pay of the United Auto Workers and the benefits.... Aren't you fellows committing suicide by yourselves?"

Perhaps mainstream news outlets' confusion concerning the protesters' goals contributed to their often skewed coverage of the behavior of the Seattle police and National Guard. A continuing theme in news reports was that the use of tear gas and concussion grenades was an appropriate response to "violent" activists.

CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported (12/1/99) that "the meeting of the World Trade Organization was thrown into turmoil by violent demonstrations that went on into last night. That brought on today's crackdown." A CNN report from Seattle (12/1/99) claimed that "as tens of thousands marched through downtown Seattle, [a] small group of self-described anarchists smashed windows and vandalized stores. Police responded with rubber bullets and pepper gas."

But the sequence of events described in these reports was wrong. As Detective Randy Huserik, a spokesman for the Seattle police, confirmed, pepper spray had first been used against protesters engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. CNN anchor Lou Waters asked Huserik (11/30/99) why the gas was used:

Waters: How would you characterize the nature of the threat today? Were police assaulted? Is that what precipitated this?

Huserik: Well, a rather large group of protesters... were determined to continue blocking public entrance and exit in access of some of the various venue sites. They were given a lawful order to disperse, which was ignored. Officers then announced that the Seattle police officers would deploy pepper spray if the crowd did not disperse. For those that remained, the pepper spray was deployed in order to disperse that crowd.

One eyewitness, nonviolence trainer Matt Guynn, distributed the following account of police brutality over the Internet:

"In one scene I witnessed this morning (at 8th Ave and Seneca), police who had been standing behind a blockade line began marching in lock-step toward the line, swinging their batons forward, and when they reached the line they began striking the (nonviolent, seated) protestors repeatedly in the back. Then they ripped off the protestors' gas masks, and sprayed pepper spray at point-blank range into their eyes repeatedly. After spraying, they rubbed the protestors' eyes and pushed their fingers around on their lips to aggravate the effect of the spray. And after all THIS, they began striking them again with batons.... The police then were able to break up the line, and the protestors retreated to the steps of a nearby church for medical assistance."

The lack of condemnation of police tactics--especially their tear-gassing and pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters--was a striking feature of the coverage. "Thanks for joining us and good luck to you out there," CNN anchor Lou Waters told a Seattle police spokesperson (12/1/99) as police continued their crackdown on demonstrators. A front-page Los Angeles Times article on the protests (12/2/99) featured a subhead that read "Police Commended for Restraint." Yet the only source cited by the Times was Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who praised the "professionalism, restraint and competence" of his forces.

Contrast that with this account from Seattle physician Richard DeAndrea, posted on the website Emperors-clothes.com:

"The police were using concussion grenades. They were... shooting tear gas canisters directly at protesters' faces. They were using rubber bullets. Some of the damage I saw from these rubber bullets took off part of a person's jaw, smashed teeth... There are people who have been... treated for plastic bullet wounds. Lots of tear gas injuries, lots of damage to [the] cornea, lots of damage to the eyes and skin."

One of the few media accounts that conveyed the brutality of the Seattle police was written by a local correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/2/99), who reported that "three Seattle police officers slammed me to the pavement, handcuffed me and threw me into the van. I was charged with failing to disperse even though I showed them reporter's credentials and repeatedly said I was just covering a story."