Got news? When is a desecrated memorial a big story?

If you have been reading this blog much in the past week (greeting to the thousands of readers who came here through tweets and emails linked to THAT POST by M.Z. Hemingway) then you know that there have been numerous protests — large and small — across the nation marking the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. Some of you may, repeat may, have seen coverage of these events in your local newspapers. On the major broadcast networks? Not so much.

Meanwhile, down in Waco, Texas — home of Baylor University, one of my alma maters — it seems that there was a rather radical symbolic protest of these protests. Here is a bit of the tiny story that ran in the Waco Tribune-Herald:

Hundreds of crosses at a local anti-abortion memorial were reported as damaged in an apparent act of vandalism during the weekend.

Rusty Lee Thomas, member of Elijah Ministries and founder and director of Rachel’s Park Memorial, said the vandalism may have been related to the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. …

It appeared that someone used a large vehicle to mow down an estimated 400 to 500 of the 4,000 crosses at the memorial, Thomas said. He did not know when the vandalism occurred, but said a report was filed with Waco police about 11 a.m. Saturday. … It’s not the first time vandalism has occurred at the park. The park also experienced similar vandalism in June 2011 and February 2008.

This news report raises several journalistic questions, for me.

First of all, if someone attacked a Holocaust memorial on or within hours of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, might a few mainstream journalists concede a connection?

How about a racist attack on the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that took place on or just after Martin Luther King Day?

What about an attack on a 9/11 memorial, or some major U.S. government facility, that took place on the anniversary of 9/11?

What if a yahoo in a pick-up truck crushed the memorial to Mathew Shepard on or just after National Coming Out Day?

If any of these events took place, I would argue that logical journalists would accept the likelihood of a connection and, thus, take that into account in their coverage of these highly symbolic events. Oh, and it wouldn’t matter if the gay-pride memorial (or Holocaust memorial, or MLK memorial, etc.) was in some out of the way place — such as Central Texas. In fact, that fact might even add to the symbolism of the event, making it more newsworthy.

Thus, here is my second question: Did this symbolic attack in Waco merit any national level coverage, or at least coverage in major regional media?

We already know the answer to that one — simply by looking at this Google News search. The answer is (a) “no” and/or (b) it is only news in conservative or niche media.

My final question is, “Why is this the case?”

I know, I know: It doesn’t sell newspapers. Are you sure about that? Would the previously mentioned hypothetical attacks on highly symbolic memorials produce news coverage that affected more people and, thus, sold more newspapers or produced higher television ratings?

Just asking. By the way, a conservative media report on this attack noted other poignant details in this story:

Entombed within the park are the remains of a tiny victim of abortion. The spreading display of 4,000 white crosses reinforced with steel rebar was extensively damaged, as was the picket fence enclosing the memorial park. A swath of damage — 12 ½ ft by 136 ft — cuts through the memorial site, with approximately 600 crosses, rebar, oil, two tires and parts of a vehicle’s underside littering the park. Thankfully, the main feature of the memorial park, The Tomb of the Unknown Baby, was undamaged.

It sounds like that truck may be rather easy to identify. Let’s hope the police break the case and, well, that a few reporters notice.

Just saying.

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.

  • CRF

    Very interesting. It’s a shame no one wants to talk about it. Readers might be interested to know that something similar happened at Dartmouth last Spring. Guess who covered it: the same groups, including Lifesite, Daily Caller, and FIRE. The connection between the two might also warrant a mention in the subsequent national coverage that I’m sure will develop in no time at all.

    (Not sure about your link policy, but: http://dailycaller.com/2012/05/01/crashing-free-speech-at-dartmouth)

  • James Millin

    The damage was done late Friday night. In this case, the media got it right by avoiding the story — because drunken and mean pranks by hardy party types don’t deserve national attention. The coverage only encourages local crazies to ‘make a statement’ next time they get drunk with no place to go in small town America.

    • Martha

      James, that’s if we know it was your typical Friday night drunken vandalism. Were there other, similar attacks on Friday nights? What about the other dates mentioned – 2008 and 2011 – did the police find out who was responsible, and was it drunken “local crazies”?

      Significant date plus symbolic location may only be a coincidence, or it may not. If reporters avoid stories unless there is something of substance there, then it would be absolutely wonderful if all the columns of newsprint inches and online pixels devoted to celebrity gossip (I’m currently looking at the online “Daily Mail” story about the forthcoming abdication of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and apparently the other stories to entice us in are one about Nigella Lawson wearing a yellow jacket showing off her “new slim figure”).

      The day we stop getting “Pop star snapped without makeup on” stories, then tell me about responsible media avoidance of encouraging drunken antics.

  • Darren Blair

    It’s all about who is “politically correct” these days and who has the media’s ear.

    Paint a pentagram on the front lawn of a Mormon church and staple a dead deer to it? One blurb in the local newspaper.

    The same thing on the front lawn of a denomination that’s politically correct? Someone’s going down for a “hate crime” and the media won’t rest until it happens.

  • Erin

    “What about an attack on a 9/11 memorial, or some major U.S. government facility, that took place on the anniversary of 9/11?” Um, Ben Ghazi, so . . . no.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Erin, that was my EXACT thought. Apparently they (most journalists) didn’t notice that cooincidence either. Maybe T-Matt is just really observant. :))

  • tmatt

    JAMES:

    Wait a minute. You have already solved the crime? Also, people who are drunk can’t desecrate memorials? That would be true to 9/11, MLK, the Holocaust, etc.?

    Or just on this one issue?

  • sari

    tmatt,
    People who are drunk, sober, or anywhere in between can deface memorials or places of worship, but the question of intent is a little more problematic. In the absence of physical evidence (e.g., a note) and suspects, there is no way to distinguish between prank and hate crime. The date is insufficient, especially since previous incidents occurred on non-Roe anniversary days. Other than the date, Mr. Thomas offered no evidence to support his assertions. National media were right to leave this one alone; local media should have covered it.

    I can very easily imagine a bunch of bored teenagers ramming a truck through the field for no particular reason just because.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    Where is the proof that they were drunk, at this point? Teens?

    But my main question remains: You believe the press would have reacted the same way with the other memorials, with the time elements associated with the acts?

  • sari

    I don’t believe this memorial, which is very local, to have the same status as the Holocaust Museum, the 9/11 Memorial, the World Trade Center (which has become a major tourist destination), or any house of worship. My point (and James’, I think), was that the absence of hard data leads to speculation, not fact, and that speculation alone is insufficient. Were drunk teens responsible or was this crime committed as a political and/or religious comment on the pro-life movement? I wouldn’t hazard to guess.

    The media routinely ignores crimes perpetrated against houses of worship, and has done so for some time, unless the institutions are highly visible (the Vatican, the Nat’l Cathedral or Mormon Temple in D.C., etc) or people die or are severely wounded. Like you I lived in S. Florida, was, in fact, married in Stuart. A day later, vandals defaced every synagogue in a five county area, beginning in Martin County. Local police refused to treat it as a hate crime, despite the lovely antisemitic graffiti which adorned the synagogues’ exteriors. The Stuart news covered it by printing a picture of our defaced shul midpaper with a two line caption beneath. I don’t think it even made the Palm Beach Post, and I *know* it didn’t make the NYT, whose Jewish constituency might’ve been interested (especially since so many are snowbirds). The Post should’ve covered it, but it really didn’t merit national coverage. This incident in Waco falls into that category, local, not national. I have seen similar fields in Texas; this one is not unique.

  • FW Ken

    I went looking for coverage in the Dallas Morning News, which certainly counts as “local”, what with selling all the way to Austin. I didn’t find any.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Probably no one sent them a press relesase yet…


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