Peter's Peace Platoon

ABC's Crusade Against "Arrogant" American Power

3. Sanitizing Radical Protesters

Historically, ABC’s reporting on protests has sought to present a “peace” movement that would resonate with Middle America, and separate it from what reporter Jackie Judd called “oddball fringe elements.” When asked in 1991 about the marches being organized by the WWP, Judd said, “I think most reporters would tend to talk about who is part of the mainstream of the movement....I included the people who I thought were important to this and representative of it.” At the time, ABC producer Juliet Cassone also explained her goal was finding the most presentable protesters: “We were looking for mainstream demonstrators.”

But many protesters are not in the political “mainstream.” In the first Gulf War and now the buildup to a second, the major organization behind large protests on Washington has been the Workers World Party. While reporters have tried to maintain that the brain trust of the protest movement “happens to be active” in the WWP, this is a little like saying that some old-time Southern men’s group isn’t racist, but its brain trust “happens to be active” in the Ku Klux Klan. The WWP Web site pledges “solidarity” with “workers“ from communist Cuba to communist China while America, the locus of “world imperialism,” tries to stop them “in a global class struggle.” What does “peace” or “protest” mean in these ossified dictatorships other than a prison term or execution? 

Reporters also often leave out what protesters actually say at protests. At a protest last October, former attorney general Ramsey Clark, the leader of the protest movement, compared the U. S. government to the Nazis: “Heinrich Himmler led the Gestapo. He said, ‘Shoot first and ask questions afterward and I will protect you.’ And that’s what we plan to do with Iraq and other countries.”

textbox031803_3This questionable journalistic tactic – don’t report on what happened and what was said at “peace” protests, but sanitize it to enhance its persuasive power – is being employed again. On Sunday, January 12, World News Tonight/Sunday anchor Carole Simpson predicted hopefully: “In this country, protests against the war have been lightly attended, but that may change soon.” Los Angeles-based reporter Judy Muller touted: “From Los Angeles to Minneapolis...Thousands of Americans this weekend demonstrated against war with Iraq. The peace rallies included a lot of old familiar faces, but many new ones, as well....More and more, these crowds are filled with middle-class Americans who have never demonstrated before.” ABC featured first-time protester Bonnie Morrison of Pasadena and Igor Brobowsky of Veterans Against the Iraq War. Promoting plans to march in Washington on the 18th, Muller wished aloud: “As more and more troops head overseas, more and more Americans may head for the streets.”

To explain this ever-growing phenomenon, Muller called on Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin, a veteran of the hard-left movement against the Vietnam War: “I think mainstream America is worried sick about a war that does not make sense to them.” He promised protests would be greater once violence began, because pre-war protests don’t “bite the way pictures of bodies and burning villages will ignite sentiment.” Muller ignored Gitlin’s controversial stand within the “peace” movement: his sharp criticism of Ramsey Clark for a “near total unwillingness to rebuke Saddam Hussein.”

When the march came to Washington on January 18, ABC didn’t even wait for crowds to assemble to portray them as diverse. On the night before the march, reporter Bill Blakemore extrapolated from the bus he was riding: “Never mind the cold, they’re going to protest. Democrats and Republicans. Many middle-aged. From all walks of life. And some students.”

On Saturday night, the protests led the newscast, with substitute anchor Terry Moran laying the day out in glory: “It was a day of protest across the nation. On the West Coast and in Washington, DC demonstrators marched in vast numbers in the name of peace in the nation’s biggest one-day expression of opposition to U.S. war plans in Iraq.”

textbox031803_4ABC’s Lisa Sylvester proclaimed, “Braving frigid temperatures, they traveled across the country: black and white, Democrat and Republican, young and old.” ABC’s Geoff Morrell covered the trip to D.C. by a doctor and his “honor student” daughter: “So they rode a bus all night from Asheville, North Carolina. On board were businessmen, soccer moms and military veterans, all members of the same church.” ABC left out the podium speakers calling the Bush administration “greedy imperialist murderers.”

Another round of Saturday protests warmed ABC hearts a month later on February 16. Again, anchor Terry Moran glowingly opened the broadcast: “It’s no secret there is a lot of opposition to the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq. Today, around the world, we got a sense of the sheer scale and intensity of that opposition. Millions of people from New York to London to Rome and in scores of other cities, took to the streets to protest against any U.S.-led invasion against Iraq. It was an enormous display of anti-war and, in some cases, anti-American sentiment. We start tonight with Hilary Brown in London, where one of the largest rallies took place.”

Typically, Brown went looking for newly minted protesters, “some had never marched before,” and concluded with another diversity sales job: “This anti-war demonstration here in Hyde Park is being described as one of the biggest demonstrations in British history. It cuts right across political and social lines.” After Brown, John McKenzie checked in from New York City where he also found everyday protesters. He carried soundbites from a teacher who said he’s “ashamed” of the U.S. government, as well as a female pediatrician. He concluded: “So many voices, filling the streets, struggling to be heard.” McKenzie’s worry about “struggling to be heard” came about four-and-a-half minutes into ABC’s hot-and-heavy protest coverage.

Enormous, Massive, Huge...Did I Mention Enormous? Two days after the rally, CBS and NBC had moved on to other, more timely subjects, but not Peter Jennings, who jumped on his first weeknight opportunity to employ the protesters as an authentic political powerhouse: “President Bush said today that the enormous anti-war demonstrations here and overseas in the last several days have not changed his mind about Saddam Hussein. But they have certainly given Mr. Bush’s opponents some sense that they have momentum.” ABC’s Martha Raddatz explained: “For the first time today, President Bush responded to the massive worldwide protests against war and against his own administration.”

In case the “massive” rallies hadn’t been promoted enough, Jennings returned at story’s end to ask: “At the White House, certainly the President and others will have seen, as we all did, those huge demonstrations here and overseas. They have any effect that you know of?” Raddatz replied: “Well, certainly they won’t talk about it publicly, Peter, but they can’t stand the fact that the world is having these massive protests. It makes the United States look bad. It makes the United States look like it is bucking the rest of the world, and they think Saddam Hussein is laughing at them.” If Raddatz could peer into White House minds on this question, she could also guess that they felt ABC was also in the business of making the United States look like it’s bucking the rest of the world.

Protesters didn’t even have to take the trouble of flying or driving to Washington to land on ABC. On February 26, Jennings picked up the publicity gimmick of a “virtual” march of electric complainers: “In Washington today, thousands of people opposed to war against Iraq bombarded the Senate and the White House with phone calls, faxes and e-mails. They called it a virtual march on the Capitol. Communications were virtually paralyzed in the Senate for a while. Many congressional phone lines were jammed for several hours and one Senator reported 18 times more e-mail than usual.”

But is the protest movement a political powerhouse? Does it represent a vast uprising in public opinion, or a tiny minority? It’s fair to describe a protest of 100,000 strong as “massive,” but not compared to the 105 million Americans who voted in the 2000 presidential election. (Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate, received more than 384,000 votes. Does that make his campaign a political juggernaut?) ABC’s own polls showed American support for war growing monthly, despite regular protests. It might be suggested that the protests had the effect of turning Americans against the “peace” position. But they didn’t ask that question at ABC.

Dueling Daisies. Lyndon Johnson shocked the political world in 1964 with a “Daisy” ad that showed a little girl picking daisy petals while an ominous voice counted down from ten to a picture of a mushroom cloud – outrageously suggesting that electing Barry Goldwater equaled nuclear war. The ad aired only once, but in recent years, this infamous ad has been recreated twice, most recently with an anti-war message.

On the January 16 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings explained, “An anti-war group called that’s organized primarily over the Internet, started airing a television commercial opposing war against Saddam Hussein.” Reporter Brian Rooney repeated the line: “This new version is made by a group called Move On that espouses political causes over the Internet.”

Neither journalist suggested any distaste for the ad, and had no political description for the very liberal, very partisan Democrats who formed Move On, which was first assembled to fight Bill Clinton’s impeachment tooth and nail.

The Move On ad ends with a mushroom cloud, and the claim: “Maybe that’s why Americans are saying to President Bush, let the inspections work.” An ad suggests that President Bush’s policy will lead to nuclear war, but Rooney couldn’t even call it “anti-Bush.” He concluded the ad was a sign that “the anti-war movement is still relatively small but appears to be growing with a lot of help from the Internet...the anti-war movement has gone from the streets to the information superhighway.” The anti-war movement is always “growing,” even as ABC’s polls showed the percentage of Americans favoring war was the real growing number.

Not every “daisy” ad knockoff received the pom-pom treatment from ABC. On October 27, 2000, then-ABC substitute anchor Aaron Brown wasn’t so sanguine when an obscure Texas group ran a low-tech “daisy” ad claiming the Clinton-Gore team had sold national security secrets to China. ABC labeled it on screen as an “Anti-Gore Ad.” Brown explained: “Every ad is designed to get your attention. This one attacks Al Gore. It says he sold out to China for campaign funds.” He quickly added: “The Bush campaign has asked that the ad be pulled....By then, the ad will have been seen by millions for free and without much analysis.” But unlike the 2003 story, Brown went for analysis to liberal professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who decried “its inaccuracy and its hyperbolic nature.” That wouldn’t define comparing President Bush’s policy to nuclear war? Brown concluded: “You can expect more of this as we get closer to election day as groups with political agendas see how much they can get away with.” Getting away with it did not require more subtlety, more nuance, more class. It only required a more liberal political agenda.

 “Outspoken” Tony Benn. ABC’s aversion to placing the protest movement anywhere to the left of the mainstream also surfaced when British leftist Tony Benn secured an interview with Saddam Hussein, asking “questions” such as: “I wonder whether you could say something yourself directly through this interview to the peace movement of the world that might help to advance the cause they have in mind?” Benn, whose questions are reproduced on his Web site, also claimed protesters were “the real Americans in my opinion, the real British, the real French, the real Germans, because they think of the world in terms of their children.”

CBS’s Bob Simon stood apart by describing Benn as “a 79-year-old British politician and lifelong left-wing activist.”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell explained Saddam “told an anti-war British politician he has no links to al-Qaeda and no illegal weapons.”

But ABC tried to disguise Benn’s left-wing perspective as Peter Jennings intoned: “The Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, has given his first television interview today, to a non-Iraqi, in 12 years. It was conducted by a former member of the British Parliament, Tony Benn, one of Britain’s most famous and outspoken politicians.” He couldn’t even identify Benn with the Labor Party, which would have informed at least the political junkies. Only late in the story did reporter Dan Harris reveal that Benn “said he conducted this interview to stop the war.”