Today's anti-war protest in Washington exposed common flaws in the mainstream media's coverage of such demonstrations. Flaws that, consciously or not, have the effect of blunting the impact of these protests.
First, the head count.
Conventional wisdom says that police always underestimate and protest organizers always overestimate. In my experience, as I've attended my fair share now of protests (though I wasn't able to make today's), the police, in direct proportion to the turnout of the demonstration, tend to heavily underestimate, while protest organizers, if overestimating, tend to still be in the ballpark. A classic case was the Iraq pre-invasion NYC protest on February 15, 2003: police were hard-pressed to admit that even 100,000 attended; the organizers put the number at close to 500,000. It is widely accepted today that at least 300,000-400,000 showed up.
I was there. And, the actual number aside, I can tell you that 100,000 was an absolutely laughable estimate. To put it bluntly, a bald-faced lie.
Yet most of today's articles led by mentioning that "tens of thousands" of protesters converged on the National Mall and left it at that, failing to even include an estimate from either the organizers or the police. Tens of thousands. Language that automatically diminishes the actual number. Ask yourself how many people will spot this estimation without realizing that the true number, those tens of thousands added up, can often equal 100,000 or more. Or that a reporter and his editors can hide behind this deceptive nomenclature because no one can say they are lying. Misleading, yes. Being intellectually dishonest, sure. Manipulating data, you betcha. But lying?
Such language allows them to semantically cover their asses.
It's odd, isn't it? If a CEO of a company signs a deal to make $92 million a year, the salary is not reported as “tens of millions.” Yet when counting heads in an anti-war demonstration, or dead bodies in a war zone, this wording is ubiquitous in our media.
As it turns out, many news outlets failed to even mention police or organizer estimates, as was the case in the Associated Press article on CNN's website. This was the closest it came: "United for Peace and Justice, a coalition group that sponsored the protest, said there has been intense interest in the rally since Bush announced he was sending 21,500 additional troops to supplement the 130,000 in Iraq."
I should mention that's the very last sentence of this 961-word report. Incidentally, here are the second- and third-to-last sentences: "Bush was in Washington for the weekend. He often is out of town on big protest days."
We know. He doesn’t "listen to focus groups.” Though it would be nice if you at least acknowledged his utter contempt for those who protested this war back when it was unpopular.
In another AP article, posted on the Chicago Tribune website, we get an organizer and police estimate, but it couldn't be more muddled: "United for Peace and Justice, a coalition group sponsoring the protest, had hoped 100,000 would come. They claimed even more afterward, but police, who no longer give official estimates, said privately the crowd was smaller than 100,000."
When the predicted turnout of a protest is reported more accurately than the actual turnout, something is seriously amiss. "They claimed even more afterward"? Well, what did they say, Murrow? And why do police "no longer give official estimates" and when did that begin? Isn't that something about which you should inform your readers, especially when you subsequently report that "they said privately the crowd was smaller than 100,000"? From whom did the unofficial police estimate come? The unofficial police spokesperson?
The New York Times reported that police "declined to provide crowd estimates." Apparently, The Times didn't get any private moments with the police, or deemed it worthless to mention an unofficial estimate. If it was the latter, good for them. "Hany Khalil, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, said the protesters numbered about 400,000," writes The Times. Though this isn't noted until the 26th paragraph, near the end of the article.
This blasé attitude toward reporting the accurate number of people who attend anti-war protests is indicative of the mainstream media's overwhelming tendency, since the days pre-invasion, to grossly underreport anti-war sentiments.
Consider this: Above the AP article on CNN's website, under "Story Highlights," the second of the four bullet points reads, "About 40 people, including military family members, stage counter-protest." Of the four highlights, not one mentioned the number of anti-war protesters. Nor was it mentioned in the headline. So, to CNN, a counter-protest consisting of merely 40 people was more newsworthy than the tens or hundreds of thousands who marched to bring home our troops. In fact, it was even placed two highlight bullets above: "Demonstrators plan to lobby congressmen Monday to bring troops home." Forty counter-protesters trumped that news as well.
Though the majority of the American public wants out of Iraq now, the mainstream media continues to treat those who stand up and speak out as if their views remain in the minority.
Americans voted in November to end this illegal and senseless war. (Senator Jim Webb reiterated that mandate in his State of the Union response.) But George W. Bush, like a tyrannical child, refuses to listen. Similarly, the media establishment, faced with an ever-growing chorus of anti-war sentiment, still refuses to give proportionate time to these now popular beliefs.