Misinformation Overload and What to Do About It

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When the police chief of Seattle, Washington, resigned in the wake of the aborted Word Trade Organization summit in that city in December, 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported the story this way:

SEATTLE - Police Chief Norm Stamper said Tuesday that he will step down, a week after his outnumbered officers watched helplessly as mobs of World Trade Organization protesters rampaged through downtown Seattle - leaving behind $19 million in damage and lost retail sales.

This single paragraph neatly encapsulates the misinformation that befouled mainstream media reports of the Seattle protests. According to eyewitness accounts, no mobs rampaged through city streets, and police certainly didn't stand by helplessly.

A handful of anarchists, unconnected to the main protest organizers, targeted McDonald's and Starbucks outlets for vandalism. Police responded, not by rounding up the hoodlums, but by attacking peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders with truncheons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. This police riot caused most of the damage.

The severe security preparations for this weekend's FTAA summit in Quebec City - a 3.8-kilometre concrete-and-chain-link fence; 6,000 police, some of them equipped with Arwen 37 anti-riot guns that fire plastic bullets; 600 prisoners moved to make room for expected arrests - make violence a near certainty.

There's no reason to expect mainstream media to cover this weekend's protest and any ensuing police violence more accurately than they did in Seattle.

Canada's major newspapers - the National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Southam chain (of which the Daily News is a member) - have unreservedly bought into the neo-Liberal free trade agenda. Canadian Press and CBC News aren't far behind.

Their reports rarely treat criticism of free trade agreements seriously. They parody the critiques as mindlessly anti-trade, which they demonstrably are not, and then vacillate between mocking and demonizing the protesters.

Last weekend's edition of the National Post carried a two-page spread by a young reporter sent "undercover" for three months to observe protest preparations. As far as I know, the only secret connected with the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement is the precise nature of the limits to sovereignty Canada will be committing to when it signs. No National Post reporter has gone undercover for three minutes to ferret out the text.

The false claim that reporters must go undercover to report on protest preparations - preparations that seem wholly transparent - imputes a sinister quality to those who oppose the agreement, and paves the way for blaming any violence on the protesters.

The resulting story, topped by a half-page spread on appropriate fashion for Quebec City protesters, duly noted the unshaven armpits of female protesters and warned of "military strategy" dreamed up at protest "boot camps."

The Daily News didn't do much better, running a Southam story Tuesday headed, "Militant fashion will be crucial for summit protests in Quebec - Dress an important factor for facing well-armed, experienced authorities." Why bother explaining people's ideas when you can make fun of their clothes?

So where can people get the other side of the story this weekend?

  • The spirited online newsletter Straight Goods (Slogan: Saving you money, Protecting your rights, Untangling spin) will provide daily analysis by publisher Ish Theilheimer, veteran lefty Mel Watkins, and a half dozen reporters and columnists on its FTAA page.
  • Activist Judy Rebick's new online publication rabble.ca - a co-venture of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Centre for Social Justice, with financial support from the Atkinson Foundation - debuts today. It will carry daily reports on the summit by Rebick, an inside-the-summit diary by a Quebec City resident who lives inside the security zone, and numerous links to web pages for and against the FTAA deal.
  • Dalhousie's student radio station, CKDU, 97.5 FM, which devoted an entire day of programming to the free trade debate yesterday, will have one reporter inside the security zone and at least eight among the protesters outside the fence. They'll be filing unscheduled reports throughout the week, with extended coverage on the station's daily newscast, The Evening Affair, weekdays from 5 to 6 pm.

The Internet offers a host of FTAA critiques unfiltered by the mainstream media.

Originally published by The Daily News. All rights reserved. To contact the Parker Barss Donham, e-mail him at [email protected].

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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