WTO: Prattle in Seattle
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 7 Dec 99 16:46:09 -0800
Subject: WTO: Prattle in Seattle
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From: FAIR-L <FAIR-L@FAIR.org>
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and news reports
WTO Coverage: Prattle in Seattle
December 7, 1999
As an estimated 50,000 protesters rallied in Seattle to shut down the
opening conference of the World Trade Organization meeting last week,
mainstream media treated protesters' concerns with indifference and often
contempt. That hostility translated into slanted coverage of both the
demonstrations and the police reaction.
In mainstream reports, "anti-trade" became a common--though wildly
inaccurate--label for the demonstrators. "A guerrilla army of anti-trade
activists took control of downtown Seattle today," a Washington Post article
(12/1/99) began. ABC News reporter John Cochran (11/30/99) said Seattle had
become a "home for protests against world trade." ABC anchor Jack Ford
(12/1/99) pitted the demonstrators against the city hosting them: "No
American city exports as much, President Clinton was happy to point out
today, which helps explain why a good many people in Seattle are angry--at
the protesters and their very anti-trade message."
Even coverage that did attempt to describe the protesters' goals dealt with
them in only the vaguest terms--and often at a level of generalization that
rendered the descriptions inaccurate or meaningless. An ABC News story by
correspondent Deborah Wang in Seattle failed to address the activists'
concerns with anything more than platitudes:
"They are fighting for essentially the same issues they campaigned against
in the '60's. Corporations, which they say are still exploiting workers in
the Third World. Agribusiness is still putting small farmers out of work.
Mining companies, still displacing peasants from the land.... But what is
different is that, for these protesters, this single organization, the WTO
has come to symbolize about all that is wrong in the modern world."
More helpful than such generalities would have been a summary of some of
the protesters' specific complaints: that the WTO has issued rulings forcing
member countries to repeal specific laws that protect public health and the
environment; that it proposes new rules limiting countries' freedom to
regulate foreign corporate investors; and that its decisions are made in
secret by an unaccountable tribunal.
The lack of understanding of the demonstrators' concerns was unsurprising,
given how seldom the media spoke with them. When the police first started
using tear gas against street blockades, CNN reporter Katherine Barrett
(11/30/99) turned for comment to Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National
Association of Manufacturers. Jasinowski confessed that he was "struck by
how loopy some of the protesters were" and observed that they were "shouting
a lot of crazy different messages."
Perhaps the single WTO opponent who received the largest amount of time on
CNN to expound his views was Pat Buchanan, who was interviewed, one-on-one
and at length, by Inside Politics anchor Judy Woodruff (11/30/99). Though
right-wing nationalists appeared to make up--at most--an infinitesimal
fraction of the actual protesters in Seattle's streets, the media seemed to
anoint Buchanan as a major leader of the anti-WTO movement. New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman wrote (12/1/99) that "knaves like Pat Buchanan"
had "duped" the demonstrators--"a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates,
protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix"--into
protesting the WTO.
"What's driving [the protests]?" CNN political analyst Bill Schneider asked
on Inside Politics (11/30/99). "Resentment of big business for its
irresponsible behavior, a resentment shared by the left"--followed by a
soundbite of AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney--"and the right"--followed by a
soundbite of Pat Buchanan. This type of right/left "evenhandedness"
concerning the protests did not appear to be justified by the actual
composition of the anti-WTO movement.
Media outlets seemed unconcerned by Buchanan's less-than-sterling record as
an advocate for labor. As co-host of CNN's Crossfire (7/3/91), Buchanan once
grilled public-sector union leader Gerald McEntee--one of the labor
officials present at the Seattle demos--on "the suicidal impulses of
"A lot of the jobs now have disappeared-they're gone. One reason, one
complaint, is the pay of the United Auto Workers and the benefits.... Aren't
you fellows committing suicide by yourselves?"
Perhaps mainstream news outlets' confusion concerning the protesters' goals
contributed to their often skewed coverage of the behavior of the Seattle
police and National Guard. A continuing theme in news reports was that the
use of tear gas and concussion grenades was an appropriate response to
CBS News anchor Dan Rather reported (12/1/99) that "the meeting of the World
Trade Organization was thrown into turmoil by violent demonstrations that
went on into last night. That brought on today's crackdown." A CNN report
from Seattle (12/1/99) claimed that "as tens of thousands marched through
downtown Seattle, [a] small group of self-described anarchists smashed
windows and vandalized stores. Police responded with rubber bullets and
But the sequence of events described in these reports was wrong. As
Detective Randy Huserik, a spokesman for the Seattle police, confirmed,
pepper spray had first been used against protesters engaged in peaceful
civil disobedience. CNN anchor Lou Waters asked Huserik (11/30/99) why the
gas was used:
Waters: How would you characterize the nature of the threat today? Were
police assaulted? Is that what precipitated this?
Huserik: Well, a rather large group of protesters...were determined to
continue blocking public entrance and exit in access of some of the various
venue sites. They were given a lawful order to disperse, which was ignored.
Officers then announced that the Seattle police officers would deploy pepper
spray if the crowd did not disperse. For those that remained, the pepper
spray was deployed in order to disperse that crowd.
One eyewitness, nonviolence trainer Matt Guynn, distributed the following
account of police brutality over the Internet:
"In one scene I witnessed this morning (at 8th Ave and Seneca), police who
had been standing behind a blockade line began marching in lock-step toward
the line, swinging their batons forward, and when they reached the line they
began striking the (nonviolent, seated) protestors repeatedly in the back.
Then they ripped off the protestors' gas masks, and sprayed pepper spray at
point-blank range into their eyes repeatedly. After spraying, they rubbed
the protestors' eyes and pushed their fingers around on their lips to
aggravate the effect of the spray. And after all THIS, they began striking
them again with batons.... The police then were able to break up the line,
and the protestors retreated to the steps of a nearby church for medical
The lack of condemnation of police tactics--especially their tear-gassing
and pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters--was a striking feature of the
coverage. "Thanks for joining us and good luck to you out there," CNN anchor
Lou Waters told a Seattle police spokesperson (12/1/99) as police continued
their crackdown on demonstrators. A front-page Los Angeles Times article on
the protests (12/2/99) featured a subhead that read "Police Commended for
Restraint." Yet the only source cited by the Times was Seattle police chief
Norm Stamper, who praised the "professionalism, restraint and competence"
of his forces.
Contrast that with this account from Seattle physician Richard DeAndrea,
posted on the website Emperors-clothes.com :
"The police were using concussion grenades. They were... shooting tear gas
canisters directly at protesters' faces. They were using rubber bullets.
Some of the damage I saw from these rubber bullets took off part of a
person's jaw, smashed teeth... There are people who have been... treated
for plastic bullet wounds. Lots of tear gas injuries, lots of damage to
[the] cornea, lots of damage to the eyes and skin."
One of the few media accounts that conveyed the brutality of the Seattle
police was written by a local correspondent for the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer (12/2/99), who reported that "three Seattle police
officers slammed me to the pavement, handcuffed me and threw me into the
van. I was charged with failing to disperse even though I showed them
reporter's credentials and repeatedly said I was just covering a story."
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© 1999 Peter Langston