The lack of anti-war coverage in the mainstream media
By Alyssa Figueroa
In February 2003, while more than 10 million people worldwide participated in United for Peace & Justice’s coordination of “The World Says No to War” demonstrations, the “Save Martha” campaign to save Martha Stewart from going to jail received more coverage on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC than the anti-war protests—and only four people turned out to the “Save Martha” rally.
Whether it’s cable news or the leading newspapers, media in all forms have failed in providing the U.S public with the information they need to evaluate the government’s actions. After their big blunder facilitating the Iraq invasion by reporting the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the media still have yet to learn. Today, despite the fact that majority of the American people are against the war and there’s a growing curiosity as to how much of the U.S. taxpayer’s money is going to the war, the media continue to leave out voices in these crucial discussions. People who are critical of the war are not hard to come by, yet the media have a tendency to only allow those who rule to frame the debate, just as they did at the start of the war.
The time period consisting of one week before and one week after General Colin Powell presented his case for the Iraq invasion to the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003,was both a crucial period and a time when 61 percent of the U.S. population questioned going to war. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, conducted a study on anti-war voices in the media during this period. FAIR observed interviews from CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS, and out of 393 interviews conducted on these networks, only three interviews featured an anti-war voice.
During this time, MSNBC canceled their highest rated show, The Phil Donahue Show, as a leaked internal memo revealed the network believed Donahue would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war … He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
Today, the treatment of anti-war critics in the media has not improved. Media outlets have continuously administered confusing polls resulting in distorted results, while simply phrased questions (“Do you support the war?”) continuously show that approximately 53 percent of the U.S. population opposes the war in Iraq. Anti-war critics are rarely invited to TV talk shows or quoted in newspapers. For example, in June 2010, an article in the Los Angeles Times about the growing controversy over the war in Afghanistan’s withdrawal plan featured a debate between U.S. military officials and Sen. John McCain—both dubious about withdrawing troops.
“Much of the media merely covers wars by quoting the Pentagon and other members of the establishment, and there’s really little of the other side presented,” said Eric Garris, managing editor of AntiWar.com, a non-profit, non-partisan site devoted to providing anti-war views that receives around three million page views a month. A few years ago, the government hacked the site and shut it down for a day.
Garris added, “You’ll often have a so-called ‘debate’ on Afghanistan, and the debate is whether we should send 20,000 or 50,000 more troops.”
Michael McPhearson, co-convener of United for Peace & Justice, a coalition of pro-peace groups, former executive director of Veterans For Peace and a field artillery officer in the Gulf War, said the anti-war movement is “generally invisible” in the mainstream media. He said he has been displeased with the media’s continuous lack of coverage of the anti-war movement.
McPhearson said even when the movement is covered, it’s not reported on fairly. For example, he said, when protests are covered, “The news will go out and sensationalize our image using the hippie or tie-dye to portray us.”
Peter Hart, FAIR’s media activism director, said that protests are portrayed as distractions from real issues. Reporters, he said, feel they need to cover whatever politicians currently want to argue.
“Protests in general are seen as some kind of unfair intervention in the political aspirations of Washington,” he said.
Although protesters or other war critics seldom get invited into a TV studio to give their input, when the rare opportunity arises they are “often outnumbered,” Garris said. “You’ll have a panel with three pro-war guests with slightly different views on the war and then one anti-war.”
McPhearson said it is upsetting to see how much coverage the Tea Party receives, despite the fact that there was little coverage of the anti-war protests in 2003, in which hundreds of thousands of protesters lined the streets.
When it comes to protests, Hart said, “The Tea Party has been a huge exception to the rule: Two dozen agitated conservatives could show up at a town hall meeting… and it will be live on CNN.”
McPhearson said activist participation has declined over the years because of frustration and disappointment in the continuing wars in spite of protest.
Hart said, “Media coverage gives oxygen to any sort of movement. The fact that anti-war opinions are rarely expressed in the media doesn’t empower people to participate.”
McPhearson said, however, people’s dissatisfaction with the current state of the economy is growing. Though domestic problems are one of the main reasons why Americans cannot focus on protesting, he hopes that maybe they can connect military spending with the problems at home.
He wishes they make this connection even though media discussion of spending cuts “focuses on domestic cuts, and they don’t even bring up the military budget.”
Some media critics, like Hart, believe that because corporations own the mainstream media, their interest is in business more than journalism.
“Their interests are corporate,” Hart said. “So whether it’s a direct interest of having military contracts, which was the case with GE [owning NBC] … or because news that is too critical of the U.S. government is news that could get you in trouble with viewers or advertisers. … there’s a sense that rocking the boat is not what you’re in the business to do.”
Garris believes the media would make money presenting various viewpoints, just like Mother Jones and Salon.com. He blames the lack of coverage on journalists’ laziness and fear of losing access.
“If a journalist tried to present a more broad explanation of the position, they have to do more work,” he said. “They can’t just call up their friends at the Pentagon or the think tank, get some quotes and put out the story,” he said. “The other problem is access—if they critique too much, they may lose access to Pentagon representatives or not be able to embed reporters.”
McPhearson, however, believes there is an even bigger reason for the media’s lack of anti-war coverage. He said Americans believe both them and their country are exceptional, while some even feel their lives are worth more than Iraqi or Afghani lives.
“The anti-war movement challenges this belief,” he said. “We’re running around the world killing lots of people, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
McPhearson added that people are uncomfortable questioning their beliefs, and since media is a business, discomfort is not an enticement to get viewers to watch their show.
The media do not “want people to think they’re unpatriotic, so they tend to stay in this conservative viewpoint instead of really challenging our country,” he said “You don’t get better if you don’t challenge yourself to get better. But I think it’s hard for the majority of people to face the challenges and look at their own life and say, ‘Well, what do I have to do to make a difference?’”
He added that people might be willing to change their ideas if they were confronted with received information on the war from all sides.
“I think the news media is supposed to provide people with that information that challenges them,” McPhearson said. “Instead, they reinforce the status quo and policies put in place by the ruling class.”
At FAIR, Hart and his colleagues work hard at critiquing the media in hopes that the media will do its job of challenging its audience.
“If you ask a lot of journalists, they say, ‘Nobody tells me what to write or what I can’t say,’ and in a lot of cases that’s true. But they’re not pushing to do things that would offend anyone or upset an advertiser,” Hart said. “We have to make this appeal to journalists. If journalists don’t see themselves as tools of the large corporations and believe that they stand for higher values, this is a test… in how much you believe in those ideals, how much you’re willing to fight for them.”
Perhaps, because the media is so heavily affected by and interwoven in the economic, societal and political structures in our society, media coverage critical of these structures is ultimately lacking. Although it is impossible to know whether the media can ever truly revolutionize these structures, we still need to push for media to critique them.
“The media is powerful as an institution in our democracy,” Hart said. “It’s not necessarily that you believe that it has the ability to bring about social change, but [that] you believe it has an important, essential role, and by wishing to make it better you’re understanding that a better media is going to lead to a better democracy.”
Alyssa Figueroa is a junior journalism and politics major who wishes the war debate wasn’t brought to you by the following sponsors. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.