Mar 1 2001

Protesters Rain on ABC’s Parade

Unlike the New York Times, broadcast outlets did not have the luxury of banishing the protesters at George W. Bush’s inauguration to the back pages. As Bush’s limousine was booed in real time, some of the protests couldn’t help but make it onto TV–to the obvious discomfort of the on-air personnel.

Take ABC News, whose January 20 coverage was presided over by Peter Jennings, a self-proclaimed fan of inauguration parades: “In a short while now…the inaugural parade will begin which, I have to tell you, I always think is one of the great moments of any political year, of any year.”

Earlier in the day, he cheerfully introduced analysis by colleagues like Barbara Walters (“today George W. Bush became not just a president, but presidential”) and reportage by the likes of Cokie Roberts: “George Bush said that he was humbled and honored after he had been sworn in. Former President Bush was very happy. Mrs. Bush, Barbara Bush, went over and greeted the coat checkers, who were very excited to see her.”

But when this celebratory mood was jarred by dissenting signs and chants manifesting along the parade route, coverage turned sour. “The demonstrators want to be heard and some of them simply want to do damage, as best we can tell from the reports down there on the street,” Jennings reported. “Some people have just come for the sake of demonstrating,” he said at another point. “We see lots of anti-Bush demonstrators having placed themselves…at various places in the District so they can’t be missed by television cameras today,” he noted with some chagrin.

This disdain seemed shared by ABC News‘ reporting staff on the ground. Terry Moran complained about the “very nasty signage” which was “downright ill-mannered,” carried by “what may be a fringe element of people who are out here.”

“It is a grab bag of angry people who may not be spoiling the parade, but are certainly impacting it,” Moran concluded. To which Jennings responded: “Well put, Terry. Certainly not spoiling the parade for people at home, but maybe causing resentment among many people at home.”

Jennings and Moran worriedly speculated about whether Bush would be able to get out of his limo and walk, as presidents Carter, Clinton and the elder Bush had done. But after Bush’s motorcade zoomed past protesters to the last stretch of the parade, reserved exclusively for $50 ticketholders, ABC‘s journalists all but breathed a sigh of relief. “The tension of those protesters is completely evaporated, at least on the television screen,” Jennings commented. “That’s right,” agreed Moran. “The only thing I see are cowboy hats.”

When Bush did emerge to wave triumphantly to his cheering supporters, Jennings turned to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, saying, “We now, I think, agree this is a good tradition for the president to get out and be closer to the people.”

Beschloss concurred, saying: “Just imagine if George Bush had had to remain, for security reasons, locked inside that car…. I think that would have made a statement that we probably wouldn’t have wanted to see.”

“Indeed,” said Jennings. “And it certainly would have enabled those who want precisely to disrupt a day like this to have prevailed.”