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Educating for Democracy: CUNY Demonstration: When Is News Not News?

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At a recent demonstration starting at City Hall, and attended by approximately 700 students, teachers and union activists opposing the proposed budget cuts of the Bloomberg administration due to the almost annual NYC "fiscal crisis," I spoke with several participants who have a bigger picture view of the cause of this problem than is commonly reported in the press. Anthony Gronowicz, who has run in several elections as the Green Party candidate, for mayor and, most recently, for Congress last year, faults a tax system that has been increasingly favorable to the rich over the past few decades.

As an example of these changes Gronowicz cited that the New York Estate Tax of the 1970s was much larger than today as well as income taxes in general. This trend can be seen in the decline of the top federal income tax rate from 77% in 1969 to 37% today while the capitol gains tax has been halved in a comparable period: 32% to 15%. Gronowicz suggested that another source for savings would be cuts in the military budget so that the three greatest priorities this country faces could be better served: jobs, education and housing.

Peter Mack, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, expressed his view more directly. He regards these cuts as part of a "class war." "Any threat to their [the rich] personal comfort is regarded as a threat to them." They need to be "dragged from their comfort zone" as has happened in Egypt and Tunisia. He regarded the rally as "a good start but it needs to go much further."

According to a statement at the rally by Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing CUNY staff: "We are here today because we are determined -- faculty, staff and students together -- to resist the cheapening of a CUNY education... That cheapening happens every time funds are cut and we are forced to make do with fewer books in the libraries, older equipment in the labs, inadequate numbers of full-time faculty, scandalous conditions for part-time faculty, over-sized classes and spiraling tuition costs for students. We will not accept austerity for our students, for CUNY or for ourselves. Another university is possible, and we are prepared to fight for it."

But although such statements should be known by the general public through the press, it seems that most of the rallies against budget cuts and those involving other social issues are "invisible" to the press and other media. According to Fran Clark, communications coordinator for PSC, the May 5th rally was given a passing mention in the Daily News and received air time on only one TV station, Univision 41.

In contrast, the controversy concerning the rejection of Tony Kushner to receive an honorary degree from CUNY due, in part, to a dissenting vote by a member of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Jeffrey Weisenfeld, generated two substantial articles in the New York Times the day after the rally but no mention of the rally itself. An issue that marginally affects the life of a celebrity figure -- the Board of Trustees just reversed itself (5/9/11) and Kushner will receive his honorary degree -- although it certainly raises the issue of free speech, is given a great deal of press, but the budget cuts that will have a negative impact on the lives of thousands of students and faculty at CUNY isn't even considered worthy of a brief mention in the media.

Thomas Jefferson said in a January 28, 1786, letter to James Currie: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." Although I would not argue that the press is "limited" by any government censorship, I believe that the consistent neglect of covering demonstrations, whether they are for education, opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for workers' rights are a kind of self-censorship, both in the print and electronic media, that can, if continued, imperil our democracy. If the public is not informed that there is opposition to policies and political agendas that are detrimental to the general welfare, then the electorate will be less likely to have the necessary information to cast their ballots in an informed manner. The informative value of the public demonstration has been a vital tactic in the various uprisings in the Middle East. It was the protestors' most effective tool during the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements. But that was in large part because these actions received extensive press coverage.

George Orwell envisioned a dystopian society in his prophetic novel, 1984, in which any news items that contradicted or challenged the policies of "Big Brother" disappeared down the "memory hole." If mine is almost the only source of information to the general public of the existence of the rally on May 5 -- and I wonder whether there will be any media coverage on the May 12th rally at City Hall 4:00 P.M. against the Bloomberg budget cuts -- then it seems to me that the press and TV news services no longer regard the voice of the people as sufficiently newsworthy. And if that becomes the norm, Jefferson's warning could become a reality.

(Note: I am indebted to Ilana Abramovitch for her suggestions in the writing of this article.)