The Former Fringe
Originally uploaded by Chanders.
Criticizing mainstream media coverage of political protests is like shooting fish in a barrel. People have been doing it at least since Todd Gitlin wrote The Whole World is Watching [PDF], and it's become common enough to spawn dozens of blogs and at least one media watchdog organization. Every once and in while, though, someone writes something that's so terribly bad, so truly awful, that one can't help but gripe about it. Alex Koppelman with Salon is the lucky man this week. In fact, his article about the January 27 UFPJ anti-war protest, "Protesting the war -- not just for giant puppets anymore!" was so bad, it made the friend who emailed it to me start ranting at her boyfriend in disgust. So congratulations, Alex-- you've even touched even the hard-bitten and cynical.
Lets get a few things straight right off the bat. I'll grant Salon that covering political protests isn't the easiest journalistic job in the world. Journalists thrive on a few types of stories-- stories that are spontaneous and unscripted, stories that are new, stories that involve elites, and stories that bring to light the passionate nature of the human condition. Political protests combine the worst of all worlds in a way that drives journalists crazy. Obviously, something is going on that's serious enough to impel hundreds of thousands of people to get on buses and stand around in the cold for a few hours. But, all those people make covering the story so hard! And what's more, far from being orgies of spontaneity, most protests are incredibly scripted affairs. So here you are, Alex Koppelman, at the protest surrounded by all these hopeful people (which also pisses you off, because you're a journalist, which means you're also incredibly cynical) at an event your editor tells you is really important but which is just so damn boring.
And when journalists get bored, they get lazy. Which means they pull out the cliches, and dust off the old script they've written a thousand times before.
Here's Koppelman's money paragraph:
"Regardless of size, the protest felt different. The demographics of the crowd had changed. As opposition to the war in Iraq mounts, sparked by the president's decision to send 21,500 more troops, protesting against it has become mainstream. There were plenty of professional protesters in evidence Saturday, the kind for whom protests are a lifestyle choice, but there were also more yuppies, more families with small children, more older people and even a fair number of stylishly dressed young girls in North Face jackets and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Just as important, the confused, off-topic rhetoric of so many past protests was noticeably muted."
There are two things going on here. For starters, this piece is incredibly poorly written. Koppelman dips into his reporters bag and pulls out every cliche in the book: the commies, the crazy dykes from Sarah Lawrence with the dirty signs, the man in the gorilla suit, the charging anarchists, the reefer (oh god, not the reefer!), and the Fletchers, from Harrisonburg, Va, presumably representative of the 99,500 or so people at the protest who weren't crazy druggies or from weird political sects.
Even worse than the poor quality of the article, however, is the way it reinforces the emerging media narrative about popular opposition to the current fiasco in the Middle East. Salon isn't alone in this regard; indeed, it's likely that Koppelman has read enough other press to pick up on the storyline without even knowing it. Here's a summary of story as it's being framed in the national consciousness:
"Once upon a time, a group of dirty Arabs flew some planes into some big buildings in New York. The American president rallied the American people to the defense of liberty and the homeland like the hero-cowboy he was, and everyone was united and happy, maybe for the first time in their lives. But then the president got carried away, and because Saddam wanted to kill his daddy, he decided he needed to kill Saddam first. And the American people, because they were: a) scared of the dirty Arabs; or b) tricked by the tricky President and his tricky advisors; or c) good hearted liberals who wanted to bring democracy and freedom to the dirty Arabs, all decided that invading Iraq was a great idea. (Of course, there were a few people who thought invading Iraq was a bad idea, but they were all dykes from Sarah Lawrence college wearing gorilla suits). But because the president wasn't very smart, and because we "won the war but lost the peace"; and because the Arabs were not only dirty but were ungrateful bloodthirsty barbarians who didn't appreciate our gift freedom, the war didn't go like people thought it would. Then, all the people who thought the war was a good idea realized in November 2006 that it was a bad idea, and opposition to the war became ... <drumroll please> ... mainstream."
OK, fine. Maybe this storyline, the "mainstreamization" of the anti-war movement will help the Democrats get a spine and end the war. But, it's just not true. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in the face of a seven month p.r. campaign of post-9/11 fear probably unprecedented in modern American history:
"59 percent of Americans said they believed the president should give the United Nations more time. Sixty-three percent said Washington should not act without the support of its allies, and 56 percent said Mr. Bush should wait for United Nations approval ... Three-quarters of Americans see war as inevitable, and two-thirds approve of war as an option. But many people continue to be deeply ambivalent about war if faced with the prospect of high casualties or a lengthy occupation of Iraq that further damages the American economy. Twenty-nine percent of respondents in the poll, which was conducted Monday through Wednesday, disapprove of taking military action against Iraq ... These worries may be taking a toll on Mr. Bush's support. His overall job approval rating is down to 54 percent from 64 percent just a month ago, the lowest level since the summer before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ... More than anything, Americans remained concerned about the threat of Qaeda terrorism far more than any threat from Iraq ... In January, 59 percent of the public saw Al Qaeda as a greater threat to peace and stability than Iraq. Fifteen percent saw Iraq as the greater threat. In this week's survey, 28 percent saw Iraq as the greater threat, but 51 percent still perceived the Qaeda threat as more serious ... more information has not translated into greater support for war, which remains at 66 percent. A year ago, a CBS News poll recorded 74 percent in favor of military action against Iraq. The support level for war has held firm at two-thirds of Americans, but this majority breaks down on questions of timing and diplomacy."
Or so wrote the New York Times on February 14, 2003.
A month later, the war had started, and the rallying around the flag had begun. But the doubts were always there, and we need to remember: a third of the country has always opposed war in Iraq, not to mention the two-thirds who thought the way we were going about it was a bad idea.
And then, there was what happened the day after the Times took its poll. 500,000 people in NYC rallying against the war, on the coldest day of the year with no permit, throwing themselves against police barricades on 2nd and 3rd Avenue. 1.5 million in London. 2.5 million in Rome, and millions more in the rest of Europe and around the world.
But hey, maybe they were all wearing gorilla suits.
There's more here than "I told you so." The point of this little history lesson is just this-- sometimes, people are smart. Sometimes they know that their leaders are full of shit, and that they're being lied to. Sometimes, Alex Koppelman, they agree more with the communists and anarchists and wild-eyed radicals than they do with their own elected "leaders," even if this doesn't fit your lazy journalists script.
They knew it then. And they know it now.
UPDATE: Wow, I thought I sounded pissed off, but I've got nothing on this guy, who also wrote about the Koppelman article:
"Also, fuck Salon both for its choice of headlines when normal, mainstream, job-holding, non-puppet-waving middle class people like me and my wife were out marching three goddamn years ago and for quoting Wonkette as some sort of barometer on what’s worth complaining about ... Some days, despite my putative presence in its ranks, I wish the middle class would just get on with stuffing itself up its own corpulent ass and suffocating as it tries to choke out just one more foppish attempt at 'wry observation.'"