Some weeks ago a friend sent me an e-mail in which there were several illustrations of how public opinion can be manipulated. Depending on a camera angle, a news story can be altered to fit the journalist’s own point of view. A crowd can be made to look much larger than it really is. An innocent scene can be made to look threatening.
As I read my friend’s e-mail, I was also reminded of how an important event can be trivialized or perhaps receive no news coverage at all. I experienced something of this nature many years ago.
It happened during the administration of President George H. W. Bush. On April 28, 1990, I and other members of my family attended a pro-life rally on the mall in Washington, D.C. It was probably the largest pro-life gathering ever held, and the National Park Service estimated a crowd of 750,000. Some crowd estimates were even higher. The mall and some side streets were absolutely jammed with people, and a number of speakers, including Vice-President Dan Quayle, addressed the assembled throng.
As Richard Harwood, the newspaper’s ombudsman, had written in March 1990. The Washington Post is “institutionally pro-choice.” He further stated that “Any reader of the paper’s editorials and home-grown columnists is aware of that, but close textual analysis probably would reveal that, all things considered, “our news coverage has also favored the ‘pro-choice’ side.”
Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Post at that time, denied this. The Post, he said, has been “unusually conscious of trying to present both sides all the time” on the issue of abortion, and it has generally succeeded.
Comparing the Post’s coverage of a 1989 abortion rights rally to its coverage of the 1990 pro-life rally proved that Managing Editor Downie was wrong.
When abortion-rights forces rallied in Washington in 1989, the Post gave it extraordinary coverage, beginning with five lengthy stories in the five days leading up to the event. They then posted a 6,550-word cover story on the abortion-rights battle in the paper’s magazine on the day of the event. The Post even published a map, showing the march route, road closings, parking, subway, lost and found and first-aid information.
An estimated 500,000 people attended the rally. The day after the abortion-rights march, the Post published five more stories covering the event, including one–accompanied by three pictures–that dominated Page 1. The march stories that day alone totaled more than 7,000 words and filled the equivalent of three full pages, including most of the front page of the paper’s Style section.
One day after the much larger pro-life rally in 1990, the Washington Post had a very small story on the rally in its Metropolitan section. There was no advanced coverage. There was no map.
As the Post ombudsman Harwood later wrote, his newspaper had “trivialized” the pro-life event. Rally sponsors were outraged. They had long accused the Post of being biased against their cause, and they seized on this coverage as proof they were right. Managing Editor Downie was embarrassed. As he described it, he took the Metropolitan editors to the woodshed, and the Post published follow up articles attempting to compensate for their error, but the damage had been done.
In April 1993 there was another march on Washington, this time by supporters of the Gay Pride movement. Again, the Post revealed its true colors by going all-out in its coverage of the event. Every section of the paper, including sports, had one or more articles celebrating gay/lesbian causes.
I and many others expressed our displeasure in the only way we knew how – a letter to the Post followed by cancellation of our subscriptions.