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Mainstream Media Discovers Activists Have a Message

by Jason Vest

"So this is what it feels like to be The Man"
Police windshield smashed When the WTO convened in Seattle last year, the mainstream media was not inclined to take the notion of protests seriously. On one level, it was hard to fault reporters and editors for this; many have gone decades without seeing a major movement protest, especially against an event that was largely the dominion of the trade press. But as the situation quickly became defined by the unexpected -- the unexpected is odd, and oddity sells -- the mainstream was determined not to be caught unawares again. So when the Washington date of April 16 was disseminated, the mainstream -- and the Washington Post in particular -- got to work.

And what happened next was, to some extent, what progressives have always wanted: the mainstream media started taking them seriously. Where two years ago it was virtually impossible to get meaningful stories (or stories at all) into the corporate media about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment or Congressional hearings on the IMF, suddenly everyone wanted to write about thorny global issues. Or, at least, the people talking about them: with equal parts boomer reporter nostalgia tinged with condescension (the Post's Richard Leiby on DC's anarchist soccer league), intellectual appeal (former World Chief chief economist Joseph Stiglitz on Charlie Rose and in The New Republic) and the sale value of and cultural love affair with youth (witness the anointing of activists Juliette Beck and Han Shan), suddenly everyone from The New Yorker to George was on the case, and actual critical ideas were being reported with regularity.

And what did it culminate in over the past week? With regard to the protests themselves, the Post did reasonably well: though the paper was hardly as fired up over such pedestrian matters as Constitutional integrity and the intimidation tactics and excessive use of force by the police as it was over Bill Clinton's Lewinsky mess, it did at least report that such things took place. (Indeed, in some cases, it even went so far as to quote non-official sources who disputed police accounts!) Nonetheless, the editorial page swooned over the police (Wednesday's leader: "Hail to the Chief -- and His Cops"). And reminding its readers that the ghost of journalist Nick Von Hoffman has long been exorcised from its pages, the Style section generally opted for the cheeky over the probing. Post reporter Frank Ahrens in particular showed that any youthful idealism he ever had has been shoved so far up his asshole he'll never find it again; the sequence of one day writing a first-person account of sneaking in with IMF delegates ("So this is what it feels like to be The Man," he wrote) and the next fellating the irreverent business Web site the Motley Fool, is but one more exhibit in the case against the antiquated notion that the Post is even vaguely left-of-center, let alone possessed of "edge," a phrase its technocrat editors endlessly bandy about but rarely let manifest in the paper.

Local TV could have been much worse as well. Cameramen captured some truly harrowing sequences of police overkill (agents of DC's colonial masters, the U.S. Marshals, setting upon a citizen simply trying to enter the courthouse; episodes of passive protesters taking pepper spray in the face) and kept with the demonstrators well into Tuesday as they rallied outside the jail, demanding authorities "free our friends." Nonetheless, anyone wanting the fullest breadth of detail on the constabulary's more irrationally exuberant moments had to turn to the indispensable Independent Media Center (especially for the appalling details of protesters' incarcerations), though venerable Washington editor and publisher Sam Smith was also on the case, rapidly putting reporting up on his Progressive Review Web site.

Though independent reporting on the protests was vigilant, A16 was also an occasion to mourn the passing of alternative weeklies as they once were. CityPaper, Washington's alternative weekly, essentially decided to sit the whole thing out. Unlike Seattle Weekly's expansive print and online coverage of the WTO, CityPaper's issue of Thursday the 13th contained not one story on A16, or any issue related to it; rather than post anything on its Web site, the paper opted to wait until the 20th to publish anything at all on the protests.

The op-ed pages and pundits, however, couldn't seem to publish enough on the issues and advocates involved with A16. The lack of perspective, absence of acknowledgement of fact and dearth of respect for dissent(ers) were, in many cases, the distinguishing characteristics of such endeavors.

The New York Times Tom Friedman was withering with disingenuity: stringing together groups and phrases like "conspiracy theories," "Public Citizen," "anarchists" and "protectionist trade unions," Friedman cast the protesters as "quacks" in a "Coalition to Keep the World's Poor People Poor." But hallelujah, extolled Friedman, "fortunately, a major study" by a consulting firm (ubiquitous things in Washington, those) had just been released, showing that globalization as we know it really is good and there's "greater political freedom" the world over because of it.

Over on the Post's op-ed page, columnist and ex-World Bank official Colbert King railed against the protesters converging on Washington: "They will be slamming a World Bank I hardly recognize," he wrote, "and they have it wrong when they demonize the World Bank as an oppressor of people and a scourge of democratic institutions." And appearing on PBS' Newshour, Congressman Sonny Callahan and economist Steven Hanke was vehemently arguing against debt forgiveness for developing nations because historically, "corrupt tyrants" have pilfered the IMF's gracious loans.

These are but a sampling of the ad hominim, myopic and ahistorical arguments that seemed to dominate the realm of pundits. It's enough to have the late Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny spinning like a whirling dervishin his grave. In 1984, Kwitny published "Endless Enemies," a penetrating study that came out of years of reporting and was subtitled "How America's Worldwide Interventions Destroy Democracy and Free Enterprise and Defeat Our Own Best Interests." Marshalling a very convincing case that a number of actions taken in the name of the Cold War were counterproductive and immoral, Kwitny reported then what is still the case now: the World Bank and IMF are essentially tools of U.S. foreign and economic policy, and ones whose primary beneficiaries -- with those institutions' knowledge and blessings -- are banks and corrupt dictators.

"The IMF," Kwitny wrote, "operates minigovernments in about 40 countries. Why would a country let an international outfit like the IMF take over an important function of national government? Installing an IMF team is the West's price for keeping credit lines open. This is all part of a giant international flimflam, which accounts for a large part of the half a trillion dollars or so now owed by the poorer countries to the richer ones."

Parsing out the system, Kwitny saw how World Bank loans for development were in fact considered a form of importing that led to trade imbalances, thus causing a nation to go to the IMF. IMF loans, he explained, could be looked at in two ways: "an artificial device to help poor countries buy things beyond their current means," or, more accurately, "an artificial device to allow businessmen in rich countries to sell things they otherwise couldn't sell." And when major private U.S. banks -- who, at the time, reaped half their profits from foreign lending -- loan to the developing world, he reported, right behind them are the World Bank and IMF as collection agencies.

Much the same holds for the IMF today. To be sure, it's unfair to cast the IMF and World Bank, and all those who work for them, as Hell's Angels; while many who came to protest on April 16 would like to see the Bank and IMF eliminated, there were just as many protesting -- as well as working inside the institutions -- who believe they can be reformed. And one can argue that the institutions do some good, and are not irredeemable.

Yet amidst the stories that reported on the feelings of confusion, exasperation and contempt the protesters roused in Bank/IMF employees, there was virtually no investigation or meaningful revisiting of the failings of these institutions, including some documented by themselves (the Bank's 1988 "discussion paper" on donor nations' manipulation of food aid budgets for their own commercial ends comes to mind). Three years ago, for example, William Greider published a detailed account of how world financial institutions contributed to Mexico's peso crisis and how those same institutions, at taxpayer expense, saved investors' asses. Needless to say, Greider's analysis was not quoted by the mainstream press. Nor was there much mulling over the fact that the neoliberal approach to Russia clearly hasn't unleashed a tide that has lifted all boats. The corruption of the Suharto regime in Indonesia is well-documented, as is the IMF's complicity in enabling it. Yet as Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby sniffed, if there was no IMF per the protesters' wishes, that "would leave nobody to bail out an Indonesia or Mexico when the next currency collapse drives millions into poverty."

At one point during the week World Bank director James Wolfensohn reproached protesters for not having gone out and experienced the developing world. Any number of pundits deserve the same admonishment as well. Indeed, the likes of Friedman, Paul Krugman and David Frum can't even be bothered to read what their intellectual opposites on these shores are writing; calling the protesters "antiglobalist" and "antitrade" was so demonstrably specious one has to wonder if Howell Raines fell asleep at the switch. Save a few hardcore ecolocalists, those labels hardly stick. Neither does the charge that the global discontents lack an alternative vision: to give but two examples, Rep. Bernie Sanders' Sustainable Global Development Resolution is hardly bereft of ideas, and Nobel economist James Tobin's proposals can hardly be dismissed out of hand.

A16 proved that the mainstream media is not averse to reporting a good story, even when the story involves protests against corporate global power. But what it did prove is that the mainstream buck stops well before deep, historical analysis.

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Albion Monitor April 22, 2000 (

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