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.
Erik Toren / Valley World Peace Alliance