Have some organizations seeking to make their views known crossed the line between civil debate and interference with solemn religious rite? Are newspapers, by giving prominent attention to such actions, encouraging excesses?
I have heard from several readers who would answer "yes" to both questions?
Their comments followed publication Sunday of a lengthy story in The Post headlined "Ordination Disrupted in D.C.: Protesters Object to Abortion Work of Candidate's Husband." The 16-inch report was topped by a three- column headline and 27 square inches of photographs, all displayed on the third page of the Metro section.
One reader was offended by the prominence given and also by the use of the phrase "antiabortion activists opened a new frontier" written by Marjorie Hyer. The "new frontier" suggested a "tone of approval."
Another objected to the attention given to the wife's ordination when the protests were really aimed at the husband's work. But both noted that a brief story two pages farther back in the section told about a peaceful march by between 1,000 and 1,500 persons through the streets of Washington to protest Catholic church "opposition to abortion and contraception." It was one of 14 such protests held across the nation, the story said.
The four-paragraph item, headed "Abortion Rights Protest," was only a third as long, with a headline less than a third in size or length. It was pointed out that this demonstration involved 10 times as many demonstrators.
While the Washington Cathedral intrusion was dramatic and unusual, more so than a peaceful march, was it entitled to the big play given? As one complainant put it, "Do you want us to throw blood on a Catholic altar in order to get that kind of attention"?
Both sides are obviously deeply committed and eager to make their arguments in the competition for public opinion. Interruptions of speeches by public officials or candidates is not an unusual technique, but most media have managed to cover it with a brief reference rather than refocus the coverage from the speaker to the dissidents. When the tactics used could provoke an arrest, a different situation arises.
In this case, it seems to me, there was an opportunity to deal with the unusual event in a better way. Since there were activities on both sides of the issue, there could have been one story. Or there could have been a twinning of stories under one headline -- not necessarily equal in length. Or there could have been a shirt-tail story for one event following on the other.
If any of these techniques had been used, Post readers would have had the benefit of seeing both sides on the same page and had a better chance to make their own judgments.
But the bigger question remains: How can newspapers take the news bonus out of disruptive conduct? Or are we sentenced to an escalation of activity? I think newspapers have to exercise more mature judgment in news play than this episode indicates. The cathedral story should have been shorter -- no one was hurt, no one was arrested. The confrontation was contrived.
The abortion issue often erupts into arguments over fairness of coverage, but there are also problems with terminology. What's in a name? Those who favor abortion rights prefer to be described as "pro-choice," arguing that they do not go about advocating abortions, but rather believe women should have the right to choose abortion if they so desire. The anti-abortion groups prefer to be described as "right-to-life."
The struggle has become passionately emotional at times, and Post editors have sometimes indicated they feel they are in a no-win situation between the parties. But I believe ty have to continue to strive for fair play to both even if it means exercising a little ingenuity and initiative. These things are happening in our community, and they deserve to be reported.