Like many of my friends, I’m excited about marching in the People’s Climate Change March this Sunday in New York City. Organizers are hoping it will be the largest demonstration in history in support of solutions to climate change. The march on Manhattan’s West Side coincides with the start of the United Nations 2014 Climate Summit two days later.
By the grace of good luck, the Peoples Climate Change March and the U.N. summit come on the heels of a new study that demonstrates what anyone with common sense should have always known: that weaning the world’s economy off carbon-based fuels will not wreck the economy. For years, intellectual factotums of the oil and electrical generation industries have insisted that replacing carbon-based fuels with solar and wind power would hurt the economy. Their arguments didn’t take into account that designing, making and servicing solar and wind equipment created jobs or that using less oil, coal and natural gas saved money that companies and individuals could spend, creating jobs elsewhere in the economy.
I haven’t marched in a demonstration since 2008, so I’m psyched! I’m hoping that the turnout runs into the hundreds of thousands.
But be it the largest climate change demonstration or a bust, the success of the march will depend less on how many and who walks and more on the attitude of the news media. The news media will define how many people showed up, and their numbers often stray from reality. The news media will determine whether the march is forgotten three years later or goes down in history.
I first learned this lesson during the Viet Nam War era—my youth—when the news media underestimated the attendance at every antiwar demonstration in the early years of protest—before the media followed the country and started to oppose the war.
The 2010 election exemplifies how the new media can make or break a march. There were three marches and demonstrations on Independence Mall in Washington DC during the election season:
- March of Tea Party organized by and featuring Glen Beck
- March of progressives organized by unions
- March organized by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the Comedy Central which was also a demonstration for progressive causes.
Despite the fact that the most reputable estimator, the one used by CBS—AirPhotosLive—estimated all three demonstrations to have attracted 75,000-100,000, the two progressive demonstrations are lost to history already, while the Tea Party affair is mentioned in virtually all contemporary recounting of the 2010 election.
The mainstream media virtually ignored the union demonstration in the weeks before it occurred, whereas it orchestrated a build-up for the Tea Party demonstration more suited to the first inauguration of a president who won in a landslide.
An apt analogy, since some right-wing liars claimed that as many people attended the rally as made the scene at Barack Obama’s first inauguration—just less than 2.0 million, a number that injected new meaning into the expression, the big lie.
Aided and abetted by the right-wing media, mainstream newspapers tended to float a number of figures for the Tea Party demonstration—the favorite being 400,000. But never did a mainstream print publication claim any number above 100,000 without attributing to someone suspect—nor did most right-wing media for that matter. It was a mass example of the Matt Drudge effect, which occurs when instead of reporting something scurrilous and unprovable, a mainstream reporters says that someone with a poor record of reliability said it, someone like Matt Drudge or the late Andrew Breitbart.
It was the mainstream news media that overhyped the Tea Party’s 2010 Washington DC demonstration, the mainstream news media that irresponsibly misreported the numbers, the mainstream news media that ignored the demonstration of progressives organized by the unions and the mainstream’s leading pundits who have made the Tea Party march a major political milestone in 21st century politics.
As much as I wish for a large turnout at the Peoples Climate Change March on Sunday, I wish harder that recent studies, extreme weather and polar melting have convinced the ownership of the mainstream media to like the march and embrace the cause by reporting accurately.