Sunday, August 29, 2004

# Posted 6:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HOW NOT TO COVER A PROTEST: It is very hard to cover a massive protest. The action is spread out over miles and miles of asphalt baking in the afternoon sun. I only spent only two hours with the marchers, but did my best to interview as many different people with as many different perspectives as possible.

What I can say with a good amount of confidence is that the stories already up in the NYT and WaPo give a very superficial and often misleading impression of what it was what like to be at today's protests.

The first thing wrong with these stories is their focus on the few inconsequential arrests and mishaps that took place. Many of the journalists I saw just seemed to be waiting for something to go wrong. Because things going wrong is news, whereas the actual ideas and policies favored by the protesters are supposedly boring.

During my second hour at the protest I marched with the lead contingent from United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). As the marchers advanced, a disorganized crowd of journalists, many of them with photo and video equipment, slowly retreated to make way for the protesters.

At one point, a small commotion broke out when the police escorted a protester away with his arms pinned behind his back. About a dozen officers moved in swiftly to make sure the commotion didn't spread. Then suddenly, dozens and dozens of journalists swarmed toward the knot of police officers like locusts from some biblical plague.

Shortly thereafter, a small group of rule-breaking protesters emerged around a block in front of the lead contingent and tried to march up 5th Avenue instead of down. Again, the police responded immediately and isolated the commotion. And again, journalists swarmed around the police, hoping to discover some news.

If I were a protester, I'd probably feel that the NYT and WaPo did the marchers a disservice by failing to recognize just how orderly and peaceful the protest was and how the organizers successfully defused the most important potential conflict of the day, i.e. the disappointed hope that the protest march would culminate with a massive rally in Central Park.

One important detail that I certainly would've included in a newspaper account was that the police came out in force to ensure that the protesters didn't wander off the official route and try to head for Central Park. At each intersection on 34th St. -- the northenmost point of the march -- dozens of police stood ready behind metal barriers to prevent the protesters from changing their route. Similar blockades were set up across 34th St. at the edges of the parade route to ensure that no one tried to pull an end run, get around the cops, and head for the Park (which begins on 59th).

Fortunately, no one that I saw tried to challenge the police and head for the Park. I think the absence of conflict reflects well on the organizers, who announced again and again that marchers must follow the official route.

Now, if I didn't like the protesters, I would tell you that the NYT and WaPo did them a tremendous favor by downplaying the degree to which they represented the leftmost edge of the American political spectrum. I've posted before about what UFPJ stands for, so I won't repeat myself. Suffice it to say that neither the Times nor the Post tells you anything about UFPJ's history or what it stands for.

The big papers also fail to convey how the protest resembled a carnival of the absurd, with every obscure leftist faction in attendance. For example, there were hundreds of big red signs provided by a coven of conspiracy theorists who insist that Bush had advance warning of 9-11. If I had bigger pockets, I could've collected at least half-a-dozen different socialist and communist newspapers and newsletters.

If you read the NYT or the WaPo, you get the impression that the protest was filled with reasonable people who just don't like George Bush. All of the (wo)man-in-the-street interviews in both papers are with soothingly moderate and even humorous people. "Bring the troops home now" is the most radical sentiment you'll find in the NYT.

So there you have it. The big papers managed to be unfair to both sides while failing to provide critical information. Let's hope things get better from here.
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