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Saturday, June 30, 2007
Cheering speech through not cheering
Since silence and non-participation are a means of expression, there will be an interesting free-speech event in Pittsburgh tonight.
A group called Fans for Change has organized a fan walkout for tonight's game between the Pirates and Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh's PNC Park. The protest consists of a pregame rally and petition drive on Federal Street, outside the park, from 5-7, then a mass walkout at the end of the third inning (fans either will leave or stand in the concourse through the end of the fourth inning). Fans also are being encouraged to wear green t-shirts, symbolizing money. Details here and here; an interview with one of the organizers is here. (H/T: Pittsburgh Sports and Mini Ponies and, as always, Deadspin).
Oriole fans staged a a similar walkout in Baltimore last year. And Lions fans have been doing cartwheels for two years calling on the team to fire GM Matt Millen. Of course, the on-field performance of both teams suggests that this form of fan expression does not work very well.
The Pirates have responded to the walkout by ordering the Pittsburgh broadcast team on FSN Pittsburgh not to discuss or show the walkout and the network has agreed; both the FSN and Nationals telecasts will go to commercial at the end of the third. All references to the walkout have been removed from the team message boards. This raises some interesting issues about both networks' commitment to informing the public. If something plainly newsworthy, important, and related to the game occurs, what is their obligation to cover it, even if it is negative or critical of the home team (with which FSN has a contract)? Striking the balance between covering "their team" and some degree of objectivity is an ongoing tension for all local-broadcast outlets. But suppose the walkout is extremely successful (say 15,000 people out of a crowd of 22,000 walk out) and a foul ball is hit into a deserted section of the stands--will FSN show that?
And might the Pirates try to take even stronger steps to cut the protest off? For example, the team could try to break up the pre-game rally in the name of "keeping the street free and clear for foot traffic"? The Pirates and MLB talked seriously about different steps to control what pedestrians can do on Federal Street, for traffic reasons, during the 2005 All-Star Game. The Cleveland Indians got in First-Amendment trouble for breaking up an anti-Chief Wahoo protest rally on the sidewalks outside Jacobs Field in 2000.
Alternatively, the Pirates might try to keep fans in their seats or in the seating area during the targeted protest time between the third and fourth innings--the Yankees have showed how to do that. Just keep the fans in their seats during the period that they want to leave as part of their collective message; they can leave immediately after the short break between innings is over. But since they want to leave at a set time, the delay effectively blunts the intended message. Consider, by comparison, that the Oriole-fan walkout was deliberately staged at 5:08 p.m.--in honor of Brooks Robinson (No. 5) and Cal Ripken Jr. (No. 8). But if the team could delay the departure by one minute, that part of the message gets lost to some degree. I doubt the Pirates will try this, but it gets more interesting as I think about it.
I may have more to say on this after the events play out.
The Parrot has further information on how the media is going to play it. The other local broadcast outlets ( are considering using helicopters or tower-mounted camera. But The Parrot points out that these outlets have to walk a fine line themselves. While they do not have the same type of close relationship with the team that FSN Pittsburgh has, there might be some fear of the Pirates retaliating against an outlet that covered the story that the team does not want shown. And that is unfortunate. Because whatever reason the team's own broadcaster might have to downplay the negative, these other outlets are operating as true journalism operations and unquestionably have an obligation to inform the public and to be critical of the team.