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News ::
Media Bias Past and Present: Two Controlled Experiments
07 Feb 2002
In 1975, two genocides took place; one in Cambodia, the other in East Timor. Two things set these massacres apart: the level of coverage by the media and the relation between the USA and the two regimes. It was a rare occurrence of history setting up a controlled experiment. This Sunday, another occurred in the streets of New York and Boston.
In 1975, two genocides took place; one inflicted upon the Cambodia people by their ruler Pol Pot, the other on the people of East Timor by Indonesia's General Suharto. In Cambodia, one million people were killed, one seventh of their population. In East Timor, 200 000 people were killed, one fourth of their population (According to United Nations figures).

Two things set these massacres apart. The first was the level of coverage by the corporate media. Pol Pot's actions were relentlessly attacked, while Suharto's were virtually ignored. During 1975-1979, Cambodia had a total of 1,175 index column inches printed by the New York Times, while Timor only received 70 total index column inches.

The second difference was the relation between the US government and the two regimes. The US was hostile to the Khmer Rouge who formed Cambodia's Communist government. On the other hand, Indonesia was a stalwart US ally. In fact, the US had supplied 90% of the arms used by Indonesia in East Timor.

As MIT Professor Noam Chomsky remarked, it was a rare occurrence of history setting up a controlled experiment. The experiment conclusively demonstrated the media's bias in support of American government policy. This past Sunday, another such controlled experiment occurred. Demonstrators took to the streets in New York, and football fans took to the streets in Boston. Both groups converged in major American cities, lacked a permit to assemble, blocked traffic, and made a lot of noise.

In New York, a single window was broken, and red paint spilled. At another march the Police weren't even sure if the demonstrators were behaving illegally, an officer quoted by the New York Times remarked, "Are they violating the law? Give them a chance to violate the law". Eventually it was decided that they were, and a Police officer blared through a bullhorn, "You are creating a disturbance. You are blocking pedestrian traffic. If you do not walk one or two abreast, you will be arrested." The Police then made 60 arrests.

In Boston, a car was flipped over on Hemingway Street while 300 kids looked on chanting "Fuck Bin Laden!" The Boston Globe reported that they wrote "World Champions" in spray paint on the side of buildings and stopped their cars in city streets. Shortly after the game, bemused police officers watched as a young man danced on top of a police van. Fox News reported that one Police officer had been hit in the head with a bottle.

Other than the severity of the disturbances, two things set the events apart. Firstly, the New York demonstrations were political in nature; it was a demonstration against Animal cruelty, which occurred on the same weekend as massive protests against the World Economic Forum. In Boston, it was football fans ecstatic to see their team win.

The second difference was in the tone of the media coverage given to the two groups. In an article on the front page of the Boston Globe, the revelers were referred to as "long-suffering fans who are a little out of practice when it comes to celebrating a championship". They mentioned a student arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, but carefully added, "there were no serious injuries and no property damage". A New York Times article mentioned 10 arrests, for "minor infractions".

The New York demonstrators were blasted for being "extremists". A New York Times article repeated a police assertion that the demonstrators "were about to attack the police". The same article quoted police commissioner Kelly talking about "a small group of hard-core protesters who have attempted to cause trouble" The economist accused Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty of being "a group of terrorists who should be cleaned up along with Al Qaeda". Others were pegged as "self described anarchists who wished to recreate Seattle".

In general, articles about Boston focused on the Patriots victory, and downplayed the violence and arrests. Articles about New York focused on the sole incident of property destruction and the large number of arrests. "150 Arrests Far From Economic Forum" was the title of the New York Times article. Articles about the demonstrators all but ignored the motivations for the actions, other than making sure everyone knew they were political in nature. Demonstrators regularly point out such biased coverage, but only rarely is it as obviously visible as it was last weekend.
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