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Misleading From the Start
by Jared Israel (posted 12-10-99)
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On December 9, AP issued a news report about a stormy City Council meeting in Seattle. I read this AP dispatch quickly but it bothered me so I read it again, and then once more, carefully, and found what seemed to be a deliberate effort at misinformation. (Either deliberate or these guys got very lucky.)
Let's look at the AP piece together.
It begins with the following headline: "Seattle Police Actions Questioned"
Studies of how people read newspapers confirm what common sense suggests: if a group of people are given a newspaper, some will look at a particular headline and some won't; a smaller number will read the first paragraph of the article but no more; an even smaller number will read the second paragraph and so on, with more and more dropping away as they move toward the end.
Even for those who read the entire text, the headline has a big impact. It lingers in the imagination, suggesting a certain tone, coloring the story.
What about this particular headline: "Seattle police actions QUESTIONED"? (my capitals)
What does "QUESTIONED" suggest?
Don't we use the verb "to question" to administer a mild rebuke? For example, would you say, "I questioned the mugger's right to break my wife's jaw"? Would you say, "The policeman pulled off the non-violent protester's gas mask, sprayed pepper gas in his face at point-blank range and rubbed it into his eyes. I questioned his behavior"?
By saying police behavior is being "questioned", the headline sets a gentle tone. It suggests that people may be concerned but not terribly upset. I'm OK, you're OK, everybody's friends.
The first paragraph continues along these lines, creating a gentle ambiance:
"DETRACTORS far outnumbered defenders of police at a special City Council meeting on the handling of protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meeting." (My capitals.)
"Detractors" and "Defenders" - nice, very balanced. What's a detractor, by the way? Isn't a detractor a gentle critic?
For example, mightn't one say: "Her detractors commented that she was too old for that outfit." But mightn't one be viewed askance (perhaps even questioned) if one said: "Charles Manson's detractors thought he should have been executed."
HUH? DID SOMEBODY GOOF?
People generally read news stories to satisfy their curiosity. But what is left to wonder after this first paragraph? Doesn't it suggest that nothing much happened at the City Council?
It does. The suggestion is false. Reading on, we are informed that:
"Kathy Cado, alarmed that her husband had been tear-gassed on his way home from work, told the hearing she ventured to the city's embattled Capitol Hill neighborhood last week to witness for herself the clash between protesters and police.
"'What I saw was as frightening as anything I've ever seen in my life,'" Cado said. "It was a cross between Star Wars and Tiananmen Square."
"At the hearing that drew an overflow crowd Wednesday, Cado and others described police officers indiscriminately tossing tear gas canisters at not only the demonstrators they were trying to disperse, but also at residents out shopping, dining and walking their dogs...
"Speakers particularly took police to task for their actions the night of Dec. 1 in the Capitol Hill neighborhood east of downtown - first for forcing demonstrators in that direction from downtown, and then taking aggressive actions that included firing tear gas and pepper spray.
"'I basically think they were treating residents of Capitol Hill like animals,' said Clark Pickett." (AP dispatch)
"As frightening as anything I've ever seen in my life" - ?!
Would you describe Cathy Cado's remarks as "questioning" the police? Is Clark Picket a "detractor"? What's going on here? Is the AP scrambling stories? Mix and match? Did they take the headline and first paragraph from the report on a ruckus over Christmas tree lights at a Seattle-area PTA and stick them on the City Council piece?
Let's do some editing, change a word here, a word there and voila, here's the headline and the first paragraph:
"Seattle Residents Denounce Police"
"Attackers far outnumbered defenders of police at a special City Council meeting on the handling of protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meeting."
Isn't that better? Doesn't it suggest what actually happened?
WATERING IT DOWN
By using the inaccurate opening, the AP sends busy readers away with impressions diluted. Remember, readers tend to skim news articles, not study them. They will recall the mild tone of the headline and opening paragraph; if they read further they may remember that some people were upset but that impression will be tempered by the first impression, of mild criticism. The contradictory impressions will tend to cancel.
EVERYBODY NEEDS SOME GUIDANCE SOMETIMES
As if to further dilute readers' awareness that Seattle residents are furious at police, the AP (writer? editor?) has inserted the following sentence in the text:
"The National Guard was called in and a curfew was imposed AFTER some protesters smashed windows and slashed tires on police cars." (my capitals)
I call this "Editorial Guidance". It's often found in important news stories. I've written a lot about NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and occupation of Kosovo and I have seen a good deal of "editorial guidance" in newspaper articles about Serbia, wherein some accusation of Serbian brutality is mandatory, especially if the article concerns Albanian violence against Serbs and "Gypsies"; some guiding phrase must be added to remind readers that such attacks are "revenge for earlier Serbian violence."
The point of "editorial guidance" is to orient readers for a proper information experience by protecting them from conclusions that might follow, helter skelter, from mere fact. For example, there are many news reports of Albanians murdering aged Serbian women, children, non-Serbs who speak languages that sound Serbian, and even one story reporting Albanian demands that a dog be put to death because it was (I kid you not) Serbian as opposed to Albanian(?!).
Now, presented with such raw info, an unguided mind might wander into inappropriate areas such as: "Maybe these Albanians are anti-Slav racists." The next thing you know our reader is mired in SPECULATION: "If the Serbs are all bad and the Albanians are all good and NATO bombed Yugoslavia to forge multiethnic peace - why, since NATO conqured Kosovo, has there been 5 months of unmitigated violence against Serbs?" This kind of thinking will get you nowhere since it calls into question the whole NATO experience; therefore stories about Albanian terrorism must include reminders that such mysterious attacks (such as, let us say, the strangling of a 95 year old Serbian woman in her bath or the driving of 30,000 residents from an immense housing complex in Pristina after which the apartments are sold or rented to UN employees) are "revenge for the brutal policies of Milosevich's forces during the NATO bombing." This makes everything clear and citizens of the Western democracies can eat their MacFood in peace and leave the thinking to machines.
The Seattle protesters have been getting a dose of the Serbian treatment: demonization through "editorial guidance." In their case, the guiding phrase is "police action which followed vandalism and looting by some protesters" - or words to that effect. This aids folks to a properly-seated view, like a gentle laxative: "The police may have been occasionally overzealous but stop whining at least they're out there risking their necks defending democratic values against marauding punks who got what they deserved try pulling that crap in some country where there ISN'T free speech!"
WHY AREN'T CITIZENS MAD AT THE PROTESTERS?
If the AP is right, if police were only responding to violent protesters "after some protesters smashed windows and slashed tires on police cars" then here is the $64 question: why aren't the local people mad at the protesters? The AP dispatch notes that:
"More than 100 people signed up to speak at the [City Council] meeting, which began at 4 p.m. and lasted until 11. Hundreds of people who couldn't fit in to the hearing room initially stood outside in the rain, and a speaker was hooked up to allow them to listen....THE CROWD APPEARED TO HEAVILY FAVOR THE DEMONSTRATORS (AP dispatch, our capitals.)
Having no source of information but the mass media, many regular folks outside Seattle believe the "the-police-were-only-responding" line. But what about the local Seattle people? These are regular folks too, that is, people with a variety of opinions concerning the WTO, people who have the MOST reason to be upset by the disruption of their city - why, as the AP reports, do these people "heavily favor the demonstrators?"
Indeed, isn't "heavily FAVOR the demonstrators" an AP evasion? Shouldn't that phrase be rewritten? Shouldn't the AP have said the local people are "heavily FURIOUS at the police?" Indeed, isn't this precisely what Seattle citizens were quoted saying in this same AP dispatch? That they were "treated like animals" by police; that police "indiscriminately" gassed people?
Somebody should tell the AP: This isn't a baseball game. The local people aren't "favoring" one side. The local people are rising up against what they saw being done to the protesters and what they experienced being done to themselves, by an outrageous abuse of police power.
The AP statement that police only acted after demonstrators attacked does not derive from the evidence presented in the AP story; rather it is presented to undermine the factual evidence.
WHAT WE SAW IN SEATTLE
The website I work on, www.emperors-clothes.com , had a reporter in Seattle. Jim Desyllas did not go there expecting a police attack. But when the police did attack, he observed them for almost two days.
He, and everyone else who was in downtown Seattle at the time, knows that the police started the violence.
Not only started it but continued to provoke it, brutalizing non-violent protesters and leaving the violent ones alone. Moreover, when the police had a group of about 100 people reliably throwing things, they herded this group around the city, providing plenty of photo-ops for the media.
"A number of times they had these 100 or so protesters caught between buildings and walls of police. They could easily have arrested and detained this small number of people and gotten it over with. Instead they would gas them and let them go. Then trap them again, gas them again, and again let them go...The police were using these people as extras. It was staged. I believe also the police had their own people in there, encouraging people to break stuff - if people think I may be exaggerating, I saw supposed protesters - they were screaming and so on - and then later, when everything was over, the same people tackled other protestors and put handcuffs on them." ("Collateral Damage in Seattle", See Note # 1 at end)
MISDESCRIBING A RESIGNATION
One last point about the AP dispatch. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has resigned. This is an interesting development, worth discussing. His obvious reason for resigning is that many Seattle residents blame him for last week's police brutality. In addition, some people have suggested that he may be resigning because the violence was actually orchestrated by Federal agents - FBI, CIA, Department of Defense - and that he (and other local Seattle pols) are being used as a fall guy. In other words, that his resignation is a kind of protest. Either way, his resignation is a response to the outcry against police brutality.
The AP mentions Stamper's resignation in the dispatch. Look how they handle it:
"In the wake of the disruption, Police Chief Norm Stamper announced his retirement this week." (Our emphasis)
"In the wake of the disruption"? This sentence would only make sense if Chief Stamper were resigning for failing to stop protesters from disrupting the city. In fact he's being criticized for using excessive violence, not for failing to prevent disruption.
Some people have said that the kind of police tactics used in Seattle are the greatest threat to democracy in our country. I look at it differently. I think the amazingly uniform duplicity of the media is the greatest threat to democracy. For how can people make decisions, how can they oppose police state tactics, if they are fed a diet of lies?
I believe that exposing the lies of the mass media is an act of love for this country and the whole planet. Only by knowing the truth can we be free.
Note # 1 - For Jim Desyllas' account of what he saw on the streets in Seattle, please click on Collateral Damage in Seattle or got to http://emperors-clothes.com/analysis/collater.htm
Note # 2 - www.emperors-clothes.com has a number of articles that deal with media distortion. Three writers who focus on this question are Diana Johnstone, Jared Israel and Phil Hammond. To read their writing, click on Articles by Author or go to http://emperors-clothes.com/artbyauth.html and then click on either J, I or H. (Some of Diana's and Jared's articles aren't yet posted in this section, but there's plenty on the topic.)
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