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The false media focus on violence: If it bleeds it still leads

Jen Schradie, research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse | September 7, 2017

On Sunday, August 27, in downtown Berkeley, I witnessed thousands of protesters raising their voices against a planned white supremacist “Patriot Prayer” rally. In my decades as a documentary filmmaker of activism and now an academic studying movements and media, it was one of the most positive, diverse and unifying gatherings I ever experienced.

The scene outside Berkeley City Hall during the Aug. 27 protest. (Photo by Jen Schradie.)

While I’m not naïve about the press, I was still shocked by the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day: “Masked anarchists violently rout right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” The accompanying photos also matched this slanted coverage. Sure enough, this was echoed in the Los Angeles Times: “Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm.” That narrative ricocheted around social media with video.

It was certainly true that after the “Patriots” marched into the crowd that Antifa responded with force. Now, we can debate the strategy of Antifa, but that isn’t really my point in this post. Rather, the narrow focus on what was in the end a relatively minor scuffle left the larger world with the impression that this had been “mayhem” and a “riot.”

What the news coverage missed: accuracy

That’s dangerous not just because it’s incorrect. the virtual blackout of the broader event was what struck me. None of the national mainstream news I saw represented the diversity of people and tactics that day. Fundamentally, the focus on violence feeds into the false narrative pushed by the far-right that there is some equivalence by extremists on the right and left.

The old trope of “If it bleeds, it leads” applies not just to the choice of events the media covers but how they cover an event. Focusing on violent stories is nothing new in journalism, from murders to disasters. And certainly the last decade’s decimation of newsrooms, leaving only a fraction of reporters left to cover events like this, could have played a factor.

But many of the outlets that sent reporters hovered around the center of town, rather than gathering the gamut of the people there. News trucks assembled at least four hours before the main rally, so they had time to get the real story. Or perhaps, it was the weekend or photo editor that made the mistake. Regardless, what was missing with much of the news media coverage of the Berkeley protest was accuracy. They were sensationalizing a small slice of what happened and crafted it into the entire story.

Frustrated about the disconnect between what I saw first-hand and the reporting, I posted a series of tweets that went viral.

Given the continued negative perception of that day, I was moved to expand and write about what I saw and heard that day. Here is what happened from my perspective.

As I climbed up the stairs from the downtown Berkeley BART station, I had to adjust my eyes to the light. On this rare sunny morning without the usual summer fog, I was surrounded by a throng of people with a jubilance that matched the bright day.

At the top of the stairs, volunteers directed the steady stream of people to one of several gathering points, depending on which march they wanted to go to. Most people were headed to the University of California, Berkeley, campus, so when I decided to go to another march at Ohlone Park, just north of downtown, I figured the numbers would be small, in comparison.

But when I approached the park, I saw a large number of protesters. They were gathering for the rally before the march to the main rallying point downtown where they would meet up with the other marches for a large rally. The first group I saw was a group of about 30 Jewish activists who prayed and sang while holding their signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “No Zionism. No Fascism. No Racism.” Throughout the day, I would see many different types of affinity groups like this one that came from a broad slice of Bay Area life.

Students, labor, anti-racist, religious and many other groups and individuals marched and converged to the center of Berkeley to fight white supremacy.

Here are a just a few of the “violent protesters” I saw as I walked around to the various marches and contingents:

 

Comments to “The false media focus on violence: If it bleeds it still leads

  1. Here in the United States, the NORM is for political rallies to be peaceful, and for respect to be paid to First Amendment Rights. The fact that this did not happen (and is not happening today in Berkeley on the occasion of the Shapiro talk (another guy I don’t agree with) is a very serious issue for us to face as a nation.

    Normally, I use my full name when posting on the internet. The fact that I am afraid to do so when speaking on these issues is new to me, and deeply troubling.

  2. Gandhi and King and Chavez never allowed their peaceful message to be diverted and subverted by violence. They knew how important popular sympathy was to their causes. My mother, like many mothers, used to recite to me: “Lie down with dogs and you’ll wake up with fleas.” I wish that I’d taken more of her wisdom to heart. By allowing the violence and perceived intolerance of the Antifa groups to adhere to our peaceful events, to become the masked face of our own movement, we risk not just losing, but alienating popular opinion and sympathy. The Antifa is SO excessively violent that I have to wonder if they aren’t simply agitators, organized and deployed to make us all look bad.

  3. As long as people, who are being brainwashed and mislead by official leaders and fake news, keep calling a group of people, including two African Americans, two Hispanics, a Japanese, and a Samoan, white supremacist, like the headline in the San Francisco Examiner: “White supremacist’ patriot rally coming to San Francisco” by Joe Fitzgerald, there will be no end in sight to violence.

    It’s only takes one bad apple to spoil the brunch.

  4. I’d just add that while many non-violent, well-meaning people did show up, the STORY here was the inability of people who wanted to march to express their point of view to do so, without being chased down and attacked (I did not see any video of them “marching into the crowd”, let alone doing so in a threatening way). Here in the United States, the NORM is for political rallies to be peaceful, and for respect to be paid to First Amendment Rights. The fact that this did not happen (and is not happening today in Berkeley on the occassion of the Shapiro talk (another guy I don’t agree with) is a very serious issue for us to face as a nation.

    Normally, I use my full name when posting on the internet. The fact that I am afraid to do so when speaking on these issues is new to me, and deeply troubling.

  5. I spent a lot of time looking at the video coverage available from multiple sources, and I think the media coverage finally caught up to reality. Prior to that they were still romanticizing Antifa as defenders of the common man rather than a bunch of thugs who designate anyone perceptually to the right of their own position (almost everybody) as fascists and beat them in the street.

    I’m not a fan of “Patriot Prayer” but I’ve read the interviews and don’t think you’re characterization of them as a white supremacist group is accurate. The leader of that group has repeatedly condemned racism, stated that white supremacists are not welcome at his rallies, and has scheduled speakers that are predominantly women and people of color. I don’t know exactly what his point is, but I think its a little too facile to label everyone to the right of George Herbert Bush a white supremacist who deserves to be beaten.

    Overall, the fact that the author of this article doesn’t see the problem may well be part of the problem.

  6. The rally that got canceled was not a white supremacist rally. The fact that people are so willing to call people white supremacists with no evidence is why there’s so much violence against innocent people at the hands of Antifa.

  7. Attacking the media is a powerful neocon/right-wing strategy and technique,
    and for this reason i am not going to echo you on West Coast “locals” like SF Chronicle and LA Times.

    Mike McPhate writes CALIFORNIA TODAY for the NYTimes and covered the weekend demonstrations in SF & Berkeley (AUG. 28, 2017)…5 photos accompanied his story and 3 showed peaceful protestors. Similarly, his written coverage was reasonably balanced in terms of addressing the expectations going into the weekend and the events that actually transpired.

    Attacking local media is also somewhat like attacking a financially-struggling minor league baseball team …but perhaps some local media editorial folks can benefit from your criticisms and step-up their game and move up to play in the big leagues.

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