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Marching orders

The press reveals its convictions in coverage of war and abortion rallies

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It's not often that the nation's capital witnesses two major rallies within four days of each other. On Jan. 18, opponents of a U.S. war against Iraq drew tens of thousands to the national mall to protest. Four days later, another crowd of tens of thousands congregated for the annual March for Life to mourn the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion on demand.

The "peace" rally was mostly angry, with podium speakers lamenting the supposedly destructive impact of the United States on the world, lacerating TeamBush with terms like "greedy imperialist murderers." Former attorney general Ramsey Clark, the leader of the rally organizers, announced they would campaign for President Bush to be impeached. The Jan. 22 pro-life rally struggled to reach "the top of the mountain of repentance," as Sen. Sam Brownback told the crowd. He prayed for everyone to love their opponents, to love the women who made mortal choices. President Bush phoned in from St. Louis to congratulate the throng for "perseverance and your devotion to the cause of life."

Media coverage of these two events was starkly different, both in tone and space. The hometown Washington Post started promoting the anti-war rally five days before it occurred. The day after the rally, the Post had three anti-war stories on the front page, and two broadsheet pages inside stuffed with rally news and photographs. (The paper gave another half page to anti-war protests in San Francisco.)

On Monday, anti-war protesters were still being displayed in front-page photos. By contrast, the March for Life wasn't mentioned until the day of the rally-in passing, on a page stuffed with the concerns of abortion advocates. On Jan. 23, the Post's front page carried pictures of abortion protesters-from Planned Parenthood's mid-day rally, with a crowd estimated by Reuters at 150. The tens of thousands of pro-lifers were represented on the front page of the Metro section with an angry protester testily pointing a mitten as he told off two college students in front of the Supreme Court building.

Many media outlets blurred the population of the abortion protests, so that the public couldn't tell which rally attracts tens of thousands, and which attracts tens. Associated Press' morning headline was "Abortion Critics, Supporters Set to March." NBC's Lester Holt began the day by reporting "Rallies are scheduled in many places including Buffalo, New York." NBC then ignored the assembling crowd in Washington, instead highlighting the "Army of God" protest in Buffalo-about a dozen strong-applauding the murder of abortionist Barnett Slepian five years ago.

CBS reporter Jim Axelrod picked up the networks' sudden attention to Buffalo on Jan. 22, calling the Slepian shooting "an example of how abortion is redder than any other red-meat social issue in America."

As Republicans promise to use their majority status to ban human cloning and partial-birth abortion, they know from harsh experience that one of their major obstacles is a national media that regularly underlines in every article, caption, and inflection that the survival of Roe v. Wade is a passionate, "red meat" issue to them.

-Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center


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