Editorial: The Media Discovers Cindy Sheehan By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 16, 2005

Cindy Sheehan has finally managed to capture the imagination of the nation and of the world. Those of us in northern California have been aware of her campaign against the war in Iraq for more than a year. Members of Military Families Speak Out, including Cindy Sheehan, spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Berkeley in July of 2004, but it’s taken a while for the national media to process their message. This has historically been the case for ideas and movements originating outside of the New York-Washington corridor.  

Part of the reason her story is finally surfacing is that August is a notably slow media month. Many magazines take a week or two off at this time of year, and others (including the New York Times) are uncharacteristically thin. So timing a big media campaign for the slow season when Congress is out of session makes perfect sense. When I was a political operative in the ‘60s we used to say “never underestimate the laziness of the newsies”—the pack will always respond to a well-timed and well-packaged story much faster than they will to raw news events.  

Cindy’s story has always been a compelling one for those who took the time to listen. She was in the position of many parents of young people who can’t connect with jobs or school, to whom the military looks like a good career option, or at least a way to get some education. She was suspicious from the time he enlisted, but his death confirmed her worst fears. 

Just about three years ago (it seems like much longer) I was involved in rescuing a young man of my acquaintance from the evil clutches of an army recruiter in response to his mother’s anguished plea for help. I discovered that the recruiter (then based at Eastmont Mall, probably still there to prey on young Oaklanders) had lied shamelessly to the boy (that’s all he really was) about what he was signing up for, and then lied some more regarding whether or not he could legally change his mind before showing up for induction. That was before the Iraq invasion, and the kid was sufficiently ignorant of current events not to realize that he was headed for combat, not “foreign language training” or a mechanic’s job like Casey Sheehan.  

Not, of course, that the New York Times or the Washington Post or the U.S. Congress were any better informed at that point. Political people around here were starting to get nervous, but they had no real facts to cite.  

The Downing Street memos from that same summer of 2002 reveal that there was plenty to be nervous about. It’s clear that the invasion of Iraq was in the works and moving forward, and that all the subsequent avidly-reported byplay about inspections and weapons of mass destruction was a Bush-Blair concoction which the gullible media eagerly swallowed. It’s no wonder that my young friend and Casey Sheehan were also deceived. 

The nutso-right web pages, including FrontPage.com, mouthpiece of the irrepressible David Horowitz, are fulminating about the fact that Cindy is now getting help from the best-of-breed progressive public relations specialists. Code Pink, started by PR genius Medea Benjamin, is in Crawford with her. According to Thursday’s New York Times, so is Fenton Communications, started by David Fenton, who was hanging out in the same anti-Vietnam-war circles that I was in Michigan in the sixties, and later went on to publicize Rolling Stone magazine when it started. (He might well have been the origin of the lazy-newsy quip quoted above.) The right-wing bloggers are Shocked that PR counts, but of course it does. Fenton et al. have honed their skills over close to forty years of being, more often than not, the bearers of news from the outside trying to get inside. Cindy Sheehan’s message, which was ignored coming out of Berkeley in July 2004, has been cleverly thrown into the media vacuum which surrounds Crawford Texas during Dubya’s summer vacation, and lazy but hungry newsies have gobbled it up.  

It’s too bad that much of the news which makes the bigtime media is, shall we say, enhanced by the skill of the public relations profession, but it is. It’s true that Daily Planet readers heard about Cindy Sheehan last year, but in all fairness we must also say that you heard about her thanks in part to the impressive publicity skills of the local Unitarian Universalists (the “U-U’s” as they’re fondly known), who wield a mean press release considering that they’re amateurs.  

It shouldn’t have taken a sophisticated PR firm like Fenton’s to spotlight Cindy Sheehan so that the major media could see her, but it did. “Enterprise reporting” (which may or may not be the same as what used to be called “investigative reporting” ) has a flashy reputation, but often good reporting just means listening to what people are trying to tell you.