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Spilling Ink

Is the local media undercovering opposition to the war on Iraq? Some critics say it is -- while others say the press is just doing its job.

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It's Friday afternoon in the Central Business District. The waning sun casts a pink hue over downtown streets. Workers spill out of office buildings and into their weekends. And the steady beating of drums is heard in front of One Shell Square.

A group of about 70 people occupies the Poydras Street sidewalk, some with faces hidden behind bandanas. Without a police escort, they take a circuitous path through the CBD, where they draw a mix of jeers and shouts of approval. The group, mostly young and mostly white, is singing "Move Bush Get Out the Way" to the tune of rapper Ludacris' "Move Bitch." On the Canal Street neutral ground, a police patrol car stops a man shouting "communists!" and "Go back to France, you frogs!" A group of happy-hour patrons at Doc Smiths' look up. Some give the protesters the finger, and a shout rises from the bar patio: "You f--king losers!" Undeterred, the crowd marches on to Jackson Square.

This March 28 event is the second downtown war protest since combat began in Iraq on March 19. In all, NOPD says it has issued four permits to demonstrate; there have been numerous other actions around town, as well. On March 20, a group of hundreds met at the Hale Boggs Federal Building and marched to Jackson Square. And before the invasion of Iraq, a local group joined a worldwide Feb. 15 protest, which numbered millions in cities around the world, as well as huge crowds in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C.

By all accounts, the largest local protest to date took place on March 15. A coalition of groups -- from the Green Party to the LaRouche Democrats to Pax Christi -- brought upwards of 1,000 people into the streets. It was the largest local anti-war demonstration since 1983, when more than 5,000 people participated in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament trek.

Although the U.S. government and its war plans remains their primary complaint, local activists are also beginning to target another institution: the media. The day following the March 15 protest, The Times-Picayune ran a front-page story on fast food options for soldiers in Kuwait; the protest was relegated to the newspaper's Metro section. Smaller demonstrations haven't been reported at all.

"Coverage has been scant," says Larry Lorenz, a professor of communications at Loyola University and moderator of Informed Sources, the WYES-TV's reporters' roundtable show. "There was one (Times-Picayune) story in which the marchers were treated as kooks. There was a longer feature story (in January) but there was not much substance to it."

Not surprisingly, protesters are more blunt. Says law professor and veteran activist Bill Quigley: "I think really the news media is afraid."

From the police perspective, the local anti-war demonstrations have been "uneventful," says NOPD Capt. Marlon Defillo, commander of the NOPD public affairs division.

"The superintendent wants us to meet (demonstration) organizers ahead of time," Defillo says. "We explain the guidelines and we come to a happy medium. Many folks don't want to be involved in civil disobedience. Many folks just want to exercise their First Amendment rights and be heard. That's exactly what has been happening here in New Orleans."

Activists are pleased with the way NOPD has responded to local demonstrations. "The police have been very calm and professional," Shana Sasson says. "I think after dealing with 100,000 frat boys in the French Quarter, a thousand people marching with candles isn't that threatening."

Sasson is speaking at a March 24 "press conference" -- held under a tree outside the federal courthouse -- in which only one local media outlet is represented. That newspaper -- Gambit Weekly -- is here to inquire about the lack of media coverage of protests.

The irony isn't lost on protester Steve Godfrey, who says local media also downplayed pre-war pleas for America to avoid conflict in Iraq issued by most religious denominations. And Christian Roselund, a carpenter and Green Party member, says the daily paper misrepresents the local movement by "up-playing" the "pro-war" rallies and downplaying anti-war rallies in its use of photos, story placement and overall reporting.

Activists give higher marks for local war coverage to The Louisiana Weekly, a local African American-owned newspaper that has carried national polls and opinions through a black-owned wire service in Washington. "New Orleans is a predominately African-American city," Jay Arena says. "And if you look at the polls, you'll find African Americans are largely opposed to the war in Iraq. But that viewpoint ... is not being addressed. Where are the stories on how paying for this war will result in cuts to local social and community services?"

A Pew Research Center poll conducted Feb. 20 found 44 percent of all blacks supported the war, "the lowest of any group surveyed."

Local activists disparage the several local radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, which they accuse of censoring protest songs by artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Michael Stipe. (Clear Channel did not return phone calls for comment.) The city's four TV news stations receive mixed reviews for their coverage of local demonstrations. "We have good moments and bad moments, but it is more even coverage than The Times-Picayune," Roselund says. Gambit Weekly also draws some fire for undercovering the protests. But overall, the brunt of local demonstrators' ire is trained on The Times-Picayune.

"The media coverage has been very inadequate," says Bill Quigley. "I think The Times-Picayune particularly and systematically has de-emphasized, undercounted and ignored the opposition to the war. And most of the TV coverage has been similar ... ."

"I think they are afraid of being labeled unpatriotic," Quigley says. "I think they are afraid of dissent and that is just a reflection of the fact the media has absentee owners and profit is more important than getting the news out -- which is not really news. There has not been enough coverage and the coverage that has occurred has not been very accurate. I am disappointed but it's understandable. Similar things are being reported around the country ... . And I think you will see before very long that the news media is on the wrong side of history."

When asked to respond to activists' complaints, Times-Picayune managing editor Peter Kovacs says that the paper is balancing its reporting. "Coverage of protests is based on size and frequency of demonstrations and on the competing news that might occupy the newspaper's staff and pages," he replied via email. "Newspapers nationwide are routinely accused by protest organizers of ignoring demonstrations and underreporting attendance. In my experience at The Times-Picayune, these criticisms come from not just from the left but from the right as well."

As United States-led forces encircled Baghdad last week, Gambit Weekly asked three media experts to review the local media's coverage of the war's voices of dissent.

Larry Lorenz notes that although an overwhelming majority supports President George Bush's handling of the war, polls also show that as many as one-third of Americans disapprove of the war and believe that the United States should not be in Iraq. "The media ought to beware of the tyranny of the majority," Lorenz says. "Those are pretty significant numbers. Those people are not out in the streets. The media have a responsibility to treat the opposition in a serious manner.

"The newspapers across the country, not just The Times-Picayune, ought to recognize that the same First Amendment that guarantees the freedom of the press, guarantees 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.' That is just as important as the press' freedom."

Television, he adds, has been giving "short shrift to marches as well. But they don't have the time to devote (to the protests)."

"I feel informed enough about the opposition to the war," says Fred Bales, a professor of the Xavier University Department of Communications, who worked for seven years as a daily newspaper reporter in Louisville, Ken. "The run-up to this war was so controversial, it seems like there was adequate coverage of the arguments. I feel adequately informed about the anti-war side."

Jim Mackin, chair of the communication department at Tulane University, says the anti-war demonstrations are not very relevant now that the war is underway and the protestors' numbers have dropped sharply.

"There's some newsworthiness in the fact they would be considered unusual," Mackin says. "And there is some newsworthiness in the fact that there may be signs of a future trend. So, I would expect them to be covered for those reasons. But when you have somewhere over 70 percent of the public seemingly in favor of the war, you can't expect the protest movement to get a disproportionate amount of coverage."

The main story today is the progress of the war and the "human interest stories" of local people who have friends and relatives in Iraq, Mackin says.

"One of the things that makes the protests newsworthy is the possibility of having an impact on future events," he says. "But right now, protests do not seem that relevant. Many people who opposed our entry into the war, now say let's win, then reconsider whether we want to do something like that again."

Mackin agrees with critics who say media war coverage is distorted -- but he argues that it's a practical necessity. "We are totally dependent for our news on the military and the embedded reporters that are with the military. ... It's impossible for news reporters in that area to balance the story. They can't run back and forth between the two sides to get that kind of story."

Mackin believes that one of the protesters' most important points is that there wasn't enough public debate about the war before it began. Congress has not declared a war since World War II, yet the country has become involved in numerous armed conflicts since then. "That's a sign that there is something lacking in our public deliberation," Mackin says.

Mackin also says that activists shouldn't look to The Times-Picayune and other major daily newspapers to voice unpopular dissent. "They are more likely to think in the centrist mode," he says. "The other problem is that they are a mass medium, which means they have to have a mass market and they can't offend the mass market. ... Their economic well-being depends on their not getting too far out of line with their audience."

But Mackin disagrees with Quigley's contention that the paper is afraid of being branded unpatriotic. "The Times-Pic has always been a kind of tip-toe, middle-of-the road, mild reformist-type of newspaper. It's kind of typical of city newspapers these days. ... The Times-Picayune editorials hardly ever take a strong stance on anything, except that none of us like corruption. We all would like the School Board to be more efficient. They hardly ever take a truly controversial stand. And I don't expect them to."

Upcoming protests in New Orleans include a national "tax revolt" scheduled for April 15. Plus, local performance artist Kathy Randels has scheduled a protest for 3 p.m. every Wednesday, in front of the federal Court of Appeals building at the intersection of Magazine and Camp streets. In it, she plans to tear the stars from an American flag and place them in a jar filled with tears, then re-sew the stars to the flag. "Witnesses are encouraged to meditate on the war, without the influence of the media," she announced in a press release.

Meanwhile, last month at the March 20 protest, one remarkable scene went largely unreported. As the demonstration proceeded into the French Quarter, some 20 younger activists suddenly laid down in front of the Krispy Kreme on Decatur Street. Several anti-war lawyers effectively went to the aid of the police, persuading the prone activists to save the tactic for another time. The march continued without arrests or traffic snarls.

ABC26 caught pictures of the mini-drama for its newscasts that night. But the larger context -- the debate over tactics, the quick actions of the police and anti-war lawyers -- would have been a story best told in print. The Times-Picayune -- and every other large and small local newspaper -- didn't cover it.

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