Why Haven’t We Heard From Racial Justice Protesters in Their Own Words?

The US prides itself on its freedom of speech, but when it comes to television coverage of the protests, there has been remarkably little space given to demonstrators to voice their concerns or explain their motivations — a marked contrast to less liberal countries undergoing similar unrest.

A man waves a Black Lives Matter flag atop the CNN logo during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd, outside the CNN Center on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

When a North Carolina TV reporter attempted to film a group of protesters dragging statues honoring confederate soldiers through the streets of Raleigh earlier this month, many tried to block the camera with their hands and protest signs. At one point, a crew member pushed several angry protesters back with a tripod. One yelled out: “Where were you during the peaceful protests? If you didn’t show us being peaceful, don’t show us now!”

The reporter for WRAL in Raleigh, an NBC news affiliate, had followed a crowd of several hundred for hours on June 19, first as they strung up one of the statues to a traffic light, then as they heaved it up the steps of the state courthouse. Despite objections, the crew insisted on filming, albeit without seeking out any interviews from the crowd. In the end, the footage, which was streamed on the station’s local website, wasn’t picked up by any major network in the United States.

The scene is just one of several recent confrontations between activists and TV crews since the demonstrations erupted. Increasingly, these protests are being ignored by both national and local broadcasters; when they are televised, networks show little interest in truly exploring or understanding what motivates the demonstrators or the significance of the events sweeping the country. That the lynching of confederate statues was largely overlooked serves as a striking comparison with the American media’s mesmerized fascination with TV footage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003.

Reporter Dispatches

Having spent years attending and reporting on protests in the Middle East, I’ve witnessed the important role television has played in galvanizing crowds on the streets during the early months of the Arab uprisings.

When mass protests broke out in Lebanon last fall calling for the downfall of the government, television journalists stood in public squares for entire days and nights, passing the microphone around to dozens of protesters per hour. The demonstrators, fed up with cronyism and a lack of basic services, lined up around the cameras waiting patiently for their turn to speak; each was given a minute, sometimes longer, to express themselves live, uninterrupted. The cameras would zoom in on their faces, capturing every word. It was gripping, agonizing, powerful.

As a result, Lebanese audiences heard a wide range of testimonies from people otherwise kept off television screens. Workers, students, teachers, and mothers gave their own tearful accounts of injustice and everyday corruption. There were poetic, witty, and downright crude insults and chants leveled at the country’s politicians and political parties. Names were named. Expletives went uncensored. Sitting in front of your television at home, it felt like you were right there in the square.

Contrast this to TV coverage of the protests in the United States. Here, it is not the unpredictable, unknown voices of the crowd that lead the story, but the polished dispatches of reporters who consistently dominate the narrative.

While fleeting interviews with protesters do occasionally occur, the rallies are largely seen through the prism of brief correspondent dispatches, or “stand-ups,” each around two to five minutes long. Stories begin and end with reporters describing what they see around them, but without challenging their own perspective. The focus tends to be on the immediate actions of the police and crowd movements. The main interest is logistics, not politics.

Policing the Coverage

This tone-deaf attitude was felt most acutely during the attack on CNN headquarters in Atlanta, when windows were smashed and the trademark red letters defaced during the early days of protests in late May. In the wake of the violence, network anchors and reporters seemed to be at a loss for words. “This is terrible to witness,” a correspondent said breathlessly, shaking his head. “It’s ugly out there . . . Even the police officers seem nervous.” In another dispatch he elaborated: “This is not something you want to see in America.”

CNN prides itself on war reporting in far-flung corners of the world, but when the conflict arrived at the network’s own front door, crews filmed from several blocks away, well behind the safety of police lines. No real effort was made to interview the protesters, let alone address their “Fuck CNN” chants. Instead, the anger was portrayed as senseless overreaction, and established civil rights leaders were called up to condemn it.

This seemed to backfire during an Atlanta press conference, where the city’s mayor was joined by local celebrity rapper Killer Mike, who pleaded for calm. He added: “I love CNN . . . but what I’d like to say to CNN right now . . . Stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people so fearful. Give them hope!” This criticism was entirely cut out of the story when it appeared on CNN’s website, and Killer Mike’s remarks about the network were carefully edited out of rebroadcasts.

The disconnect with frustration on the streets may reflect the fact that most protest coverage takes place in the studio, where programming is narrated and carefully directed by show hosts and their legions of producers. The guests include the usual suspects: retired FBI agents, police commissioners, beltway analysts, and a dizzying number of incumbent officials such as mayors, governors, and members of congress. In Lebanon’s coverage, by contrast, pundits and politicians were nowhere to be found in the early weeks of the coverage. Protesters’ voices became the dominant ones. This in itself was a radical transformation.

It’s not that protesters are never heard in US coverage. There were a few powerful and spontaneous interviews, sometimes pursued by enterprising reporters, other times imposed upon the media by protesters themselves. In one case, an activist physically inserted himself in between an ABC reporter and the police officer he was interviewing, sensing the official view was going un-countered.

But these moments are rare, and most crowd interviews do not last much more than ten seconds, the standard length of a broadcast sound bite. These bites are then wrapped into recorded, heavily edited reports known as news packages. Officials, on the other hand, hold hour-long press conferences that are covered live in their entirety, as one suited or uniformed bureaucrat after another approaches the podium.

When the speeches end, roundtables of pundits — many of them people of color — return to discuss. But their trained professionalism allows only carefully worded critiques, often couched in hopes, platitudes, and aspirations. There is no talk of overthrowing the regime or any other deeply subversive activity.

Airtime as Political Currency

Why is so much airtime available for these pundits and officials and yet so little, by comparison, for average citizens? Why does US television in particular, with its celebrated free speech and press, do such a poor job covering protests by comparison with Lebanon?

Of course, everyone knows journalists and activists in the Middle East often face a great deal of violence and manipulation. These attacks make headlines and figure prominently in human rights reports and freedom indexes. Yet few may consider the more subtle methods of control that prevail in Western media and American television news in particular.

In the United States, broadcast news is a very disciplined production. The complicated events of daily life are commodified into segments one to five minutes long. Every word must be chosen carefully. There is little time for spontaneity like the meandering thoughts of an ordinary person.

Airtime is heavily guarded space; guests are carefully vetted and only the most polished and predictable get the privilege of more than a few minutes. Even during brief moments when a protester is heard live, the reporter almost always addresses them by name — they have already been prescreened to make sure their tone and demeanor is presentable for all audiences.

By contrast, a radical element in Lebanon’s uprising is that, in addition to the open mic segments, little-known activists have been getting a lot of airtime in regular studio programming, often appearing side by side with prominent officials. Entire new shows have been created to look into specific corruption topics. In the United States, the streets are filled with new voices, but few are given a chance to be heard in the mainstream media.

Lessons From Arab Media?

Coming from a place where political upheaval is frequent and encouraged, what fascinates me about protest coverage in the United States is the constant worry over social stability. When studio anchors do briefly address the question of the demonstrations, checking in with their correspondents, they often begin by asking: Is it peaceful? Reporters respond reassuringly, with superlatives: “It’s very peaceful.” A local California channel went so far as to claim protests were “extremely peaceful.” Studio anchors often rejoin: “Let’s hope it stays quiet over there.” For a society that prides itself on freedom and liberation, any attack on the pillars of power seems to be highly unpopular.

Perhaps if US media yielded airtime to the protests in the same way that so many Arab channels had, things would look different. Would it be too much to imagine Western media outlets could learn something from Middle East media?

Many will be quick to point out that Arab television is nothing short of propaganda. While this may have been true a decade or two ago, such a generalization ignores the changes happening in many of the region’s media channels and the critical role many played in fomenting popular protests. Of course, many pro-regime channels will continue to exist, some are subtle, others are as sycophantic and bombastic as Fox News, demonizing the protests or ignoring them altogether.

When seen up close, US protests actually look very similar to those that took place in Beirut and other Arab capitals. Beyond confrontations with police that become the focus of media attention, there is another story — kept off camera in the United States — of joyful protests with dancing, witty placards, artworks, and open mic forums. As in Lebanon, the US protests address deep social problems beyond the initial incident that sparked demonstrations.

At an open mic rally outside a local CBS affiliate station in Minneapolis, protesters chanted for the resignation of the head of the influential police union who is married to one of the channel’s main news anchors. One speaker called the station a “propaganda arm for law enforcement.”

The rally was not carried by major broadcasters but it aired live on Unicorn Riot, one of the many indie media outlets gaining popularity during the protests. Meanwhile, in Seattle, “Concrete Reporting” has been live for hours every day, interviewing activists and touring the protest space. The videographer recently described himself as a war correspondent: “I don’t want to overstate my position, but I have been teargassed four times. This is a race war, people are dying, and it’s black people.”

Not unlike the situation in Arab countries, conflict provides a training ground for new media channels and voices, making old ones increasingly obsolete. How will the mainstream adapt to this new reality? Are they capable of storytelling outside of violence and celebrity? Or will corporate media prove more intransigent than a powerful regime?

In Lebanon, despite the ongoing protests, there are still no signs of any significant political changes beyond cosmetic acts and promises for future reform. Similarly, Trump has provided toothless recommendations to address endemic police violence. Will the United States be very different a year or two from now?

What has become increasingly clear in both parts of the world is that people whose voices typically aren’t heard very much are now feeling very vocal and empowered. There is a new culture of reckoning, even defiance, in the demand for accountability, regardless of whether the mainstream media is on board or not.