Small "reopen" protests grab media attention — remember when huge anti-war rallies got ignored?
The so-called liberal media
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Why are small bands of right-wing protesters deemed to be more important than huge throngs of liberal ones? That's the media question that arises as modest clumps of "reopen America" activists continue to garner a huge amount of press attention, even though their numbers remain slight, and an overwhelmingly majority of Americans disagree with their message. Back when tens of thousands of liberals rallied against the Iraq War, the press often took a very different approach to them, downplaying their significance.
Today, Trump loyalists protesting stay-at-home orders, while actively endangering the public by refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines, manage to maintain the press' attention. "These anti-lockdown rallies are popping up everywhere, often with nearly as many reporters covering them as there are protesters in attendance," noted Eric Alterman in The Nation.
In general, the modest events have numbered in the hundreds:
— "Hundreds of protesters, some carrying guns in the state Capitol, demonstrate against Michigan's emergency measures"
— "Hundreds gather outside State House to protest Mass. stay-at-home advisory"
Even the slightly larger events have drawn comically small crowds compared to what organizers had planned for. In Madison, Wisconsin, local police estimated 1,500 activists showed up — 15,000 were expected.
The strangest media dispatch might have been the Washington Post update about a Louisiana rally, which reported "more than a dozen protesters" had gathered near the governor’s mansion demanding the state's stay-at-home order be lifted. I can't recall the last time the Post bothered to document a protest that involved "more than a dozen" people, which to me sounds like 15 or 20 folks. How does that qualify as news in a nation of 330 million people?
For some reason, modest-size groups of right-wing protesters taking to the streets to protest for a dangerous return to 'normal' amidst a crippling pandemic are deemed to represent a Very Important Story.
Trust me, they’re not. Public polling continues to show that a vast majority of Americans are skeptical of "reopening" the country without an effective vaccine in sight. And that includes a majority of Republicans. These protests really do feature the outliers of American politics. They're small groups of fringe players (anti-vaccine extremists, gun radicals) who desperately want attention. And they get it from the press, which seems wedded to the idea that right-wing activists are inherently important and newsworthy.
The endless coverage of modest "reopen" rallies stands in stark contrast to how the press dealt with massive anti-war rallies organized by liberals and many Democrats to protest President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Anxious for political cover for a then-popular Republican war, journalists seemed determined to downplay the left-leaning opposition.
That seemed to be particularly true at the New York Times, where executive editor Howell Raines wanted to prove his right-wing critics wrong. "According to half a dozen sources within the Times, Raines wanted to prove once and for all that he wasn't editing the paper in a way that betrayed his liberal beliefs," wrote Seth Mnookin in his 2004 Times expose, Hard News. Mnookin quoted Doug Frantz, the former investigative editor of the Times, who recalled how "Raines was eager to have articles that supported the war-mongering out of Washington. He discouraged pieces that were at odds with the administration's position on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged links of al-Qaida."
That mindset meant downplaying anti-war rallies. On October 26, 2002, protesters staged a massive rally in Washington, D.C., drawing more than 100,000 people from across the country. The next day in a small piece on page 8 that was accompanied by a photo larger than the article itself, the Times reported falsely, in the second paragraph, that "fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for." Two days later, scrambling to fix the article's obvious error, yet at the same time refusing to run an actual correction, the Times published a second, sort of do-over article about the rally.
Editors at the Washington Post seemed similarly unsure how to handle that October 2002 outpouring of antiwar sentiment in their backyard, as the newspaper dramatically downplayed the story. The Post's ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, was not impressed. "Last Saturday, some 100,000 people, and possibly more, gathered in downtown Washington to protest against possible U.S. military action against Iraq," he wrote. "The Post did not put the story on the front page Sunday. It put it halfway down the front page of the Metro section, with a couple of ho-hum photographs that captured the protest's fringe elements."
That fit a Post pattern. The month before, when large anti-war rallies were held in London and Rome, the paper gave the global events no coverage the following day. Fact: Between September 2002 and February 2003, the Post editorialized 26 times in support of the looming invasion, which turned out be a $2 trillion failure.
Today, there's simply no reason for the press to still be showering attention on dangerous groups of "reopen" stragglers.
For more on the predictably out-sized media attention right-wing protester are getting, read Alterman’s The Nation piece, in full: “The Press Is Amplifying a Dangerous Know-Nothing Ideology.” In it, Alterman provides historical context regarding the media’s long, sad history of amplifying Republican extremists and presenting them as mainstream:
So it’s no surprise that the miscreants demanding the right to infect themselves and others have no trouble receiving the loving attention of the uncritical mainstream media. It’s as if we’ve been in training for this death march for decades.
FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK
Dixie Chicks, "Julianna Calm Down"
I don't have a lot to say about the new song from Texas’ national treasure, the Dixie Chicks, other than it's probably my favorite song of 2020, so far. It's that good. And yes, I love the slow-ember burn of the first minute.
And Eva hold on
To everything you know to be true
Don't let the wolves get the best of you
You're gonna make it through
Great analysis Eric! I did a piece about how the majority of the people can respond to the problem of the focus on the small reopen protests. First at Hullabaloo and then at Crooks and Liars.
One idea comes from how the health care professionals pulled focus when they did counter protests at the anti-lock down protests.
Another is to show that the anti-lock down protesters are superspreaders. (Which data from Michigan April 15th protest shows)
A third way is to gave a voice/visual to the majority of the people at home.
The media needs to show what the reopening will mean personally in loss of life.
Photos of the dead. Video of the family of the dead. Interviews with the doctors.
Then public health care professionals attacking the reOpen people as killers.
As you know, the "both sides" of the story are given equal coverage when it's really more like 100,000 to one.
I believe the one way to address that is to prepare for the message of the other side -- discredit it scientifically and minimize it's size. Then to note that the people who are behind this 'reopen' have outsize power with the media-- because of they work the refs.
(But you know all this stuff, I'm just talking to the activists who need to develop strategies to cope with the way the press works today.)
Washington Post had a picture today (since taken down) of a head shot of a woman, sick, sweaty in an ICU with oxygen mask. She is a COVID patient. If there were more pictures of that reality (and I understand why that is not possible) there would be far fewer pictures of anti-lockdown protestors.