13 Jun, 2024


The mainstream media distorted our anti-Vietnam War protests 50 years ago. They’re following the same strategy today


Fifty years ago, I joined in protests against the Vietnam war. Today the mainstream media is smearing pro-Palestine student protests in ways that are even worse than how we were slandered back then.

(Phrases set in bold and underlined by PAJU)

Fifty years ago, I was one of the many thousands of students and others who joined in regular nationwide protests against the Vietnam War. I was arrested twice; the second time, in August 1972, we disrupted Richard Nixon’s renomination at the Republican Convention in Miami, and I was one of the more than a thousand demonstrators who spent several days afterwards locked up in the Dade County Stockade.

What is striking is that today’s mainstream media efforts to smear the pro-Palestine student protests are so eerily similar to how we were slandered back then. Here is the current strategy, evident on TV news and in more highbrow outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic magazine.

  1. Top priority: Ignore the actual events that are prompting the demonstrations. Today, say little or nothing about Israel’s murderous and ongoing attack on Gaza.
  2. Ignore the substance of the student demands. Don’t mention “divestment.” (Never cite the call for nonviolent Boycott Divestment Sanctions.)
  3. Distort protester behavior; portray them as violent, in word and deed. The new twist now is to also smear them as antisemitic.
  4. And spend most of your time maligning the students’ character. Today, as back then, call them “privileged” or “naive,” or worse. Blame “outside agitators.”

Dana Bash’s now notorious mid-day report on CNN last week was only the most extreme example of bias. She actually compared the campus protests to the rise of Hitler’s Germany: “[The protests are] . . . hearkening back to the 1930s in Europe. And I do not say that lightly. The fear among Jews in this country is palpable right now.”

But other mainstream news reports were only slightly less obviously distorted. Take, for instance the night of April 30 at the UCLA campus. Eyewitnesses, including faculty members, testified that a band of violent pro-Israel counter-demonstrators attacked the peaceful protesters’ encampment for several hours, while campus police and California law enforcement just stood idly by; there was film and photos of injuries. But much of the print press and the TV news reported the events as “clashes,” without blaming the pro-Israel mob. (You can get an accurate report at UCLA’s college paper, the Daily Bruin.)

I was also personally present for some of the police violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. Much of the press back then followed the same playbook, exaggerating violence by the antiwar demonstrators and exonerating the police. Get ready for the same treatment this summer, when the Democrats convene in Chicago once again. 

But arguably even worse this time around is the media’s refusal to report the student protesters’ demands. You have to search carefully to see that the students have two connected requests: 1) Colleges should disclose their holdings in companies that provide Israel with weapons of war and other support, and 2) Colleges should then publicly divest from those holdings. 

Anyone who followed Israel/Palestine before October 7 will recognize that the broad-based nonviolent movement for Boycott Divestment Sanctions has been calling for the same steps for several decades. By now, the mainstream should have profiled this movement, including pointing out how various state and local governments have passed legislation that handcuffs even calls for BDS. So far, nothing. (One interesting exception. In 2019, the estimable Nathan Thrall somehow smuggled a fair-minded report on BDS into the New York Times magazine. He’s on the scene back in the occupied West Bank. Why not ask him to update his report?)  

What’s more, the mainstream is downplaying and ignoring the news from Gaza itself.

In the Atlantic, George Packer published an entire attack on the students without writing the word “Gaza” one single time. Michael Powell, also in the Atlantic, visited the Columbia campus to distort and condescend. He did meet Layla Saliba, a Palestinian-American graduate student, who told him she had lost family members in Gaza. He wrote that she talked to him “at length and with nuance,” but he didn’t bother to quote her directly, other than when she said: “We are not anti-Jewish, not at all.” (Layla Saliba does have plenty to say. She’s on X, formerly Twitter, @itslaylas) 

Instead of reporting on the demands and Israel’s ongoing mass killing in Gaza, the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on narrow details. At CNN, Anderson Cooper made a fool of himself when the police finally cracked down on the Columbia campus on April 30; he demanded that his reporters on the scene document every move by the police, as if we were watching a complicated football play or a choreographed dance movement — but he failed to note that the police had moved all of the press out of camera range so they would have few witnesses when they went into the occupied building.

(The press’s narrow obsession with police-protester maneuvering brought back one of my memories from the 1972 antiwar demonstrations in Miami. When I was arrested, I happened to be in an area where there were many reporters. I was handcuffed with zip-ties, and as I was being loaded with dozens of others into a police van, the reporters all asked: “How are the police treating you?” To my credit, I answered, “The police are not our enemies. Nixon and the war criminals are our enemies.” This quote actually went viral, appeared in many press accounts, and was later read on the air by at least one famous TV anchorman.)

Finally, another nearly perfect parallel between 50 years ago and now is the mainstream obsession to find fault with the character of the student protesters. Like today’s students, we were called privileged, spoiled and naive. One nearly forgotten analysis actually blamed us on the child-rearing practices  promoted by Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician whose Baby and Child Care (1946) was a huge selling guidebook for young parents back in the 1950s and 60s. Spock was indicted for promoting permissive parenting techniques, which supposedly explained our immaturity. (Spock himself, an outstanding and humane man, actually came out against the war in Vietnam and joined in many protests.)

The anti-student slanders actually lost impact, however, as the war in Vietnam continued and others who were not students joined in the antiwar movement. By those 1972 Miami demonstrations, the protest’s leaders were actually the members of an extraordinary organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). At the front line of those Miami marches were several vets who were in wheelchairs because they had been wounded in combat, including two moral giants named Bobby Muller and Ron Kovic. Behind them marched more vets, including others with canes and missing limbs, most of them wearing their old military fatigues. The rest of us, a thousand strong, followed them.

The successors to Bobby Muller and Ron Kovic are emerging today. The American college students, who are being arrested and risking their futures because their consciences won’t let them stay quiet. 

The mainstream media distorted our anti-Vietnam War protests 50 years ago. They’re following the same strategy today – Mondoweiss

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