Major Rally, Minor Play  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2002

Major Rally, Minor Play   

Have news organizations underplayed antiwar events?

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


It's not exactly unusual for those with dissenting opinions on controversial issues to complain that the news media don't take them seriously. But when it comes to coverage of opposition to a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, the critics might have a point.

Ombudsmen at the Boston Globe, NPR and the Washington Post, plus the public editor of Portland's Oregonian, recently agreed with readers and listeners who claim those news organizations have not given enough coverage to antiwar protests.

But the watershed event for the critics was an October 26 antiwar rally and march in Washington, D.C., which coincided with similar protests around the country and drew some 100,000 to the nation's capital, according to the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Somehow, stories by the New York Times and NPR went embarrassingly awry, citing significantly lower attendance figures. The Times story also said organizers were disappointed at the turnout, when in fact they were elated.

Readers were angry that the Post ran its story on the Metro front (with a photo on the bottom right of the front page), prompting yet another column about underplayed antiwar coverage from Ombudsman Michael Getler.

Was the problem that Saturday, October 26, was a competitive news day, coming just after the arrests in the D.C. region's three-week sniper shooting ordeal and the day after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was killed in a plane crash? Or had newsrooms missed or discounted a growing antiwar movement?

Maybe a little of both.

"I don't think [the media] is taking [the antiwar movement] too seriously," says Washington Post national political correspondent Evelyn Nieves, who is covering antiwar activities for the paper but did not cover the Washington march. "I've noticed a kind of lack of respect for this antiwar movement, as if it's the same people who show up at all protests, and not looking at the breadth of the people involved."

But Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says the whole purpose of protests is to get media attention. "In that sense they don't have a lot of credibility," he says.

The Post's Getler told readers that editors "fumbled" the story placement on the October 26 demonstration "not because they are pro-war but because they were surprised at the turnout, and talked themselves into a compromise solution" on a day with heavy competition for A1.

Post Metropolitan Editor Robert Barnes notes that the number of protesters surprised even organizers. "Basically, we have a lot of protests here, and I think we put a lot of resources on all of them trying to figure out if it's going to be a big deal.... Our decisions are mostly based on what the turnout is." When reporters called in that Saturday to say the event was looking big, he says, "We got more people out there." The story itself, Getler says, received few complaints.

NPR's piece, in which reporter Nancy Marshall said it looked like "fewer than 10,000" people were there, led to on-air and online corrections, plus an online column from Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, who had earlier chided the network for not including enough antiwar voices in its Iraq reporting. Dvorkin, who's covered demonstrations himself, says Marshall was probably not the best person to be giving a crowd estimate since she was in the middle of it.

But most of the flap centered on the New York Times, which, ironically, was recently scolded by conservatives for "editorializing" against a war in Iraq on page one. Brian Becker, codirector of International Action Center, which helped organize the protest, says he called the Times' Washington news desk after the paper posted a 476-word story about the march on its Web site--not because it said that only "thousands" had marched, but because the second graph began, "Fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for...."

"I am the organizer," Becker says he told the person who answered the phone, "and we want to know who the reporter spoke to. In fact we are thrilled [with the turnout]. It was double what we were expecting." On Wednesday, October 30, the Times published a 936-word story headlined "Rally in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement" that said the demonstration "drew 100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers'.... The turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers."

Written this time by a New York-based reporter, it caught the attention of media watchers. On its Web site, Editor & Publisher magazine called the second story a "make-up article."

Times editors in Washington and New York either did not return calls or referred AJR to a spokesman, who issued the following statement: "[W]e were attentive to complaints from a fair number of readers that the number of demonstrations around the country and the number of participants in Washington warranted further coverage. We also looked at what news agencies and other publications had reported, and we felt that there was more we ought to say."

Reporter Lynette Clemetson, who wrote the original story, says she advocated broader coverage of the march and regrets that the paper didn't provide it. "But there was nothing to indicate to me that the mistake was an intentional effort to downplay the march," she says. "More likely, from my perspective, I think that story fell through the cracks in the midst of a very busy news weekend."

Organizer Becker disagrees. "If this had been a rally that was considered politically mainstream, those obstacles would have become nonfactors," he says. "I think the Times' publishers and probably its senior editors have an elitist view toward the protest movement and view it as sort of the rabble."

Harvard's Jones says that to get media attention, a protest needs a "man bites dog" quality. He says that if organizers had gotten "some people from Congress, or Republicans or [U.S. Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.]...that would've given this a weight" that it lacked with such "professional scene-makers and protest organizers" as the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, says that newspaper and broadcast reports on the Iraq debate have shortchanged readers and viewers by not fleshing out the concerns of those opposed to military action. While "these rallies are less events than they are productions," he says, "the same is said of our political conventions. At least we allow the message to get through."

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