When the Press Laughs At You

IMF and World Bank protesters wanted serious coverage, but got guffaws from reporters instead.


In theory, the decision by some anti-globalization protesters to stage a classic Washington press conference Tuesday was a good idea. Incensed that media coverage of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings scheduled for late September have focused on the potentially violent protests, more moderate anti-globalization forces decided it was time to talk policy. Organizers from the Mobilization for Global Justice donned ties instead of tie-dyes. They even reserved a room at the National Press Club. Despite their best efforts, however, things got ugly in a hurry. Ornery reporters repeatedly laughed at speakers during an extended Q&A, while legitimate concerns over international "development policies" once again took a back seat.

Organizers underestimated the level of press interest, and overestimated their own ability to control the media. The conference room was not nearly big enough; a score of TV cameramen shoehorned their equipment into the last two rows of seats, while reporters quickly filled every available chair, the floor in front of the podium, and then the hallway outside the room.

Robert Weissman, co-director of Essential Action (an arm of Essential Information, a group founded by Ralph Nader in 1982) kicked things off with four demands for the IMF and the World Bank: Open all meetings to the media and the public; cancel all Third World debt; end all policies that threaten food distribution, the right to organize unions, etc.; and end all "environmentally destructive" projects such as oil exploration. Stephen Kretzmann, campaigns coordinator at the left-leaning Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, criticized the IMF and World Bank for subsidizing wealthy energy corporations such as Exxon. Liz Butler, a "professional environmental organizer" working with Mobilization for Global Justice, called for a "C-SPAN for the IMF and World Bank" to shine some light on how they operate.

When reporters got their turn, things quickly deteriorated. One of the first queries came from a seemingly angry reporter who noted that while protesters call for open meetings, they regularly close their own off to reporters. Media representatives literally burst into laughter as Butler tried to draw a distinction between "international" organizations such as the IMF and "grassroots efforts" like the MGJ. They laughed again when she argued that the protesters' organizational meetings were open to everyone despite being off the record.

Another reporter asked how the protesters planned to keep things focused on the issues while the potentially violent protests were underway. Weissman said from the beginning that the panel would not address violence or the nature of the protests because leaders wanted to keep the media focused on their four demands. He scolded reporters for ignoring the sins perpetrated by the IMF and the World Bank, and reiterated the panel's refusal to discuss the protests until press conferences scheduled for later in the month: "In fact, I'm going to insist on it," he said. Reporters greeted this statement with titters and a few mocking "oohs" and "aahs." "This is a press conference," one angry foreign reporter fumed at the speakers. "Are you going to let us ask questions or not?"

Later, panelists froze when a reporter asked them to point out a successful economic model for Third World aid if the one in use now is so obviously flawed. Joanne Carter, legislative director of Results, a grassroots organization aimed at poverty, finally offered the "Asian Tigers" as an economic success story that emerged without the help of the IMF or the World Bank. True or not, Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan regime seems an odd model for modern labor and environmental activists to follow. Reporters audibly expressed their surprise.

Both sides deserve at least some of the blame for the grumpy, hour-long impasse. First, the protesters are right: the media has spilled rivers of ink over a few violent protesters. It might have been better to explore decades of mismanagement at the World Bank and the IMF. On the other hand, protesters should know that when up to 100,000 people plan to descend on the nation's capital, the media is going to ask a few questions. They won't wait until next week's press conference. Excluding the media from strategy sessions, then complaining when the IMF and World Bank do the same, only makes matters worse.

So is the media being unfair? Check out the other side at the Independent Media Center, a comprehensive attempt to bypass mainstream coverage. It's better than waiting for reporters and protesters to make nice, if Tuesday's press conference is any indication. To see how the local daily handled the event, check here; six sticks buried in the Metro section, much of it given to IMF and World Bank rebuttals.