ACTIVISM UPDATE: New York Times Responds on Inauguration Criticism

In response to a letter-writing campaign initiated by FAIR, New York Times senior news editor Bill Borders sent this letter (or a variation of it) to several activists

In response to a letter-writing campaign initiated by FAIR (see http://www.fair.org/activism/inauguration-times.html ), New York Times senior news editor Bill Borders (borders@nytimes.com) sent this letter (or a variation of it) to several activists:

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I have your correspondence about our coverage of the protest demonstrations that coincided with the inauguration of President Bush on Jan. 20. I am sorry we disappointed you. But it seems to me that your objection confuses the fact of this, or any, protest demonstration with the events that the demonstrators are protesting against.

The marchers in Washington and elsewhere on Jan. 20 were protesting the irregularities of Bush’s election, which we have covered extensively almost every day since Nov. 7. All the Florida electoral peculiarities have been front page news.

In general, we devote more space to events, developments and situations than to demonstrations protesting (or supporting) the events, developments and situations. One reason for this is that the demonstrations are staged events, designed to be covered. So, as we did with this one, we cover them, but modestly. I think our coverage of this demonstration, both on the front page and with the full article inside, was appropriate to the event.

This modest coverage of the demonstration, a staged event, is wholly separate from our coverage of the details of the election. That has been, of course, considerably more substantial.

I assure you that our coverage the Bush presidency will continue to be as vigorous and independent as you might expect. I appreciate your writing, and holding us to a high standard.

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FAIR replies:

The New York Times’ argument that it did not need to give significant coverage to the anti-inaugural demonstrations because it had already covered the electoral dispute in Florida is akin to saying that it was not necessary to give much coverage to sit-ins in the segregated South because the paper had already covered the Jim Crow laws the sit-ins were protesting. Or arguing that there was no reason to cover the anti-Vietnam War movement because the war itself was being fully reported. Or refusing to cover the civil disobedience arrests around the Diallo shooting because the shooting itself had been in the news.

The fact is that rallies, marches and sit-ins *are* real events, not merely peripheral phenomena that respond to events. Throughout history, they have had a significant effect on the course of American politics, and they are one of the most effective ways that ordinary people can have an impact on the society that they live in.

As for the charge that they “are staged events, designed to be covered,” that could be said of almost the entire inauguration process, as well as of a large percentage of events that the New York Times reports on in Washington. The difference is that demonstrations are staged by ordinary citizens, whereas the inaugurations, official press conferences, etc. that the New York Times prefers to cover are staged by people with access to power.

The Washington Post, often thought of as a paper comparable to the New York Times, made a different decision about how to cover the inauguration. Its lead story on January 21 included, in its fifth paragraph, the fact that “thousands of sign-waving protesters, some chanting ‘Hail to the Thief,’ roamed the streets, which were patrolled by about 7,000 officers from more than a dozen law enforcement agencies.” One of the front-page photos depicted an injured demonstrator, and five others inside showed signs of protest. One front-page story and three inside stories were wholly or largely devoted to discussing the protests.

Decades from now, historians reviewing the Washington Post’s coverage will recognize that that paper covered the most remarkable features of the 2001 presidential inauguration. Those same historians will find that the New York Times, as our action alert noted, attempted to ignore reality.

Author: FAIR

News Service: Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

URL: http://www.fair.org