In late September, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London to protest military action against Iraq, rallying in what the London Independent called “one of the biggest peace demonstrations seen in a generation.” Yet neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times saw fit to run a full article about the protests, instead burying passing mentions of the story in articles about other subjects.
In contrast, both papers showed real interest in another September march of comparable size, also in London – a protest against a proposed ban on fox-hunting. The Washington Post ran a 1,331-word story about the fox-hunting protest on the front page of its “Style” section, while The New York Times ran a short Reuters piece and followed up with an op-ed exploring the class politics of the hunt. A Times story about Prince Charles also made reference to the pro-fox-hunting rally.
Estimates of the crowd at the peace march vary, ranging from the police estimate of 150,000 protesters to the organizers’ estimate of 400,000. A London Observer columnist dismissed the police figures as politically motivated, writing: “The Stop the War coalition last night claimed the total was more than 350,000; the police reluctantly moved up from ‘four men with beards and a small dog’ to 150,000, and the truth was, if anything, even higher than either.”
The peace march was notable not just for its size, but also for its broad base. Organized by the Stop the War coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain, the demonstration focused on two main slogans, “Don’t Attack Iraq” and “Freedom for Palestine.”
The Observer reported solidarity between the causes, describing “an undeniable unity of purpose” in a diverse crowd that included everyone from Muslim activists in keffiyah to “Hampstead ladies with their granddaughters in prams.” According to the Independent, “the sheer numbers who turned out to express vociferous opposition to military action in Iraq … meant there was no way they could be dismissed as ‘the usual suspects’ of the hard left.”
Despite all that, the entirety of The New York Times’ coverage of the peace march consisted of half of a sentence in an article about the United Kingdom’s approach to UN weapons inspections. The Washington Post managed one reference more, but seemed to have seriously under-counted the crowd. One Post article mentioned “thousands” of protesters in London, while another the next day referred to “tens of thousands.”
Since Britain is the most influential European supporter of the Bush administration’s war plans, the size and composition of the London peace march – not to mention the arguments articulated there – were a major development in the international debate over Iraq. The fox-hunting march, which also addressed broader issues of urban/rural tension in England, was newsworthy enough, but much more local in focus.
Given the looming prospect of a war that could kill thousands of people and throw an entire region into turmoil, it’s disturbing that The New York Times and The Washington Post gave the two events such disparate treatment. Sadly, however, it’s not atypical – major media across the United States have downplayed the breadth and depth of opposition, both at home and abroad, to a new Iraq war.
Countering this worrying trend, media outlets have received thousands of letters over the last month requesting more nuanced, balanced reporting about Iraq issues.
And it’s had an impact. On Oct. 6, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler supported activists in their concerns about his paper’s coverage of the London peace march. “I’m in agreement with the readers on these complaints,” wrote Getler. “Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of a new war, once it starts it is too late to air arguments that should have been aired before.”
Media activism can make a difference, not just in media coverage, but also in the tenor and quality of public debate. Citizens can profitably communicate with news outlets when they see problems with coverage – it might not get a positive response right away, but in the long run, all those letters and calls add up.
Rachel Coen is an analyst with the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org