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HARPER: A tepid Trayvon protest, despite what you read

- - Wednesday, July 24, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite the Rev. Al Sharpton's call for rallies and President Obama's insistence he could have been Trayvon Martin, last weekend's protests met with mostly indifference — except in the media.

From the news reports I saw, I thought a mass movement swept across the country after Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon. In fact, that's what many news organizations inaccurately reported. By my tally, about 10,000 people demonstrated — or roughly the number of fans who attend a home game of a bad major league baseball team.

Although Mr. Sharpton, who hosts an evening show on MSNBC in addition to his political activism, and his organization, the National Action Network, called for demonstrations in 100 cities, I found reports about rallies in about 20 places from New York City to Anniston, Ala. The New York demonstration, which included Jay-Z and Beyonce, attracted the most people, with roughly 2,000, according to press reports, and Anniston had 50. The protesters in Los Angeles numbered an estimated 1,000 people; Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia each attracted 500 to 700; Miami had 300; and Indianapolis saw an estimated 200 demonstrators. A representative of Mr. Sharpton's organization was unavailable for comment.

Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the protest "provided a cathartic moment for demonstrators of different races, ages and genders, who shared their views of racism in America as they crammed together, often in searing heat, at rallies."

I asked Ms. Susman why she didn't report how the rallies had attracted so few demonstrators. She responded to me in an email: "The reporters' job was to describe what happened, not render an opinion on the rallies' successes or failures." I think journalists should report whether the rallies succeeded or failed. That's what journalists do all the time during election campaigns. Why should it be any different for the demonstrations organized by Mr. Sharpton and his group?

Mark Sappenfield, the deputy national news editor for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote a glowing account of how Mr. Sharpton had changed his political strategy.

"Criticized for much of his career as a race-baiter and a self-promoter, Mr. Sharpton has begun to carve out a more nuanced image for himself during his advocacy for the Martins," Mr. Sappenfield wrote.

He cited the figure of rallies in 100 cities in the story. I asked him where he got his information. He responded in an email that he did not have time to check it. If a journalist cannot check such basic information, I have difficulty believing such sweeping generalizations about Mr. Sharpton — generalizations that I think are wrong. Mr. Sharpton hasn't changed much except he's lost weight and wears better suits.

Perhaps Mr. Obama had another agenda for his I-could-have-been-Trayvon epiphany, such as deflecting attention from his problems at the Internal Revenue Service, the National Security Agency, a poor economy and plummeting poll numbers.

But many commentators couldn't resist praising the president for his remarks. Charles Blow, the "visual op-ed" columnist of The New York Times, wrote: "The president reached past one man and one boy and one case in one small Florida town, across centuries of slavery and oppression and discrimination and self-destructive behavior, and sought to place this charged case in a cultural context."

I really find it difficult to take Mr. Blow's hyperbole anymore. Mr. Obama's comments didn't suddenly rise to the level of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Simply put, the outrage about the verdict in Florida vs. Zimmerman was significantly less virulent than what Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Obama and the media would like us to think.

But maybe that's the point — making us believe we have a problem when one doesn't really exist.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51.