Unveiling the thin line: How US media reports impact the ‘war on activism’

For media institutions, the challenge lies in navigating the treacherous waters of state discourse without becoming its unwitting conduit.


The dialogue between the state’s authority and the media’s influence plays out in the public arena where perceptions are shaped, often with enduring repercussions. This interplay becomes most palpable—and perilous—when the specter of terrorism collides with civic activism, a scenario that has unfolded dramatically in the ongoing coverage of Atlanta’s proposed “Cop City.” The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has spotlighted this dynamic in a probing analysis by Rutgers University’s Professor Deepa Kumar. Her paper unravels the intertwining of state rhetoric and media reportage, casting a spotlight on the grim shadow the ‘War on Terror’ continues to cast on democratic dissent.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution initially mirrored the Atlanta Police Foundation’s perspective, a tone that resonated through its early reports on the arrests of anti-Cop City protesters. Yet, as the story rippled out to national outlets, divergent narratives emerged. Publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times painted protesters as concerned citizens rallying against police militarization and environmental degradation. In contrast, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal presented a less sympathetic picture, aligning with a narrative of violence and disorder.

As the year turned, so did the tone of coverage. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s transition to a more balanced reportage came at a critical juncture, highlighting local opposition and refraining from blanketing protesters with sweeping pejoratives. The national spotlight in March 2023 brought all seven scrutinized outlets into alignment on the issue’s importance, yet many continued to echo state-sanctioned labels without critique.

The case of activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, fatally shot by Georgia State Patrol Troopers, starkly exemplifies the consequences of this unchecked alignment. Terán, or Tortuguita, became the face of the conflict—a face to which the media narrative did not always do justice. The lack of gunshot residue evidence and the circumstances of their killing did little to sway the legal exoneration of the troopers involved.

This narrative tension isn’t a novel phenomenon but rather an extension of post-9/11 strategies where counter-terrorism measures broadened their reach, sweeping up peace activists, environmental campaigners, and indigenous advocates under an expanded and ambiguous umbrella of “terrorism.” Such measures have seen the use of state resources to infiltrate and disrupt groups critical of government and business practices, a tactic not confined to the federal level, but emulated in state legislation across the country.

The ramifications are profound. Labeling activism as terrorism isn’t merely a matter of semantics; it’s a tool that has been wielded with tangible force. Georgia’s stringent terrorism laws, if they were applied retroactively, could have seen figures like Martin Luther King Jr. ensnared by the very definitions meant to protect society from violence.

The unfolding legal drama in Georgia, with RICO charges and a slew of domestic terrorism accusations against Cop City protesters, underscores the chilling effect such conflations can have on civil liberties. It’s a reminder, as illuminated by Kumar’s paper, of the media’s power and responsibility to interrogate state narratives rather than merely amplifying them.

As the Costs of War Project co-director Stephanie Savell implores, there is a pressing need for journalism to rise to its role as a pillar of democracy, particularly in an age where the militarization of policing threatens the foundational rights of assembly and speech. For media institutions, the challenge lies in navigating the treacherous waters of state discourse without becoming its unwitting conduit—striving to keep the light of inquiry and accountability burning bright in a time of encroaching shadows.


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