On Tuesday night, all three broadcast media outlets in Grand Rapids ran stories on the arrests of four people charged with Earth Liberation Front (ELF) arsons at Michigan State University and Mesick, Michigan back in 1999. While the coverage varied from station to station, with some being worse than others–for example WOOD TV 8 failed to get the name of the group right claiming it was the “Environmental Liberation Front”–all three stations essentially acted as stenographers for the government and simply reported the government’s perspective on the case.
The media adopted the government’s designation of the arsons as “terrorism,” despite the fact that there was no loss of life or injury to people as a result of the two arsons. Similarly, all three stations ran a quote from US Attorney Charles Gross stating, “This was an act of domestic terrorism, plain and simple… There’s no two ways about it. The use of violence and the destruction of property to make a political statement cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.” The stations hyped the “terrorist” allegation and portrayed the crimes as being directed not only towards property, but society as a whole. This idea was conveyed through the rather bizarre juxtaposition of people preparing for Y2K and “ringing in the New Year” while the accused were “planning a terrorist attack.” The comparison–that normal people were concerned about the New Year holiday–was repeated on all three stations.
Beyond the focus on “terrorism,” there was no real effort by the media to explain why the arsons–which may not have been committed by the four arrested–were committed. The media simply reported the vague claims about “genetic engineering” contained in the federal indictment. A simple Internet search would have yielded the ELF’s rationale for the arsons, which is far more detailed than what was reported on the three stations. Moreover, the stations completely ignored the ELF’s claim that the genetic research at Michigan State University was being funded in part by Monsanto, not just the federal government.
Finally, the stories largely reported that the four who were arrested are members of the Earth Liberation Front. While the stories do occasionally use the word “accused,” for the most part, they convey the idea that those arrested were responsible for the arsons. This presumption of guilt is unfortunate because, once again, a simple Internet search could have provided the local stations more information. Back in 2001, charges against Frank Ambrose–one of the accused in this case–were dropped despite widespread reporting in the media describing him as a terrorist. Similarly, in 2003, Ambrose and Marie Mason were forced to submit DNA samples to a grand jury investigating an attempted firebombing of an Ice Mountain facility in Mecosta County, but neither were charged with a crime in that case. The media should have generally been more careful in their reporting, but should have been more careful in light of previous accusations against two of the accused.
WOOD TV 8 Story:
WXMI FOX 17 Story:
WZZM 13 Story: