Rules of Rallies
very year, tens of thousands of Americans come to Washington in January for the March for Life to mark the dark anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and almost every year, the routine assembly of their impressive numbers are almost entirely ignored by the national media.
There is, however, an entirely different slate of rules and generous exceptions granted if your protests are, well, just, in liberal eyes. From this familiar media reference point, organizing and protesting are defined as tactics naturally reserved for the left. If the right holds a rally, the media either ignore it, or if it has an effect too "dangerous" to ignore, they expose the cynical PR-firm memos that explain how all this artificial "astroturf" advocacy is supposed to fool lawmakers into thinking the natural liberal supermajority is losing its grip. Any analysis of liberal protest coverage will boil down to a few orderly rules of coverage, a sort of protest procedure, a Robert's Rules of Rallies:
1. Numbers are not important. You don't need tens of thousands of protesters to excite a TV assignment editor. A few years ago, the March for Life went typically ignored, but seven Greenpeace troublemakers in Seattle drew an entire story on ABC later that year. A few days ago, a contingent of about 100 "anti-globalization" protesters who were having trouble being admitted for protests in Canada drew an entire sympathetic story on CBS. Speaking for the liberal supermajority doesn't require more than three or four people to gather in its name.
That said, while the sympathy toward liberal protests is universal, the amount of coverage can vary wildly, and can often be read as a sign of how some liberal PR types are much more plugged into media power than others. When Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund held a "Stand for Children," it drew boffo coverage. When former CBS publicist Donna Dees-Thomases organized the numerically challenged "Million Mom March" against the gun menace last spring, the coverage and enthusiasm went through the roof. By comparison, the gay-left "Millennium March" and aggressive Earth Day organizing in that same spring went comparatively unloved.
The newest test of the rally rules came with the National Organization for Women's Earth Day rally, touted as the "Emergency Action for Women's Lives." (That's a charming example of feminist reductionism: It's either you or me, kid, and guess who wins this smackdown.) National coverage was minimal, but NOW planned the protest in Upper Senate Park, which sends the message that they're aiming low numbers-wise, planning to simply fill a city block. The sad part for them: They couldn't fill the block.
Despite spousal protests, I took a few hours out of my Sunday to observe the "emergency action," following the usual journalistic skunk-at-the-garden-party rules no fake cheering, no fake signing petitions or wearing sympathetic stickers, no heckling. As I stood there unbothered with my handy microcassette recorder, a young blond woman in summer attire took notes next to me as the speakers rumbled. This could have been Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post, but rule 3 below could rule that possibility out.
Leonning's story had all the trademarks of the liberal reporter's account, and the first and phoniest one was to exaggerate the size of the crowd: "Led by NOW President Patricia Ireland, Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority and abortion clinic operator James Pendergraft, the column stretched around the Capitol on its north, east and south sides before the last marchers stepped off the park property." How many people would it require to surround three sides of the Capitol, single-file? I'd say a few hundred, but Carol implied that surrounding the Capitol requires an impressive contingent. By contrast, the March for Life chokes Washington streets for blocks, eight or ten people across, row on row. Reporters without a pro-NOW bias could easily assert that the poor attendance implies a decline in feminist fortunes, but that's not how team players behave.
2. We're all mainstream here. Judging from the Washington Post chats the next day, Leonning’s story gained the most attention with this passage: "The crowd was well-mannered, U.S. Capitol Police said, and except for some sexually explicit protest signs and shirts, the event often resembled a family picnic." It was a warm day, and people sat on the grass, some on blankets, although I didn't see much food. But how many people go to "family picnics" featuring the Communist Party (listed on the official program as a co-sponsor), several Trotskyite sects, and brigades of butch lesbians with pink shaved hair? How many family picnics are interrupted with whooping and screaming every time a speaker touts the heroism of abortionists?
Another sign this was no picnic was the rather uncivil placards surrounding the podium, such as "Too bad abortion was illegal when Bush was in utero." Many signs were littered with lame references to "Bush" (formal) and "bush" (informal). That spent theme was taken to its logical conclusion by several women parading around a collection of Baggies filled with shaved pubic hairs in anti-administration protest.
This rule first came to me during protests against the Gulf War, where network producers openly declared they were searching for "mainstream protesters." While network stars assured America that the protesters were patriots who loved America, the local affiliates failed to censor the flag burnings and signs against American "imperialism."
3. Thou shalt not quote from the podium. This rule also emerged obviously from Gulf War coverage. Podium speakers could declare (to the audience's delight) "Down with Imperialism! Victory for Iraq!" and never make the news, which was saved for aw-shucks Uncle Joe from Indiana.
Leonning's story in the Post made no mention of what was said or sung from the NOW podium, focusing instead on "a New Hampshire grandmother who joined the abortion rights rally . . . because of her memory of a graduate school friend who had an abortion in 1967" and nearly bled to death.
Somehow, the Post story missed Mary Prankster's song with the catchy chorus, "Gonna hook me up/ to that great big suction pump/ and bust that little piece of dust/ that's growing deep inside of me." It missed Frances Kissling of "Catholics for a Free Choice," who declared: "George Bush is willing to see women die throughout the world and in the United States because they can't have safe, legal abortions. He's willing to see men and women die because they can't use or get condoms to protect themselves from AIDS. He's willing to see young people die because they can't get sexuality education. If this doesn't sound like the Catholic Pope, I don't know what does!"
The Post left out Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who drew great applause for claiming "the myopic notion of a moral fixation on fetal life...is by no standard a moral standard." He warned: "If the wall of separation of church and state collapses in America, it will fall harshly on all Americans who believe that faith and intimate moral decision-making must be determined solely by the struggle of individual conscience, and never by the dictates of the most powerful patriarchy." That last word was red meat for this crowd, even if liberal reporters never find red-meat passages at potentially vegetarian left-wing events.
The NOW crowd is frightened to the point of "emergency" by the prospect of a Supreme Court retirement (and in the opposite of court-packing, Lynn suggested that abortion advocates should demand that "Eight is Enough" and not allow any new justice to be seated). But whenever a retirement happens, the Post's protective and promotional approach to this rally suggests that Senate Republicans can expect to face the usual heat from feminists, as well as their supporters in the mainstreaming press.