George W. Bush’s June 14 commencement address at Ohio State University was a sign of a “revived” presidency, according to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank (6/15/02). “Bush basked in the adulation of 55,000 people who treated him to waves of standing ovations in Ohio Stadium as he received an honorary doctorate,” he wrote. “If there was a protest in the stadium, it was not visible to reporters.”
In contrast, Milbank reported, when Bush received an honorary degree last year from Yale University, “he was booed, heckled and greeted with a sea of protest signs.” While acknowledging that Yale and Ohio State are different places, the Post reporter asserted that “the real cause of the difference in reception is the transformation of Bush and his presidency since the September 11 terrorist attacks.”
There may have been no protests visible to the Post reporter, but, as other media reported, there may have been other reasons for this than “adulation” for Bush. At a rehearsal the day before, students had been warned that they faced arrest and/or loss of diplomas if they participated in a planned protest. OSU official Richard Hollingsworth told the students:
This warning was referred to in a Columbus Dispatch article (6/15/02) that appeared the same day as Milbank’s article.
The warning was reiterated on the day of the protest. According to an Associated Press story (6/14/02) that went out on the wires the day before Milbank’s report, “Immediately before class members filed into the giant football stadium, an announcer instructed the crowd that all the university’s speakers deserve to be treated with respect and that anyone demonstrating or heckling would be subject to expulsion and arrest.”
AP initially went on to report that “the announcer urged that Bush be greeted with a ‘thunderous’ ovation.” A later version of the story indicated that the announcer had requested an ovation for outgoing Ohio State president William Kirwan. FAIR had mentioned the earlier report in a June 17 action alert on the Post‘s reporting, and noted the altered version in a follow-up the next day. This prompted a message from an Ohio reader:
Despite the threats of arrest and loss of diplomas, some observers did, in fact, notice protests during the ceremony. The Lantern (6/14/02), Ohio State University’s campus paper, reported that “three graduates and six audience members–one draped in a Palestinian flag–actually did turn their backs but were hardly noticed by the crowd of about 60,000.” According to organizers, a total of 14 people in the stadium took part in the protest (turnyourbackonbush.com). At least one participant in the back-turning described being escorted out of the stadium by police under threat of arrest (DemocraticUnderground.com, 6/14/02). Many more graduates wore peace signs on their mortarboards to express their solidarity. A demonstration held outside the stadium attracted a small group of protesters as well (Columbus Dispatch, 6/15/02). None of this information made it into the Washington Post article.
In its action alert, FAIR asked activists to contact Post ombudsman Michael Getler. He responded in his June 23 column: “A media watch group known as FAIR, for Fairness & Accuracy in Media, took off after Milbank and the Post, resulting in some 1,000 similar sounding e-mails from its subscribers, asking why the Post was covering up dissent against Bush.”
Although he got FAIR’s name wrong, Getler did seem to agree with some of the criticism: “It would have been good to have had something on this,” he wrote. But he added that “the FAIR bombardment seems, frankly, unfair. Milbank, part of the press corps traveling with Bush, could not have seen the Dispatch story beforehand.”
In a June 24 update to the action alert, FAIR noted that the threat to arrest protesters was made not only at the rehearsal, where they were reported by the Dispatch, but in the stadium itself, when presumably Milbank was present. Such a warning should have been a clue to an alert reporter that there was more to the (relative) absence of protests than “adulation” for Bush.