Media lose focus when women protest in Washington
Public demonstrations play a vital role in a democracy, providing a forum where ordinary citizens can potentially make their voices heard and put their concerns on a policy agenda that is otherwise largely set by the government and other elites. But when an extraordinary number of people flooded Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for women’s reproductive rights on April 25, media muted those voices by downplaying the size and significance of the event, and largely ignoring the issues that marchers attempted to bring back into the public discourse.
Crowd estimates ranged from 500,000 to 1.15 million, but it was clear that the March for Women’s Lives was one of the largest protests in the capital’s history—and perhaps the largest ever. The previous record for a women’s rights rally was the up to 750,000 who marched in 1992; the 2004 turnout rivaled and likely surpassed landmark gatherings like the 1995 Million Man March (estimated at 870,000) and the 1969 Vietnam protest (approximately 600,000). The historic nature of the event, though, was not reflected in mainstream media coverage.
USA Today , the most widely read newspaper in the country, ran a single march story (4/26/04)—on page 3. While some newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post , published a handful of march-related stories over a few days, others ignored the event almost completely: The New York Daily News made two brief mentions of the march, one buried in an article on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (4/24/04) and another in an article on Kerry’s wife (4/26/04). Of the three mainstream newsweeklies, only Newsweek published a single story related to the march (4/26/04).
A look at national television news also turned up remarkably few reports: A Nexis search of the week surrounding the women’s march found a total of eight stories on the march from the broadcast networks (not counting incidental mentions). ABC ,CBS and NBC all ran two stories the day of the march; CBS also ran two stories the next morning. CNN , as a 24-hour cable news outlet, gave more extensive coverage to the event, running several reports on Sunday. But even CNN failed to treat the march as the historic occasion that it was, running just a small handful of brief march-related stories on Saturday and Monday.
To put the women’s march coverage in perspective, FAIR conducted a similar Nexis search of the week surrounding the Promise Keepers march in 1997. The Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s organization with an anti-feminist and anti-gay theology, drew an estimated 480,000-750,000 demonstrators to Washington—roughly three-quarters the size of the women’s march. Despite its somewhat smaller size, the Promise Keepers received far more media attention: Stories began appearing on network news three days before the march and continued for two days afterward, with a total of 26 stories between the three broadcast networks—more than three times the coverage the networks devoted to the women’s march.
Though USA Today doesn’t publish a weekend edition, it still managed to run four stories on the Promise Keepers the week before and four stories the week after the Saturday rally. The three major newsweeklies published a total of five articles on the Promise Keepers rally (U.S. News & World Report , 9/29/97, 10/6/97; Time , 10/6/97, 10/6/97; Newsweek , 10/13/97). Even the New York Times‘ seven march-related stories and two photos were outnumbered by its 10 stories and six photos on the Promise Keepers rally.
The women’s march wasn’t only downplayed through lack of coverage. Though march organizers used both a traditional grid count and 2,500 on-the-ground head counters to place the crowd size at 1.15 million (www.marchforwomenslives.org), some news outlets reported only unofficial police estimates that were much lower. The Associated Press cited only “various police sources” estimating the crowd at 500,000-800,000 (4/26/04); the AP number was then cited as the only estimate by reporters at other major outlets like the Los Angeles Times , the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (4/26/04). Most news reports put the number at “hundreds of thousands,” with no mention of the organizers’ higher figure. Clearly, a crowd of that size is impossible to count with absolute precision. But because marches are a way of expressing public opinion, size matters, and reports that only cited police estimates—which are almost always lower than organizers’ counts—had the effect of minimizing the significance of the march.
At the same time, some news outlets elevated the significance of counter-protesters, a few hundred of whom demonstrated along the march route—roughly one-thousandth of the number that marched in support of women’s rights. Though it ran an editorial in support of the march on April 25, Long Island Newsday placed its march story the following day on page 5—after its page 4 article on counter-protesters.
Cable news gave remarkably heavy coverage to the march opponents. Of three Fox News stories found on Nexis related to the march, two focused on anti-abortion activists (Special Report with Brit Hume , Hannity & Colmes , 4/22/04). Special Report examined anti-abortion opposition to the National Education Association’s endorsement of the march—a story that MSNBC also covered (4/27/04) in that network’s only march report found in the Nexis database.
CNN , too, played up the presence of the counter-protesters. On Live Today (4/26/04), for example, an anchor explained that “both sides rally to get their point across”—as if the two rallies were at all comparable in size or newsworthiness. CNN Sunday Morning (4/25/04) described Washington as “the site of opposing rallies” and interviewed an equal number of abortion opponents and march supporters, in both soundbite quotes and full-length interviews.
Blinded by the stars
Some news reports showed less interest in the issues behind the march than in the celebrity participants. While most newspaper articles on the march mentioned the attendance of entertainers such as Whoopi Goldberg and Julianne Moore, CNN seemed disproportionately focused on the celebrity factor. The CNN Saturday Night preview of the march (4/24/04) gave the stars top billing, introducing its segment by noting that “celebrities and hundreds of thousands of people” were expected to participate. CNN Daybreak (4/26/04) followed a brief march segment with this advice to viewers: “For more on the abortion rights demonstration, including celebrity participation, log onto our website.”
Perhaps the most startling display of celebrity fixation appeared on CNN ‘s Sunday Morning (4/25/04). “Celebrities are among the hundreds of thousands of people expected to march for abortion rights today,” the show teased. “In Washington, dozens of celebrities are attending what is being billed as the rally for women’s lives.” The two segments on the march that followed stuck closely to the celebrity angle. During an interview with anti-abortion guest Randall Terry, former leader of Operation Rescue, anchor Renay San Miguel demanded, “Where are the anti-abortion celebrities? Name some names, here. Who of the people that are seen all over the media are on your side of the issue?” Terry’s response included this comparison: “Remember, Adolf Hitler in the mid ’30s had really big crowds and had a lot of famous people saying he was a great guy. It didn’t do him much good in 1945.” Instead of questioning Terry on his comparison of abortion rights activists to Hitler, San Miguel simply thanked him and turned his attention to the next guest—pro-choice celebrity Kathleen Turner.
The election obsession
Many reports seemed to define the march’s importance by its potential impact on the presidential election—and then to dismiss it based on polls. “Supporters of Abortion Rights Seek Forefront; Rally Latest Salvo in Debate That Polls Show Matters Little to Most U.S. Voters,” declared a Columbus Dispatch headline (4/25/04). “Despite all the sound and fury—this march is an attempt to counter well-attended annual anti-abortion rallies—there’s scant evidence the issue will do much to decide the outcome of the contest between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry,” the story maintained.
NBC Nightly News reporter Jeannie Ohm asked (4/25/04): “But just how big a factor will abortion rights be in the November election? . . . Political analysts say it’s the economy and jobs, war in Iraq, homeland security and healthcare that will have more of an impact with undecided voters. But today’s large crowd hopes its message will be heard on Election Day.” CNN correspondent Elaine Quijano (4/25/04) sounded a similar note: “This election year, each group hopes to spark renewed interest, enough to have an impact at the ballot box. But political analysts say more than three decades after Roe v. Wade, most voters have already made up their minds.”
Abortion rights activists were questioned why they even bothered marching if abortion wasn’t polling as a major factor in the presidential election. On a CNN Inside Politics segment (4/25/04) devoted entirely to the march’s potential impact on the election, host Jeanne Meserve asked Kate Michelman of NARAL Pro-Choice America: “A lot of people have already made up their minds on the abortion issue. That being the case, what’s the point of a big rally like this? Can you really win hearts and minds simply with a demonstration?” After citing more poll numbers, Meserve pronounced that abortion “is not a top-tier issue. And so, is it going to be at all critical in how people decide to vote in November?”
Knight Ridder (4/27/04) dedicated an entire article to exploring whether the march might have a political effect. Though the article was one of the few to point out that the sizable presence of young women—a group with a traditionally low voter-turnout rate—could “signal a boost for Democrats,” it also made this curious assertion: “Despite media hype about marches in Washington both for and against abortion rights, the issue consistently ranks low on the list of priorities cited by most voters.”
Without good media coverage to keep the public informed about reproductive and women’s rights, those issues are bound to dip in opinion polls. Far from being “hyped,” abortion gets significantly less media attention than the higher-polling concerns of the economy and national security. Nevertheless, fully 52 percent of people surveyed said the candidates’ positions on abortion will be “extremely” or “very” important in influencing their vote for president (Gallup, 2/6-8/04). When upwards of a million people march for an issue that a majority of the public considers to be very important, news media should treat it as the historic event that it is, not reduce it to a low-ranking concern in the presidential horse race.
Missing the issues
Counter-protesters, celebrities and polls all served as a distraction from the real concerns that the marchers expressed, which for the most part received cursory treatment before falling quickly from the news media radar. The march’s theme had seven official points: choice, justice, access, health, abortion, global, family planning—but few “abortion” were heard by the media.
Some reports mentioned that marchers decried the “global gag rule,” but few explained the serious impact of that order, reinstated by George W. Bush as his first official act after being sworn in. By withholding aid to international family planning organizations that participate in any abortion-related activities, the Bush administration has defunded agencies in 29 countries that provide not just abortion services, counseling or education, but also other vital health services ranging from immunizations to AIDS testing (Inter Press Service , 4/26/04). The administration has also withheld the $34 million earmarked by Congress for the United Nations Population Fund, which the Fund estimated will result in 2 million unwanted pregnancies and more than 77,000 infant and child deaths (www.unfpa.org, 7/22/02).
Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins (Chicago Tribune , 4/22/04) had the only report on the march found in Nexis that referred to the fact that 87 percent of U.S. counties have no known abortion providers. And when the Washington Post (4/24/04) made one of the few media references to state restrictions on access to abortion, it notably undercounted them: The article reported that 32 states have rules requiring parental notification and 18 requiring “a delay in the abortion procedure,” when in fact 44 states have parental notification laws and 26 mandate delays (www.naral.org).
The particular concerns of women of color, such as disparities in access to healthcare and education, were virtually ignored, despite the fact that two of the march’s seven primary sponsors were the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Black Women’s Health Imperative. And though more than 1,400 organizations signed on to the event—ranging from more traditional abortion rights groups to such organizations as Queers for Economic Justice and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union—most news reports stuck to the same narrow script of traditional abortion rights.
The New York Times ‘ Lynette Clemetson (4/24/04), in one of the only mainstream reports to explore minority and youth participation in the march, noted some of the issues those participants raised: “comprehensive sex education, emergency contraception, affordable prenatal care for low-income women and, for immigrants, improved access to reproductive health care by providers who speak their patients’ native languages.”
But for the most part, readers had to look outside the mainstream to find those issues and voices. An article by Jessica Azulay for the Web news service New Standard News (4/25/04) highlighted those voices missing from the mainstream—like youth organizer Caricia Catalani of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, who told the marchers: “We are here to remind everyone that choice is about more than legal freedoms. It means access to doctors. It means access to education. It means access to care in your language.”
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, told the Washington Post (4/25/04), “We feel we must do something dramatic, because our issues are not in focus, especially with these international crises, and we have got to get them back in focus.” But even with one of the largest marches in the history of the country, activists faced an uphill battle in the media, where distortion and downplaying of the issues stifled a critical public dialogue on women’s rights and health, and relegated women and their concerns to the sidelines.
Terms of the Debate
One concern that did appear in many reports was the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act,” signed by Bush in 2003, which criminalized some abortions and served as a major rallying point at the march. The issue is one that journalists have largely failed to cover without adopting contentious rightwing rhetoric to define the issue, and march reports were no exception.
For a long time, journalists consistently used the term “partial-birth abortion” to describe the medical procedure in question, even though the phrase is not a medical term but a political term coined by abortion opponents (Extra!, 3-4/00). The legislation purports to target a procedure medically known as intact dilation and extraction, but is so vague that it could ban a variety of abortions at different stages of pregnancy. Though most journalists covering the issue now at least put the phrase “partial-birth abortion” in quotation marks, many have continued to use without qualification another misleading phrase to describe the procedures in question: “late-term abortion.”
In fact, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban—which was struck down by a federal judge in June and remains in legal limbo—makes no reference to viability or gestational age of the fetus, and the vague language of the law could ban abortions performed as early as the 13th week of pregnancy (www.aclu.org). Casting the legislation as a ban on aborting viable fetuses proved politically useful for abortion opponents who pushed it through Congress, and coverage of the march showed that the right continues to have success in persuading journalists to adopt its misleading rhetoric.
Newspapers around the country reported that one of marchers’ primary complaints was legislation “prohibiting a late-term procedure known by critics as ‘partial birth’ abortion” (Washington Post , 4/25/04) or that “criminalizes a late-term abortion procedure” (Philadelphia Inquirer , 4/27/04) or “makes late-term abortions illegal” (Houston Chronicle , 4/26/04). The phrase was ubiquitous on CNN as well: Correspondent Elaine Quijano, in a segment appearing on both Live Sunday and Late Edition (4/25/04), explained that marchers object to the recent “late-term abortion” legislation signed into law by Bush (4/25/04). Anchors on Inside Politics (4/23/04) and Sunday Morning (4/25/04) also used the phrase to describe the legislation.
A celebrity interview on CNNfn ’s entertainment industry show The Biz (4/23/04) revealed the dangers of relying on celebrity spokespersons rather than women’s rights leaders to represent the pro-choice position: Actress Amy Brenneman, speaking about her decision to march as a celebrity, referred to the “hot-button” issue of “late-term abortion”—illustrating how media use of rightwing rhetoric can shape the public lexicon. —J.H.