November 30, 2018

In the weeks before a Nazi rally planned on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol on Nov. 10, the The National Socialist Movement sent one or two press releases a day to newsrooms urging them to cover the gathering.

News director Austin Kellerman of KARK-TV/Fox16 News didn't bite.

"Reporters kept pitching the story but the story never made it to the daily assignment board," Kellerman told Poynter. "Finally, an anchor asked 'What are we going to do with this?' It started a conversation that included my feeling that there was enough going on, including an election, that needed our attention more."

But some in the newsroom asked whether the rally, whatever people might think of it, was news and should be covered.

Kellerman said the newsroom started asking questions about who was going to protest and what they were protesting. The answers to those questions sealed the decision. The station had no reason to believe any of the protestors were local.

"They came in and they were protesting an issue of genocide in South Africa," Kellerman said. "So it was people who are not local protesting an issue that is not of local importance. You feel like they are coming to Little Rock because people will shove cameras in their face and maybe national news will pick it up if there is an incident.

" … What if nobody covered them and nothing happened and it didn’t make national news and no one cared?"

The station did say there was a journalistic obligation to forewarn the public that there was going to be a Saturday afternoon rally, so it aired a brief mention of it a week and a half before the event and said that the station planned not to give the event further coverage unless something newsworthy happened. 

The newscast said that viewers who wanted to know more about the newsroom's reasoning could go to the KARK website, where Kellerman wrote in part:

The last thing I want to do is censor the news from you. We’re telling you about it so that you’re aware — and we’ll let you know if anything major happens. However, we won’t give them what they’re looking for. They won’t get that “attention grab” and extended camera time.

The station sent a photojournalist to be on the ground near the protestors and planted a reporter and photojournalist on top of a nearby building to watch from afar.  

"There were 15 people in the Nazi movement on the Capitol steps and between 50 and 100 counter-protestor types showed up" Kellerman said. "There were probably more cops than people actually attending." 

None of it made the air. 

Yes, it was tempting on a slow news Saturday to air something. Guys parading around in Nazi uniforms is inflammatory video that would spread online.  At least one critic said the size of the police presence, the snipers on buildings and the traffic interruptions made the story newsworthy. 

But, Kellerman said, "There were probably more people at the food court at the mall than showed up at the Capitol." 

Other stations in the market and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper also adopted the philosophy of sparse coverage. One station covered the rally on the Saturday evening news. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette managing editor David Bailey said, “Our usual practice is we don’t write up events that are obviously for publicity.” 

Kellerman told Poynter that his newsroom could have found ways to report sidebar stories.

"There were other stories associated with it that probably deserved attention. The police deserve credit for what didn’t happen that day. It all came back to we felt like we didn’t want to give that group any attention if we could avoid it."

Kellerman wrote on the station's website:

The National Socialist Movement is coming to Little Rock to try and make some noise. But if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Let’s give them silence. Arkansas is better than this.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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