Missing Stories from the Streets: Why Weren’t the Pittsburgh G-20 Protests Better Covered?

“Over 4,000 cops from around the country occupied my hometown,” wrote a Pittsburgh native a week after the September G-20 Summit focusing on the global financial and economic crisis was held in the city, along with expected protests. “They brought a lot of expensive and dangerous cop toys ($20 million worth). I knew they’d find some excuse to use them all, and they did.”

This wasn’t CNN doing the expected, necessary follow-up to the September 24 protests, at which one of their crews was exposed to tear gas on a public street. It was folksinger and activist Anne Feeney, who found it “depressing and distressing” to see a city under martial law. Her blog, Fellow Traveler’s Advisory, filled in key gaps in the mainstream news coverage, as did that of her touring partner, David Rovics, whose blog is called Songwriter’s Notebook. “There is a popular assumption asserted ad nauseam by our leaders in government, by our school textbooks, and by our ‘mainstream’ media that although many other countries don’t have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—such as Iran or China—we do, and it’s what makes us so great,” writes Rovics in his September 28 post, “The Police Are Rioting.” He goes on to explain that the ACLU had filed lawsuits to force local authorities to grant assembly permits sought by state senators, peace groups, and women’s groups months in advance of the summit. “It doesn’t say anything about applying for a permit in the First Amendment,” states Rovics, “and in many more democratic countries…no permit is required for citizens to assemble.”

The G-20 summit in Pittsburgh was classified as a National Special Security Event, one the Department of Homeland Security considers an attractive target for terrorists. According to the DHS, when something is designated as an NSSE, the Secret Service assumes responsibility “for the design and implementation of the operational security plan.” For three days the news coverage lacked a “big-picture” view of what this actually entailed. However a number of independent online news sites ran Bill Quigley’s “Street Report from the G-20” in the days following. In it, Quigley, an attorney and the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote:

What no terrorist could do to us, our own leaders did. …Helicopters crisscrossed the skies. Gunboats sat in the rivers. The skies were defended by Air Force jets. Streets were barricaded by huge cement blocks and fencing. Bridges were closed with National Guard across the entrances. Public transportation was stopped downtown. Amtrak train service was suspended for days. In many areas, there were armed police every 100 feet. Businesses closed. Schools closed. Tens of thousands were unable to work.

Police maintained they were forced into action after protestors repeatedly ignored their requests to disperse. Nearly 200 people were arrested and the local Citizens Police Review Board had received fifty complaints of excessive force by Monday.

Citizens without access to multiple internet tools or media-savvy contacts knew nothing about the true extent of the police and Secret Service action—not just tear gas but pepper spray, the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), rubber bullets, and batons to the back. The scant news coverage also lacked proper context. It was stereotypical, repetitive, and misleading. What was the reason for emphasizing two men with scarves on their faces wheeling a garbage bin toward police while de-emphasizing the gassed CNN crew?

Compare this to the 1968 coverage of what was later ruled a police riot in Chicago. We were shown the whole spectacle, even Mayor Richard Daley’s infamous comment to the press: “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all—the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” I was reminded of this quote and also targeted network reporters like Dan Rather and John Chancellor when I learned about the great difficulty David Rovics had posting “The Police Are Rioting.” Must we really depend upon our Facebook friends and their blogs to learn what was happening in Pittsburgh?

In fact, the weekend of September 26 and 27 would have been a good time for all media outlets to consider questions about:

  • Northern Command, the wildly unregulated post-9/11 Pentagon creation housed within Homeland Security;
  • The use of LRAD, which temporarily blinds and/or renders victims unconscious, can cause permanent hearing loss and, before Pittsburgh, had only been used by the Russian government on its own civilians;
  • Protocol for local, state, and military cooperation during National Security Special Events; and the related
  • Proper Use Memoranda. (I still don’t know what such memoranda allow the government to do, and I should. We all should.)

I only learned that these matters were related to the Pittsburgh situation by watching video of a news conference held on Monday, September 28, at the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh to discuss violations of the rights of journalists and activists during the G-20 summit protests. Mainstream media even ignored the Merton Center’s discussion of the Posse Comitatus Act banning the use of federal military personnel for law enforcement within the United States. With help from the NSSE classification, the doctrine is clearly being twisted, independent journalists said.

Seems like a story worth pursuing. But it wasn’t. After all, corporate media knows its audience. What would they deem worthy of in depth and extensive coverage? That’s right—the “Balloon Boy” saga.

In case you forgot, Richard Henne, a self-styled inventor and father of a reality television acting family in Ft. Collins, Colorado, called the local television news outlets in a panic. His six-year-old son, Falcon, was possibly stowed away in a runaway homemade UFO-shaped helium balloon. Helicopters, ATVs, even horses got involved after an empty balloon landed and the boy was feared to have fallen mid-flight.

Later, when his parents found him hiding in the house, the story might have died. However, in a CNN interview, the little boy said he had not come when called because “You guys said that we did this for the show.” As the story’s coverage continued well into the next week, we learned that the whole thing was a ploy for landing a reality-show contract. The next news cycles were filled with great speculation about prosecution and fines to reimburse police for their rescue efforts.

Balloon Boy was not a story that could set precedent for free speech and assembly in America. Yet it received a great deal of news industry discussion and analysis. For instance, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher, blogging even before the hoax suspicions arose, complained that for over an hour only the BBC used the word “reportedly” in regards to the lad’s presence in the balloon.

Similarly, Arianna Huffington belittled the “voyeuristic” news judgment and was berated for a third of her airtime on MSNBC’s The ED show. She later blogged that Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union President who’d been preempted, laughed his way out of the green room considering all the other important issues abandoned that day. Norman Lear, writing on Huffington Post, blamed all the major networks for the current mushy border between entertainment and news that “all but seduces a Richard and Mayumi Heene into believing they are—even if what they dream up to qualify is a hoax—entitled to their fifteen minutes.”

Aren’t today’s “agitators” entitled to at least that much attention? The songwriters who helped provide the first real news about the Pittsburgh G-20 protests think so. Rovics reminds us that so-called labor agitators and others brought us things like “Social Security, a minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and other reforms.” Feeney offers this lament:

Meanwhile the G20 will implement policies that will cause massive environmental degradation, starvation, shortages, riots, unemployment, fiscal instability and the elimination of essential social services around the world…and no cop will be on hand to stop that pillaging.

Indeed, who will be on hand to cover it?

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