A media blackout on Winter Soldier

April 4, 2008

WINTER SOLDIER: Iraq and Afghanistan, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), brought antiwar veterans and active-duty soldiers to Washington, D.C., to give firsthand accounts of the death and destruction wrought by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the hundreds of soldiers present, and an audience of several hundred more who gathered to hear their testimony, the U.S. corporate media chose to ignore the event, even as people across the country discussed the war in Iraq on the eve of its fifth anniversary.

The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted that the BBC predicted beforehand that Winter Soldier "could be dominating headlines around the world this week," and several international media outlets did cover it.

But in the U.S., the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune didn't even send a reporter. By contrast, the New York Times devoted five reporters and dozens of stories to covering the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, that same weekend.

The Washington Post covered the event as a local interest story. The major television and cable networks ignored Winter Soldier entirely.

On the other hand, when six antiwar activists disrupted Easter Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral with a stunt that involved squirting fake blood on themselves, it got front-page coverage in the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times was one of many other papers that found space to report on the boneheaded action targeting the Catholic Church, which has opposed the war since before it began--as well as the authorities' disproportionately harsh punishment of the activists, with bonds as high as $35,000.

Why did Winter Soldier fail to break into the mainstream media, despite the IVAW's carefully crafted media strategy, while the unrepresentative actions of a few antiwar opponents grabbed headlines?

Because in the absence of some other social pressure, the corporate media reflect the world view and assumptions of the ruling establishment.

Editors assign coverage and reporters write articles that conform to pre-existing ideas about what makes something "news." Stories that don't fit in, like veterans opposing war, are ignored or vilified, while actions that provide an opportunity to promote the stereotype of protesters as belligerent fanatics get the spotlight.

Getting the media to pay attention to something beyond these pre-existing story lines requires more than a savvy media strategy. The antiwar movement won't change this situation by adopting the spin techniques of powerful corporations and politicians.

Grassroots activism and ongoing movement organization are necessary to remake public consciousness of the protests of the antiwar movement--and the media's representations of them. There is no shortcut to good media coverage that doesn't require the patient work of building a vibrant, mass antiwar movement.

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