Prime Time for Peaceniks?

Many peace activists complain about the poor coverage that disarmament issues receive in the mainstream media, charging the media with bias. The better we learn to use the media, the less we will complain.

By Peter A. Bruck | 1986-06-01 12:00:00

It is the end of January 1986 and the space shuttle Challenger has just exploded on its way into orbit. Our PM has called it a "monumental tragedy" and our networks have been paying homage to the seven dead astronauts with day long news specials, pre-empted programming, special reports and newscasts. What an opportunity the media had to connect the failure of the space program with the claims of Star Wars!

Instead, by the end of the week the Canadian broadcasters turned themselves into Ronald Reagan's evangelical networks. This is not a farflung judgment. The CBC ended its nightly current affairs package with a special rebroadcast of Reagan's address at the memorial ceremonies at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston (almost ten minutes long). The CTV national news concluded with the same footage but could not resist editing in, for special effect, the last shots of the waving astronauts (especially Christa McAuliffe) and the take-off of the shuttle.

Barbara Frum and the Journal crew displayed their taste and news judgment with the following intro: "In times of crisis politicians become ministers to their nation, leading the mourning of their people...." and "as he has done three months ago at the service for the soldiers killed in the Gander crash, Ronald Reagan eulogized the killed in very personal ways, and then, as he does so well, threw out a challenge to his nation."

The Space Shuttle Challenges Star Wars

This last week of January '86 was also the time of the publication of US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's defense directives from late December '85. In them he placed Star Wars at the top of the Pentagon's priority list, thus rescuing all Strategic Defence Initiative programs from being affected by any of the upcoming budget cuts.

None of the newscasts established the relationship between the Challenger, and the thus dramatically proven fallibility of the most sophisticated and controlled space program, and Star Wars, a much more experimental and much less controllable space venture. The death of the seven astronauts proves the limitation of the most tested and hitherto most successful space program. Reagan acknowledged that, but talked about the price of progress and the pain of adventure. None of the TV-newspeople made the connection with Star Wars and the vastly higher price we will have to pay for the continued arms race and the statistically calculable probability of a "major malfunction" in the missile shield.

This is just one example of how the media operates, and if the peace movement wants to get on prime time, there are lessons to be learned. Depending on what we do, the established news media can work for or against us. They are part of the establishment and thus exercise considerable control over the form and boundaries of public information and debate. This excludes a lot of what peace groups and activists would like to talk about, and reshapes the way we can articulate many issues. As I have shown in the beginning, this works also via the exclusion of topics and the refusal to make "obvious" connections, e.g. between the space shuttle blow-up and the asserted abilities of a Star Wars defensive shield.

Mothers Foil RCMP?

On Mother's Day, three years ago, 3000 or 4000 people demonstrated on Parliament Hill. They had come from Montréal, Kingston, Toronto and other places to claim peace as a motherhood issue. They gathered mid-morning at a nearby park and then marched to Parliament Hill for the rally. There were seven or eight speeches and a lot of music and singing. The headline in the following day's Ottawa Citizen was "women's 'peace chain' foils RCMP."

The lead paragraph read "Participants in a Mother's Day peace rally slipped past the RCMP and clasped hands to form a human chain around the Centre Block Sunday, despite the Mounties' refusal last week to grant a permit." The entire front-page story was constructed around the fact that the demonstrators had contravened an RCMP order.

Bias complaints usually centre around the issues that the news media (a) do not give enough coverage to disarmament and the peace movement; and (b) when they do, the coverage is unfavorable. This critique, it seems, can hypothetically be satisfied with more and 'better' reporting on the issue and the movement. I want to show that the drive for more and better coverage is not the solution. Furthermore, we need a much more differentiating understanding of the operation and efficacity of the news media if we wish to make them work more for what we want.

What we need to be concerned with is not so much news coverage or how to get it, but we need to understand how the media structure the peace movement and the public conception of the question of disarmament. The news media operate in specific and determinable ways. These media dynamics "form" or shape the peace movement. This takes place on a number of levels and affects all aspects of the movement.

he most powerful structuring effect is probably the fact that the media elect spokespeople for the movement, and thus create hierarchies in the movement. Jim Stark from Operation Dismantle might have done many things right and some wrong, but he does not deserve all the resentment he has generated for allegedly having crowned himself the spokesman of the "Canadian Peace Movement." I would argue that he did not do it, nor could he have done it. He might have colluded with the media out of vanity and lack of political judgment, but mainly he was pushed onto the throne by the Ottawa based national news organizations.

Media-Elected Spokespersons

The media need hierarchies in order to be able to reduce a complex issue or event into a simple story. They require someone whom they can quote as an authoritative source in order to produce "objective reporting." Objectivity is the product of this deliberate strategy. Getting the right source is drilled into every journalist from the first reporting class on. In the routine of daily reporting, journalists soon learn to rely on bureaucratic support systems as sources. A spokesperson who cannot be reached and/or has no office will not be elected to be the "national" leader of a social movement. Operation Dismantle has an office, and Stark kept his hours, i.e. he was accessible. Operating an office to "business hours" permits reliability of access, which is critical for a reporter working under the pressure of tight deadlines.

Next in importance to reliability in access is the validity of the statements made to reporters (Stark's comments were generally "correct," for the purposes of the reporters). If validity is combined with a modicum of national representativeness, i.e. the woman speaking can claim to do so in the name of people from all parts of the country, a spokesperson is all but elected. If the internal structure of the organization shows him or her to be a president, all the better (Operation Dismantle could do both). Jim Stark as spokesperson of the Canadian peace movement is thus a media production, or better, the result of a number of distinct operating dynamics of the routine reporting work journalists have to do in order to perform their jobs within the established media industry.

The phenomenon of a national-spokesperson must not be seen as all bad. But it turns quickly sour when the "spokespersons" start to believe in it, and fantasize that they occupy this position on their own merit, and even believe the image that the media have created.

The national spokesperson phenomenon can, however, benefit a social movement in a situation when it first seeks public attention. Media researchers like Gaye Tuchman have shown how the recognition of the women's movement in the early sixties came only when it found a skilled spokesperson in Betty Friedan. Friedan had not been a leader in the movement before. But her media relations skills and oratory made her the person to be selected as movement-spokesperson. Many people have argued that this has contributed greatly to the fast rise of the women's movement in the late sixties.

It remains to be considered what the political and organizational costs are for a social movement. The creation of elites within the movement and its general "mainstreaming," i.e. the integration of the movement into the range of social acceptability are not to be taken lightly. But they must be discussed in political terms--not, in my opinion, in terms of accusations against individuals or complaints about the media. Clearly, this does not mean that we should not put pressure on journalists and media organizations. That is a necessary part of our struggle.

hese points can be made clearer if we discuss a couple of other media dynamics like event-orientation and sensationalism, which are among those that are most often decried by peace activists. The above example of the coverage of the Mother's Day demonstration is a good example of how these operating dynamics work against the peace movement "getting its message across." The Ottawa paper, The Citizen, did not report any of the political intent of the demonstration or the contents of the speeches. Rather, it reduced everything that happened to the foiling of the police. The paper thus constructs the story in the sensationalist terms of a confrontation between the women demonstrators and the policemen, i.e. of two discernable and concrete actors, and the events which took place between them. The issue of disarmament fell by the wayside. The fact that the women succeeded in circumventing the police measures through a quick and shrewd move brings out the sensational flavour which news in the established media need. Reporting the unexpected and new, i.e. the event, takes precedence over the discussion of the issue.

Learning from Greenpeace

Greenpeace is a group which exploits this media dynamic most effectively. It has recognized that the skill and creativity of staging an event is more important than getting a broad democratic consensus before an action. The staging is designed to produce events entirely designed for the media, i.e. accounting for all of the established operating dynamics. The world-wide success Greenpeace enjoys thanks to this tactic supports my thesis that complaints of media-bias are generally misplaced. Rather, I would argue that we have to move toward a political discussion of the way the media structure our relationships in the peace movement, and how we wish to deal with that.

But these mainstream media allow also for issue oriented actions to be publicized. They even need these actions in order to be able to do their job, i.e. fill TV shows and pages. In this way they are conduits for social movements to reach the larger public. If peace groups want a peace movement, then they have to work the mass media. Attention for the spectacular, single event can be had relatively easily. Less room is available for attacking the military-industrial complex.

The better we learn to use the media, the less we will complain about media bias. Supporting alternative media (e.g. Peace Magazine) is also part of the answer.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1986, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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