Readers like protest stories … when they agree

On the TV pundits’ shows, they’re omnipresent: crowds of hundreds, even thousands of protesters making their voices heard as they march on Washington D.C. And many readers have told me they felt The Kansas City Star has been dismissive of the picketers’ concerns.

One caller criticized the paper for not playing the protests more prominently. “Don’t tell me the paper isn’t trying to control the news,” she said.

Another said The Star “seriously underemphasized how huge this movement is, and how many regular people are just fed up and finally saying something in public for the first time in their lives.”

On the other side of the fence, other readers argued that this isn’t really news and that any coverage of the demonstrations is too much. One called them “pretty much completely media-driven,” while another said it was “silly street theater from know-nothings desperate for personal attention. Focus on Congress, not them.”

Yes, the “tea party” contingent has stirred up a lot of debate — but that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, these are verbatim reader remarks from notes I took about The Star’s coverage of mass protests against the Iraq war in 2005.

And they all remind me of a constant theme I hear whenever the news turns to rallies: Supporters of the demonstrations want them front and center, with no mention of the fringe voices that always seem to crop up at protest gatherings of any significant size.

By contrast, opponents want the media to seize upon the most extreme and inflammatory rhetoric, even when it’s off-message, to draw attention to the mainstream movement’s inevitable (often unwelcome) fellow-travelers.

And that is why I don’t particularly think protests are really news in an organic sense. Some factors do tip the scales a bit, though. The huge scale of certain Iraq war protests, drawing tens of thousands of participants, made them newsworthy to me at the time. But they certainly sometimes had their own ugly side, attracting radical groups advocating violence and other methods the organizers would have surely considered anathema.

A caller last Friday objected to that day’s editorial, which suggested that tea partiers “clean house” of the extremists that many believe are becoming their most public face. “I guarantee if any of these nuts showed up at any of the tea parties I went to — I don’t want to say they’d get their butts kicked, but they’d have been escorted out of there, let’s say,” he told me. “The (protests) I’ve been to have had every race there, but there are going to be nuts in any group.”

I feel the heat ebb and flow over the years as I speak to readers about political topics — and the temperature is certainly hot these days. My advice to left, right and center: When you lead with reason, not emotion, you represent your opinions in the best light.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on March 27, 2010.

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