In her Sunday Ombudsman column in the Washington Post, Deborah Howell sounds more like a journalist's advocate than a reader's advocate, lamenting that reporters draw complaints about covering a protest no matter what: "Organizers often inflate the number of participants, and there will be complaints no matter how a demonstration is covered or displayed." Howell was also quick to defend the divergence in Post coverage of the March for Life vs. the latest Out-of-Iraq march. The liberal event was "worth Page 1," while "This is the 34th anniversary of that [Roe v. Wade] decision and not a reason to put the event on Page 1 in my book."
I would not argue that the March for Life was a Page 1 story this year, especially with the liberal takeover of both houses of Congress. I would argue that the Bush-bashing anti-Iraq war march was NOT page 1 material. Anti-Bush marches have not become a strictly annual routine like the March for Life, but they have been regular enough to be less newsworthy on each new occasion. Is this new Jane Fonda march really Earth-shattering material, even with liberal control of Congress? All Democrats are doing is trying to pass NON-binding resolutions. How much does a march change the equation?
It can be argued that Howell is saying that liberal control of Congress means that only liberal marches are newsworthy. But Republicans were in charge of Congress last year when the Post went dramatically overboard covering pro-illegal alien marches, which ended up accomplishing nothing, at least so far. Would Howell argue that the March for Life was much more relevant in 2001, with a Republican president in charge? Media coverage that year did not reflect it. She does reproduce the conservative line on this:
Several readers complained that the story on the Jan. 22 antiabortion march was underplayed and that the Jan. 27 antiwar march was overplayed. John Billing of Ocean Pines, Md., was succinct: "Last week, The Post covered the pro-life march in Washington on Page A10. Today, the Post covered the antiwar march in Washington in the middle of Page 1, above the fold. No bias? B.S."
Howell does note partisans of both sides argued "hundreds of thousands" attended, which I think is overestimating. But she does acknowledge the events drew nearly the same size of crowd:
One police official who was at both demonstrations told me on deep background -- forgive me, I'm using an anonymous source -- that the protest crowds were about the same size and looked to be fewer than 50,000 each. Park Service officials said United for Peace and Justice and March for Life representatives both applied for march permits for crowds of 50,000.
But she tried to say the unequal status quo of Post protest coverage is quite right:
As for display in The Post, the antiabortion march is always on Jan. 22, the date of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that led to legal abortion. This is the 34th anniversary of that decision and not a reason to put the event on Page 1 in my book.
The controversy surrounding the Iraq war, the turnover in Congress and President Bush sending more troops to Iraq made the antiwar march worth Page 1. The Post has been criticized in the past for underplaying antiwar marches.
Howell also failed to address the photographic bias, the way the Post used a wide photo of hundreds of protesters in its Page 1 package on the left-wing protest, but only showed a handful of pro-lifers and a handful of feminists in its A-10 story on the March for Life. Also left unaddressed is how anti-Bush marchers and speakers were rarely described in the Post as "liberals," let alone leftists.
I would encourage Howell to see former Post ombudsman Richard Harwood's article on protest coverage from May of 1990, after a major NOW rally for abortion. I'm betting the self-criticism still applies. We reported a disparity in our newsletter MediaWatch:
The Washington Post provided equally imbalanced coverage. The NOW rally dominated the front page, generating a dozen stories taking up 15 columns of space. The pro-life rally got two stories in the "Metro" section. Ombudsman Richard Harwood took the Post to task on May 6, charging the coverage "left a blot on the paper's professional reputation." Harwood noted the less-populated Earth Day rally attracted 77 columns of space, with 44 pictures and drawings.
Though reporters are "pigeonholed fairly" as "liberal Democrats," Harwood attributed the disparity to the biases "we carry around as members of a social class whose magnetic pole is the metropolitan East Coast." According to Harwood, Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie recalled "a pervasive awareness of [the NOW march] among editors and reporters here: people in the newsroom, many of our relatives, and many of our friends were geared up to participate. Like Earth Day 1990, it was an 'in' thing to do." Harwood revealed the pro-life rally was not even mentioned at Downie's weekend planning meeting. Said a Post weekend editor: "I didn't even know this was anything important."