Something Is Missing in MSM Coverage of War Opposition

The Portuguese language has a word, saudade, which which describes “a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone … A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing.”

Right now, Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism has a deep feeling of sausade for mainstream media coverage of the anti-war movement. Their John Hanrahan reports that, although the anti-war movement is alive and well in the United States, indeed even reinvigorated by America’s involvement in Libya, they just can’t get any respect from the MSM. Mr. Hanranhan lists in painstaking detail numerous recent protests, ranging from the pathetic – an 84-year-old nun, an 82-year-old Jesuit priest and three other activists over the age of 60 breaking into a U.S. Naval Base near Seattle to “symbolically disarm” Trident II missiles by “putting up banners and scattering blood and sunflower seeds, and hammering symbolically on a road and fences” – to the fairly dramatic – a December 2010 protest against the war in Afghanistan which saw 131 demonstrators arrested outside the White House. But none of these protests merited any serious media coverage much beyond local newspapers, far-left blogs and mischief-making foreign cable news outfits such as Al-Jazeera and Russia Today.

Flailing around for an explanation for why the media are no longer highlighting anti-war protests, Hanrahan’s analysis is almost self-parodying in its failure to even consider, let alone conclude, that political bias might be involved (I’ve previously blogged at Big Journalism on how the MSM’s coverage of the Obama administration’s wars is strikingly different in tone from how previous conflicts were covered). The report acknowledges that these days the protests are smaller and less violent than during the Bush presidency (left unstated is the obvious conclusion that most of those demonstrating were primarily motivated less by opposition to war than by hatred of the Republican administration). But if size and intensity were the main criteria for judging the newsworthiness of protests, how to explain the MSM’s wall-to wall coverage of Cindy Sheehan’s lone crusade against President Bush’s Iraq policy?

Activists interviewed for the report rail against the usual far-left bogeyman of ‘corporate media,’ and they have a point: the mainstream media generally consists of nice middle class people with well- to extremely well-paying jobs, who live in nice areas and send their kids to nice schools; despite their liberal posturing, they don’t really want the corporate infrastructure of American society to collapse, and in the same way they don’t really want America to lose wars or US troops to die. Thus, media support for the US in wartime under administrations of both parties has generally been a given, even for much of the Vietnam War, with the negative coverage of the war on terror during the Bush administration being the politically-motivated aberration. Just as their investment in the capitalist system doesn’t stop them trotting out the homeless, immigrants or the uninsured to attack Republican domestic policies, their general support for the American military didn’t mean that they weren’t happy to fetishise US casualty figures and glamourise the anti-war movement to attack a President that they already detested for myriad other reasons.

“During the Vietnam era” claims Hanrahan,” press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war.” No studies have ever borne out this assertion: In Big Story, a masterful analysis of US media coverage of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Peter Braestrup points out that even in the aftermath of the misinformed and overly pessimistic media coverage of Tet, attitudes to the war remained largely unchanged. But Hanrahan could care less about facts; he is merely invoking the tired Vietnam cliché to set up an analogy with today for his punchline: “By its lack of coverage”, he asks, “isn’t the press thus helping perpetuate an endless war?” Not quite Mr. Hanrahan; what the press is really helping to perpetuate is the fading myth of hope and change.

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