Making A Difference

From The Streets Into The Studio

On a blustery Sunday morning outside the CBS studio in Washington, D.C., I shared a moment with veteran television journalist Bob Schieffer that spoke volumes about the sad state of democracy and journalism in the United States...

From The Streets Into The Studio

On a blustery Sunday morning outside the CBS studio in Washington, D.C., I shared a moment with veterantelevision journalist Bob Schieffer that spoke volumes about the sad state of democracy and journalism in theUnited States.

Schieffer was inside, behind the glass wall. I was outside on the sidewalk with an antiwar contingentorganized by the women's peace group Code Pink waiting to ask oneof Schieffer's guests on "Face the Nation" that morning -- Secretary of State Colin Powell --questions about U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

For a brief moment, Schieffer approached the window to get a look at us. He smiled. I smiled back andpointed to my sign, "From the streets into the studio." I gestured to him to come outside to talk."I'll explain my sign," I said. He smiled, perhaps unable to hear me through the thick glass wall."C'mon out," I said, waving and smiling to reassure him we weren't dangerous. "Let'stalk."

Schieffer smiled again, waved, and walked away. Shortly after that Powell arrived, ignoring our requestthat he take a moment to talk with us. (At least Powell came in through the front door. We had started the dayat ABC, where the guest for "This Week," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, entered the studio ina car through the garage to avoid us.) About 15 minutes later, Schieffer began his interview with Powell bysaying:

"Yesterday we saw tens of thousands of demonstrators converge on Washington. A fairly large crowd, Iwould say, a very large crowd considering that the weather was in the 20s. They say we should not go to waragainst Iraq. I would just like to ask you this morning, what do you say those people who say weshouldn't?"

I couldn't help but chuckle. Schieffer was invoking the antiwar movement and its sizable protest the daybefore, yet evidently he couldn't see a reason to take even a few seconds that morning to talk with real liveantiwar demonstrators outside his door.

If Schieffer had come out, I would have told him that the phrase on my sign was a condensed argument foropening up the dialogue on public-affairs shows such as "Face the Nation" to include more than justthe voices from the halls of power. No matter which network you tune to on Sunday morning, these talk showsoffer up a steady parade of government officials, military officers, retired government officials, retiredmilitary officers and the occasional academics or "experts" who mostly parrot the official view.

The previous day (Jan. 18), those of us on the sidewalk had been among the 200,000 protesters on theWashington mall, with tens of thousands more in cities all over the country, exercising our rights to assembleand speak. But if Schieffer -- and the other journalists making choices about whose voices get amplified ontelevision -- were doing their job responsibly, they would bring antiwar voices from the streets into thestudios. In addition to news stories about our demonstrations, they would include such critical voices intheir shows.

But, one might counter, can't journalists -- who claim to function as watchdogs of power -- ask the toughquestions that opponents of the war might ask? Yes, they could, but most often they don't. Throughout theinterview, Schieffer let Powell frame the issue and avoid difficult questions. Perhaps the single biggestfailure of the interview (available online at http://www.cbsnews. com/stories/2003/01/20/ftn/main537194.shtml)was that Schieffer focused entirely on inspections, which implicitly accepted the Bush administration claimthat a war against Iraq will be about the threat from weapons of mass destruction. Schieffer never questionedPowell about the desire of U.S. policymakers to consolidate control over the flow of oil and oil profits inthe Middle East. Might it not be relevant to ask the secretary if the weapons issue could be merely a pretextfor an invasion to establish a U.S. client state in Iraq? It's a question most of the world is asking.

At the antiwar rally on Saturday, that analysis was explored in speeches from the stage and conversationsall over the mall. It was a grand display of democracy in action; people engaged in spirited conversationabout public policy. But in a society where the majority of people get most of their information fromtelevision, it is crucial that such a more expansive debate make it on the air, that critics are not justtolerated in the streets but invited into the studio.

Not surprisingly, Powell responded to Schieffer's questions with the same pat answers that Bushadministration officials have been using for months as they try to explain why we need a war that virtuallythe whole world opposes. And, also not surprisingly, Schieffer never offered a serious challenge to Powell.

What might have happened if Schieffer had stepped outside to talk to us on the street? What might havehappened if he had allowed a representative of the antiwar movement into the studio to challenge Powell?

From my vantage point as a former newspaper journalist, a professor of journalism, and a citizen, I thinkSchieffer would have been doing his job more responsibly. And the American public would have learned more fromsuch a show than they did from Schieffer's polite, and mostly useless, interview with Powell.

Journalists often are willing to cover antiwar protests, and that's important. But, especially ontelevision, those stories almost never explore our evidence and arguments in sufficient depth. Perhaps that iswhy much of America thinks our analysis is about as deep as the slogans on a sign at a rally.

What if we were allowed routinely into the television studios to speak for ourselves? Not only might thepublic's view of protesters and the antiwar movement change, but the debate over the war would be enriched andthe American people would be better informed.

My advice to Schieffer and his colleagues: Next time you see a group of people willing to wait in the coldoutside your studio to make a political point, take a chance and open the door. We don't bite, and we've got alot to say.

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