Coordinated antiwar protests in at least 11 American cities this weekend raised anew an interesting question about the nature of news coverage: Are the media ignoring rallies against the Iraq war because of their low turnout or is the turnout dampened by the lack of news coverage?
I find it unsettling that I even have to consider the question.
That most Americans oppose the war in Iraq is well established. The latest CBS News poll, in mid-October, found 26 percent of those polled approved of the way the president is handling the war and 67 percent disapproved. It found that 45 percent said they'd only be willing to keep large numbers of US troops in Iraq "for less than a year." And an ABC News-Washington Post poll in late September found that 55 percent felt Democrats in Congress had not gone far enough in opposing the war.
Granted, neither poll asked specifically about what this weekend's marchers wanted: An end to congressional funding for the war. Still, poll after poll has found substantial discontent with a war that ranks as the preeminent issue in the presidential campaign.
Given that context, it seems remarkable to me that in some of the 11 cities in which protests were held – Boston and New York, for example – major news outlets treated this "National Day of Action" as though it did not exist. As far as I can tell, neither The New York Times nor The Boston Globe had so much as a news brief about the march in the days leading up to it. The day after, The Times, at least in its national edition, totally ignored the thousands who marched in New York and the tens of thousands who marched nationwide. The Globe relegated the news of 10,000 spirited citizens (including me) marching through Boston's rain-dampened streets to a short piece deep inside its metro section. A single sentence noted the event's national context.
As a former newspaper editor, I was most taken aback by the silence beforehand. Surely any march of widespread interest warrants a brief news item to let people know that the event is taking place and that they can participate. It's called "advancing the news," and it has a time-honored place in American newsrooms.
With prescient irony, Frank Rich wrote in his Oct. 14 Times column, "We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq.… But we must also examine our own responsibility." And, he goes on to suggest, we must examine our own silence.
So why would Mr. Rich's news colleagues deprive people of information needed to take exactly that responsibility?
I'm not suggesting here that the Times or any news organization should be in collusion with a movement – pro-war or antiwar, pro-choice or pro-life, pro-government or pro-privatization.
I am suggesting that news organizations cover the news – that they inform the public about any widespread effort to give voice to those who share a widely held view about any major national issue.
If it had been a pro-war group that had organized a series of support marches this weekend, I'd have felt the same way. Like the National Day of Action, their efforts would have been news – news of how people can participate in a democracy overrun with campaign platitudes and big-plate fundraisers, news that keeps democracy vibrant, news that keeps it healthy.
Joseph Pulitzer, the editor and publisher for whom the highest honor in journalism is named, understood this well. In May 1904, he wrote: "Our Republic and its press rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press … can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.… The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."
It's time for the current generation of journalists – at times seemingly obsessed with Martha Stewart, O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and the like – to use that power more vigilantly, and more firmly, with the public interest in mind.
• Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.