Last Thursday, fast food workers in over 100 cities carried out their largest mass protest in history. The protests built upon similar events held in 50 cities in August. The national media wrote advance stories on the plight of low-paid fast food workers which even before the protests occurred helped revive national focus on rising inequality in the United States.
And considering that the December 5 fast food protests were large, boisterous, and colorful, they would have dominated evening news broadcasts and the following day’s newspapers but for an unforeseen development: legendary freedom fighter Nelson Mandela died in South Africa during the protests.
Mandela’s death understandably dominated television news for the balance of the day, while the fast food protests were ignored. While labor and activists groups promoted the protests through social media, traditional media sources continued wall to wall Mandela coverage through December 6, a day which otherwise would have put fast food workers in the spotlight,
While few outside Rush Limbaugh criticized the media for excessive coverage of Mandela, fast food workers and their supporters got a very unlucky break as to the timing of his death. It follows a less dramatic example of media plans going awry when nationwide immigrant rights protests long planned for October 5 were eclipsed by the ongoing government shutdown. Such examples again demonstrate why activists must win through ongoing organizing rather than putting too many eggs in the media basket.
Nobody ever said winning social change through grassroots activism was easy.
While the emotional and personal awards of activism are great, there are also frustrations. This is particularly true when unforeseen circumstances emerge that throw off the best laid plans to win media coverage for one’s cause.
To be clear, activists and fast food workers know that their planned protests impacted the national debate. The pre-protest media coverage put economic inequality in the spotlight, and it was no coincidence that President Obama chose the day prior to the events to announce that “rising inequality and decreasing mobility” is “the defining issue of our time.”
But it would have helped on the night of the protests if millions of news watching Americans heard from fast food workers about their plight. And to hear the hollow excuses from corporations like McDonald’s that have built multi-billion dollar empires on the backs of low-wage workers. Instead, we heard from neither protesters or their targets, as there were no doubt many television interviews with fast food workers that did not run because of Mandela’s death.
The Media Risk
Neither the fast food protests nor the immigrants’ rights movement were dependent on a single day’s media coverage for their future success. But other campaigns and movements have suffered when the planned media coverage went awry.
Consider the anti-globalization movement. Its innovative tactics at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 brought massive media attention. Coverage of the “Battle in Seattle” contributed to activists’ success in shutting the WTO meeting down. It also contributed to a growing movement against NAFTA-type trade deals that cost Americans jobs.
But as I discuss in my new edition of The Activist’s Handbook, backers of such trade agreements responded to activists by preventing direct action protests anywhere near trade group events. President Obama even moved the 2012 G-8 Summit set for Chicago to Camp David, ensuring that no protests—nor media coverage—could occur.
This explains why most activists are not engaged with, and may not even know about, the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This trade agreement would have been on everyone’s radar a decade ago, as occurred with GATT and other seemingly obscure trade deals.
The difference today is that the anti-globalization movement lacks opportunities to promote its agenda through high-profile media events. Its lack of ongoing organizing around “free” trade deals has limited its strength.
The advantages of building campaigns through organizing rather than protest-driven media events go beyond the unforeseen emergence of competing stories. But we have seen so many examples in the past year of major stories crowding all other news out — from Mandela, the government shutdown and the Newtown shootings nationally to the BART strikes locally in the Bay Area — that relying on media coverage to drive activists’ campaigns is a crap shoot.