By Tim Hjersted
Sep 5, 2008
Activists protesting the war at this month's 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 clear 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, progressive, or liberal 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:
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 gain a knowledge and understanding of 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 is more than likely that this reporter did interview some people that 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 cheerleading of the war helped insure its inevitability, promoting the Pentagon’s talking points and censoring or smearing opposing views.
Because of all this, an article by ZP 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 your 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 attempt 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.
This is the point. No matter what tactics we use to achieve our goals, we cannot ignore the pivotal role strategic communication plays in all of them. 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 this clearly 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 socially-conscious videos found online.