Fair criticism on march coverage? (corrected)

As I mentioned the other day, media coverage of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., always offers conservative activists new opportunities to bash the mainstream press. As a journalist who has always worked in the mainstream, I frankly wish that the mainstream press would make their work a little harder to do.

What we have at the top of this post is a pretty typical example of this genre. It is full of movement code words and, I am sure, contains the kind of language — “pro-aborts,” for example — that will make people on the other side of the issue roll their eyes. It’s a conservative video from a conservative group.

However, it makes some valid points. Please watch it, to understand where these media critics are coming from.

For example, you know and I know that crowd estimates have become highly politicized here inside the Beltway. One side sees 100 people. The other side counts 1,000 people. I think it’s important for the press to quote the estimates on both sides, since the police are now reluctant to give estimates. It’s an imperfect science, at best.

But the CNN language that is quoted and shown? Get out of here. That’s just crazy stuff. And what can we say about the online piece from nonNewsweek? Here is the top of the item by Krista Gesaman:

Today is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, and droves of women are prepared to face rainy weather to support their positions during the annual Washington, D.C., demonstrations. But there will be one major difference with the demonstration route this year — it’s shorter.

“The organizers are getting older, and it’s more difficult for them to walk a long distance,” says Stanley Radzilowski, an officer in the planning unit for the Washington, D.C., police department. A majority of the participants are in their 60s and were the original pioneers either for or against the case, he says.

So this raises the question: where are the young, vibrant women supporting their pro-life or pro-choice positions? Likely, they’re at home. “Young women are still concerned about these issues, but they’re not trained to go out and protest,” says Kristy Maddux, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who specializes in historical feminism.

Where to begin?

Well, as conservative media critic Matthew Balan noted, the folks at nonNewsweek could have started their research by reading, no, not Right to Life News, but their own sister publication — The Washington Post. In that newsroom, the rising tide of young marchers has in recent years turned into a theme that runs through the coverage.

But this is a case in which the conservative people that made this video could have strengthened their case by citing accurate, informed coverage, as well as bashing away at some of the inaccurate and often embarrassingly biased coverage that — this is painful to say — is out there, year after year.

The folks at ThineEyes.org could have, for example, included part of that recent Metro column in the Post by Robert McCartney, the one that opened like this:

I went to the March for Life rally … on the Mall expecting to write about its irrelevance. Isn’t it quaint, I thought, that these abortion protesters show up each year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, even though the decision still stands after 37 years. What’s more, with a Democrat in the White House likely to appoint justices who support abortion rights, surely the Supreme Court isn’t going to overturn Roe in the foreseeable future.

How wrong I was. The antiabortion movement feels it’s gaining strength, even if it’s not yet ready to predict ultimate triumph, and Roe supporters (including me) are justifiably nervous. … In this case, I was especially struck by the large number of young people among the tens of thousands at the march. It suggests that the battle over abortion will endure for a long time to come.

Yes, it’s important for media critics to stress that their goal is to praise good journalism, as well as to spotlight the bad. Bashing away, year after year, can be balanced with praise for journalists who are striving to get the facts right.

It never hurts, for example, to point journalists toward one of the towering achievements in media criticism on this topic, which would be the famous 1990 Los Angeles Times series on media bias and abortion, written by the late David Shaw. In this case, the reporter himself was pro-abortion rights, but he was also pro-journalism. That series continues to be must reading, 20 years later.

Let’s close with one of its more famous passages:

… It’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”

On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.

And all of the fair-minded journalists said: Amen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian Walden

    The report on it being shorter this year and the reason being that the organizers are older is false.

    I was a marshal with the Knights of Columbus a few years ago, 2006 I believe – I have a hat with the year on it at home I can double check. I remember at a meeting before the the March they said that the parade route was shorter this year because when they applied for the permits they were not able to use the route they had used in previous years but instead had to use a previous route. That was my first year at the March so I can’t comment on what the route was before then.

    I was a marshal again this year – we help keep the start of the parade route clear, organize the banner and flags at the start of the March and try to keep space for all the speakers and religious leaders from the rally to fill in behind the banner. In the videos you’ll see guys in white jackets out in front of the banner, they’re marshals.

    Anyway, I know the March started at the same spot this year as it did in 2006 – and it ended as always at the Supreme Court as it always does. Maybe the route changed in the years in between and went back again this year – but any changes to the route would have been because of the route the city (or whoever it is who gives out permits for demonstrations and parades) allowed the marchers to take.

    There is no explanation for the blindness of the media. Anyone who had eyes could have seen that there were 1000 marchers for every counter-protester. I can’t imagine a political demonstration at the Mall where the average age of the participants is lower than the March for Life. There were at least as many women (if not more) there than men. These aren’t esoteric facts that require a lot of researching to discover, anyone who had a reporter there could not have seen anything otherwise. If media outlets don’t want to cover the March, fine, but there’s no excuse for the lies.

  • Peter

    Seems not calling it nonNewsweek would also be good a constructive start in media criticism.

    Is the march underreported? Probably. Are lots of activist marches underreported on both the right and left? Probably. Does it reflect bias? Hard to tell. The march–like most of these marches–don’t include high-level speakers. Even during the Bush administration, the White House avoided the march like the plague. Has a president ever spoken live at the March for Life?

  • Suzanne

    When we’re talking about the age of the marchers, what exactly are we talking about? I know that busloads of Catholic school students are taken to this event every year from our area (maybe there’s a school somewhere in America that would bus marchers to a pro-choice event, but I can’t imagine one from this part of the country). Would those students have taken it upon themselves to go if they weren’t encouraged to (and given time off from school to make the trip) by their administrators?

    My question about the relative youth or age of marchers would be about those in prime reproductive years who might potentially be affected by this issue — college students, early 20s. I’m curious about how many of those women (from both sides) are in attendance.

  • Martha

    People need to be trained to protest? News to me, since in my student days all we did was turn up on the streets in town when the Students’ Union had its annual protest over college fees and grants.

    Of course, this is going back into the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth (the mid-80s) in an economically depressed part of Ireland, so perhaps in modern, urban America even stapling a piece of cardboard to a stick of wood and writing slogans on it with magic marker is a professional event that requires consultants giving one-day seminars.

  • Martha

    See, all the questions raised by Suzanne and Peter are good ones, and you’d imagine some journalist somewhere might like to do a story on this:

    What schools are represented? Is this an official day off (and how the heck can they get permission from the Department of Education or whatever its American equivalent is)? Do all the students who get the day off from class go? What route is the march permitted to take, and what criteria govern the decision by the city planners to let them go there and not there (is there a D.C. equivalent of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission)?

    What about the pro-abortion rights side – how do they organise? Why aren’t there schools bussing in students for them, along the lines of the SoulForce thing?

    Or is it too politically a hot potato for editors to encourage reporters to do a story, rather than benign neglect?

  • Chris Bolinger

    some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial

    The first “their” is vague, but after reading it a few times I decided that it must mean “the reporters’” instead of “the combatants’”.

    some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their own (i.e. the reporters’) personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial

    A combatant might want a reporter’s personal beliefs to take precedence over being fair and impartial if the reporter’s beliefs match those of the combatant’s. But when reporters are obviously in the tank for one side in a debate, doesn’t that undermine the credibility of the reporters’ publications and, by inference, weaken the arguments of the side that they support?

    I’ve read the end of Shaw’s quote five times and, like Tom Hanks in Big, I still don’t get it.

  • R. Black

    Thanks for this…it’s a very apt collection of the journalistic issues at stake here.

    I would like to just add my own anecdotal evidence to the conversation, and that is that a huge percentage of those attending the march are indeed from schools, but that includes colleges and universities–college kids are certainly can’t be coerced or forced to go to a demonstration (although I don’t want to deny that younger students may also be capable of making informed, mature political statements).

    My impression was that there were at least as many women as men in attendence this year and in 2007 when I first attended, and the Marchers on the ground average under 30 years of age. Catholics are a pretty clear majority, but there was also a lone “New Ager for Life” marching with my alma mater this year…all kinds of groups and approaches are represented there. It would be nice to see more coverage of that diversity within unity…

    The anti-protester ratio of 1 to 1000 might (?) be a little high, but in any case I’m always struck by the lack of opposition at the MFL. I’ve only seen probably about a dozen counter-protesters personally. I’m sure it’s hard to get motivated to demonstrate for the maintenence of the status quo, but the difference is striking nonetheless.

  • Peter

    Is a march that happens years after year really news, at least national news? Is there another national march that occurs yearly that lacks high profile newsmakers that we can compare coverage with?

    I understand the frustration of the pro-life movement who feel they can’t get news coverage, but every activist group complains about getting the kind of coverage it thinks it deserves.

    I guess I also wonder whether the constant demonizing of the media by the pro-life movement and their cheerleaders undermines their ability to get coverage.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Is anyone going to deal with the actual content of the post?

    Just curious.

  • Tyson K

    Martha asks:

    What schools are represented? Is this an official day off (and how the heck can they get permission from the Department of Education or whatever its American equivalent is)? Do all the students who get the day off from class go?

    What about the pro-abortion rights side – how do they organise? Why aren’t there schools bussing in students for them, along the lines of the SoulForce thing?

    We’re talking about private religious schools here, predominantly Catholic ones. So they can declare it an official day off for any reason at all if they want to, without any interference from the government of any kind. I know the government plays a stronger role in all types of education in Europe, and I think that’s the confusion here. (Actually, individual public school districts have a lot of control over their schedules– I can’t imagine why they’d ever have to get approval from a state education department to call a day off as long as they still have enough attendance days for the year.) That’s the answer to the question about pro-abortion schools busing students too– I would imagine there are hardly any private schools in this country that officially advocate for legalized abortion, as part of their core principles, and encourage their students to do so. There are many private schools that, because of their religious doctrines, officially advocate against it. Of course, for a public school to bus students to a one-sided political rally and encourage them to participate in it would probably be highly unethical or even actually illegal.)

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Terry– I’ll take a shot at the content of the post.

    The Newsweek post looks like an advance piece, posted before the March–the time stamp is 7:15am, and quoting an officer from the Police Department’s planning office. Officer Stanley Radzilowski is the source for the most participants are older claim, and the claim that the route was shorter. The Newsweek post also quotes the pro-life Olivia Gans as saying she believed a large number of young women could be there.

    The folks who put together the conservative video criticized Newsweek for reporting that few young people were there. But they failed to do some basic fact checking — like noticing the Newsweek piece was posted before the March. Not sure–unless Newsweek has a time machine I’m not aware of–how Newsweek could have reported how many people where there in a post that was written before the March.

    There’s a couple bigger issues here. One, with the 24/7 news cycle, last year does not exist. Heck, last week doesn’t exist — unless we’re talking about John Edward’s love child or Tiger Woods’ mistresses. There’s too much rush to post as fast as possible, and little time for background reporting.

    Also, with so many reporters and editors being laid off, newspapers and other media outlets are losing our institutional memory. Think there was an editor who remembered past Washington Post coverage about the March. Probably not.

  • Peter

    Great catch on the timing of the piece, Bob, and the fact there was a counterbalancing quote. It’s nice to see journalism defended and given context.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    The reports of the media on marches on Washington are always biased, and most often don’t even get reported. I have been at a number of left wing marches with over 300,000 demonstrators that never once were mentioned in the press. No press helicopters allowed. No one photographing on the ground except the sponsoring groups. I have seen this over a 20 year period and have come to the conclusion that the DC police always substantially undercount the demonstrations so that opposition to the government, from which ever side, is minimized. Of course that meant that I now believe they undercount the pro life marchers too.

    I don’t know whether it is better to have a biased account of the march, especially based on pre-march speculation or to pretend that it never existed. The media bias on Washington protest seems to be that protest is not significant, whatever its aims.

  • Chip Smith

    Seems not calling it nonNewsweek would also be good a constructive start in media criticism.

    It really is distracting. We know you don’t like Newsweek, Terry. Your criticism of their article is not strengthened by the name-calling.

    Back to the piece. Did it change between the time you wrote about it and now? You said you quoted the entire item, but now it is much longer.

  • http://biblebeltblogger Frank Lockwood

    Yes, stop calling it nonNewsweek, Terry. It’s name-calling, very unbecoming, beneath you, etc.

    Personally, I refer to it as “NoNewsIsGoodNewsweek.”

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    There is now a response from the columnist concerning all the bad blog press:

    The bloggers seem to think that I intentionally, or ignorantly, conflated pro-choice young feminists, who I predicted would come out in smaller numbers than their older counterparts, with young pro-life activists. In fact, my intention, which I acknowledge should have been articulated more clearly, was to note that left-leaning young women who have grown up since Roe v. Wade tend to be less viscerally motivated by the need to preserve Roe.

    Well, no: the cardinal sin here is that the only “observation” of the march from Newsweek is from people who weren’t there, speculating about what the marchers were going to be like! If NW‘s search is to be believed, there’s no real article on the march itself. And here we have Lisa Miller, in a piece on Richard Cizik posted Thursday, confessing that her colleague is wrong about her theory:

    Critics will say that Cizik has gone soft or, worse, that he’s allowed himself to be co-opted by the left: he’s the token conservative evangelical with the progressive agenda who gets trotted out as evidence that conservative evangelicals no longer care about the issues that once mattered so much to them. (This broad point of view, though embraced by many in the left-wing press, is not supported by polls. Younger evangelicals are concerned with a broader range of issues than their parents, especially environmentalism and the developing world, but they are more conservative on abortion.)

    (my emphasis)

  • Chip Smith

    And here we have Lisa Miller, in a piece on Richard Cizik posted Thursday, confessing that her colleague is wrong about her theory:

    Her theory is that younger activists on both the left and right are less likely to come out to marches and more likely to demonstrate for their causes online. It might be true or false, but the Cizik article has nothing to say about that theory.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Newsweek is no longer a news magazine. It has, its leaders have said openly, switched to being a liberal journal of news and opinion — kind of The New Republic Lite.

    I use nonNewsweek as a symbol that it is a different magazine.

    In terms of journalism history nonNewsweek is a European magazine, not an American magazine. It has become, in effect, a kind of World magazine for the mainline Protestant left.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana


    We got the “nonNewsweek” point a while ago. Now it’s just beating a dead horse.

  • Chip Smith

    Taking your defense of the name-calling at face value, if the magazine really claims to now be a journal of news and opinion, like The New Republic, then why doesn’t GR’s normal approach to opinion journalism apply?

    The approach that I see from Newsweek is not so much liberal as it is warmed-over Beltway conventional wisdom. Left of center on issues related to sex and right of center on everything else.

    But back to the article. Did it change between the time you wrote this and now (which happens in online publications)? Did you just not see the entire article (which is sort of understandable based on the placement of the ad)? Or did you ignore the part of the article that undermined your attempt to criticize a publication you don’t like? The last possibility would be out of character for you, but then again, so is the name-calling.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Chip, et al:

    I have been out all day, in part with a snow storm here in town.

    Thought that I went to the bottom of the post and clicked print screen, below the ad.

    However, I am going to assume that I was mistaken and missed the second half of the post. I wrote this in a short window between an afternoon class and and evening class.

    So I apologize for that error. I corrected it. The language quoted is still most bizarre. Anyone who has ever been to that march or covered knows that it is dominated by young people.

    The youth rally was also gigantic, same as the prayer service at the Basilica.

    We are going to have to disagree on my nickname for Newsweek. I think the redefinition of that publication’s mission is one of the most amazing, and depressing, events in the recent history of the American model of the press.

    BTW, we still write about journals of news and opinion when they hit right on topics of interest to readers and, of course, accuracy is accuracy. Even advocacy journals are supposed to have their facts right.

  • Peter

    I think the redefinition of that publication’s mission is one of the most amazing, and depressing, events in the recent history of the American model of the press.

    Point taken, but is it necessary to use a snarky name everytime you talk about it? It isn’t very civil and doen’t set a very constructive tone.

  • Sandra

    I like the use of “nonNewsweek.” Succinct, tells a story, gets a point across. Kinda clever. I think that snarkiness has to be read into it.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    Hi Terry:

    A quick followup on this statement: “Anyone who has ever been to that march or covered knows that it is dominated by young people.”

    The Newsweek post went up about 5 hours before the March started. So the writer could not have been to this year’s March. It’s possible–or likely–that the writer had never been to the March.

    Also, it doesn’t seem like Olivia Gans from the National Right to Life Committee, took issue with the idea that fewer young women are involved.

    This Newsweek post seems much like a pregame story from the Sports section of most papers–some facts, a few quotes, and then speculation about the outcome. Sometimes those stories are right in their predictions, sometime they are not.

  • Suzanne

    Continuing to beat us over the head with your “clever” name-calling of Newsweek tends to make you less credible when you rail against “sneer quotes” and snarky Entertainment Weekly writers.

  • Passing By

    The Newsweek post went up about 5 hours before the March started.

    Isn’t this a bit of a problem?

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    Passing By: It’s pretty typical to advance events like the March, to let people know they are happening