It has become a media criticism tradition, one that dates back to ink-on-paper days before the Internet.
Every year, there is a giant March For Life in Washington, D.C., (and similar marches elsewhere) on or close to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, often under weather conditions that are challenging at best. Rare is the year in which the march is not the largest demonstration of any kind in the nation's capital and it is often two, three or four times larger than any other.
Every year, the mainstream news media all but ignore the event or find some other way to offer coverage that is shaped by a kind of collective journalistic shudder. Remember this classic M.Z. Hemingway GetReligion post about the CBS News slideshow of the march that only included photos of the few pro-abortion-rights demonstrators?
This year's throng was much smaller than normal because of the looming threat of Jonas, the blizzard that began rolling into Beltway land right as the march began. How naive was I? I thought that would be a valid news angle for coverage. How many thousands would manage to show up, with charter bus cancellations and other mass-transportation issues affecting travel?
As always, there is online video -- follow the #CoverTheMarch hashtag to CoverTheMarch.com -- allowing those who are willing to look at the march and judge the numbers for themselves (see the YouTube at the top of this post). As is now the norm, this crowd estimate issue is way too hot for Washington, D.C., police to handle.
However, I don't think anyone expected the headline printed atop the brief March For Life 2016 story that appeared in The New York Times winter storm roundup. The obvious question, since the Times has a massive Washington, D.C., bureau: Was the reporter who wrote this actually at the march? That now-legendary headline:
Hundreds Brave Snow at March for Life in Washington
So "hundreds" is what, precisely? The assumption is several hundred people, but not several thousand. Is the actual implication that there were less than a thousand marchers? Look at the video again. The story itself noted:
The snowstorm has forced Washingtonians to stay home and federal offices to shutter, but it failed on Friday to quiet activists gathered in the capital for the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Even as snow fell in the afternoon, hundreds of them joined the annual March for Life beneath the Washington Monument to protest the 1973 ruling by the Supreme Court that legalized abortion.
“I think it really makes a statement to the country that this many people turned out with a blizzard coming,” said Collin Harvel, who traveled from Knoxville, Tenn.
As a contrast, consider the headline in The Washington Post:
As DC shuts down for a blizzard, a small, faithful crowd still joins the March for Life
I would have made one small alteration in that headline, one that still would have fit in the format.
Instead of the word "small" I would have said "smaller," thus capturing the fact that the looming blizzard did cut into the numbers. I mean, that is the news here. However, the "smaller" reference would add the implication that the throng was smaller than the giant, giant crowds of previous years. But look at the video again: Is that a "small" crowd?
While there may be those who differ, I thought the actual Post report was better than the norm, especially in terms of showing that -- as is always the case -- the crowd included quite a bit of diversity in terms of backgrounds and beliefs.
Among those in the crowd was Richard Stith, 71, an Indiana law professor who called himself a part of a segment he dubbed “lefties for life” -- people who he said view abortion opposition as part of a broader “consistent ethic for life.” In that, he said, is an opposition to the death penalty and any violence against LGBT people. He said he had been a member of a group called Socialists for Life as well and always felt welcome at the march.
Stith was attending with his wife and daughter and son-in-law and said his family had been coming every year for 36 years.
Others who had intended to join them from places including Philadelphia and New York hadn’t been able to make it because their buses had been canceled, Stith said.
However, he said that the march over the years has generally become bigger and more successful as it has become less confrontational. “The benefit of a joyful idealistic nonviolent movement is that you can attract more people,” he said. Even though Stith expected the smallest crowd in decades, he said “the mood is still really upbeat. … What is it that Shakespeare said — ‘We happy few’?” ...
Let me offer one more note about potential news angles in this year's event.
As you would imagine, many of the marchers this year faced major challenges as they headed home into the teeth of the blizzard. Many of the buses ended up stuck in traffic, engines running, and some people ran out of gas. It must have been quite a scene on many of the major highways and interstates.
That led to this interesting and, I would argue, newsworthy event. This note is from Deacon Greg Kandra, a Catholic leader who also has many years of experience as a writer and producer with CBS News:
Amazing sight from Pennsylvania. Dowling Catholic [High School, in Iowa] students stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike meet kids on the bus from Missouri. They have a priest. And create a snow altar for mass in the middle of this standstill. Very proud of all you Dowling Catholic students.
I realize that network news crews were not there to capture this event (the major networks rarely cover the March For Life anyway), but in this smartphone age, footage immediately went online at YouTube and Facebook. It would have been easy to have produced a short report. And there were online news reports as well, from religious media sources.
Here's a snippet from The Compass, the online newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay:
More than 150 people from the Diocese of Green Bay, who participated in the 44th annual March for Life Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C., found themselves stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset, Penn., as a snowstorm made the freeway impassable.
In a telephone interview Jan. 23, from one of three Lamers coach buses carrying the diocesan pilgrims, Maria Schuette, director of religious education and youth ministry for the Diocese of Green Bay, said that while the snowstorm and resulting freeway shutdown impeded the group’s return home, it became another opportunity for the group “to practice what it means to be pro-life.”
The diocesan pilgrims, which included parish youth groups, Catholic high school students, and their chaperones, departed for the March for Life from St. Pius X Church in Appleton on Jan. 19. The group participated in service projects and liturgies held in conjunction with the annual pro-life gathering, which marks the 1973 Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion. Before the march began, Schuette said the group planned to return home immediately after the march in order to avoid the snowstorm. “We were right up in the front of the march,” she said.
Around 2 p.m., the group boarded their coach buses and were on the road home. “We left when the roads were very passable and then probably after about four hours, we came across an accident that happened in front of us,” said Schuette. “That slowed everything down. We couldn’t move after that. We’ve been stuck here since 10 last night.”
I don't know about you, but that altar made out of snow is an interesting visual. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do under adverse circumstances.
See you next year.
I have been told that CNN covered the Mass, but I cannot find that material on the network's website -- even buried in stories about stranded basketball teams, etc.