Some say the media missed an important moment during the big late-summer White House protest. Now, another media test looms, with a second protest scheduled for November 6.

Between late August and early September 2011, more than 1,200 demonstrators were arrested for peacefully protesting in front of the White House against the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would, subject to U.S. State Department approval, connect TransCanada Corp.’s extraction operations in the Alberta oil sands to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The arrest count was touted by organizers — the event was largely coordinated by the Tar Sands Action group — as among the highest in recent memory for an American environmental protest, perhaps the most in decades.

Protesters play back the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ language from President Obama’s 2008 campaign with the White House in the background.  Photo credit

The protest received mentions in many print/online outlets, but scant in-depth coverage among broadcast outlets. Among those broadcast outlets that did touch on the matter were the PBS NewsHour, NPR (both “All Things Considered” and affiliate shows), FOX News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” Current, and MSNBC. CBS and ABC News ran wire copy — both AP and Reuters syndicated articles — or wrote stories for their websites.

In sum, though there was significant coverage, the demonstration did not receive a big spot on the major nightly news networks, nor did it receive a standalone, internally produced news write-up in either The New York Times — editors there used a GreenWire story, but did editorialize against the pipeline — or in The Washington Post (see these letter-to-the-editor complaints).

A Dime for Every Canadian Interview

“It was a good thing it was two weeks long,” Bill McKibben, organizer and chief spokesman for the protest, told The Yale Forum in a recent interview, “because it took a while for most of the press to notice. In fairness, it was the last two weeks of August. As time went on, interest built considerably — we succeeded in making it a national issue pretty convincingly, and putting Obama on the spot. In general, elite media did a reasonable job, and the TV networks not so much.”

Being arrested was something of a badge of honor for XL Pipeline protesters. Photo credit

Among those arrested were NASA scientist James Hansen, whose assertion that approval of the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate was the protest’s rallying cry; actress Daryl Hannah; former Obama staffers; and movement spokespersons like activist and writer Naomi Klein and McKibben himself. The action was, by most accounts, precisely planned and run by people who had a good grasp of public relations. It was neither disruptive of life in Washington, D.C., nor confrontational.

This video of Hannah being arrested, as a Civil Rights-era song is sung by protestors, gives a flavor of the orderliness of the event:

McKibben, whose career began to transition about a decade ago from environmental writer-with-a-conscience to full-fledged climate campaigner, has in the past shown his entrepreneurial flair for organizing, particularly through his group (That group has continually staged impressive worldwide actions, most recently with “Moving Planet” day on September 24; on its website, characterizes its 2009 global mass action as follows: “CNN called it ‘the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.’”)

“I think, like the police, the [U.S.] press didn’t really believe that we could turn people out to get arrested on the scale we did, and so for a good long while they paid little attention,” McKibben recalled. “But eventually they got better. A contrast is with the Canadian press, which covered the heck out of it from the start — if I had a dime for every talk I did with some CBC station somewhere, I could have paid the $100 fine.”

Norms of Newsworthiness … and Bleeding Leads

In an interview with The Yale Forum, sociologist William Gamson, scholar of social activism at Boston College, where he also co-directs the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP), said this pattern of coverage fits with longstanding trends in terms of how the news media cover protests.

“Norms of newsworthiness focus on a sensationalism that is not present in peaceful demonstrations or even in orderly cases of civil disobedience in which no one is hurt,” Gamson wrote in an e-mail. “‘If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead’ is the conventional wisdom, which seems to fit quite well. My understanding is that the relations between the police and demonstrators were proper and cordial, even during the arrests. The demonstrators might have done better in terms of media coverage by making use of street theater to dramatize their cause. This provides some novelty and visuals of the sort that the media find attractive and increases its ‘newsworthiness.’”

Did ‘proper and cordial, even during the arrests’ make the demonstration less newsworthy? Would ‘street theater’ have been more appealing for TV? Photo credit:

Gamson, however, noted that the pipeline protest was a “very important action” and said that the message nevertheless may have reached its target audience: “From the standpoint of the environmental movement, it is a litmus test for the Obama administration. If he lets this go ahead, it is hard to imagine any energy from environmental activists going into the presidential campaign, and it is likely to spill over into diminished enthusiasm for progressives in general. I’m not sure that the lack of immediate attention to this action really diminished its effectiveness very much since the message is likely to have gotten through to the Obama administration without the necessity of extensive media coverage.”

(The more general news environment and historical moment should also be noted: On August 26, the White House rolled out its final environmental impact statement on the pipeline, and the timing certainly lent urgency to the protests. However, the protests also fell within the all-consuming path of Hurricane Irene and in the wake of Congressional dysfunction and the debt ceiling debacle, among other events.)

University of Idaho assistant professor Patrick Gillham, who studies social movements and activism, told The Yale Forum that the protest seemed “really heavy in terms of celebrity,” but in order to achieve true success needed to build a larger “critical mass of coalitions” with more environmental groups. He suggested that the movement needs to garner more Beltway allies and politicians to increase its power in further protests.

Gillham also noted that, though the protest had not necessarily galvanized progressive communities in his area in the American West, Idaho is already seeing its own organic, local version of the protest — including arrests and civil disobedience — focused on the practice of shipping large equipment through Idaho to the Alberta oil sands, a practice called “megaloading.” Press coverage of the Idaho protests has been sustained, he noted, and overall the Idaho activism has constituted a “pretty significant protest given that we’re pretty isolated out here.”

It’s worth noting that Nebraska, too, is seeing significant activism on the oil sands issue.

We Shall Overcome…Some Day

Of course, America’s gold standard for social activism is the Civil Rights movement, a series of increasingly well-organized mass actions that led to local and national policy changes. It’s worth bearing in mind the parallels, and the lessons, as they are often evoked explicitly by those in the climate change movement.

Writer/activist Bill McKibben joins with those arrested at White House protests.  Photo credit

McKibben has written and stated many times that he believes the climate change fight is “as morally compulsory as the battles for civil rights.” Actress Hannah told Fox News in her August 31 interview: “If you look at any significant social movement in a historical context, the Suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, they all require a certain amount of civil disobedience or civil resistance.”

The civil rights movement, of course, ripened over many years before federal legislation finally emerged in the mid-1960s. As historians have observed, one of the movement’s key strategic moves was to, in a sense, train reporters to cover this beat — indeed, to force the media industry to “invent” a beat — and thereby shock the conscience of citizens outside the South with stories that featured civil disobedience and spotlighted police and vigilante violence.

Another key was the sheer relentlessness of protests, month after month, year after year.

But in terms of recent protests in America, it is surely those organized by libertarians and conservatives, not by those of the political left, that appear to have garnered the lion’s share of major media coverage. It’s too early yet to tell if the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests spreading across the country may be changing this dynamic.

Indeed, McKibben told The Yale Forum that, among the White House protesters, the “contrast everyone kept drawing was: what if the Tea Party had shown up and done something similar? In which case, I bet the [D.C. protests] would have been covered a lot more closely.”

The modest and somewhat limited press coverage of the August-September 2011 protest raises serious questions about whether the media missed the moment. But that is history now. With another Tar Sands Action group protest being organized for November 6 at the White House, a second test of this new, evolving press-protest dynamic looms.

John Wihbey

John Wihbey, a writer, educator, and researcher, is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a correspondent for Boston Globe Ideas. Previously, he was an assistant director...