Critic's Notebook: The Women's March on Washington Makes History, Except on Fox News

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The massive anti-Donald Trump demonstrations around the world may well be the start of a new political revolution, though you'd never know it if you were tuned into Fox News.

When Donald Trump started boasting about having started a “movement,” it seemed like the grandiose utterings of a deluded megalomaniac. But it turns out he was right. He did start a movement. What he failed to mention was that it was going to be a liberal, progressive one.

The Women’s March on Washington turned out to be a much more significant event than anyone had anticipated. The numbers went far beyond the initial estimates, with the protesters numbering more than 3 million people, participating in some 600 marches across the nation and around the world. This was an historic event or, as CNN’s Brooke Baldwin breathlessly, if ungrammatically, described it, “Monumentous!”

It’s more than a little ironic that it wasn’t Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, but rather Donald Trump himself who managed to pull together a coalition of Democrats and, presumably, disaffected Republicans that may well come to rival the significance of the Tea Party. Without a strong leader, the movement may fizzle out shortly after it begins. But anyone who participated in any of the packed protests, or watched the powerful television coverage, will find that prospect hard to imagine.

The day began quietly enough, with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attending an interfaith prayer service at the National Cathedral. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all covered the event live, their cameras trained the entire time on Trump as if they were hoping to catch him picking his nose (or, more likely, asking Pence what goes on at a church service). Several news commentators picked up on the sometimes pointed messages delivered by the clergy members, such as one reverend’s prayer: “Take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us.” It’s safe to assume that the words flew over Trump’s head.

During the service, if you wanted to see coverage of the Women’s March, you had to turn to C-SPAN. When it was finally over, CNN and MSNBC began their daylong coverage of the protests, which already were exceeding expectations in terms of attendance. If you kept watching Fox News, however, you would barely have known they were happening.

Even while hundreds of thousands of people were peaceably marching in Washington, D.C., and other cities, Fox pretended that nothing special was going on. We were instead treated to a history lesson about the National Prayer Service; discussions of Trump’s executive actions; endless recaps of the inauguration and subsequent festivities; and breathless reports about James Mattis being sworn in as secretary of defense. It was enough to make you cry, “Fake news!”

And when Fox did finally report on the historic march, it was often in a smug, dismissive tone. Bill Hemmer rhetorically asked, “What does it say about Democrats, about liberals, that they refuse to accept reality?” His co-host, Shannon Bream, cast doubt on the accuracy of the numbers of protesters being reported by the media, which was understandable if she was only watching her own network’s coverage.

For those who were actually interested in what was going on, there were plenty of highlights. America Ferrera delivered a powerful speech, declaring, “We will not go from being a nation of immigrants to a nation of ignorance!” Gloria Steinem warned, “A Twitter finger must not become a trigger finger.” Michael Moore called for a political revolution, announcing, “The old guard of the Democratic Party has to go!” Ashley Judd delivered a fiery, performance-art-style monologue as a “Nasty Woman.” Elizabeth Warren offered a call to arms: “We can whimper. We can whine. Or we can fight back!” And Madonna, well, she dropped a bunch of F-bombs that forced MSNBC and CNN to hurriedly cut away.

The star power was formidable and, not surprisingly, took precedence over ordinary folk in terms of news coverage. That was made clear when a marcher was just about to explain to a CNN reporter why she was participating, only to have her moment in the spotlight snatched away when Wolf Blitzer cut to Scarlett Johansson making an impassioned defense of Planned Parenthood.

But the speeches, as stirring as they often were, paled in comparison to the power of the visuals. Whether the screen was filled with images of throngs of people or split to show demonstrations taking place simultaneously both here and abroad, the sea of humanity was a sight that could never be forgotten. There were so many pink “pussyhats” on display that you had to turn down the brightness on your television. As the day went on and time zones shifted, coverage began of protests in the western part of the country, like a wave in a packed stadium.

Most of the pundits took pains not to be one-sided. John King pointed out that maybe Trump deserved a chance to lead before widespread revolt. But that was a false equivalency. Does anyone really believe that similar protests would have erupted had the country elected John Kasich, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz as president? (Well, maybe Cruz.) On the other hand, it was more than reasonable for the MSNBC commentators to ask if the march organizers should have been so unwelcoming to women who are anti-abortion.

Toward the end of the day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer held what was announced as a press briefing, but rather became a whiny temper tantrum. He said virtually nothing about the day’s events or Trump perhaps wanting to reach out to the millions of people around the world concerned about his new administration. Rather, Spicer railed against the “irresponsible” and “shameful” media over such things as a mistaken report about a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from the Oval Office and the supposedly inaccurate accounting of the number of people who had attended the inauguration. That this was the presidential nonresponse to the day’s history-making events indicated that the country is in for a very long battle, indeed.