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The atmosphere was “like a carnival,” an Associated Press reporter wrote, “with food stands, exhibits, and street theater along with the discussion of free trade and war.”
Over half a million people turned out in the streets of Florence, Italy to protest globalization and the impending war between the U.S. and Iraq. The massive, peaceful street demonstration on November 9th was an unexpected climax to the four-day European Social Forum, sister to the World Social Forum held earlier this year in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Press from all over Europe and the world gathered to cover the event … but the U.S. press fumbled the ball.
Most U.S. newspapers print their stories from the two major wire services, Reuters and Associated Press. Both services ran stories on the demonstration and, not only did they accurately describe the celebratory mood of the marchers and the diversity of the crowd, they also accurately reported the two-prong nature of the protesters’ message.
Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported: “Protesters said they were motivated by opposition to a war in Iraq and the influence of multinational corporations, which they see as harmful to the environment and the poor.” Reuters reporter Luke Baker described the demonstrators: “As well as university-age students, older political activists and thousands of trades unionists, Saturday’s throng also included Italian World War II partisans and a U.S. Vietnam war veteran who marched in the first row of the crowd.”
Baker also interviewed several citizens of Florence, many of whom turned out to watch or join the demonstration. One expressed scorn for the Florentines who closed their shops and fled the city, while another expressed pride that her city was hosting such an event. Baker pointed out: “the city’s famed museums remained open and offered free entry to the few tourists around.”
As to the numbers of people on the street, Baker reported: “Authorities estimated that some 450,000 protesters flooded Florence’s streets … But by dusk, the crowd had swelled to over half a million, many of them arriving on specially chartered trains and buses. Organizers estimated the gathering at around one million, making it one of Italy’s biggest ever anti-war rallies.” AP reporter Rizzo gave similar figures.
In stark contrast to the two wire service accounts, the articles posted by the two U.S. newspapers of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, took a darker tone.
The New York Times article, written by Frank Bruni, was the more comprehensive of the two. Yet Bruni did his best to downplay the festive atmosphere of the march. His focus from the very first paragraph was on “tense Italian government officials” thrown into a “jittery state of alert” and the 5,000 police ostensibly deployed to protect Florence’s architectural and sculptural treasures. Bruni, instead of communicating the reasons for the protest, ridicules them. Of one demonstrator, he says: “she used eyeliner to paint Y-like shapes on the brows of friends. They worried aloud that the results looked more like Mercedes symbols than peace signs.”
He also repeats the favorite assertion of right-wing, pro-business commentators in the U.S.–that anti-globalization protesters are unfocused dimwits, who just want to protest for the sake of complaining: “Amadeo Rossi, 48, of Turin, Italy, said he was demonstrating ‘against the war in Iraq, the mistreatment of immigrants and the abuses of the Italian government–all of the problems in the world.'”
The Washington Post article, written by Daniel Williams, was even worse. Williams began his article with the same type of ridicule Bruni used: “A crowd of about 400,000 protesters from across Europe marched here today against a presumptive war on Iraq and plenty of other things as well–globalization, cultivation of genetically modified foods, commercial control of the Internet, copyright laws, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and liberalization of employee layoff rules.” While the protesters were able to connect the dots, Williams was not.
While the wire service reporters interviewed and quoted numerous people, Williams quoted only two, one a “French leftist” and the other a student, who said: “All the United States wants is oil to fuel their big cars.”
While Williams picked an anti-American quote, both he and Bruni ignored the main reason why so many people were in the street on that day: namely, to protest the foreign policy of one man, George W. Bush. The wire service reporters emphasized that the UN vote on Nov. 8th to pass Bush’s resolution against Iraq had boosted the number of people protesting in Florence. Baker (Reuters) reported: “Some placards depicted President Bush as Hitler and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as Mussolini.” The two U.S. reporters, however, made little mention of criticism against Bush.
Instead, Williams and Bruni devoted a lot of space to describing the reaction of a few prominent Italians to the forum and demonstration, reminding us that film director Franco Zeffirelli and journalist Oriana Fallaci had scorned the demonstrators. They forgot to mention, however, that Nobel prize-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo had welcomed the protesters with open arms and actively participated in the forum.
We could put the dismal performance of the U.S. reporters down to defensiveness; however, the British press was also present on that day. The BBC not only ran a very good article on the forum and demonstration, but they also posted a collection of photos from the Florence protest. One of the photos was captioned: “Enemy number one for most of the demonstrators was US President George W Bush.” Nor did they spare Tony Blair: “…the message behind the rally was a serious one: ‘Take your war and go to hell,’ one banner read. ‘Bush, Blair and Berlusconi–assassins’ said another.”
The BBC was not alone. The U.K. Independent also had a reporter in Florence, while The Guardian of London reprinted an edited version of Luke Baker’s Reuters article.
There’s no excuse for the U.S. press to have done such a terrible job reporting on the Florence demonstration. But, as usual, the whole world was watching–except for us.