Tuesday, October 30, 2007

ARTICLE: News Blackout on Oct. 27 Protests


War protests: Why no coverage?

Newspapers have a duty to inform citizens about such democratic events.

By Jerry Lanson


Coordinated antiwar protests in at least 11 American cities this weekend

raised anew an interesting question about the nature of news coverage:

Are the media ignoring rallies against the Iraq war because of their low

turnout or is the turnout dampened by the lack of news coverage?

I find it unsettling that I even have to consider the question.

That most Americans oppose the war in Iraq is well established. The

latest CBS News poll, in mid-October, found 26 percent of those polled

approved of the way the president is handling the war and 67 percent

disapproved. It found that 45 percent said they'd only be willing to

keep large numbers of US troops in Iraq "for less than a year." And an

ABC News-Washington Post poll in late September found that 55 percent

felt Democrats in Congress had not gone far enough in opposing the war.

Granted, neither poll asked specifically about what this weekend's

marchers wanted: An end to congressional funding for the war. Still,

poll after poll has found substantial discontent with a war that ranks

as the preeminent issue in the presidential campaign.

Given that context, it seems remarkable to me that in some of the 11

cities in which protests were held – Boston and New York, for example –

major news outlets treated this "National Day of Action" as though it

did not exist. As far as I can tell, neither The New York Times nor The

Boston Globe had so much as a news brief about the march in the days

leading up to it. The day after, The Times, at least in its national

edition, totally ignored the thousands who marched in New York and the

tens of thousands who marched nationwide. The Globe relegated the news

of 10,000 spirited citizens (including me) marching through Boston's

rain-dampened streets to a short piece deep inside its metro section. A

single sentence noted the event's national context.

As a former newspaper editor, I was most taken aback by the silence

beforehand. Surely any march of widespread interest warrants a brief

news item to let people know that the event is taking place and that

they can participate. It's called "advancing the news," and it has a

time-honored place in American newsrooms.

With prescient irony, Frank Rich wrote in his Oct. 14 Times column, "We

can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq.…

But we must also examine our own responsibility." And, he goes on to

suggest, we must examine our own silence.

So why would Mr. Rich's news colleagues deprive people of information

needed to take exactly that responsibility?

I'm not suggesting here that the Times or any news organization should

be in collusion with a movement – pro-war or antiwar, pro-choice or

pro-life, pro-government or pro-privatization.

I am suggesting that news organizations cover the news – that they

inform the public about any widespread effort to give voice to those who

share a widely held view about any major national issue.

If it had been a pro-war group that had organized a series of support

marches this weekend, I'd have felt the same way. Like the National Day

of Action, their efforts would have been news – news of how people can

participate in a democracy overrun with campaign platitudes and

big-plate fundraisers, news that keeps democracy vibrant, news that

keeps it healthy.

Joseph Pulitzer, the editor and publisher for whom the highest honor in

journalism is named, understood this well. In May 1904, he wrote: "Our

Republic and its press rise or fall together. An able, disinterested,

public-spirited press … can preserve that public virtue without which

popular government is a sham and a mockery.… The power to mould the

future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future


It's time for the current generation of journalists – at times seemingly

obsessed with Martha Stewart, O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, Britney

Spears, and the like – to use that power more vigilantly, and more

firmly, with the public interest in mind.

• Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

Courtesy of:
Erik Toren / Valley World Peace Alliance