A BuzzFlash News Analysis
November 25, 2002
Why Did Mainstream News Media Downplay the 100,000+ Antiwar Protestors in D.C. In October?
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
On Oct. 26, more than 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the pending war against Iraq, making it the largest antiwar protest since Vietnam. Some news media, including The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR -- which conservatives consistently point to as bastions of the liberal press -- severely underplayed the event or else limited the coverage to inside sections of the newspaper.
During that afternoon's All Things Considered on NPR, reporter Nancy Marshall told listeners, "It was not as large as the organizers of the protest had predicted. They had said there would be 100,000 people here. I'd say there are fewer than 10,000."
The New York Times put the number of protesters in the "thousands" and reported that "fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for… Participants said the shootings in and around the city in the last three weeks had kept people from planning to visit Washington."
Fueled in part by an action alert from FAIR and protests from the organizers of the march, the public outcry was intense. In a stunning turnaround, The New York Times published a second article, well after the event, that offered a more comprehensive look at the growing antiwar movement and issued new, more accurate attendance numbers for the march. The story stopped short, however, of acknowledging that the original story was incorrect.
So how did thousands of protesters get overlooked? Other media outlets sought answers, which BuzzFlash has presented here. But as Peter Hart, FAIR's media analyst, put it, the incident may simply be indicative of the news value media outlets attribute to public activism.
"In the case of the Times, it was a deliberate decision on their part. [The reporter] was called back to the bureau office because they didn't think it was newsworthy," said Hart. "It's not surprising ... Most reporters and editors find a statement from a single administration official more newsworthy than tens of thousands of citizens demonstrating."
"Right now, there's still some pressure for journalists not to appear out of step and not push antiwar stories to the front. They are still dealing with a very limited view of what patriotism is and what Americanism is," Hart added.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and Fences and Windows, said during a recent interview with BuzzFlash that while corporate ownership of media is often to blame for ignoring public activism, there are reasons that are also more complex -- and more personal.
Klein believes that it's unsettling for former '60s activists (who are now journalists, television reporters and editors) to see people taking to the streets, sincere in their complaints, while they worry about stock options and their place within the establishment.
Those baby-boomer media decision makers have two choices, said Klein: Either they can admit that their values have changed, or they can toss off the activists as naive novices who don't know any better.
"They're choosing [to ignore or belittle the activists] because it doesn't cause them to question their own self-perceptions," Klein said. "I think that the ownership issues and the personal issues combine to make a pretty lethal cocktail, which really does honestly go beyond bad coverage and reach into active rage at the existence of activism."
What, exactly, happened at The New York Times? When Editor & Publisher, which covers the media industry, contacted Lynette Clemetson, author of the first protest story published by the Times, she told E&P, "I advocated for broader coverage of the march, and I regret that we didn't run a more comprehensive story."
She made the same comments to the radio program Democracy Now! According to an online transcript of the Oct. 31 program, Amy Goodman, the show's host, reported that Clemetson said during an off-air phone call that she "had pitched a broader story on the protests and had predicted it would be a big march, a turning point in the antiwar coverage. She advocated enthusiastically for broad coverage."
"She said she arrived at the protest in the early morning, when the number of people there was still low. The editors pulled her off the story to work on a story on the Washington-area sniper," Goodman said. "In the afternoon, as the numbers of protesters swelled, she called in a corrected estimate to her editor. That correction never made it into the article. She said she received numerous calls from people angry about the coverage, which she referred to the editors. She said she is glad people called to complain."
Goodman continued: "When we called the editor, he refused to come on the program, and referred us to a corporate communications spokeswoman. We asked him why the Times didn't run a correction. He said there was nothing to correct, and that it was a matter of emphasis. We confronted him with the fact that one article put the number of protesters at thousands and claimed protesters were disappointed, while the other put the number at between 100,000 and 200,000 and said protesters were startled by the turnout. He said he couldn't explain that. He added that he was not part of the decision-making process on corrections."
The second Times article, written by Kate Zernike, was far more complete and discussed other antiwar efforts in addition to correcting the numbers in attendance at the Oct. 26 protest.
demonstration on Saturday in Washington drew 100,000 by police estimates
and 200,000 by organizers', forming a two-mile wall of marchers around
the White House," Zernike wrote. "The turnout startled even
organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers. They expected
30 buses, and were surprised by about 650, coming from as far as Nebraska
Others in the media seemed to agree.
The second story "had 'make-up article' written all over it, possibly in response to many organized protest letters sent to the Times since the paper's weak, and inaccurate, initial article about the march on Sunday," Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, wrote Oct. 30.
Though clearly more accurate, the revised story still left lingering questions about the antiwar coverage. On Nov. 5, Editor & Publisher featured a longer, more comprehensive story on the media coverage of the antiwar march and the Times' about-face. Kathy Park, manager of public relations for the New York Times Co. issued this statement for publication: "We 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."
But the Times top decision makers have resisted apologizing for the error. On Nov. 18, The New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. discussed the paper's editorial process at a forum at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the Associated Press, Raines "elicited groans from some in the audience when he said the Times was not wrong when it reported on Oct. 27 that thousands of protesters attended a peace march in Washington the previous day, fewer than organizers hoped for."
"The first story was incomplete," Raines said, according to the Associated Press. "The number was a judgment matter ... a matter of scope." He added, "In this business there's only one thing to do when you're wrong and that's 'get it right' as soon as you can."
NPR, meanwhile, acknowledged its error the day after the march and used more accurate figures during a follow-up report. It also posted the following apology on its Web site:
The New York Times and NPR weren't the only ones to draw criticism. The Washington Post, for example, got the attendance numbers correct but didn't give the story prominent placing, which angered some readers who felt the event deserved front page coverage.
In a column Nov. 3, Michael Getler, the Post's ombudsman, explained to readers that the decision to run the story on the front of the Metro section was dictated by "news judgment." Post editors had a tough time deciding what to put on the front page, and the antiwar protest lost out.
"There was a lot of competition for a place on that Sunday front page: two stories about the horrendous attempt to rescue hostages from a Moscow theater, two follow-up stories to the sniper capture, and timely political stories about races in Maryland and Minnesota. That left one spot, and there was internal lobbying to claim it," Getler wrote. "Senior Post editors said it was a 'close call' but they felt that the story from Mexico about the reported setbacks to two Bush initiatives, combined with a photograph from the Washington demonstrations, was the weightier way to go. Besides, they argued, most people also read the Metro section. …"
"Post editors, in my view, fumbled this one, not because they are pro-war but because they were surprised at the turnout, and talked themselves into a compromise solution that pushed the story inside," Getler added.
According to Editor & Publisher, coverage varied among other major newspapers:
The Washington Times published a photo of the rally on page A1;
a staff-written story and more photos were featured on A11.
Of all the major newspapers, Hart said that The New York Times was "the worst in terms of undervaluing the protest and getting the facts wrong."
But the public's quick and overwhelming response to the coverage may help to ensure better coverage of the antiwar movement in the future.
"I think they know that there's some movement afoot to incorporate media criticism in the movement," Hart said. "People are more conscious of how the media covers these things and that will hopefully affect [the media's] decision making."
* * *
Raines Discuss Middle East Coverage" by Michelle R. Smith (Associated
Papers Ready To Cover War At Home?" by Dave Astor and Chris Nammour
to a Different Drummer" by Michael Getler
Do You Believe, The New York Times, Or The New York Times?
New York Times Blow Coverage of Antiwar March?" by Greg Mitchell
in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement" by Kate
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