Dear Derek Donovan (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Your column this weekend on the Kansas City Star's coverage of activists and protests (“Writing about demonstrations often is a case-by-case decision", October 16, 2005) is a welcome opener in a dialog that the Kansas City Star should be having with local activists. It's to be expected that the ombudsman for the newspaper would treat this subject openly, but your newspaper still needs to be more open and transparent about its non-coverage of protests and activism.
When the Kansas City Star covers activism and protests, it has generally been fair in its coverage. However, your newspaper simply doesn't cover activism and protests in an equivalent way that you cover car crashes and the police blotter. Let's face it, violent crime and automobile accidents are terrible things, but they affect a small minority of Kansas City residents. News about these things merit coverage in your newspaper, but as sentences, not as stories. The Kansas City Star should be devoting more coverage to local, national and international issues and yes, this includes activism and protest about these issues. The Star has reported very little, for example, about the Downing Street memos, which point to an effort by the Bush and Blair administrations to “cook the books” when it came to documenting the reasons for their invasion of Iraq. This war has affected many Kansas City residents, ranging from people who have lost loved ones in the war, to folks who display ribbons on their cars, to the increasing number of people who oppose the war through activism, protest and letters to your newspaper.
Local residents have conducted two protests outside of the downtown headquarters of the Kansas City Star. They protested the paper's lack of coverage of the Downing Street memos and your paper's general dismissal of anti-war people and their voices. Your paper didn't cover these protests and it didn't increase its coverage of this important news item. You argue that the paper has to make tough decisions when it comes to covering protests. How about simply covering the protests, including the ones that were held outside of the Star's building?
You point out that the newspaper even has a formula for how much space it devotes to protest coverage. According to the guidelines you describe, the Downing Street memo protest would possibly get a “brief” paragraph in the “Metropolitan Digest”. It seems odd to me that your newspaper can waste so many column inches on factoids and silly news, yet the newspaper has a silly policy about marginalizing coverage of protests and local activism.
To be fair, your newspaper is not alone in having a policy like this. I have enjoyed a good relationship as an activist with many journalists over the years—the reporters with the Washington Post have been outstanding in their coverage of protests—but I know from experience that small protests will usually be relegated to a small paragraph in the “Metro” or “Metropolitan” section. Marginalizing the voices of protesters and activists is unacceptable. Your newspaper devotes lengthy articles and complete sections to the voices of local business leaders, but do you have a formula for how much column space you give them when the hold a press conference or fax your paper a press release?
Which bring up a rather annoying, yet typical argument in your column about how protesters are trying to get publicity. You write that “The aim of many demonstrations is simply to generate publicity.” This is an argument that journalists have been using to excuse their non-coverage of activism for decades. I still remember my first encounter with this sad argument when I was being interviewed back in the 1980s as an activist involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Evidently, this prejudice about activists and demonstrations is either something taught in journalism schools or repeated in newsrooms. The purpose of many protests and demonstrations is to get publicity, but isn't the same thing true about press conferences and press releases? Is the Kansas City Star going to stop covering press conferences by local officials, business leaders, lobbyists and so on? After all, aren't they just trying to generate publicity?
The argument that protesters are out to manipulate journalists is just silly because journalists deal with non-protesters all the time who are seeking publicity and coverage by the newspaper. As an ombudsman for the paper, I would hope that you would be a little more self-critical about these journalism prejudices and less inclined to justify the newspaper's marginalization of the voice of dissent.
You segue from talking about typical protesters to a paragraph about the anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps. It's just downright offensive to even bring up Phelps in your column. Phelps is a marginal nutcase, not an average person who is upset about the war or concerned about abortion. I agree with you that the newspaper should cover anti-abortion protests. After all, these are local residents who are concerned about an issue that dominates American political discussions. But to lump anti-abortion or anti-war protesters into the same class as Fred Phelps is just an unfair blow below the belt.
I agree with your final thoughts that there is no simple formula and that reporters should be fair in their coverage. But the Kansas City Star can best demonstrate this by doing more reporting, not just on protests and activism, but on the issues that motivate people to protest, including the folks who protested outside the doors of the Kansas City Star.
Finally, this letter is not meant for publication in your newspaper. The issues involved cannot be condensed down to the brevity of a published letter to the editor. It also wouldn't work as a “Midwest Voices” column, because my anarchist opinions do not fit the extreme conservative opinions that are published in that feature. But I thank you for writing a column about the newspaper and protests. I hope that the Kansas City Star sees fit to cover local protests and activism in a fair manner that is in accordance with the importance of the issues that people are protesting.
Editor, Infoshop News (news.infoshop.org)
Member, Kansas City Anarchist Action