by Tim Hjersted
October 8, 2008
Activists protesting the war at the Democratic National Convention
have come and gone. Banners were unfurled. Protesters marched and
chanted. Puppets of Bush and company provided comic relief. But
looking back at the conference, there is no sign that any of these
efforts have gotten us any closer to ending the war.
Activists certainly have good reason to protest the DNC. The
Democratic majority in Congress has repeatedly failed to stand up to
the Bush administration, has refused to impeach Bush and Cheney for
gross violations of the constitution and international law, and has
refused to take a stand on any of the other pressing moral issues of
the day, from illegal wire-tapping to torture to the suspension of
habeas corpus. On top of all this, despite Barack Obama now firmly
established as the candidate of "change," Obama still has no plan to
get us out of Iraq. He only has a plan to downsize it.
With so much to decry, it is incredible to me that protesters, when
given the chance to advance their message to the media and the people
unaware at home, would have nothing more insightful to say than,
"Fuck corporate media!" and "Fuck Fox News!" You would think
activists might have a more disciplined message prepared for the
media, but this was exactly the response a reporter from Fox News got
from several people after asking them why they were protesting at the DNC.
On its face, it is somewhat of an anomaly, given that Fox News is
usually known for loaded questions, partisan attacks, and vicious
smears against any left-leaning or progressive groups. But here was a
reporter genuinely appearing to seek out a more in-depth perspective
on the march beyond the banner slogans and sayings, offering them a
chance to say whatever they want on live TV, and "Fuck Fox News!" was
their only rallying cry. One man was able to reiterate the marches
common theme: "Stop the torture. Stop the war." But soon after, the
crowd drowned out the reporter chanting "Fuck Fox News," flipping off
the camera until you see the reporter disappear into the crowd,
cutting back to the anchor.
Watch the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDGhs_LN7Fk
What did these kids think they were accomplishing? Unfortunately,
this response may sound all-too familiar to us, and it is in part a
clue to the long standing ineffectiveness of modern protests and the
anti-war movement in general.
The famous community organizer of the 20th century, Saul D. Alinsky,
makes it clear. "The failure of many of our younger activists to
understand the art of communication has been disastrous." There are
basic rules to affecting social change, not the least of which is
effective communication. It is an understanding of these rules, he
writes in Rules for Radicals, "that makes the difference between
being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one." A rhetorical
activist, he says, is one "who uses the tired old words and slogans,
calls the police 'pig' … or 'motherfucker' and has so stereotyped
himself that others react by saying, 'Oh, he's one of those,' and
then promptly turn off".
This is no doubt what many of the viewers watching that FOX News
broadcast thought and did, which is unfortunate, because those are
precisely the people "beyond the choir" that the anti-war movement
needs to reach.
Speaking in the first person, Alinsky drives the point home. "Lacking
communication I am in reality silent; throughout history silence has
been regarded as assent – in this case assent to the system." This is
exactly what I thought when I saw those protesters react to this news
reporter with such predictability.
These scenes of protesters "sticking it to the man" have become so
common to us they have become cliché. They no longer draw thoughtful
attention. It's as if protesters and riot police go together and are
as common to everyday life as government and taxes. It is at this
point that these protesters no longer pose a challenge to the status
quo. They are just another part of it.
If we are going to affect truly radical and realistic change, we must
first learn the basic rules of activist strategy.
One of these rules is always "appear more reasonable than your
opponents." If your opponent is cool and collected while you're off
spouting unintelligible profanities, even if your side is morally
right, it's going to be difficult for anyone but the converted to
find much sympathy. As Robert Bray writes in Spin Works! A Media
Guidebook for Communicating Values and Shaping Opinion, "it may feel
cathartic to call the bad guy a 'nazi fascist,' but that language
will probably alienate people and certainly does not communicate a
strategic message. We can express anger in the press, but channel and
convert that rage into a message that moves people to awareness and
action on your issues."
Now, it is essential that we understand this, because we can be sure
that our opposition has learned it, including Fox News. It's likely
that this reporter did interview some people who had something more
articulate to say, but chose not to air it, choosing instead to go
into a crowd where it is likely that they would be insulted and made
to look like the good guys. This is the kind of manipulative tactic
Fox News is famous for, which is no doubt part of the reason these
protesters reacted the way they did. Nonetheless, if this was truly
deliberate, they fell right into the trap, giving FOX the sound bites
they needed to discredit us to their viewers and convince them that
we have nothing important to say.
As we all know, FOX is not a legitimate news organization. The Rupert
Murdoch owned Fox News has unapologetically served as the propaganda
arm of the Bush Administration and the neo-conservative agenda for
the last eight years. They have consistently spread misinformation
and lies on everything from global warming to the false connection
between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Leading up to the war in Iraq, their
boisterous cheer leading of the war helped ensure its inevitability,
promoting the Pentagon's talking points and censoring or smearing
Because of all this, an article by Z.P. Heller that appeared on
Alternet.org contended that these "anti-war protesters have every
right to say 'Fuck Fox News,'" and I agree. They do have every right
to say what they did, and to react with such anger – but will the
viewers of Fox News get it? Is this enough to enlighten or change
anyone's mind? No. Ultimately, yelling profanities at FOX may make us
feel good, but it accomplishes nothing.
Historically, the whole point of the protest tactic has been to get
positive coverage of the issue from the media. This puts pressure on
the opposition and builds public support. In combination with other
tactics, this provides the leverage necessary to get the opposition
to accede to your group's demands. If we stonewall the media or
communicate with them poorly when they try to interview us, then we
have no leverage. Our protest has no teeth. In this case, the protest
reverts back to a symbolic gesture only, and we find ourselves no
closer to achieving our goal than before.
Failing to communicate effectively has been a cardinal mistake that
activists have been making for decades. It is what has been keeping
the anti-war movement from gaining traction. We can see the
importance of communication when we look at the essential role that
the mainstream media has played in shaping public opinion and
determining how easy it was for this administration to go to war.
Countless pro-war think tanks, PR agencies, hired "experts" and
embedded military journalists contribute to the saturation of a
pro-war climate in this country. It has been our opposition's
successful use of communication that has got us into a war with Iraq,
and which now puts us close to a war with Iran. If we are to mount an
effective campaign to stop this, we must organize an effective
communication strategy of our own.
Tim Hjersted is the director of Films For Action, a non-profit group
that uses the power of film to raise awareness on issues not covered
by the mainstream media. Based in Lawrence, KS, the group screens
documentaries at a local independent theater, airs films on Public
Access TV, and provides their collection of over 60 films to the
public for free. The FilmsForAction.org website serves as a portal to
the best activist-issue videos found online.