Remembrance of a War Past

An unfond look back at Freedom Toast, TV jingoes, and a pro-war bully called Tony Hall

As for print journalism, my scan of 20 U.S. daily newspapers showed the Chronicle was one of very few papers that carried the Al Jazeera and Palestine Hotel attacks on the front page. Which brings me to Robert Collier and Tim Goodman, and the good, journeymanlike job the Bay Area's two big newspapers have been doing covering the Iraq war. The Chron didn't just place Collier's Palestine Hotel attack story prominently -- the paper gave him space for a detailed account that used strong terms to question the U.S. military's version of events.

Goodman, meanwhile, has used his post as the Chron's television critic to provide breakout analysis of whether TV reportage has better served the public, or the U.S. military. He has given a nuanced, entertaining, critical, and informative view of the way the war has been covered on television. "With paid military advisers dominating maps and thrilling anchors with their battle analysis, there's apparently no room for dissent," Goodman wrote in one dispatch from TV land. "Until that issue is addressed, more people will seek out British or Canadian news options."

According to Stanford University media researcher John McManus, the same criticism might be leveled at U.S. newspapers, although to a lesser extent. And, he says, Bay Area papers are less jingoistic than they might have been.

"If you were visiting this planet from another one, you would look at this war and say, "There is one country, much more powerful than the others, and it's attacking a country much smaller than it; it's doing so without the support of the rest of the world.' But you don't get the impression from reading U.S. newspapers how isolated we are, and how much ill will we've generated," McManus says.

McManus runs a Stanford research project called Grade the News, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. His most recent bit of inquiry has involved gathering a pile of Chronicles, Mercs, and Contra Costa Timeses from the first week of the war, then reading them as if they were historical texts.

"There were certain criteria I had in mind as to whether the coverage was, I guess, jingoistic," McManus says. Did the papers cover, or downplay, military setbacks? Did they use overt nationalistic imagery, such as the flag; did they use cheerleading terms such as "liberation"? Did they report on civilian deaths? Did they examine domestic protests as dissent, or disruption? Given the very modest standard McManus set, the Merc and the Chron performed quite well; the CoCo Times less so.

"I don't think it's reasonable for U.S. journalists to cover this from an absolutely neutral standpoint. The nature of war precludes that. I was looking for whether journalists seem to be giving us an honest account, rather than shading things to please military commanders," he says. "My general impression was that these papers worked pretty hard to keep people informed and did a reasonably credible job. All things considered, the Merc did the best job, trailed by the Chronicle. Each paper engaged in a serious effort to help people make sense of this war."

The Chronicle lagged behind the Merc in terms of intelligently covering the war protests. For many Chronwriters, the anti-war marches were mainly a traffic problem. The Merc, whose readers mostly stick to suburban freeways, seemed to feel free to analyze demonstrations on their own terms, McManus says.

"When you look at the domestic protest coverage, there wasn't much about cities outside the Bay Area, though there were very big marches in other places around the country such as Chicago, New York, and other places," he says, adding that while Chron protest coverage was profuse, it was also shallow.

"The reporting about the San Francisco protests was framed as, "These people are pretty crazy.' Rob Morse wrote, "They think globally, but ruin your day locally.' There seemed to be no sense of exploring these people's thinking. They were viewed in the Chron more as hooligans."


The Chronicle wasn't the only place where the anti-war protests were addressed with banal simple-mindedness. Looking back on spring 2003, I'll vividly remember putative mayoral candidate Tony Hall angrily pacing the supervisors' chambers last week during a Finance Committee hearing called to analyze the protests' fiscal effect on the city.

During anti-war protests police arrested 2,300 people, at a cost of $900,000 per day, the city said. Half of the cost was police overtime. According to Hall, the protesters should somehow be made to pay, retroactively, the cost of policing themselves.

Protesters testifying at last week's hearing suggested that police racked up at least some of their overtime by making thousands of false arrests.

During the March 21 protest, for instance, police herded 600 protesters, who had been walking down the sidewalk, into a makeshift police-barricade corral, according to people who testified at the hearing (and a protester I spoke with earlier). Police arrested the protesters en masse, charging them with refusing to obey an order of the police and blocking traffic. Many of the 2,300 people arrested still have court dates scheduled for the end of April.

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