MEDIA WATCH: DC protesters weakened by mixed messages and identity crises

Late last month, police in Washington, DC braced for as many as 20,000 protesters who were expected to gather in opposition to the annual meeting between the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In light of the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa, Italy in recent years, the protesters' stated goal to shut down Washington, DC was taken seriously.

Late last month, police in Washington, DC braced for as many as 20,000 protesters who were expected to gather in opposition to the annual meeting between the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In light of the tens of thousands of protesters who gathered in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa, Italy in recent years, the protesters' stated goal to shut down Washington, DC was taken seriously.

Media Watch investigated how well - or how poorly - the activists conveyed their message during the several days of protests. In analyzing the coverage, one of the protesters' most fundamental problems was that they were most often identified by what they opposed (anti-globalization, anti-capitalists, anti-war, and anti-AIDS, for example). Little explanation was given for the reasons to their opposition, and there was even less discussion on what they advocated as an alternative policy.

Furthermore, as CNN observed (September 27), rather than leveraging their numbers to speak with one voice, the protesters were actually a "hodgepodge of organizations with different concerns. They're all using this [the Washington gathering] as their platform." Granted, these various platforms are not mutually exclusive and are somewhat related, but the expression of so many messages appeared to dilute their effectiveness.

Protesters were most often labeled as anti-capitalists who oppose the corporate greed that the country has witnessed over the past year as the various corporate scandals have come to light.

But there were also indications that although the original plan had been to protest the policies of both the World Bank and the IMF, "fears of a US-led war with Iraq became the focus of many of the marches and sit-ins" (Kansas City Star, September 28).

Opposition to World Bank and IMF policies, which was supposed to be the primary purpose for the gathering, was only the third most-frequently cited platform of the protesters. The reason most often noted for their opposition was their belief that current fiscal policies impoverish developing countries rather than help them. It was interesting to see that coverage more often reported on the arrests of protesters than the protesters' agenda.

As for the protest itself, the media was nearly unanimous in stating that there were far fewer protesters than expected. Coverage indicated police estimates of the crowd were between 3,000-5,000. Given the shortage of protesters and the deployment of a heavy police force, it was perhaps no surprise that the media often reported that the protesters fell far short of their goal of shutting down the city.

A number of stories suggested that the mood for protesting had dissipated since 9/11 and that the protest/activist movement is ebbing in popularity. USA Today (September 27) reported there to be little cohesion among the various groups at the Washington rally: "The alliance of activists - leftists, environmentalists, feminists, peaceniks, anarchists, animal-rights supporters, peasant advocates, and countless others - is strained by differences over targets, tactics, and agendas."

Even with the smaller showing and the widespread suggestions that their fractured group did not achieve its goal of shutting down the city, a number of articles quoted protesters as being pleased with the rally and calling it a success. However, coverage of the protests suggested that there was room for improvement in how the protesters organized their messaging.

  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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