WTO Protest: TV networks turn a blinkered camera to the violence of Seattle
Thursday 02 December 1999
The dozens of network and cable stations that shelved regular programming to show such spectacles as the O J Simpson car chase, the phalanxes of terrified children running out of Columbine High School and the office complex in Atlanta where a gunman was on the loose, offered viewers precisely nothing.
The time billed for the World Trade Organisation's opening ceremony, frequently announced beforehand, came and went without with the barest acknowledgement that it had been postponed because delegates were held up by street demonstrations. Might we see something of the demonstrations or, perhaps, an interview with a demonstrator or two, or even a delegate? Not a bit of it. Hour upon hour of vacuous fill-in programmes followed. News bulletins were led by the previous day's discovery of suspected mass graves in Mexico. If the disturbances in Seattle figured at all, it was in snatches, lower down the newscast.
By late evening, when the governor of Washington state had declared a state of emergency and announced that the National Guard would be dispatched the next morning, a number of cable news stations were showing footage, or rather snippets, of the Seattle mayhem, most of it edited.
What some reporters called an intensive police operation was accompanied with pictures of a thin and disordered line of officers. There was no live, open-ended coverage of the "battle in Seattle" on American television; it was not until yesterday that viewers were shown the scale of the disturbances, by which time it was history, and edited.
There were mitigating factors, including the immense practical difficulty of reporting from a city that was out of control and subject to tight security at the same time. Moving around the city was not easy, and a Fox News reporter said that theirs was just one of the news teams that had had their cable cut deliberately by protesters. Maybe US television stations were just applying a lesson learnt in the Los Angeles riots 11 years ago, when live television coverage may have fuelled the disturbances.
Yet it is hard to escape the impression that television did not show what happened in Seattle as it happened at least in part because of deliberate editorial judgements.
Perhaps cautious editors feared being blamed if the violence escalated; perhaps innate national pride led editors to scale back coverage that would reflect poorly on American organisation and efficiency. Or perhaps the authorities - local or national - slipped the word that it would be better not to show pictures that cast the usually calm, civilised city of Seattle in a very different (and misleading) light, and that ignoring such advice could have an impact on channels' business or network access.
Media executives declined to discuss the coverage yesterday, and the reasons that American television coverage of the Seattle violence was so scanty may never be fully explained. But there was a wide gap between what was happening on the ground on Tuesday evening and what television viewers were shown, and the reports that were broadcast fell far short of the truth.
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