During my walk in to the Inauguration on January 20, 2009 I was accompanied by a journalist from one of the country’s national newspapers. She’d called me in advance and asked to come along, and she ended up right with me on the parade route, ready to interview all the people who didn’t come to demonstrate for the Bill of Rights and actually interviewing the thousands of celebrants who did show up.
As we walked the miles in from Bethesda, Maryland to the National Mall, this journalist and I had a lot of time to chat. When she began describing the editorial meeting in which reporters were assigned to various stories, I asked her about the other protests and demonstrations happening in Washington, DC that day. Take the Arrest Bush protest happening across the street, I said. It was organized by two established activist organizations that might bring in many more people. Why did the newspaper decide not to cover them? Her answer: the subject matter of those protests — war, torture, indefinite detention during the years of the Bush administration — is old. Her editors were tired of covering the same old protests bringing up the same old complaints over and over. My demonstration was being covered, she said, not because it would be bigger but because it provided a new angle.
Both the demonstration I put together and the Arrest Bush protest were dismal failures. A newspaper covered the Oath of Office demonstration because it was new and different, not because it would attract more support. This isn’t a new pattern: in news coverage of anti-war marches, handfuls of counter-demonstrators tend to get prominent billing alongside thousands of marchers as a point of human interest. Is this pattern the right one? Is the job of a journalist to tell new stories, to tell stories that would interest readers, or to cover the bigger stories?