January 28, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Hands up everyone who went to the March for Life this year. (All those still waiting to get out of DC-area airports can just whimper weakly.) I know quite a few people here in Europe, Brits, Italians, Irish, Poles, who go every year and wouldn’t miss it, and they are bringing the idea back to Europe with them.
I went last year, but this year just couldn’t face the punishing 25 hours of travel time and 36 hours of recovery time it would take. But the memories of the march are still with me. While the debate continues as to what, concretely, the March for Life accomplishes in the political realm, the one thing we all agree on is that it’s fun. It’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s a happy time over an issue that can sometimes seem hopelessly depressing. Even the mainstream media, if they were to show up, could not miss the fact that no one there is angry, no one is waving a fist.
I thought I would look a few things up about it, and pass them along, with some thoughts about that annual bugbear, the media blackout.
Most protest marches and demonstrations on the Mall are one-time events and, it being the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, it has all the biggest ones. The March for Life is one of only two that are held annually. The other one is “Rolling Thunder,” a demonstration of bikers for the benefit of American POWs held every year on Memorial Day.
This means that with this year’s rough estimate of 400,000, the March for Life in Washington is by far the largest single annual political event in the United States. And possibly in the western world.
In the history of Mall demonstrations, very few have come close to the size of crowds that attended on January 22nd this year. 500,000 demonstrated in 1969 for an end to the Vietnam War. The same number was recorded gathering again in 1971 for the same purpose.
By comparison, even the causes that enjoy broad social support, that we would now call “politically correct,” do not draw anything like these numbers. In 1972, a demonstration against South African apartheid drew 8-10 thousand participants. In 1976, a demonstration organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) drew 16,000 in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
It is also notable that the issues at the heart of the Culture Wars, abortion and homosexuality, seem to draw the most people. In 1987, when AIDS held pride of place in the media, an estimated 500,000 homosexuals and their supporters attended a rally on the Mall. And in 1989, a pro-abortion counter protest to the March for Life, titled “March for Women’s Lives,” another NOW project, brought another 500,000; a similar event with similar attendance occurred in 2004.
It used to be the job of the National Parks Service to issue crowd size estimates, but in 1995, following a controversy over their reporting of the Million Man March, they gave it up. Since then, crowd size estimates come from demonstration organizers and the media, which one might imagine leaves a great deal of room for interpretation depending on the media’s attitude toward a given issue.
Pro-life people are also not the only ones who complain of “media blackout.” It’s a surprise to see that pro-abortion demonstrators complain almost as often as we do that the media is ignoring them or giving unbalanced accounts. Yes, it’s true. It may prompt our jaws to drop in incredulity, but leftists, progressives, feminists, abortionists and homosexualists regularly complain, at least in the U.S., of a pervading right-wing bias in the media that makes it impossible for them to get their message out. No, I’m not making it up.
In 2009, Don Smith, a Democratic organizer and activist in Seattle – a typical Left Coast leftist – complained that at a pro-abort rally he attended in DC, the media focused their cameras on the lone pro-life counter-protester amidst a sea of pro-aborts.
At another rally in Seattle protesting an appearance by then-President George Bush, Smith asked a photographer why only photos of the president shaking hands, and not of the rally appeared in the local papers. The photographer said his editors “decided that the President’s photos would generate the most reader interest. It was a business decision.”
(I also had a bit of smile when he said, “Progressives also need to build a viable, alternative online press … at least a few successful, well-edited websites that have enough market share and respectability to be powerful.” At least that’s one lesson we are getting on this side of the fence. And thanks again to all the readers who continue to make it possible, by the way…)
It is probably a good lesson in perspective for us to remember that the first task for journalists and editors is to attract an audience, to figure out what is “newsworthy,” and as rule, marches and rallies are not, no matter what the cause. I would think this especially true if it were a rally that predictably happens on the same date every year.
If the news can be thought of as a form of non-fiction drama, a kind of non-stop soap opera, it is well to remember the axiom laid down by Aristotle in his treatise on poetry, that for drama to exist, there must be conflict. It is the conflict that journalists are after, since it is only conflict that arouses the public’s interest and sympathy, what Aristotle called “pity and fear.”
This is the reason, despite complaints that the news is a downer, that “good news” really doesn’t sell. It is human nature. Tragedy sells. Sex sells. Holocausts, pogroms, genocides and bombings sell. A day in the life of the smiling people of Happy Village…? not so much.
This rule was brought home to me some months ago when I attended a press conference at the Vatican to introduce Peter Seewald’s interview book with Pope Benedict … you know, the one that caused the latest big kerfuffle over condoms. As I was waiting for the bigwigs to come in, I found myself seated next to a venerable Vaticanista, someone who is on our side and who has been reporting closely on Vatican affairs for decades. I expressed my surprise at the packed house; it looked as if every journalist in Europe were there. She smiled and said, “It’s about the pope and sex. It’s a seller!”
This does not exonerate the media, and I think it is obvious that the coverage of the March for Life, when there is any, is wildly, laughably unbalanced, but Smith’s point is well taken. One reporter he asked about news coverage of rallies and protests, said, “most rallies simply aren’t newsworthy.”
“It’s not news when progressives protest against war, or when Catholics protest against abortion.”
Nonetheless, Smith’s photographer friend made the point: “Only if rallies are massive (like hundreds of thousands of people), or violent, do they get coverage.” While the March for Life doesn’t qualify when it comes to violence (there isn’t any), it does seem that the hundreds of thousands who show up annually might draw the attention of the media bigshots, at least more than they do.