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A Manufactured Controversy

A non-controversy at Petco Park. (KNSD)

While the Padres were busy losing a game yesterday, an anti-gay protest was petering out.

The team had advertised "Pride Night" at the park -- on the same night as a ballcap giveaway for kids. A small handful of activists outside complained the Padres are pushing a homosexual lifestyle on children. Or something.

The media had plenty of notice of this demonstration. That's because the Thomas More Law Center , a conservative Christian group, sent out a press release several days earlier (quoting verbatim):

Shame at Petco Park; The Thomas More Law Center Urges Families to Boycott This Sunday's Padres Game

On the same evening, the San Diego Padres are enticing families to bring there children to the Padre's game against the Atlanta Braves with a family day giveaway of "floppy hats;" the Padres are also advertising a homosexual event, "Pride Night at PETCO Park."

[...]

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center commented, "In my opinion, this confluence of events is not a mistake. The Padres are playing the part of the Pied Pieper leading unsuspecting children into accepting the homosexual lifestyle as normal. Children should not be subjected to the 'in-your-face' antics of these radical groups. The Thomas More Law Center wants unsuspecting parents that hope to get their children a free hat and maybe allow their children to run the bases at PETCO to know that they are also walking into a modern day scene of Sodom and Gomorrah."
The Union-Tribune article nailed it: The protest ended up being as floppy as the hats.

Even so, this non-story made headlines across Southern California. It's the top story at NBCSandiego.com . That headline tells us "Padres 'Pride Night' Sparks Controversy." And News 8 aired the story at the top of the 11 o'clock news last night. The reporter struggled to show any real controversy . I never saw more than a few protestors gathered at once, and the footage showed fans ignoring the people in bright red shirts. After the story, the anchor reached into her bag of clich?s and noted "a lot of controversy there."

If the protestors succeeded in creating controversy, "it wasn't readily apparent," writes Scott LaFee in the U-T . "Official attendance for the game was 41,026, just short of a capacity crowd for the 42,685-seat ballpark." Padres spokesman George Stieren is quoted as saying: "People are making this bigger than it really is."

Maybe the "people" George refers to are the media.

Imagine there hadn't been a press release. If someone at the news desk got word of the meager gathering outside Petco Park, would the editor send out a reporter? I doubt it. But here's the scary part. Some news organizations don't even wait for the protest. The Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the press release . And without fail, that story used the C-word:

Law firm criticizes Padres over gays

SAN DIEGO -- A national law firm involved with religious issues joined a local Christian minister Friday in decrying what they termed support by the San Diego Padres' management for the "homosexual lifestyle."

[...]

The game controversy began when an El Cajon-based ministry said its followers would refuse to work the food concession stands during the game as a way to show disapproval of homosexuality. Set-Free Ministries has a contract with the team to staff such stands.
And there you have it: a media-manufactured controversy. A controversy that wouldn't have existed unless someone was there to legitimize it. The truth is, someone is always complaining about something . The ratio of press release-to-published story is about a million to one, if I may be unscientific.

When the LA Times covered the story, editors and news directors across San Diego suddenly had currency to cover it themselves. Well, if the Los Angeles Times covered it, it must be worth our time.

I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong to cover a protest, especially one that targets a hot social issue. At least a protest is a step above a press release; a protest requires action. A protest makes an idea real. A press release, however, is an idea disguised as news.

The local media played into the hands of one media-savvy fringe group. That is not good journalism. I should note that many outlets did not bite, including KPBS. And although the Union-Tribune covered the story, the reporter correctly explains the protest was a failure -- rather than trying to force it into a controversial corner. Oh, and that story never utters the C-word.

-- Andrew Phelps is a reporter for KPBS News and co-host of Off Mic . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.