Wednesday, July 27, 2011

At least 1,400 arrests for antiwar dissent, but who’s counting? Not the press.

The national news media almost totally ignore homefront protests of the Afghanistan war, killer drones, torture, and more, regardless of their newsworthiness. By its lack of coverage, isn’t the press thus helping perpetuate an endless war?

Part of a Nieman Watchdog series, 'Reporting the Endgame'

By John Hanrahan, Nieman Watchdog

[Also read our follow-up story in which a Washington Post editor tries to explain his paper's lack of coverage of antiwar protest: Coulda, woulda, shoulda coverage of antiwar protests.]

Antiwar activists repeatedly stage dramatic acts of civil disobedience in the United States but are almost entirely ignored by mainstream print and broadcast news organizations. During the Vietnam era, press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war. This time around lack of homefront coverage may be helping keep military involvement continue on and on. 

In the past two years, protests of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, killer drones, torture, nuclear weapons and other war-related issues have been carried out at nuclear weapons silos and production facilities, military bases, unmanned drone facilities, major defense contractors’ headquarters and offices, the Nevada Nuclear Test site, nuclear weapons design laboratories, military recruiting centers, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, federal buildings in various states, the U.S. Strategic Air Command, and numerous other war-oriented sites across the country. 

The protests don’t begin to approach the level of those during the Vietnam war or in the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – but that’s not a reason to ignore them. The fact is, protest is much more widespread than citizens might gauge from coverage in newspapers and television, which seldom report antiwar actions regardless of how significant or newsworthy they may be. As we briefly observed in 
a previous article: By ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: They are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the U.S. wars and ever-growing military budgets, even as polls show overwhelming support for early U.S. military withdrawal. 
Although arrests are indicative of only a small portion of antiwar activity, 
a case-by-case compilation by prominent civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley shows more than 2,600 arrests nationwide for various protests on progressive issues from 2009 until late May of this year, with nearly 1,400 of them coming in antiwar-related actions‚ almost all of which stem from protests involving nonviolent civil disobedience. Quigley derived most of his information from the newsletter The Nuclear Resister , which for several years has tracked arrests of anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons activists nationwide as much as it can, given the lack of press coverage.
In the last seven months alone, there have been more than 550 documented arrests of antiwar protesters and some important court trials which, while often receiving local coverage, seldom find their way into major news organizations' reports. 

"Although we haven't recently had the gigantic demonstrations of those Vietnam War years,” Quigley told Nieman Watchdog, “in my experience, what you have today is a lot of smaller, passionate and persistent activities going on all over the country. A lot of peaceful protests and civil disobedience. The mainstream press doesn’t cover that." Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and associate legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Regarding the arrest figures he compiled, Quigley said they “certainly underestimate the number actually arrested” because so many of them go unreported in the press. This, he said, is in contrast to the media standard for covering overseas dissent, which is to “focus so intently on arrests of protestors in other countries.”

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