Martha Gies Street Roots, USA 12/14/07

Portland author Jules Boykoff sees dissent’s demise at the hands of big media

In November, A K Press published “Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States,” an important new book that shows us what we are up against if we hold dissenting political views. Author Jules Boykoff explores eight distinct techniques used by the U.S. government to suppress dissent, from direct violence and public prosecution to harder-to-detect and rarely acknowledged measures such as harassment, infiltration, surveillance and propaganda. A separate chapter is dedicated to each of these tactics, with historical examples, most of them since World War II.

Boykoff dedicates four more chapters to the role mass media plays in such suppression, looking at manipulation, what he calls bi-level demonization, deprecation and simple disregard.

The government’s methods of suppressing dissent – the murder of Black Panthers, say, or the illegal surveillance since 9/11 – eventually come under press scrutiny, even though it may take decades for the facts to come to light. But the press has been less disposed to analyze, criticize or, for that matter, even recognize its own role in the suppression of dissent.

Jules Boykoff, who lives in Portland and teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, was glad for the opportunity to speak with me, glad that Street Roots shares his alarm.

Martha Gies: Jules, for you, which were you aware of first — the role of government or the role of the press? And how did that awareness come about?

Jules Boykoff: Well, I regret to say that I was never taught in school that the government actively suppresses dissent or that the media have an ingrained tendency to cover political activists in negative ways, if they even bother to cover them at all. It wasn’t until later that I began to figure this out, that I began to get an education about my education, if you will. Once I got on that road, pretty quickly it became glaringly apparent that much of what I had been taught as U.S. history was really the managed vantage of the elite classes in our society.

Books that were important in my personal transformation include Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America,” Angela Davis’s “Women, Race, & Class,” and Michael Parenti’s “Democracy for the Few.”

Conversations with activists also helped raise my awareness. In the mid-1990s I was working at the Outside In drop-in center for homeless youths in Portland, and my partner, Kaia Sand, was writing for the Burnside Cadillac (forerunner to Street Roots), and we were both volunteering for Yellow Brick Road, a group that hands out medical supplies, referrals, and condoms to young people on the streets. During this time we engaged in what we thought was pretty creative activism, like handing out tickets for camping violations to people who had set out blankets the night before the Rose Parade to reserve their spots. But we got zero media coverage whatsoever. That was pretty eye-opening for me.

M.G.: Let’s take the press tactics one at a time. You argue, in Chapter 10, that the mass media have been subject to manipulation by government, both in the sense that branches of government implant stories and that they may go so far as to strong-arm journalists or threaten publishers. You talk about the tragic case of screen actress Jean Seberg, whom the FBI hounded with false press stories until they drove her to suicide. What is a current example of this tactic?

J.B.: This is one tactic from the FBI’s bag of tricks that usually takes years to bubble up to public awareness. After all, we often learn about this manipulation through whistleblowers who are afraid to speak out while the strongarming is going on, for fear of losing their jobs. That said, examples of the government manipulating media abound. For instance, just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, President Bush’s then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice cajoled ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox to massively edit videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden. She claimed this was necessary because his public statements might contain coded messages for al-Qaeda followers and sympathizers, including disaffected people in the U.S. Getting the media to impose a blackout – or at least a thick filter – using flimsier than flimsy evidence was ever-so-handy for the Bush administration, since it meant the media could essentially block out the words and ideas of one of its most trenchant critics. After all, if you cut through bin Laden’s abhorrent terrorist rhetoric, there’s actually a pretty cutting critique of U.S. foreign policy there.

Well what do you suppose the media said in response to this plea for silence? They practically fell over themselves seeing who could be most compliant. The president of CBS News found the censorship “appropriate” and a way of “fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.”

More recently, under pressure from the Bush administration, the New York Times sat for more than a year on the story that the National Security Agency was illegally spying on Americans though warrantless wiretaps on their telephones and e-mail accounts. I believe that we have the right to know about such blatant governmental misconduct and I don’t think the Bush administration’s “national security” rationale holds water. We deserve better.

M.G: So is the press being hoodwinked or lazy or both?

J.B.: Although I am super-critical of corporate journalism, I generally hesitate to call journalists lazy. More often, feeble media coverage emerges from journalistic biases towards novelty, drama, and personalities. In other words, “bad” reporting often emerges from “good” journalists following the rules they learned in school. So, inadequate, pro-government media coverage is usually less a conspiracy and more an accumulation of learned strategies carried out by reporters facing intense pressures in terms of both deadlines as well as the amount of space or airtime they are given by the boss. That’s part of the reason we continue to see immense deference to government authorities as official sources.

The overuse of anonymous sources is also an accepted part of the professional code, even though journalists don’t like it and don’t believe it makes for high-quality reporting. We need to remember, too, that under our current brand of capitalism – what some call neoliberalism or neoliberal capitalism – there’s the obsessive penchant for downsizing, which means that those journalists who are not fired when their company downsizes are asked to do more with less. They’re asked to cover more topics, many of which they have little or no familiarity with. This leads them to rely on crutches like official sources and pseudo-balance. So in my opinion, it’s less about laziness and more about on-the-job stress and submission to authority.

So there’s my “sympathy for journalism” moment! Seriously, though, it’s really disconcerting that time and time again, when it comes to the important issues of our day, the mainstream media keep getting it wrong. This just points to the need to continue to build alternative media venues where the truth can get out. That’s one reason why Street Roots is important, why the radio show Democracy Now! is important, why KBOO radio in Portland is important.

M.G: You write: “Bi-level demonization entails the state and mass media linking dissidents to a demonized group or individual from the international area, even if the activists are not working directly with or supporting the demonized external foe materially or ideologically.” Obviously, we saw the House Un-American Activities Committee practice this, as they desperately attempted to link American leftists to Communists in the Soviet Union back in the late 1940s early ’50s. Where do you see it at work today?

J.B.: Today, with the Cold War a thing of the past, activists are more likely to be dubbed terrorists. We see this with anti-war protesters in Oakland in April 2003 whom police pelted with so-called non-lethal weapons. In the aftermath of these violent attacks, Bay Area newspapers quoted a spokesperson from the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center who said that blocking a port, which the protesters were attempting to do, was terrorism because it was designed to have an economic impact. What kind of overbroad definition of terrorism is that? And what, you might ask yourself, was a representative of the Anti-Terrorism Information Center doing at a peaceful, non-violent anti-war protest?

Basically, in the post-9/11 era, “terrorism” has become a dead word that means whatever the government wants it to mean. Here in Oregon, environmentalists who burn down buildings and SUVs, without inflicting so much as a scratch on human beings, are being called the biggest domestic terrorist threat in our country. The government is handing these activists terrorist-enhanced sentences, which means their time in jail is extended simply because the government labeled them terrorists. All the while, the government is focusing its suppressive attention on political activists fighting for social change. The government’s tactic of labeling political activists terrorists has come to a head recently with the House of Representatives’ passage of a bill, called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which explicitly zeros in on people who are fighting for social and political change. This proposed law, which I hope the Senate has the good sense to stop in its tracks, is just the most recent example of how the government uses this time-honored tactic of bi-level demonization to squelch political activity it finds threatening.

M.G: You did a lot of original work in chapter 12, where you analyze 10 days of media coverage for both the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the April 2000 demonstrations in Washington state in protest of the World Bank and the IMF. Could you talk a little about your findings?

J.B.: Basically I tried to identify the main ways the media portrayed activists in those two intense episodes of boots-to-pavement dissent. I read the more than 350 news stories that emerged about the protests from the most influential mainstream media sources – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox. All the while I was trying to figure out what were the most common ways these media outlets portrayed dissident citizens. In the end, I found that the media tended to rely on five main themes or frames: the violence frame, the disruption frame, the ignorance frame, the freak frame, and the amalgam of grievances frame. By and large, activists were not depicted by the media as conscientious, courageous people taking to the streets to fight against an inherently unjust set of economic policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer and that condemn thousands and thousands of hard-working people to live on the global streets. Rather these activists were described as violent, anarchistic, window-smashing, counter-cultural thugs who were disrupting the lives of hard-working Americans. On top of that, all too often the media portrayed these activists as freakish people who were often ignorant about the supposedly overly wide range of causes they claimed to be fighting for. You can read the book for the specific statistics, but the bottom line is that activists not only got pummeled by the cops in the streets of Seattle, but they also got thumped pretty regularly by the stick of media degradation.

M.G.: Okay, last question: what’s worse, Jules, what we read in the newspapers or what we will never read there?

J.B.: In a lot of ways I think what we never read in the news is more devastating in the long term, because by not reporting dissent in all its gorgeous, innovative forms the media actually constrict possibility. Such media coverage stunts the social imagination. It blunts creativity.

When we start to feel that inkling of dejection, that our activism won’t actually make a difference, we’d do well to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” If we want deep social change that makes a more just, equitable world, we need to dig our collective heels in for the struggle. We need to draw from our history – ugly as it may be at times – as we chart our ethical, righteous future.

By Martha Gies

Reprinted from Street Roots

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