By Christopher Lisotta
Originally published on Advocate.com October 12 2009 2:50 PM ET
For many journalists, covering the National Equality March meant traveling to Washington, D.C., following the demonstrators as they marched from the White House, reporting on the energy of the event, and analyzing the panoply of speakers who addressed the crowds assembled in front of the Capitol building. For me, all I had to do was turn the TV on and fire up my laptop. It sounds easier, but I was trying to track the mainstream media coverage the march generated, no small task in a lightning-fast world where news outlets update almost instantly.
The morning’s coverage began before any of the marchers stepped even one foot, with the media already buzzing with reaction to President Barack Obama’s speech at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner the night before, where he got several standing ovations from the crowd of over 3,000. The New York Times was one of many publications to point out Obama’s reiterated pledge to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of barring openly gay service members from the armed forces, though a timetable remains elusive. On The Huffington Post, several bloggers commented on the speech, including publisher of The Washington Note and regular HuffPo contributor Steve Clemons, who noted as of Sunday morning that the White House website had not mentioned Obama’s HRC dinner attendance or included a post of the speech itself.
“While the gay community at the HRC dinner was enormously enthusiastic that Barack Obama was the first President since Bill Clinton in 1997 to speak at its annual event,” Clemons wrote, “we don't want the important remarks the President gave hidden so as not to make the weekend news cycle.”
Clemons's worry turned out to be unfounded, with the march getting coverage on mainstream television, radio, and newspaper’s Web outlets. By midnight, Washington, D.C., time, Google News had clocked more than 2,500 news stories on the march and/or Obama’s speech.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Senate Armed Forces Committee chair Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, said he thought the president could and would fight to over turn DADT, but added, “it ought to be done with thoughtfulness and care, and a buy-in from the military.” Retired general Barry McCaffrey disagreed with Levin. “The key to it isn't buy-in from the military, it's for Congress to change the law,” McCaffrey said. Levin’s Republican colleague Lindsey Graham said he was “open-minded” to what the military might suggest on the issue, but stated, “I'm not going to make policy based on a campaign rally.”
Meanwhile on CNN’s State of the Union With John King, Democratic senators Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey were grilled by host John King on the possible repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama addressed in his HRC speech. Both Casey and Stabenow dodged the question, attempting to turn the subject to hate-crimes legislation and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When King pressed the repeal of DOMA again, Casey said, “We can move forward on a lot of measures, but I’m not sure there’s support yet for that.” King also cornered Stabenow, who finally admitted the passage of an anti–marriage equality initiative in her home state of Michigan made the repeal of the federal DOMA a “challenge,” and noted, “The patchwork of state polices now make it difficult, and we all have to take another look.”
CNN and Fox News reported on the march during the afternoon, while MSNBC ran its regular weekend programming of news documentaries. Only C-SPAN aired several hours of continuous rally speeches and performances. CNN.com ran a stream on its website, but in terms of reporting, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, as well as National Public Radio, all carried the same Associated Press story on their websites for most of the afternoon.
The Washington Post’s Nelson Hernandez filed a late-afternoon story on the paper’s website, where he reported on the diversity of the crowd. “Marchers spanned the spectrum,” Hernandez wrote, “a quiet teacher from Pennsylvania afraid to give her name because she feared retaliation at work, preppily dressed men, skimpily dressed "radical fairies," and leather-clad members of the D.C. Bear Club.”
Hernandez also interviewed one marcher who was attending with his family, plus reported on comments made by longtime Democratic activist David Mixner, who said, "They told me that you didn't care and you wouldn't come." Hernandez linked Mixner’s comments to the widely reported statements made by out Democratic congressman Barney Frank, who earlier in the week called the march “useless.”
The BBC featured raw video from the march on its website that included protesters carrying signs that said “Democrats: use it or lose it” and, in a play off the classic antiwar poster, “Hate is not healthy for children and other living things.” One unnamed marcher interviewed by the BBC suggested Obama could halt the mandatory firings of out gay service members “until Congress figures it out.”
In its hourly news summary, National Public Radio ran a piece by reporter Laura Sullivan that featured an interview with an elderly gay couple who were attending the rally among a sea of much younger faces. “The young people are energized and I think they are going to take the ball and run,” one of the men said.
The New York Times carried the ball further on the subject of a generational shift, but took a more pointed approach in describing the divide. Times reporter Jeffrey W. Peters wrote that the march was “primarily the undertaking of a new generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocates who have grown disillusioned with the movement’s leadership.”
A range of publications used their Sunday op-ed Web pages to discuss the march and its potential impact. At TheWashington Post, out editorial writer Jonathan Capeheart wrote that the march shouldn’t just be a reminder for Obama, but also a wake-up call to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “If the shameful ban on gays serving openly in the military is to end, if gay and lesbian couples are to share in the rights and responsibilities of marriage that would come with the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, Congress must overturn them, sending bills to Obama,” Capeheart wrote. “The president has made it clear that he would sign them. It's time for Pelosi and Reid to follow through.” Larger papers weren’t the only ones with strong words. The Aurora, Colo., Sentinel ran an editorial titled “The Empty Rhetoric on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’” that said “it appears there is no schedule” on ending the ban. “The country has had enough talk on this matter, especially from the president,” the editorial continued. “It’s time for Obama to act now on his promises, fulfilling his claim of wanting to ensure that equality means just that in the United States.”
On Fox News Channel’s Fox Report, anchor Julie Banderas noted in her coverage of the Obama speech and the march that “words are one thing, actions are another” and “in Washington the streets were alive to keep this promise.” Fox News was among the numerous outlets to replay singer Lady Gaga’s yelling “Are you listening?” at a rhetorical Obama during her speech at the rally podium, but also spent time interviewing marchers. “I think it is the power of the people, at the end of the day,” said one unnamed marcher with a “No H8” logo on her cheek. “We wanted change, and we asked for change…I know I expect some change.”