Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

The Post neglects protesters

Dissidents who stand up to authoritarian regimes come in all stripes. An electrician in a Polish shipyard, Lech Walesa, forged Solidarity. A street vendor in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself afire in December 2010 and triggered the Arab Spring. A studious, dour, exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, recorded his sermons on cassette tapes and overthrew a shah.

We never really know who will spark a revolution until they do. But that’s why reporters are attuned to dissident movements and dissenters, or at least they should be.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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And that’s why I was disappointed, as were readers, that there was no coverage in The Post, or in most local media, of a small July 13 protest on the Mall. There were speeches, a rally and a protest march, and organizers said they inspired between 3,000 and 5,000 people to turn out on a hot summer day.

That wasn’t big, by D.C. standards. But they were there, they were passionate and they were standing up peacefully to the largest and most powerful authoritarian regime in the world, the People’s Republic of China. The protest, of course, was by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that contains elements of Buddhism, Taoism, meditation, traditional Chinese exercise and a dedication to “truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.”

The Chinese government outlawed the group in 1999. That year, Falun Gong organized a peaceful protest outside the main government compound in Beijing; estimates put the crowd at as many as 10,000 people. That scared the government, and it has cracked down on the group ever since with ruthless effectiveness. It is estimated that up to half of Chinese prisoners in “reeducation through labor” camps in China are Falun Gong followers.

Ever since, Falun Gong has gathered in Washington each July for a protest and conference to rally its followers and keep its cause in the public eye and before members of Congress.

Stephen Miller wrote to me about coming upon “a very large demonstration against the Chinese government’s oppression of Falun Gong. There were at least 5,000 people there — probably more — I’m not an expert on crowd assessment. Yet there was no mention of this demonstration in today’s Post. However, The Post saw fit to report on a mini-demonstration against Chick-fil-A for the way it treats chickens; that demonstration merited a picture. The Post’s decision about what is newsworthy is truly bizarre. Or is the Post reluctant to offend the Chinese government?”

I can’t blame The Post too much. Editors here said no one from Falun Gong made a pitch for coverage, and other important news took up much of Saturday’s Metro section, including articles on Pepco, a D.C. police officer who threatened Michelle Obama and ongoing troubles for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Critics also dismiss Falun Gong for its cult-like tendencies. It has a mysterious and iconoclastic leader, Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York and avoids the spotlight. Its teachings can seem moralistic and apocalyptic. But really, who cares? This is the largest organized protest group in China, period.

It may be that Falun Gong will be a mere blister on China’s long march to genuine democracy. But we don’t know, do we?

It’s time for The Post to think creatively about how to cover protests; they are part of the fabric of the nation’s capital, and they appeal to a local, national and worldwide audience. The Post ought to consider making a permanent beat of covering protests, using social media and engagement tools to help draw the groups and their adherents (or opponents) to Post coverage before, during and after demonstrations. It doesn’t have to be limited to a story or photo in the paper.

A reporter could write a Protest Watch blog that would include bird-dogging police authorities who grant (and deny) protest permits, reaching out to organizers early about their plans and forecasts of turnout and coordinating with Dr. Gridlock on street closure news.

The Post could also, as my predecessor as ombudsman recommended, hire a service to provide an accurate count of crowd sizes, since the police refuse to do this now. That would put protests in context. Let’s start thinking anew on protest coverage. It’s a key part of Washington life.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

 
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