Did we get the story right? Last week I sat on a panel cosponsored by the Seattle Weekly and KPLU Radio on WTO and the media, which attempted to answer that question. It was the first installment of an utterly necessary discussion: How did we in the media handle what may well have been the most important (from a global perspective) local story in Seattle's history?
The 150 or so almost entirely anti-WTO folks who came to Town Hall for the panel had plenty of criticisms. So did the panelists themselves. The self-criticisms were revealing: Panelists felt that we dropped the ball on giving fair coverage to the enormous labor march on Tuesday, November 30, and on covering the International Forum for Globalization's big (and electrifying) teach-in at Benaroya Hall the preceding Friday through Sunday as well as the many other resource-rich teach-ins, conferences, and workshops held throughout the WTO week. Protesters on the street were generally not interviewed, even as TV stations had hordes of reporters in the field. "Substantive" coverage of the WTO itself, and of protesters' critiques, was set aside in favor of the more riveting street action. And local media has yet to convey the sense of euphoria that flowed through the streets as disparate protester constituencies realized their power on November 30, discovering that in coming together they had, in fact, at least temporarily shut down the WTO. One audience member derided the ubiquitous TV anchor calls for the city to "heal" with the implication of a citywide consensus that the protests were an awful experience: "I don't need to heal. I feel pretty damned good about what happened."
Local reporting wasn't all bad. Some of it, I think, was quite good. Lost in the forum's criticisms was the reality that the local news was quite a bit better and more nuanced than what the rest of the country was getting. In a way, that's not surprising: The local folks had months to bone up on both the WTO and the planned protests. For the Dan Rather types, it was just another story. But the excesses of national media were also found locally: the focus on violent, confrontational footage, the myth that police only started deploying tear gas and pepper spray in response to "violent" protests, the lack of attention paid to the WTO itself. How many times do we have to see that same window smashed or that poor guy get kicked in the groin? Such images have already become lazy media shorthand for summarizing an extraordinarily complex week.
Ominous future for protests
Lisa Cohen, KING-5's executive producer in charge of special projects, headed that station's WTO coverage and also appeared on last week's panel. She did an admirable job handling the considerable heat directed at her as TV's sole representative. Nonetheless, television's reliance on graphic footage has some ominous political implications: Seattle may have marked the end of peaceful civil protest in the US. Certainly we learned that the best way for a fringe political group to get access to the airwaves—not for just the issue at hand but its entire political agenda—is to break a few windows. Last week, sure enough, 60 Minutes was down in Eugene interviewing anarchists, and the WTO was barely mentioned. How does the need to show breaking news balance with civic responsibility? KOMO's attempt ahead of time to censor "illegal" protests met with justifiable derision, but it's a real issue.
And speaking of access, how do ordinary people get access to, or even respond to, the media? As an audience member noted, TV has no "letters to the editor" section, and such features are even limited by space constraints (and editorial biases) in print publications. One answer—and an answer also to the increasing domination of media by a few wealthy corporations—is to start our own media. One of the most significant developments of the WTO week was the emergence of alternative media feeds. The two anti-WTO media centers at Town Hall, plus the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org) on 3rd Avenue, uploaded and fed video, audio, and print images of the events in Seattle around the world, providing an alternative to the usual corporate monopoly on information and the biases that brings. The Indy Media Center is hoping to continue as an institution in Seattle media—judging from its work during WTO week, that would be a wonderful legacy indeed.
At least as important as reporting during the WTO week is the subsequent reporting, and that's also had its flaws—in many ways, the received wisdom has gotten worse. The daily newspapers' tendency to refer to "five days of battles in the streets" with "police responding to violent demonstrators" simply isn't true; the actual confrontations only took place on two days, and—once again—the vast majority of protesters were peaceful. The desire to "heal" is a not-so-subtle way of denouncing the very real anger still felt by many, particularly around the issues of out-of-control cops and political leaders (like Paul Schell) missing in action as their flawed plans unraveled. That bias can have a very real influence on the local political fallout from WTO, which will by any reckoning be substantial.
Like the two marathon City Council hearings, the crowd at Town Hall was not especially balanced and wasn't very inclined to listen when panelists like the P-I's Bruce Ramsey and KPLU's Steve Krueger tried to voice skeptical opinions. (Note to First Amendment advocates critical of the "no-protest zone": It's bad form to shout down your opponents.) The crowd got sidetracked at times in potentially endless discussions of whether window-breaking should be called "violent" and whether it's fair to refer to self-proclaimed anarchists as "anarchists." Nonetheless, local media needs to be held accountable for its WTO actions just as surely as do the local politicians. Last week was a tiny, and welcome, first step.