There was quite a noisy scene in a peaceful Chevy Chase neighborhood two Sundays ago. The midafternoon calm was shattered when 14 buses showed up without warning and about 700 protesters descended on the home of Gregory Baer, a deputy general counsel for Bank of America.
They chanted and jeered as speakers, using a bullhorn from Baer’s front porch, railed against the bank’s policies and its role in home foreclosures. Baer, away when the protests began, was booed when he returned and edged through the crowd before entering his home, where his teenage son was alone and frightened. Neighbors complained about the disturbance, organized by a grass-roots group called National People’s Action and the huge Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Montgomery County police officers appeared as participants returned to their buses, which whisked them to another protest at the Chevy Chase home of a lobbyist for J.P. Morgan Chase.
There was no mention of the protests in the next day’s Post, prompting calls from perplexed readers. Several had read a full account on HuffingtonPost.com and wondered why The Post had nothing. Journalists for The Nation and Mother Jones also reported from the scene.
Bank demonstrations continued downtown that Monday and The Post ran an online-only story. But it made only passing reference to Sunday’s Chevy Chase protests and offered no details.
At midweek, with Post readers still in the dark, news of the protests got national attention after Nina Easton, Washington editor and columnist for Fortune Magazine and a Fox News contributor, wrote a firsthand account for CNNMoney.com. Easton, a neighbor of Baer, asserted, “When hundreds of loud and angry strangers are descending on your family, your children and your home, a more apt description of this assemblage would be ‘mob.’ ”
Soon, Fox News Channel was pumping the story with protest video and on-air debates. Had D.C. police improperly accompanied the buses to and beyond the District border into Maryland? Had protesters violated trespass laws as police stood by? These and other questions also were raised by Andrew Breitbart’s influential conservative BigJournalism.com Web site, which wondered: “Why is the Washington Post ignoring the SEIU protest?” Liberal Web sites also weighed in, defending the protesters and attacking Easton’s objectivity by alleging that her husband, a media consultant, had indirect ties to Bank of America. Easton says the claims are false.
With more media writing about the protests, readers contacted the ombudsman to ask about The Post’s silence.
“Why is the Post not covering this story?” e-mailed Catherine Murphy of Earlville, N.Y.
“I have a feeling if this was a Tea Party event targeting a congressman . . . The Post would be running front-page stories,” wrote Brendan DuBois of Exeter, N.H.
The Examiner newspaper joined in with an editorial titled: “No more police escorts for union thugs.”
Finally on Tuesday, nine days after the protests, The Post’s online “D.C. Wire” carried an item in which District police insisted they had not “escorted” the protesters’ buses, but had merely monitored their movement.
Still, not a single word about the protests had appeared in the printed Post. How could this be?
“We clearly dropped the ball on it,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, The Post’s top editor for local news. “We didn’t know about the initial story.”
In fairness to The Post, all local media seemed unaware. George Goehl, executive director of the Chicago-based National People’s Action that spearheaded the protests, said, “We didn’t call any media in advance.”
But HuffingtonPost reporter Arthur Delaney said he learned of the protests from SEIU sources, which raises the question of whether The Post is sufficiently plugged into the nation’s most politically active labor organization.
Beyond that, there were numerous ways The Post could have gotten back in the game on the story. For example, how did Chevy Chase neighbors react? Did protesters break trespass laws? When does First Amendment expression infringe on residential privacy? Does President Obama, who enjoyed SEIU electoral support, sanction these types of protests? And is a blitz on private residences a new protest tactic?
To survive, The Post needs to own its local audience. Readers lose faith when there’s news in their backyard but not a word in their newspaper. And not writing about raucous liberal protests feeds the perception that The Post is overly eager to write about raucous Tea Party protests.
“If 700 people show up on anybody’s lawn anywhere in the Washington area, we would cover it,” said Garcia-Ruiz.
Let’s hope so. Regardless of who’s protesting, that’s news.
This column was originally published in The Washington Post on May 30, 2010.