Jan 22 2001

Ignoring Reality at the Inauguration

The New York Times editorial the day after George W. Bush’s inauguration (“A Vision of Unity,” 1/21/01) predicted, based on the inaugural address, that Bush could “lift the nation to a new era of inclusion and social justice,” and found room to describe how “the gloomy light of a winter’s day was offset by splashes of color like Laura Bush’s blue coat.”

But it didn’t find space to mention the most striking feature of the 2001 inauguration: that it occurred amidst widespread and angry protests rejecting the legitimacy of Bush’s claim to office, the likes of which have not been faced by any modern president. Along the parade route, he was confronted by signs with messages like “Shame,” “Bush Lost” and “Hail to the Thief.” The London Guardian (1/22/01) reported that the inaugural parade “fell well short of being triumphant, and on many occasions during its slow advance through the drizzle, the sound of jeering drowned out the cheers.”

But the front page of the New York Times showcased stories like “Bush, Taking Office, Calls for Civility, Compassion and ‘Nation of Character’; Unity Is a Theme” and “Proud Father and Son Bask in History’s Glow”–both of which discussed Bush’s teary-eyed father while avoiding any mention of protesters.

While the Times‘ news editors could not totally ignore the estimated 20,000 demonstrators, they did their best to downplay them, placing the one story about them (“Protesters in the Thousands Sound Off in the Capitol”) on page 17, the sixth out of eight pages of inauguration coverage. This article featured one quote from Rev. Al Sharpton and one from a demonstrator who spoke of the “inchoate feeling” that led her to march. This abbreviated presentation of the viewpoints of the tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters was “balanced” by another quote from one of the hundred anti-abortion activists who demonstrated outside Planned Parenthood’s offices.

All told, the story measured 15 column inches out of eight full pages of inauguration coverage. (It was about three-fourths the length of “Floridians of the G.O.P. Savor ‘Special Victory,'” on page 18.) The accompanying photo, a tiny 2″x3″ shot of one of the day’s anti-Bush marches, was the only one out of 19 inauguration-related photos in the paper to show any sign of dissent.

Another inside-pages story, “Echoes of the Past, Near and Far, Are Heard on the Capital’s Streets,” included a lone protester outside the Supreme Court building, but presented him as well outnumbered by Republican counter-demonstrators singing “God Bless America.”

The most telling story of the inauguration package was a front-page news analysis headlined “Tradition and Legitimacy: A Nation’s Old Rituals Begin to Dissolve Lingering Clouds of a Bitter Election Battle.” This piece, by R.W. Apple, did mention the demonstrations–in order to minimize their significance:

Arguments about the legitimacy of the Texas governor’s victory have persisted even as the country accepted the fact that he had won. Thousands of the doubtful and disenchanted took to the streets of Washington today in angry protest. But the debate is likely to grow softer as the nation grows accustomed to pictures of Mr. Bush speaking from the Oval Office, boarding Air Force One, accompanied everywhere he goes by the strains of “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief.” In the television age, those images, more that anything else, confer the mantle of authority and legitimacy on a leader.

The notion that it is media images, not the votes of citizens accurately counted, that give legitimacy to a leader is profoundly anti-democratic. The media’s role in trying to shore up the fragile credibility of the establishment was a theme in the most insightful piece in the New York Times‘ inauguration coverage, “Reality of Nation’s Divisions Quickly Creeps into the Commentary, ” by TV critic Caryn James. She notes TV pundits’ attempt to “retreat into a soothing little bubble where every action they observe is majestic and every viewer shares their sense of awe”–a bubble that was punctured by “visible evidence of furious protesters along the parade route.”

Because it was not obliged to present live video footage of that “visible evidence,” the New York Times was much more successful than the television networks in minimizing the fact that tens of thousands of citizens from across the country marched on D.C. to reject Bush’s assumption of power as illegitimate and undemocratic. The Times left readers with the impression that the dominant themes of the day were “Unity,” “Tradition” and, above all, “Legitimacy.”

ACTION: Please write to the New York Times if you thought that the protests against George W. Bush’s inauguration were an important story and deserved more prominence in the Times‘ inauguration coverage.


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