Mainstream Media Favor Story of War

Tom Kerr

In my post-9/11 experience, talk of peace has consistently trumped talk of war among people I know from across the political spectrum. However, national and local mainstream news media have not reflected "the American street" or told the story of peace with the same enthusiasm as they tell the story of war.

Even a glimpse of mainstream national coverage of 9/11 and the advent of our government's "War on Terror" in October and November 2001 shows how vigorously the media embraced the story of war, pounding the drums as loudly as the warmakers. As Cal State Professor Roberto Lovato, responding to post 9/11 coverage put it, "CNN is like a 24-hour Bruce Willis movie . . . I have never seen such a blatant disrespect for objectivity" (commondreams.org). Lavato is referring to the "framing of the news": the flag-draped backdrops and news captions, the dramatic accompaniments ("America the Beautiful"), and the various "product names" _ "America Fights Back," "America's New War," and "The `War on Terror'" _ assigned to ongoing war stories.

More Than a Feeling

My research suggests such pro-war propaganda found a permanent home on local television news stations, especially on their websites. Despite protestations to the contrary, the Syracuse paper, The Post-Standard, treats the story of peace as an afterthought, telling it intermittently, as a local phenomenon, strangely dissociated from the national ground-swell of anti-war sentiment evidenced by the 100,000-strong gathering of peace protesters in our nation's capitol on April 20, 2002.

When I asked the three local network affiliates to view tapes of the nightly news from two weeks in October 2001 (the weeks surrounding our attack on Afghanistan) and two in April 2002 (the weeks surrounding the DC peace march), I was turned away. WIXT told me "…sorry, but there's no easy way to do this…We have to turn down your request." Daily addressed by news personalities as neighbors, this lack of community access to station archives seems distinctly un-neighborly. Thus, I must rely on my initial and on-going real-time viewings to analyze local TV news coverage of the "War on Terror" and Americans' resistance to war.

Syracuse stations ape the war stories and pro-war analysis aired nationally by their giant parent corporations (such as GE and Westinghouse, which do double duty as arms and news manufacturers). What you see all day on national news broadcasts, you see repeated uncritically at 6 pm and 11 pm on local affiliates. We hear regular reports that summarize White House and Pentagon press briefings. We get snippets from military analysts and hawkish politicians examining every dimension of the war. We are regaled with policy analysis, military strategy, battle field weaponry, and up-close-and-personal vignettes of Special Operations soldiers and their supportive families. (Much less, if anything, is made of these same soldiers' post-traumatic stress disorders and related post-war violence, such as that committed by three Army Special Operations veterans, who, after returning from Afghanistan, recently killed their wives and, in two cases, themselves.) The story of war _ if it bleeds it leads _ is forever embellished.

Both print and electronic mainstream media appear to regard the White House and Pentagon as news outlets. The official story of war is passed on uncritically as if it were objective news and the only story worth telling. Perhaps a president who equates dissent with terrorism ("You're either with us or against us") and powerful corporate sponsors who tout their undying patriotism explain why local network affiliates pay virtually no attention to local or national peace initiatives and protests that contradict the Official Narrative.

Locally, WIXT (ABC) includes (as of July 29, 2002) in its website's marquee the phrase "United We Stand" written across an American flag; WSTM (NBC) offers links on their website to the FBI, Department of Defense, and other governmental sites _ as if these were objective sources. In its heading for a section entitled "America Fights Back," WTVH (CBS) features pictures of 1) women and children praying, 2) interlocking black and white hands holding an American Flag and 3) George W. Bush at Ground Zero in his now famous fire-fighter embrace. Such websites make a mockery of mainstream news media's highly touted objectivity.

Ignoring Dissent

While local mainstream media's lopsided coverage of the "War on Terror" mirrors national pro-war propaganda disguised as reporting, this failure is particularly evident in the neglect of organized local dissent. A number of local organizations are dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflict at home and abroad. The Syracuse Peace Council, Peace Action of Central New York, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Pax Christi, American Friends Service Committee, and Syracuse Women's Collective have participated in local and national peace initiatives and activities since 9/11. Yet, relying on mainstream media for information, one would hardly know these organized peace groups even existed.

In their October 10 editorial "The Home Front Once Again, Americans Must Confront Difficult Questions of War and Peace," The Post-Standard claimed to be getting flack from both sides, noting that "Callers to our office have offered a broad range of criticism of the newspaper's coverage. Some have accused us of cheerleading for a bloodbath. Others have charged us with being apologists for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and their allies." They go on to suggest that, in fact, the paper is most keenly interested in open debate: "Let us argue vigorously, but let us not lose sight of the goal of this campaign; let us not forget who the real enemy is." In terms of the war versus peace stories, however, the paper's money is not with its mouth.

In the two weeks following the first attacks in Afghanistan, in what was then called "Operation Infinite Justice," The Post-Standard ran one news story, one press release, and one editorial related to organized peace activities in the area. This, after a post 9/11 month in which large and boisterous peace demonstrations broke out on campuses and in towns and cities all over the US.

Not the People's Page

A notable exception to the general coverage has been found on The Post-Standard's Letters page, which has been filled with pleas for restraint/peace. In the six weeks following 9/11, at least 30 pro-peace letters and/or opinion pieces appeared in the paper. At the weekly peace vigil, pro-peace/anti-war signs at busy intersections around Syracuse have regularly drawn more support than opposition. Although such support for peace locally and nationally has been strong and visible from the beginning, The Post-Standard barely covers it.

On October 8, 2001, for instance, the paper ran a news story on an anti-war protest held in Clinton Square. Titled "It's Not `A Matter of Revenge': Peace Activists Rally, Voice Opposition in Clinton Square." The story describes the event and the names, positions, and comments of several participants, including representatives of the Syracuse Peace Council (Andy Mager and Bill Griffen), and Peace Action of Central New York (Mary Giegengack-Jureller). While the staff writer, Paul Riede, accurately represents the scope and nature of the event, the story appears on page A-8, as far from the front page as possible without dropping into the local section, and there is no suggestion that the "60 peace activists" in Clinton Square might represent a much larger number.

A press release run on page B3 of the local section ten days after the "let's argue vigorously" editorial announces the start of weekly peace vigils "sponsored by concerned residents and the Syracuse Peace Council, Peace Action and Syracuse University students." There is no attempt by The Post-Standard to supply background information or context to this release nor is there any follow up on the weekly vigils themselves or the issues raised by such persistent public protest. For The Post-Standard, it is apparently enough to say your coverage is fair and objective. Regarding the absence of any television news coverage of these weekly peace vigils, they are apparently too peaceful to warrant a camera crew.

Who is Newsworthy?

Prior to the first bombs dropping on the people of Afghanistan, the paper did cover a September 24 peace vigil at the Westcott Street Fair, organized by what the staff writer calls a "consortium of local peace groups." In addition to a body count (160 people attended) and naming the groups involved, the reporter supplies sound-bite quotations from various participants. While the story appears prominently on page B1 of the local section, an argument can be made that a well-attended rally for international peace during national war preparations deserves front-page or A-section coverage. Peace is not a local matter. If Dick Cheney _ or even a "consortium of prominent businesses" (instead of "local peace groups") _ had held a war-rally at the Wescott Street Fair, the event would have made headlines.

Seven months into the war, as area peace advocates prepared to join tens of thousands from across the country in the April 20 Peace March on Washington, The Post-Standard ran a story that did a fair job of representing the scope and nature of the planned event as well as participation in it (some 170 area residents went to DC). However, the story was not deemed worthy of Section A coverage (it ran on B6), and despite weeks of effort by the Peace Council to seek coverage, the paper did not bother to cover the event itself!

My research confirms what I believed all along. Local and national news media misrepresent the American street largely by omission, by not telling the whole story. They also frame their coverage in red, white, and blue, and pass on official pronouncements as news, favoring the story of war over the story of peace. And perhaps worst of all, they believe their coverage is objective and that the "War on Terror" is necessary and inevitable. In a "democracy," where information is so crucial for citizens to understand and influence government policy, such distortions undermine the very foundations of effective self-governance.

Tom Kerr teaches writing at Ithaca College and is newly connected to the Peace Council.

Media Activism

While corporate ownership of the media is a powerful force, activists have pressured mainstream media to provide more coverage of local activism and more balanced coverage of the news. Some suggestions:

· Write letters to the editor (See www.peacecouncil.net/cnymedia for contact information)

· Call TV and radio news directors to comment on coverage (or lack thereof)

· Get involved with the Peace Council's media committee (contact Andy Mager, 472-5478)

· Support alternative media such as the Peace Newsletter, SPC-TV, and SPC's Democracy Now Campaign, see page 4.