If there was ever an example where "even-handed" does not mean "fair", we've seen it these last few weeks in the coverage of the police attacks on Occupy protesters.
The recent coast-to-coast violent crack-down on non-violent protesters, the like of which has not been seen in the United States in many years, differs in degree (but not in kind) from the suppression of dissent that President Obama and many other Americans denounced in Arab countries last spring.
But you would never know this from the coverage in the mainstream American media, which has been doing it's usual even-handed he-said/she-said thing. Protesters "clash with police" reports the New York Times, not specifying that protesters' eyes clashed with police pepper spray or that protesters' heads and stomachs clashed with police nightsticks. "Violence erupted" said New York Magazine, as if violence were some volcanic process independent of human decisions.
[from The Weekly Sift]
AllVoices anchor Veronica Roberts reported that Iraq veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull "after he was caught in the violence that erupted between police and protesters". Olsen was not "caught" in anything; he was protesting peacefully when police shot him in the head with a tear gas canister (perhaps intentionally). (He may have suffered brain damage and was still unable to speak several days later.)
Even this morning's NYT article about the coverage of Occupy Wall Street says nothing about the coverage of police attacks. The Times seems unaware that there could be an issue here.
But this shouldn't be a contest between my rants and the rants on Fox News. The only way to appreciate what is going on is to look at the pictures and watch the video for yourself. In this video, the camera-holder is slowly walking parallel to (and maybe 60 feet away from) a line of unthreatened Oakland police when one of them decides to shoot him with a rubber bullet -- apparently just because he can.
Here, a UC Davis policeman calmly pepper-sprays students who are sitting on the ground, immobile. Other police watch and do nothing. (BTW, you should see how this incident ends: Starting at about the 5 minute mark, the police see that the crowd is neither retreating nor attacking, and they start to lose their spirit and look confused. Using the human mic device, a protester invites them to retreat, and they do, leaving the quad in control of the protesters. It's a stunning example of how nonviolence works.)
At UC-Berkeley, students are peacefully behind a line of police who suddenly start using their nightsticks.
Here, a young woman with her hands at her sides, surrounded by people armed with nothing more than cameras, is pepper-sprayed in the face by police in riot gear. The LA Times reports the incident in he-said/she-said terms: "Occupy Portland organizers allege law enforcement took an inappropriate and heavy-handed approach."
I have read many claims by police that protesters threatened or assaulted them in some way. With all the video cameras out there, you'd think someone would capture assaults on police if they were really happening with any frequency. I've looked for such video, but I can't find it.
On YouTube, the query "occupy protesters assault police" led me to this local TV-news report from Toledo, which shows two protesters at a city council meeting "assaulting police" by flailing helplessly as they're being dragged away. So far that's the worst protester violence I've found video of.
In public-opinion terms, this "even-handed" coverage is anything but. Obviously, the reason there is an incident at all is because people are protesting, so if "violence erupts", the reader's natural inclination is to think that protesters caused it. Similarly, when ABC News reports that nine cities have already spent more than $10 million responding to the protests, the protesters seem to be to blame.
What actually costs money, though, is the cities' extreme now-look-what-you-made-me-do over-reaction to the protests. The protesters are not demanding to be surrounded by armies of police in riot gear earning overtime. City mayors and police chiefs are making those choices, which are justified by what, exactly? Where is the bad example of a city that under-responded and suffered some awful consequence?
Virtually every "problem" offered as an excuse to break up the occupation protests is actually made worse when the police attack. Are the protesters "trashing" the public parks? Well, here's what the Occupy Oakland site looked like the morning after the police violently "cleared" it.
Sure, the mayor had legitimate concerns about sanitation and safety, but have you looked around New York City? Many locations aren't so clean and safe, but there usually arent'hundreds of officers in riot gear showing up in the middle of the night to address the problem.
When the unprovoked and counter-productive violence of the authoritarian reaction is masked by "even-handed" coverage, though, the natural reaction of the news-watching public is to grumble at the protesters who are causing trouble and wasting their tax money.
And as the mainstream media coverage suffers from false equivalence and fake even-handedness, the coverage from the right-wing media -- Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, and (now that Murdoch owns it) the Wall Street Journal -- drips with vitriol.
For weeks, Fox News has pushed two related lines of propaganda on a daily basis: invoking a Woodstock drug-taking dirty-hippy stereotype of the protesters, and de-humanizing them by focusing on their animal functions -- urination, defecation, sex, etc. Karl Rove's Crossroads PAC has put out an anti-Elizabeth-Warren ad tying her to the occupations, where "protesters attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks."
Unsurprisingly, when one side's propaganda goes uncorrected, the other side's public image suffers. A PPP poll shows Occupy Wall Street's popularity declining.
This combined police-and-media attack exposes a long-term weakness in the Left: We lack solidarity. When media coverage goes against some group we sympathize with, we distance ourselves rather than stand up for them.
The Right has dug-in, billionaire-financed infrastructure, so it will defend its clan from media attacks (as it has done with Herman Cain) even if the target is clearly in the wrong (like BP). Compare the Left's reaction to the Dean Scream: Objectively, the scream meant nothing, but suddenly it was embarrassing to be associated with Dean, so his support melted.
It's important that those of us who sympathize with the goals of Occupy Wall Street not melt away. Ordinary Americans have started protesting against the way that the rich (especially the parasitic financial community, which on the whole adds little if anything to our economy) have captured all the economic growth. In response, the rich have leaned on City Hall to call out the police to rough them up (except in New York, where no leaning was necessary because a finance-industry billionaire already is City Hall), and the corporate media has covered these events in a way that distributes the blame unfairly on the protesters.
We can't let that be the end of the story.