The media’s double-standard for radical protests

This editorial was originally published in the May 29th, 2014 issue of the Capitol Hill Times.

Last month’s anti-capitalist May Day march (not to be confused with the earlier, larger, legal El Comite march in support of labor and immigration reform) was predictably covered by most media outlets as a sort of spectacular nuisance. The AP’s Manuel Valdes framed police action as always a response to provocation by protesters: “Police said they used pepper spray after some marchers threw bottles at officers in downtown Seattle…Another arrest came after a brick was hurled at officers.” The Seattle PI’s Charlette Report was more blunt, decrying the “anarchist riots” and congratulating the “cool” Seattle police on becoming “the super heros (sic) on Capitol Hill” by showing “incredible reserve…in the face of alot (sic) of needless provocation.”

What’s frustrating about this and similar reportage is not that it criticize the protesters but that it criticizes nothing else. You might think that in covering an anti-capitalist march, journalists would spend a paragraph or two discussing what capitalism is (an economic system based on private property and backed by state force) and why someone might oppose it to the point of pepper spray and arrest (because it polarizes wealth at the expense of the public good). But for the vast majority of reporters, May Day’s marching ‘anarchists’—a term which apparently refers to anyone with a punk-rock dress code—were just generic hooligans out to cause a ruckus.

Compare this to February’s post-Super Bowl “celebrations,” which included bottles and rocks thrown at police, two shootings, and targeted assaults against Broncos fans by UW football players. (Before the Seahawks had even won, yours truly almost got dragged into a barfight when a Seattle fan took umbrage that my friend was texting instead of watching the game.) Pioneer Square alone suffered $25,000 of damage, and UW students burned furniture along Greek Row.

So when thousands of drunk people “flock to the streets” to punch, shoot, and burn their approval of contemporary Bread and Circuses, it’s a “celebration.” But when hundreds of sober activists march to demand a world where poverty is impossible, it’s a “riot.”

This is an absurd double standard which illustrates the media’s unconscious bias in favor of the status quo. Obviously reporters should pose hard questions to protesters engaged in any kind of civil disobedience, but they should also pose hard questions to those protesters’ targets. Questions like: why do some of our city’s residents sleep in penthouses and yachts while others sleep under bridges? Why do we allow police to defend the private-property rights of corporations even when their products are produced via human rights abuses? And why does our society’s model for production and distribution of resources compel the state legislature to bribe Boeing with the biggest tax break in history but not to adequately fund public education?

These are difficult questions for journalists to integrate into their work, because they deal with abstract dynamics rather than visceral human drama. But reporting on a political action by concentrating on the ‘action’ part and ignoring its political context is irresponsible and misleading. Seattle’s media can do better.

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