Weapons of Mass Persuasion

Anti-war TV challenges the corporate media “consensus”

By March 19, the major TV networks had done their advance work well. After months of promotion, millions of US viewers were eagerly anticipating a prime time extravaganza. Anxious for the catharsis of a neatly crushed Iraqi military, they watched with “shock and awe” as US and British forces launched their long-awaited sequel – Gulf War II. 

However, there’s another US public, one not so eager or united. Due largely to advances in personal computing and electronic communications, opposition to the latest US-led war spread rapidly before it began. Although much has been written about the impact of the Internet on anti-war organizing, relatively little has been said about the advent of anti-war TV. Yet this recent development has informed, expanded, and mobilized the ranks of the movement while engaging millions who otherwise would be forced to rely on the empty, often inaccurate drivel of mainstream TV.

After years of concerted effort, activist media makers have built independent networks that reflect a commitment to progressive values, public education, and participatory democracy. Here is a brief history of the anti-war TV movement since the 1991 Gulf War.

Alternative Analysis

National television outlets rarely if ever offer in-depth analysis of US foreign and domestic policy, not to mention shows that document organized opposition. Filling this vacuum as the 1990s began, one of the first anti-war TV campaigns to air nationally was The Gulf War Crisis TV Project, the first series designed to mobilize people against US imperialism in Iraq and the Middle East. Produced by a large-scale collaboration of filmmakers, peace activists and war resistors, it was distributed over public access TV by the Deep Dish collective, and broadcast on the 90’s Channel, the first full-time progressive network to air independent productions on cable systems around the country.

In 1995, this independent network was forced off the air by TCI, then the world’s largest cable system. TCI was legally obliged to offer the channel a lease renewal. But the price was astronomical, and the FCC declined to order a reduction. Instead, 90’s Channel co-founder John Schwartz launched a new initiative called Free Speech Television (FSTV). Unable to acquire a full-time cable channel, FSTV began distributing free progressive programming to a network of 50 community access cable stations.

During this formative period, FSTV’s content included programs acquired from independent film and videomakers. America’s Defense Monitor, one of the first series to air on FSTV, is still broadcast today. Produced by the Center for Defense Information, this show presents critical analyses of US foreign policy, military expansion, nuclear and conventional weapons, and international affairs.

At the edge of the new century, an unprecedented convergence of anti-globalization activists, video collectives, print journalists, and photographers at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle created the first Independent Media Center (IMC). Enhancing audience access, it operated in collaboration with Paper Tiger TV, Deep Dish TV, Whispered Media, and Free Speech TV, and produced a daily televised report on the street protests and police repression surrounding that WTO meeting. The tremendous impact of the first IMC inspired the formation of others on every continent. Today there are over 100, and thousands of new indy journalists who work with them.

Coinciding with the IMC movement, another progressive network was born when WorldLink TV acquired a channel on DirecTV and DISH Network, as part of the new federally mandated public interest obligation. In 1998, after years of struggle by media advocates, the FCC began enforcing a requirement that Direct Broadcast Satellite companies set aside four to seven percent of their spectrum for non-commercial educational uses.

WorldLink presents alternative perspectives, news from around the world, and international cultural programming. One of the most provocative shows is Mosaic, a compilation of daily reports from dozens of TV stations in the Middle East. WorldLink also airs a media criticism program hosted by Globalvision’s Danny Schecter. In January 2000, Free Speech TV was awarded a full-time satellite channel on DISH Network, and since then has provided free programming to its community cable affiliates.

Responding to Crisis

The events of September 11 and the US government’s war against Afghanistan compelled the independent media community to further solidify and expand its international network. Within nine days of the 2001 attacks, Free Speech TV began producing and broadcasting World in Crisis. A top-of-the-hour news update that evolved into a half-hour weekly current affairs program, it provides an outlet for people to speak out on peace, tolerance, and civil liberties.

Immediately after 9/11, journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of the nationally syndicated radio program Democracy Now! also launched telecasts on Free Speech TV. Presenting news and critical analysis, Democracy Now! is a vital forum for many of those excluded from mainstream media.

In July 2002, World in Crisis evolved into FSTV’s partner-driven Mobile-Eyes campaigns. For these national “teach-ins,” FSTV focuses on a single issue and partners with social justice organizations. Action alerts, along with public service announcements listing contact information, are broadcast as part of each Mobile-Eyes campaign.

FSTV’s November 2002 campaign, Mobile-Eyes against Military Interventions, focused on the history of US military interventions, the US as sole superpower, and the movement against war in Iraq. Among other programs, the series featured a roundtable discussion on the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive strikes, teach-in footage, recently released documentaries on US policy in the Middle East, and coverage of 15 anti-war demonstrations around the world. Partners included the American Friends Service Committee, International ANSWER, National Network to End the War in Iraq, and the Not In Our Name Project.

Critical Collaboration

FSTV’s latest campaign, Mobile-Eyes: Resisting War & Repression, has included live broadcasts (often with radio simulcasts via Pacifica Radio) from demonstrations in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Partners include the Institute for Policy Studies, United for Peace & Justice, Global Exchange, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and other groups opposing military intervention.

Shortly before the US invaded Iraq, WorldLink TV launched The Active Opposition, a series hosted by actor and activist Peter Coyote. It features analysis and commentary on the Bush administration’s war policies, critique of the mainstream media coverage, and footage from Middle East TV networks.

With the onset of war, both WorldLink and FSTV pre-empted their regular programming to provide round-the-clock coverage of the attacks, as well as the opposition and resistance. Collaborating with WorldLink TV and Pacifica Radio, FSTV produced two days of live coverage from the streets and studios of San Francisco, including interviews with movement leaders, and footage from Middle Eastern TV recording responses abroad.

Since September 2002, Democracy Now!, Pacifica Radio, WorldLink TV, FSTV, Multimedia Group, and the INN Report, an alternative news magazine produced in collaboration with New York indymedia activists, have mounted what can only be described as a historic initiative to provide the international community with a front-row seat to some of the largest anti-war demonstrations since the Vietnam War. Live satellite uplinks have shown millions of people around the world that the US is not unified on the invasion.

Toting camcorders, computers and satellite uplink equipment, people collaborate in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Not only are networks like Free Speech TV and WorldLink airing footage of peace rallies around the world, they’re also offering the international community free coverage of US anti-war mobilizations. In March alone, coverage produced by Pacifica, FSTV and WorldLink was downlinked by the European Broadcast Union, a network of about 80 community radio and public television stations, and the Arab Radio and Television Network, which operates a dozen channels throughout the Middle East.

FSTV producer Brian Drolet notes, “Most people around the world recognize that this war on Iraq, and the 12 years of bombings and sanctions that preceded it, has been orchestrated by a small number of ruling elites.”

Drolet argues that providing the world with the real story – that many people in the US don’t support their government’s belligerent policies, just as most Iraqis didn’t support  Saddam Hussein – will raise questions and legitimate the opposition before more lives are lost. The ultimate hope is that the cycle of violence can finally be stopped.