The protests you aren’t seeing

A new report finds the antiwar movement has mostly disappeared from the nation's mainstream newspapers and TV broadcasts. Does that matter?

The antiwar movement is active across the country, protesting against the U.S. involvement in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but mainstream news organizations barely report on it anymore, according to a report by a Harvard University press watchdog.

Some 1,400 Americans have been arrested in anti-war demonstrations since 2009, reports John Hanrahan in Harvard’s Nieman Foundation Watchdog, but the national and local press almost never covers them, effectively silencing what Hanrahan argues should be a major voice in the national debate over the wars.

He writes:

During the Vietnam era, press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war. This time around lack of homefront coverage may be helping keep military involvement continue on and on.

He continues:

[Today’s] protests don’t begin to approach the level of those during the Vietnam war or in the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – but that’s not a reason to ignore them. The fact is, protest is much more widespread than citizens might gauge from coverage in newspapers and television, which seldom report antiwar actions regardless of how significant or newsworthy they may be. As we briefly observed in a previous article: By ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: They are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the U.S. wars and ever-growing military budgets, even as polls show overwhelming support for early U.S. military withdrawal.

Hanrahan goes on to write that although many local news organizations have cut back on reporters, and some still do cover anti-war events intermittently, “there’s no good answer” for why the press ignores protesters.

It may not be a “good” reason, in Hanrahan’s eyes, but there’s probably one big reason for the absence of antiwar coverage in the mainstream press. Editors are sensitive to charges they don’t “support the troops” – which isn’t their job as journalists to begin with, but the criticism still stings if your newspaper or TV station is perceived that way. The antiwar movement has tried for years to dispel the impression that it’s anti-soldier – its signs now say “support the troops – bring them home,” and Michael Moore wrote a whole book, “Will They Ever Trust Us Again?” in which he tried to take up the mantle of troops fighting in Iraq. Etc.

But the We-Love-The-Troops-But-Not-The-Wars branding hasn’t stuck. The Vietnam-era trope about protesters spitting on returning veterans – which may have never even happened – is too powerful, and it still clings stubbornly to today’s antiwar movement. Pundits, elected officials and especially current or former military personnel are allowed to question or oppose the wars in mainstream reporting, but leftist or hippie drum-circle types are still radioactive for many readers or viewers.

Hanrahan’s basic argument is intriguing, though: If the press covered antiwar events more often, would that sway Americans’ views about the defense budget, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan? There’re reasons to be skeptical: These days, when mainstream news outlets have less influence than ever and specialized outlets are ascendant, anyone who wants to find out about local antiwar rallies or letter-writing campaigns, etc., can probably do so more easily on the Web than they ever could before. So the peace movement may be as influential today, in terms of numbers of people reached, as it ever has been, even if it’s not reaching them through the news media. Hanrahan quotes activists who say they don’t even try to engage reporters anymore.

What do you think? Are Americans missing part of the picture on defense and the wars, or does it even matter in the Fox v. MSNBC age when everyone can opt only for “news” he agrees with?

Photo: Jeremy Gantz/Medill News Service