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Protesters and War: An Excerpt from Ugly War, Pretty Package: How CNN and Fox News Made the Invasion of Iraq High Concept

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When I started to research Ugly War, Pretty Package in 2004, I didn't realize how taxing it would be to re-watch CNN and Fox News coverage from the first week of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was taxing enough the first time around. This time, however, I took comfort in the fact that a detailed analysis of the coverage would simply allow the news to expose its own flaws that, at times, bordered on criminal.

The point of Ugly War is to disabuse people of the notion that television news somehow embodies and tweaks HBO's old tagline. It's Not TV. It's News.

Television news is absolutely television, and extended, uninterrupted war coverage is one of the best examples of how the cable news networks have embraced the values of "high concept" entertainment.

In the following excerpt I look at how CNN and Fox News covered the huge anti-war demonstrations after the start of the invasion. If you've only seen coverage of the right-wing tea-party protests, this excerpt will remind you of how cable news handles dissent coming from the left.

Excerpt

[...]The typing of U.S. antiwar protesters is an example of striking difference between the two networks. [...] In late March 2003, antiwar protesters appeared multiple times on both CNN and Fox News Channel. Both networks reported on the U.S.-based antiwar protests in relation to seven primary topics: the significance of the rallies in a democracy, the size of the antiwar rallies, polls about public support for the war, the rationale for protesting, pro-war or pro-troop rallies or sentiment, protests that the networks characterized as "violent" or "disruptive," and the troops in Iraq. Each network's coverage used these topics to type the protesters, and Fox News Channel specifically used each to reject the premise that protesters were heroic in their exercise of democracy and freedom of speech.

According to Fox journalists, the protesters hated the United States and therefore did not practice democracy. The Fox reporters constructed a storyline that said that the number of protesters was minimal and that they represented the minority in public opinion about the war. They had no reasons for protesting other than to overthrow the U.S. government. They were violent and encouraged violence, which contradicted their verbal appeals for peace. They said they wanted democracy but they supported Hussein--not the U.S. troops--and did not believe in bringing democracy to the oppressed Iraqis. They claimed to speak truth to power heroically, but they merely represented another evil power. According to Fox journalists, the U.S. citizens who exercised their democratic right to oppose a war they considered unjust were no less than traitors.

CNN journalists also disagreed with the actions of the protesters, but they handled their coverage of antiwar events much differently than the Fox network did. Instead of vilifying the protesters, they co-opted their message by emphasizing how antiwar activity demonstrated the tolerance of U.S. democracy. Aaron Brown asserted that he and his colleagues at CNN were "great believers in the right to demonstrate," and both he and Judy Woodruff gave small speeches on the superiority of U.S.-style democracy, of which protests were a vital part (CNN March 20-22). Guest commentator Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stated that the right to protest was "in line with freedom of speech" (CNN March 21). Fiske notes how statements made in support of protesters illustrate the process of "inoculation" in news programming, an incorporation of radical voices into an official narrative so that the opposition actually fortifies the status quo. In this process, journalists first accord the oppositional speech minimal importance so that the rhetoric can subvert the dominant ideology without exacting any real damage. In addition, the representatives of the news media "[speak] the final 'truth,'" an act that frames oppositional speech from a specific viewpoint (Fiske 1987, 290-291). CNN journalists allowed protesters to have their sound bites and then defused the power of antiwar speech by applauding a tolerant democracy.

CNN's practice of "ideological containment" was just as problematic but less combative than the tactics presented on Fox News Channel. The Fox network did not feature the protesters as much as CNN. By way of explanation, Shepard Smith announced that Fox News Channel was keeping coverage of the antiwar protests "limited" in order to keep the network's overall coverage "fair and balanced" (Fox News Channel March 20). However, when the network did focus on the protesters, its journalists failed to uphold the right of U.S. citizens to protest in a time of war. Although guest commentator Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called the protests "a necessary part of democracy," an exchange between Fox's John Kasich and Congressman Greg Meeks became heated when the subject of democracy arose. In response to Kasich's "stunned and mystified" reaction to the protests, Congressman Meeks expressed his hopes for a democracy in which people had the right to dissent. Kasich responded by telling the protesters to "shut up," prompting Congressman Meeks to accuse him of not believing in democracy (Fox News Channel March 22). Alan Colmes, the self-identified "liberal" of the program Hannity & Colmes, voiced the most prominent defense of free speech on Fox News Channel with this remark: "People have the right to [protest], and certainly that's not in debate, but I think some of these people feel they have to prove they have the right, but they don't have the obligation" (Fox News Channel March 24). If Fox journalists gave any attention to the antiwar protests at all, it was only to imply or even to insist that they should not be speaking. The network gave no time to the real news of the antiwar protest stories, which would necessarily have focused on the issues the protestors were raising and the points they were making.

[...]

However, Fox News journalists quickly decided that the protests were indeed newsworthy as reports of violence and disruption became part of the story. The issue of disruptive protests led the network's personnel to label the demonstrators a "safety hazard," further discrediting their intentions. Journalists consistently declared that the protests were a danger. Rebecca Gomez claimed that protesters "nearly attacked" her and her crew; she interpreted this as evidence that the protesters "seemed to want to take their anger out on someone" (Fox News Channel March 22). Reporting on a protest in Washington, D.C., Shepard Smith said the demonstrators were "making a mess of the morning commute" and were keeping firefighters "from answering emergency calls." He also declared San Francisco to be in a state of "absolute anarchy" (Fox News Channel March 20). Brian Kilmeade said protesters were "out of control" and were "breaking the law" (Fox News Channel March 21). Bill Cowan called Market Street "ground zero" in the protesters' "mission to paralyze downtown" Chicago and frustrate "innocent drivers" (ibid.). Bob Sellers highlighted arrests in San Francisco and police chasing protestors at a New York City rally (Fox News Channel March 22). Rebecca Gomez called the crowd at the rally she covered in New York "out of order" and raised the concern that marchers "diverted limited resources from stopping possible terrorist strikes" in a "city already hurt financially by 9/11" (Fox News Channel March 22). John Kasich, Miami police commissioner John Timoney, Brian Kilmeade, and Linda Vester all argued that protesters diverted resources from homeland security (Fox News Channel March 22-24). According to Fox News Channel, the protesters were violent and posed dire threats to the safety of the United States--a claim that linked the protesters to terrorists.

CNN's reporting of the protests was much more balanced. It reported that 1,000 arrests and various run-ins with police had occurred at protests in New York City and San Francisco, but both Aaron Brown and Wolf Blitzer pronounced the protests "peaceful" (CNN March 20 and 21). Blitzer even prefaced a story about the protesters in New York City with the line "Freedom of speech led to urban gridlock," emphasizing the disturbance but linking it to a constitutional right (CNN March 22).

Fox News Channel journalists insisted that the "disloyalty" of protesters was particularly disturbing a time when they perceived unity to be the true sign of patriotism. Personalities on Fox News Channel achieved this by characterizing protesters as opposed to the troops, freedom, and democracy and supportive of terrorists. The issue of supporting the troops was less black and white on CNN. Aaron Brown stated that one result of the Vietnam War was that "we don't blame soldiers" for policy decisions (CNN March 21). With that, Brown defended the protesters by distinguishing anti-troop sentiment from anti-policy sentiment. Fox News Channel journalists were unable to tolerate any distinction between criticism of government policy and criticism of the troops. Guest commentator Scott O'Grady, a former Air Force Captain who had been shot down over Bosnia and later rescued, suggested that the protesters realize "that there are evil people in this world, and this is a just war, and we need to be supporting" the troops (Fox News Channel March 23). Guest Jeffrey Zaun, a former POW of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, took this a bit further, claiming that the protesters were "insulting" the troops (Fox News Channel March 23). Rebecca Gomez summed up the tone of Fox News Channel by saying, "Some of the protesters claim they do support the troops, they just don't support the war, and they seem to think that they can do both" (Fox News Channel March 22). Her statement reflected the kind of consciously uncomplicated logic that Fox News Channel typically used when speaking of the protesters.

Accusations that the protesters were disloyal grew increasingly severe on Fox News Channel over the course of the first five days of the invasion. By claiming that the protesters stood "against any war for the liberation of Iraq," Bob Sellers simultaneously supported the Bush administration's official reasons for the invasion and typed the protesters as obstacles in the quest for freedom (Fox News Channel March 22). Shepard Smith hinted at an insidious conspiracy when he declared that the antiwar protests were "part of a synchronized movement to stage protests" (Fox News Channel March 20). His statement was in keeping with the network's numerous attempts to link antiwar protesters to organizations that Fox journalists deemed to be subversive--a tactic similar to the network's typing of France and Russia as disloyal to the United States because they criticized the war. [...] David Asman argued that the protesters were vulnerable to Iraqi propaganda, and one guest claimed that the protesters' rhetoric "play[ed] into the hands of our enemies" (Fox News Channel March 22 and 24). In addition to calling "most" of the protesters "stupid," Fred Barnes accused them of being "objectively . . . pro-Saddam"; in disgust, Tony Snow replied, "Enough of them" (Fox News Channel March 22).

[...]

In short, in Fox News Channel's estimation, the protesters were not to be trusted. Fox journalists and guests typed the protesters as false heroes with even more fervor than they exhibited when typing France and Russia. In contrast, CNN reporters and guests did not resort to the type of inflammatory rhetoric that was a mainstay on Fox News Channel; CNN's approach was to contain the message of the protestors by pointing to the right of citizens in a democracy to free speech rather than focusing on the issues the protestors were raising.

Works Cited

Fiske, John. 1987. Television Culture. London: Methuen & Co.

Deborah L. Jaramillo is Assistant Professor of Film and Television at Boston University. She is author of Ugly War Pretty Package: How CNN and Fox News Made the Invasion of Iraq High Concept.