At this very moment, America is in the midst of a social movement of historical proportions. It is one that could take its place in the history textbooks of the future next to the farm workers movement of Cesar Chavez and the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. - if only the journalists who write the "first draft of history" would take the time to cover it.
The existence of this movement hit home to millions of television viewers just over a week ago, when the evening news programs showed footage shot from a helicopter of a sea of people lining the streets of Los Angeles. As the helicopter panned its camera in a tracking shot of the wide city boulevard, the marchers just kept appearing - 500,000 of them walking, chanting, and waving Mexican and American flags to protest a proposed law to make illegal immigration a felony. The staggering size of the crowd was the largest in Los Angeles history.
And that was just one of the marches. Over a period of several days, tens or hundreds of thousands of protesters, mostly Latino, turned up in Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, and other major cities across the United States. The crowds were full of the faces of those who often remain invisible to the American majority: day laborers, child-care workers, and construction workers who are paid under the table at the end of each day. Also represented was a who's who of virtually every Latino political organization in the country. To see the camera sweeping over a crowd that kept going, and going, and going was to witness the nascent face of what could be the strongest political and social movement of the decade.
And the media blew it. The average news junkie - a reader of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and The New York Times - could have been forgiven for asking themselves, as they saw the marches, "Where the hell did all of this come from?" For although the protests were amply covered as an event unto themselves (albeit by the AP more often than by major papers' national reporting staffs), the warnings that these events were coming were minimal in the pages of the most august news sources. Who are the leaders of this movement? What type of organizing took place to turn out such crowds in successive days across the country? It's hard to tell. The New York Times, damningly, has given the protests by job-hungry students in France far more play than the protests of Latinos that swept America.
"What's happening right now is comparable to the complete awakening that media had to issues related to the Middle East when September 11 [happened]," says Manny Ruiz, president of Hispanic PR Wire and an avid follower of the movement coverage. "You better understand this, you better put your arms around it, because it's no longer sneaking up on you. It's here."
Of course, it is not too late for the media to jump into the issue and start making up for lost time. The weakness of the lead-up coverage has only driven home the point that major news organizations will need to redouble their efforts to recruit minority journalists. It's hard to imagine that a newsroom in which Latinos were heavily represented would have missed the rumblings of this movement long before the tidal wave of humanity hit the streets.
"Not just Latinos, but minorities in general are underrepresented in mainstream [media], whether it's at newspapers or TV stations," Ruiz says. "Media outlets are finding it inevitable to actually have more of a dedicated understanding of it."
While the role of PR professionals in this specific issue is yet to be seen, Ruiz says the outcome could impact the work they do in the future.
"If the tide turns against Latinos, I think you'll see more Latino PR professionals try to play an active role in counteracting that," he says.