Peaceful protest is a protected right in America.
Trespassing on private property, tire slashing, damaging equipment, arson, Molotov cocktail-throwing and shooting at police are not acts of protest. They are crimes. Even eco-terrorism. Yet, the network news media sympathetically covered the “activists,” “protesters” and “demonstrators” in North Dakota opposing completion of the Dakota Access oil Pipeline (DAPL) — even as they grew violent.
Broadcast network reports skewed heavily in favor of pipeline opponents when it came to which voices they included. Between Oct. 27, and Nov. 15, ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs quoted 14 people opposed to the pipeline. That was seven times more than the two voices in favor of the pipeline (the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners and one politician). Groups chanting in B-roll footage was not counted.
Police arrested hundreds of protesters in recent weeks, but the networks minimized violence and crime done by protesters. Networks called arson a “bonfire,” said the protesters were trying to “protect the land,” included quotes about the “spiritual” battle for the land and made police look like they were provoking violence.
The fight in North Dakota is over a 1,172 mile oil pipeline that would run from Illinois to North Dakota. The $3.7 billion project is already 95-percent complete. According to The Daily Caller, DAPL’s route does not go through the Standing Rock reservation, but rather nearby private lands. The tribe had multiple opportunities to express concerns or request changes to the proposed route between 2014 and 2016, but CNN and Daily Caller reported that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe did not speak out then.
Words Matter: ‘Bonfire’ or Arson? Who is ‘Clashing’ with Whom?
The tone and language of network coverage favored pipeline opponents too. Whether it was how the police were described, the types of statements from protesters and activists or the way reporters told the story.
In spite of the many arrests, the networks generally avoided using terms like crime, criminal, trespassing, vandalism or arson. They quoted activists who said the police should be charged with “human rights violations” or insisting that the protesters have the “moral high ground.”
On Oct. 28, rather than call a fire set by protesters “arson,” CBS This Morning described the blaze as a “bonfire” in the same story it acknowledged that police said a woman fired a gun at them.
Repeatedly the networks framed confrontations between police and demonstrators as police “clashing” with protesters, as if they’d perpetrated violence against law-abiding citizens.
As police moved in to clear protesters encamped on private property CBS Evening News described the scene as an “unequal fight” because police were armed with billy clubs, mace and “weapons.” Others noted the police were in “riot gear” or described law enforcement as an “army.”
NBC’s Today announced that many protesters were arrested as “people tried to protect the land where the pipeline is being built.” That was how weekend anchor Sheinelle Jones framed the story on Oct. 29, before video was shown showing police hitting people with batons.
Showing violent “demonstrators” would have given a very different picture of the situation. Instead, correspondent Miguel Almaguer said police hit protesters with “beanbags, pepper spray and batons” but minimized the acts of protesters who had lit a fire and set vehicles on fire in order to block a highway leading to the pipeline construction site. Almaguer mentioned that police said people threw things at them, but did not report that those things included rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Louisiana Sheriff Greg Champagne, president of the National Sheriffs Association, went to Standing Rock protests to see for himself. What he say firsthand was very different from the “sensational news reports.” He wrote an extensive public note on Facebook sharing his eyewitness account.
In it, he described the Oct. 27, evictions of “protesters from private property directly in the path of the pipeline.” He said the occupants had been warned for days they would be forced out.
“While pleading with the trespassers for a peaceful move, law enforcement officers were met with Molotov cocktails and various missiles such as rocks and logs being thrown at them causing numerous injuries to the officers. The only discharge of a firearm occurred when a protestor fired at the line of officers. Miraculously, none were hit by the bullets,” he wrote.
“When the protestors were moved south of the bridge, two trucks used to blockade the roadway were set on fire by the protestors. This action now has very possibly jeopardized the integrity of that bridge. News accounts ironically then decried the use of defensive equipment such as 'riot gear' and armored vehicles by law enforcement,” Champagne continued.
Networks Omit Key Details and Views in Pipeline Fight
The primary narrative from the networks was that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others are the little guy fighting honorably for sacred lands and against environmental degradation. Police were portrayed as aggressors, rather than civil servants whose job requires them to evict trespassers and protect private property.
The network news reports also left out information and voices of dissent that would have undermined that narrative.
It turns out, not even all the Standing Rock Sioux are unified against the pipeline. CNN’s Jessica Ravitz spoke to Robert Fool Bear Sr.. He said the tribe had the option of attending meetings two years ago to express concerns about the location of the pipeline, but didn’t.
He also told CNN of his frustration over the influx of outsiders, out of control masses of protesters and the toll it is taking on his town of Cannon Ball, N.D.
“It irks me. People are here from all over the world. If they could come from other planets, I think they would,” Fool Bear said. Ravitz said two women nodded in agreement with him. His community voted overwhelmingly against protest organizers’ request to build a new camp in Cannon Ball.
CNN also found a local who favored the pipeline because it would reduce truck traffic. That person was afraid to be named in the story.
The Daily Caller also reported that the North Dakota Public Service Commission confirmed the tribe did not participate in 2014 meetings to determine the route of the pipeline in an interview with NPR. Daily Caller said the Army Corps of Engineers tried to discuss the route with Standing Rock more than a dozen times in the past two years. Additionally, they reported that the tribe never protested the already existing natural gas pipeline DAPL runs parallel to.
Sheriff Champagne’s testimony affirmed that media is giving the “wrong impression” that the pipeline goes through the reservation and of the behavior of some of the protesters, which he said not includes anarchists and eco-terrorists.
“Despite the statements coming from the media and protesters that they were completely peaceful and prayerful, it has been a fact that more militant protestors (terrorists) have destroyed property and physically beaten employees of the company in recent weeks,” Champagne wrote. “I personally witnessed and photographed what I estimate to be at least a half of a million dollars in damage to bulldozers and excavators.”
Earlier this year, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman visited the protest site and trespassed with protesters. She later bragged about the arrest warrant against her.
MRC Business watched stories on ABC's Good Morning America and World News, CBS's This Morning and Evening News and NBC's Today and Nightly News mentioning the Dakota Access Pipeline from Oct. 27, through Nov. 15, to see how the protests were being covered and count the voices for and against the pipeline project.
Six voices were not counted in either category. Four police officers were quoted describing the violence against them or their desire not to see the situation escalate, but not taking sides as to whether the pipeline should or should not be completed.
Two other quotes were not counted as opposing or promoting DAPL. A statement from President Obama straddled the line between taking sides. A campaign remark President-Elect Donald Trump pro-Keystone XL pipeline and pro-energy was not counted because it was not a response to this particular situation.