Riot In Seattle Essay, Research Paper
For aging baby boomers nostalgic for the 1960s, Seattle was the place to be this week. From the chants of protest to the whiffs of tear gas and, most importantly, the whirring of cameras, the organized chaos that delayed the opening of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting was a reminder of how political activists savvy in the ways of journalism can hijack the news agenda from the politicians and bureaucrats.
On the surface, the upcoming WTO meeting looked like a snooze for news junkies, with its closed-door sessions of faceless bureaucrats debating esoteric topics lacking in immediate and direct impact on ordinary people. So in order to draw attention to their objections, the protesters applied some longstanding principles of news-making that would leave the assembled journalists with no choice but to put their views in the spotlight.
The media love sound and fury, regardless of who is telling the tale. So the protest organizers plotted a show that journalists couldn’t resist. They crafted a narrative that would pit populist Davids against multinational corporate Goliaths. They put out press releases to alert the audience to the coming extravaganza. Then they put on a spectacle replete with the color and conflict that stirs the blood and leads the evening news. In short, they handed journalists a story that was more interesting and exciting than the one they were there to cover.
The result? The performers took the stage, the journalists took the bait, and the rest is the first rough draft of history. The protests started on Monday. Since then, the big three network evening newscasts have aired 29 stories on the conference, all but six of which focused either heavily or exclusively on the protests.
Meanwhile, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today have collectively run 13 front-page stories on the events in Seattle; every one either covered the protests exclusively or used the protests to frame discussion of the WTO conference. Any story covering only the subject matter of the conference itself was relegated to the inside pages.
The coverage was not particularly sympathetic to the protesters on the issues, and it was certainly hostile to the violence that broke out. But that’s not the point. An event like this naturally brings out organized peaceful protesters, but it also brings out people who use politics to express themselves; inevitably, the latter group includes some whose self-expression extends to smashing things. That’s a phenomenon that harks back to the 1960s, when protesters learned that even when extremist behavior generates bad press, it serves the purposes of the protest by making the event much more newsworthy.
This is the political equivalent to the oldest adage in advertising: ‘I don’t care what you say about me, so long as you spell my name right.’ As the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach put it on Thursday: “Regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, a riot… is an effective method of generating coverage of a grievance. This story was on the front of the financial pages just a couple of days ago. Officially boring! If you march in an orderly line, you’re always going to be in the back of the news queue.’ But this is more than a matter of redirecting the coverage. In the process, the media can’t help but legitimize new sources and viewpoints. At a conference where the news would have been funneled through prepared speeches and press secretaries, previously unknown protesters are getting their names on reporters’ Rolodexes. After years of treating Pat Buchanan as the unofficial spokesman for those disenchanted with free trade and international bureaucracies, the Post ran a front-page story on
Mike Dolan, the previously unheralded Washington-based organizer of the protests. And MSNBC gave Han Shan, the leader of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Ruckus Society, over an hour of airtime on Thursday to defend the protesters’ nonviolent intent. Finally, the WTO protesters have attracted some very high-level support for their cause. Though President Clinton condemned the vandalism and violence practiced by some of the demonstrators, he also met with the protesters and conceded that they are raising legitimate questions that “(pro-WTO world leaders) ought to be prepared to answer.” Indeed, one thing we learned from the 1960s is that protests are most effective in settings where the participants can expect at least some sympathy. Anti-war protests and civil-rights demonstrations broke out at big elite liberal universities like Berkeley, Columbia and Harvard, where the faculties and student bodies provided sympathetic sound bites. Even during the notorious 1968 ‘police riot’ in Chicago, the demonstrators in the streets carried their message through articulate allies on the floor of the Democratic National Convention.
Political protest is about making people who never thought much about your issue aware of it, forcing potential allies to take up your cause when they might not otherwise, and pressuring public officials to go on the record rather than following their natural inclination to avoid controversy. Making news is crucial to attaining all of these goals. So the potpourri of WTO protesters accomplished as much as they could have hoped for. They likely didn’t expect either an outpouring of sympathetic news coverage or a massive change in public opinion. But they’ve taken a big first step toward shattering the establishment consensus on international cooperation for free trade to the exclusion of competing social concerns.
If such a dramatic change in public opinion and policy still seems an unlikely outcome, just remember – it’s happened before.
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