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Coverage in Search of a Sound Bite

SPINning the Syrian Protests

by STEVE BREYMAN

The Washington Post wonders how those protests in Syria keep going (e.g., Liz Sly, “Syrian Revolt Still Spontaneous and Leaderless,” July 28). Journalistic convention requires that demonstrations have leaders, spokespeople, identifiable representatives. Without someone fitting the preconceived bill, reporters grasp for meaning. What demonstrators want may be obvious (as in Syria), but editors and producers want sound bites. Get that charismatic honcho-in-chief-—preferably in regional costume and with clear if heavily accented English—in front of the camera!

Journalists cannot be experts on every topic they cover. Foreign correspondents should, at a minimum, speak a local language and have a CIA World Factbook grasp of the countries from which they report. That they often don’t is painfully obvious. Where would the American media be if the world did not speak English?

About those democratic uprisings: No one expects those covering these exciting and deadly affairs to have state-of-the-art knowledge of social movement studies or democratic theory. That’s what academics are for. But is it not reasonable for media organizations to consult now and then with those who do? Social movement scholars would happily offer continuing education webinars for interested journalists (probably for free, but come on, throw us a bone!).

Reports from the tumultuous field would certainly benefit by comparing this movement to that one. Claims about “twitter revolutions” would be tempered by understanding previous movements’ external communications practices. Questions of identity (ethnic, gender, tribal, national, racial, et al.) could be pursued with something approaching competence. The “violence question” would be seen as an explosive internal issue for movements, not simply the stuff of good copy or dramatic photos. Insurrections would appear not as militant monoliths but as fragile, shifting coalition of coalitions.

The unfolding and extraordinary events in Syria are a case in point. Courageous Syrians have been in the streets for nineteen consecutive weeks; they’ve battled tanks with sticks and stones, been picked off by snipers, carted away to arbitrary detention, tortured, their patriotism smeared. All this without “organization, strategy or leadership” marvels the Post.

Had an editor or reporter not merely arched an eyebrow, but was genuinely interested in the question, someone like me would’ve recommended a book from 1970: Luther Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine’s People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation. That the book is over forty years old is the point.

The authors devise a model of social movement organization that sees these groups not as “centralized and bureaucratic nor amorphous, but . . . a[s] segmentary, polycentric, and integrated networks (SPIN).” By segmentary, Gerlach and Hine mean groups that are diverse and dynamic; they grow, they fold, they represent different constituencies. Polycentric refers to the groups’ “multiple, often temporary, and sometimes competing leaders or centers of influence.” Integrated networks are ” loose, reticulate, . . . with multiple linkages through travelers, overlapping membership, joint activities, common reading matter, and shared ideals and opponents.”

The SPIN model appears to capture the essence (to the extent it’s possible to say this from the other side of the planet) of the revolutionary groups in Syria. The segmentary character of the uprising is evident from what seems to reporters like the lack of clarity regarding movement tactics, strategy, and goals “beyond the universal demand that Assad should go.” Polycentricity is unavoidable for Syrian activists. To centralize, to elect formal leaders, to set up an office—even if they wanted to—is to invite repression.

Sly reports two conversations she had about movement group leadership:

“This is the purest people’s revolution there ever was,” said a Damascus-based activist who is affiliated with two of the groups engaged in encouraging protests. Leaders are nonexistent, he said, and they wouldn’t be welcomed. “Anyone who puts his head above sea level is taken down,” he said.

Nobody tells him that there will be a demonstration, nobody encourages him to go. He just shows up with a group of friends, assuming there will be a demonstration because there always is. “I’m really not political. I’m just a guy going to the streets every Friday,” he said in an interview conducted over Skype, when asked which of the various protest groups he supports. He hasn’t heard of any of them. “I only want to end the injustice and see a free democracy,” said the man, who requested that his name not be used because he fears for his safety should he be identified.

Leaders come and go; their internecine struggles can be bitter, petty, and ugly. To self-identify as a leader in Syria today is to paint the proverbial bulls eye. Just because an informant or two can’t or won’t identify authoritative figures, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Leadership need not be strong, self-serving, or authoritarian. Resistance to conventional notions of top-down leadership has grown among social movements in recent decades. Groups don’t need commanding generals but they do need coordination, a modicum of structure, and morale maintenance (among other things). These essential tasks do not perform themselves.

Gerlach and Hine’s “integrated networks” also appear to closely approximate the little we know about groups like “Trust Circle, the Syrian Creative Revolution and the Revolution of Syrian Youth.” Their concept works even though Gerlach and Hine studied legal organizations in late 1960s America. Syrian activists must organize underground and on the Internet. They operate with pseudonyms and are justifiably paranoid as Syrian secret police monitor Facebook pages and try to chase down shifting IP addresses.

Sly’s piece is actually quite good given its relative lack of theoretical, comparative and historical grounding—better than most. Again, I’m not arguing that protest reporting have the depth or sophistication of scholarship. It’d be much less fun to read. But it ought not mislead. Journalists writing about social movements here and abroad: check with a local university. Some prof will gladly forward a syllabus and reading list.

Steve Breyman taught his first social movement course while a University of California graduate student in the late eighties. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu