Berkeley Blog, Opinion

The false media focus on violence: If it bleeds it still leads

On Sunday, August 27, in downtown Berkeley, I witnessed thousands of protesters raising their voices against a planned white supremacist “Patriot Prayer” rally. In my decades as a documentary filmmaker of activism and now an academic studying movements and media, it was one of the most positive, diverse and unifying gatherings I ever experienced.

While I’m not naïve about the press, I was still shocked by the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day: “Masked anarchists violently rout right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” The accompanying photos also matched this slanted coverage. Sure enough, this was echoed in the Los Angeles Times: “Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm.” That narrative ricocheted around social media with video.

It was certainly true that after the “Patriots” marched into the crowd that Antifa responded with force. Now, we can debate the strategy of Antifa, but that isn’t really my point in this post. Rather, the narrow focus on what was in the end a relatively minor scuffle left the larger world with the impression that this had been “mayhem” and a “riot.”

What the news coverage missed: accuracy

That’s dangerous not just because it’s incorrect. the virtual blackout of the broader event was what struck me. None of the national mainstream news I saw represented the diversity of people and tactics that day. Fundamentally, the focus on violence feeds into the false narrative pushed by the far-right that there is some equivalence by extremists on the right and left.

The old trope of “If it bleeds, it leads” applies not just to the choice of events the media covers but how they cover an event. Focusing on violent stories is nothing new in journalism, from murders to disasters. And certainly the last decade’s decimation of newsrooms, leaving only a fraction of reporters left to cover events like this, could have played a factor.

But many of the outlets that sent reporters hovered around the center of town, rather than gathering the gamut of the people there. News trucks assembled at least four hours before the main rally, so they had time to get the real story. Or perhaps, it was the weekend or photo editor that made the mistake. Regardless, what was missing with much of the news media coverage of the Berkeley protest was accuracy. They were sensationalizing a small slice of what happened and crafted it into the entire story.

Frustrated about the disconnect between what I saw first-hand and the reporting, I posted a series of tweets that went viral.

Given the continued negative perception of that day, I was moved to expand and write about what I saw and heard that day. Here is what happened from my perspective.

As I climbed up the stairs from the downtown Berkeley BART station, I had to adjust my eyes to the light. On this rare sunny morning without the usual summer fog, I was surrounded by a throng of people with a jubilance that matched the bright day.

At the top of the stairs, volunteers directed the steady stream of people to one of several gathering points, depending on which march they wanted to go to. Most people were headed to the University of California, Berkeley, campus, so when I decided to go to another march at Ohlone Park, just north of downtown, I figured the numbers would be small, in comparison.

But when I approached the park, I saw a large number of protesters. They were gathering for the rally before the march to the main rallying point downtown where they would meet up with the other marches for a large rally. The first group I saw was a group of about 30 Jewish activists who prayed and sang while holding their signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “No Zionism. No Fascism. No Racism.” Throughout the day, I would see many different types of affinity groups like this one that came from a broad slice of Bay Area life.

Students, labor, anti-racist, religious and many other groups and individuals marched and converged to the center of Berkeley to fight white supremacy.

Here are a just a few of the “violent protesters” I saw as I walked around to the various marches and contingents: