Jack Shafer

How to cover a demonstration. Or not.

Jack Shafer
Oct 5, 2011 21:35 UTC

In an earlier incarnation as the editor of a weekly newspaper, I did everything in my power to prevent my reporters from covering demonstrations like the Occupy Wall Street protest now clotting the news.

It’s not that I opposed the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. It’s just that my newspaper was published in Washington, D.C., where the list of scheduled demonstrations, picket lines, and budding riots would scroll off your page if you loaded it in your browser.

The agony of familiarity that deterred me from allowing my people to cover the Free Tibet protesters at the Chinese embassy or the abortion rights rally on the Mall or the Justice for Janitors drum-bangers outside a downtown office building didn’t sit well with my staff. In their eyes, my blanket disqualification made as much sense as banning coverage of new films, books, and records in the review sections,  or prohibiting stories about political speeches. The book publisher—like the political demonstrator—wants publicity for his message. Why, my staff asked, should you let the publishers in every week and exclude the demonstrators?

Because even awful books are more compelling than your generic Washington demonstration, I would say, banging my ax on the floor. Having reviewed too many awful books since making that statement, I should probably refine the point, but you get my drift.

One of the appeals of covering a demonstration: it’s easy work. On many stories, the subjects don’t really want to talk to a reporter, or if they do, they spend their time and yours saying nothing. But walk into your average demo with a reporter’s notebook and the masses will fill its pages within minutes; the only problem you’ll have filing a story is deciding which characters or scenes to leave out. Nobody ever suffered writer’s block after attending a demo. Video journalists will tell you the same: It’s a cinch to shoot brilliant footage of a boulevard teeming with chanting, marching protesters.

Parity panic in the political press corps

Jack Shafer
Oct 4, 2011 20:16 UTC

The political press corps, like their sportswriter brethren, prefers to cover contests where the winner is announced before the game is played. Until somebody anoints the overdog, no underdog can be proclaimed, profiled, and scrutinized to give the competition its needed dramatic tension. And when the candidates—or teams—are so piddling that a pre-winner can’t be identified, political correspondents and sportswriters panic.

Sportswriters actually have it worse, and National Football League writers worst of all, because the NFL deliberately pushes its 32 teams toward “parity” with spending caps, free agency, revenue sharing, shared TV rights, the college draft–which gives last year’s worst teams the best picks–and the so-called “balanced schedule,” which rewards last year’s bad teams with softer match-ups this year. The end product of NFL parity is the Jacksonville Jaguars, for whom .500 is a winning percentage.

The end product of Republican Party parity is the gang of gibbering right-wingers, token libertarians, and one or two centrists currently fumbling their way through the party’s presidential nomination process.