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Newspapers Smear Activists Ahead of WEF Protests

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

NYC Newspapers Smear Activists Ahead of WEF Protests

January 28, 2002

In a few days, the World Economic Forum will hold its annual meeting, an elite gathering of what the WEF calls the world’s “top decision-makers”-- in other words, big business leaders and government officials. The event usually takes place in Davos, Switzerland, but will be in New York City this year (January 31- February 4), ostensibly as a gesture of solidarity after the September 11 attacks.

Many globalization critics identify the WEF as a nerve center for neoliberal economics, and past WEF meetings have been the focus of significant protest. This year’s meeting promises to be no exception, and local media are serving up some of the same distortions that have greeted past globalization protests.

Mainstream New York City newspapers have tended to frame discussion of the demonstrations in terms of their status as a security problem. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database (12/1/01 - 1/28/02) found that most articles in the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times and Newsday mentioning the WEF have focused on police preparations for the protests. As a result, the political debate over the WEF has been obscured, as have concerns about police brutality and civil liberties.

Though the New York Times and Newsday didn’t manage to overcome this skew toward security questions, it should be noted that both papers provided more substantive coverage that did the Post and the News. Commendably, Newsday steered clear of the vitriol that has characterized some of its competitors. One recent Newsday article, “Activists: We Come in Peace” (1/25/02), focused on the protest organizers’ endorsement of non-violence and concerns about potential police brutality; another (1/27/02) attempted a serious overview of recent political controversies over globalization.

Contrast this approach to one particularly vicious editorial from the New York Daily News (1/13/02), which referred to anti-WEF activists as “legions of agitators,” “crazies,” “parasites” and “kooks.” The paper threatened activists, saying “You have a right to free speech, but try to disrupt this town, and you'll get your anti-globalization butts kicked. Capish?”

The Daily News compared critics of the WEF to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. “New York will not be terrorized,” declared the paper. “We already know what that's like. Chant your slogans. Carry your banners. Wear your gas masks. Just don't test our patience. Because we no longer have any.”

It’s hard to read such rhetoric as anything other than an attempt to manipulate New Yorkers’ legitimate anger and grief over September 11 in order to whip up a backlash against dissent. Unfortunately, the Daily News wasn’t the only New York paper to attack activists in these terms. Much WEF coverage has been dominated not by serious reporting, but by unsubstantiated commentaries that portray activists as violent thugs.

New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman (1/19/02) described globalization activists as people “less known for their deep thinking than for their willingness to trash cities,” saying “some would say that New York needs this [protest] about as much as it needs another airplane attack.”

In an account of an extremely friendly interview “over a light beer at Lanagan’s” with former New York City deputy police chief John Timoney, the New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy (1/18/02) asserted that planned protests are “a potentially scary scene, promised by little nasty twits.” The column was titled “Econ Summit Brings Own Terror Threat.”

“There are some very serious bad guys out there,” Timoney told the Post, “and I am not talking about Osama bin Laden. We are talking about pretty sophisticated bad guys.” Though Timoney seemed to be making the outlandish suggestion that globalization activists are as dangerous as international terrorists, Dunleavy relayed the claim uncritically, following up with a tough-guy endorsement of Timoney’s prowess: “Timoney, like most cops, has been beaten and shot at by punks all his life.”

The ease with which commentators equate activists with terrorists has its roots in the mainstream media’s rewriting of the history of U.S. globalization protests. Recent articles about the WEF have referred to previous, overwhelmingly peaceful globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Philadelphia as “window-smashing, flame-tossing spectacles” (Daily News, 1/24/02), “violent mayhem” (New York Post, 1/20/02), “radical protesters rampag[ing] through the streets… clashing with police” (Daily News, 1/18/02), “wild protest melees” (New York Times, 1/25/02), and, simply, “violent” (Newsday, 1/18/02).

It’s true that violence has been a problem at globalization protests, but the majority of it has been initiated by police, not protesters. The November 1999 WTO protests in Seattle were characterized by unprovoked tear-gassing, beating and unlawful arrests of peaceful demonstrators (and even of bystanders), and a National Lawyers Guild investigation characterized the Seattle violence as a “police riot.” The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed alarm over police abuses at globalization protests, and in more than one case filed suit against law enforcement authorities over the issue. Yet time and again, media have distorted events to suggest that police force was a necessary response to “violent” activists. (See Extra!, 1-2/00 and 7-8/00.)

When coverage is dominated by news and commentary that presents lawful political assembly as a terrorist threat-- a threat that the police “know what they have to do” to deal with (New York Post, 1/18/02)-- it has a chilling effect on dissent, raises tensions between police and the public, and risks creating a climate where law enforcement agencies feel able to exercise force against demonstrators with impunity.

For independent coverage of WEF issues and protests, visit the New York City Independent Media Center:

For links to protest organizers, visit the Mobilization for Global Justice:

© Scoop Media

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