“I’m used to the media downplaying or hyping abortion stories in politically predictable ways, but the complete blackout from some sectors was too much.”
Mollie Hemingway writes for the Get Religion blog, which monitors and analyzes media coverage of religion. She made it her mission a few weeks ago to get the mainstream media talking about the horrific conditions in Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia abortion clinic, on display during the man’s recent trial. After five weeks of testimony, both sides rested in the ongoing trial this Monday. Hemingway talks about the media and the trial and the implications of this all.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When and why did you decide to start using Twitter to encourage specific reporters to cover the Gosnell trial?
MOLLIE HEMINGWAY: As a media critic, I’d been writing or talking for years about the very bizarre media downplaying of the Gosnell story. I’d probably tweeted about it in general, too. But after reading Kirsten Powers’s USA Today column “We’ve forgotten what belongs on Page One,” I was frustrated. It was obvious we had a major media malfunction and it was even worse than the normal problems we see when it comes to abortion coverage. I’m used to the media downplaying or hyping abortion stories in politically predictable ways, but the complete blackout from some sectors was too much. I don’t believe in conspiracies and I don’t want to speculate on people’s specific motivations, so I figured I’d just ask specific journalists about their personal role in downplaying or blacking out the Gosnell trial. Twitter was the best way to apply gentle pressure. It worked.
LOPEZ: Is it all bias that drove the non-reporting? It’s an awful story.Who wants to watch such horrific things?
HEMINGWAY: By definition, it’s bias. But that can mean everything from the media being populated by abortion-rights activists to the media existing in a bubble where pro-life news isn’t read or sought out. As for the argument that the story was too gruesome to cover, you’ll remember that the explanation or excuse was given during the same week the same media rushed to cover a rather gruesome terrorist incident in Boston. Generally speaking, the dramatic aspects that are present in the Gosnell story, including the gruesome parts, are associated with good ratings.
When the media silence was first exposed, for instance, I was struck by the situation at Politico. That media outlet, which had run untold hundreds of stories on the Komen Foundation trying to extricate itself from the abortion industry and Todd Akin’s comments on rape and Sandra Fluke being called a bad name, had not run a single story on Kermit Gosnell. And yet it was the most-searched for topic on its website. Not giving consumers the news they’re searching for isn’t good for ratings, and it’s even worse for credibility. It’s still one of the most searched-for topics on that site specifically, and Politico has barely covered the trial or what it means politically.
LOPEZ: Does the Gosnell trial have to make us reconsider abortion, particularly in the second and third trimesters?
HEMINGWAY: The Gosnell defense is that he should be acquitted because his crimes were really just late-term abortions. If that doesn’t give one pause about reconsidering abortion, will anything? James Taranto wrote a provocative piece on this point called “From Roe to Gosnell.” He writes from the perspective of the “mushy middle” on abortion, saying the mushy middle’s difficulty in drawing a bright line on where abortion is okay and where it’s not has previously benefited abortion-rights activists. He argues that the big impact of the Gosnell scandal is that it exposes the problems with and arbitrariness of the line being drawn at birth. Since I became involved in discussing the media blackout and brownout of Gosnell coverage, I’ve heard from more than a few folks who previously identified as pro-choice saying it has made them reconsider their position on abortion. If there were ever an opportunity to think about what abortion is and what it produces, the Gosnell trial is it.
LOPEZ: What does Gosnell have to do with Komen and Sandra Fluke?
HEMINGWAY: When the Komen Foundation, which works to fight breast cancer, tried to quietly extricate itself from the abortion business, it was bullied by the media into relenting. The private foundation had given a small portion of its budget to Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider and not a provider of mammograms. The funding made very little sense, particularly considering the fact that it kept pro-lifers from fully engaging with an otherwise apolitical charity. And yet this decision from a private foundation was deemed the most important story of the month. The media responded with a non-stop assault on Komen. It led the nightly news. It was front-page coverage. Reporters and anchors screamed at employees of Komen. It was histrionic and unrelenting . . . until Komen did, in fact, relent and agree to keep on giving money to Planned Parenthood.
When Rush Limbaugh said something mean about Sandra Fluke, a birth-control activist, the media thought this was such an important story that outlets ran multiple daily updates for months.
So if a private foundation’s decision to give money more strategically is worth thousands of stories and if getting called a bad name is worth months of non-stop updates, why isn’t an abortion doctor who may be the country’s worst serial killer worthy of a story or two? The media have still failed to explain their news judgment here.
LOPEZ: What has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the media and abortion these last few weeks?
HEMINGWAY: The Komen and Fluke stories taught me that the media’s fealty to abortion rights could not be stronger. Those incidents were a wake-up call. My experience as a reporter is that claims of bias are overblown – I’ve worked in newsrooms with many a liberal, of course, but good reporters strive to be just that. The Komen and Fluke stories showed a very unseemly side of the media, one that is interested in political advocacy at the expense of the truth.
What surprised me about the Gosnell story, then, is how pervasive some of the problems were. The Washington Post’s health-policy reporter responded to my query about why she hadn’t covered Gosnell when she’d written so much about Fluke and Komen by saying “I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.” That’s bad. But the executive editor of the paper, Martin Baron, admitted he was completely ignorant of the story that has been front and center among pro-lifers for years. It takes a lot of people being very sheltered to produce a news product so lacking in general awareness. That’s a serious problem for a news industry already struggling with credibility and trustworthiness.
LOPEZ: What have you found most encouraging?
HEMINGWAY: That’s easy. I heard from many reporters and editors — including some big names that many people would know — who expressed appreciation for my efforts to improve coverage of this topic. One universal problem that we all have is a tendency to get defensive when people point out our errors and missteps. Sometimes I think journalists experience this problem even more than most. I certainly got quite a bit of defensiveness directed my way when I exposed the media’s coverage issues, but I also got quite a few notes of appreciation. Others just wanted to tell stories about how bias works in their newsroom. This last year had so many problems with media coverage that I had gotten quite cynical. These notes and phone calls from journalists saying that they’re aware of problems with how social issues are covered by the media and hoping to improve it were encouraging.
LOPEZ: How could those who are opposed to abortion do a better job in the media?
HEMINGWAY: Have a clear understanding of what standards the media claim to uphold and then request accountability according to those standards. Learn enough about the media industry to know how stories get picked and written. If you see problems with coverage of a story, put the best construction on that problem. Assume that, like Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, the journalist just lives in a world where they’re unfamiliar with the major themes and events of the pro-life movement. Be charitable and gentle, and present the story to them and suggest they cover it. If you are familiar with the work of the reporter, encourage them to cover it in the same manner they cover other stories. Help them understand why a story is important to cover – whether it’s the existence of an abortion doctor trial or the larger meaning behind said trial, whether it’s the presence of huge crowds at an annual march of pro-lifers or what that movement represents. But don’t be rude or question their motivations. Reporters are busy and working under worse conditions than reporters in past ages. Help them. Give them stories and names of people to talk to. It’s the nice thing to do, and it can really make a difference.
LOPEZ: There have been some misgivings about Live Action’s recently revealed undercover work, as a matter of morality. Do you have any misgivings? Should we?
HEMIGNWAY: Actually, I share that concern. I think it’s wrong to misrepresent oneself in the course of getting a story. I have read the arguments in favor of and against surreptitious recordings. Many fine ethicists say that spying for one’s country or doing undercover journalism can be ethical. I realize there is strong debate. I also recognize that most journalists think undercover reporting is fine.
LOPEZ: Should major media organizations be asking why they haven’t been doing LiveAction’s kind of investigative reporting?
HEMINGWAY: Major media organizations should be asking themselves why they haven’t done about a million stories related to late-term abortion. Just last week, for instance, an anesthesiologist told me that she found it fascinating that the media have yet to show what happens in an abortion. The technology is certainly there, but why is this hidden from us? What’s the news judgment in clouding that part of the story?
LOPEZ: Is it wrong to use the word fetus? This seems to come up a lot.
HEMINGWAY: While I find euphemisms to be particularly problematic when talking about abortion — we’re completely addicted to them — there’s nothing wrong with the word fetus when describing some unborn humans. However, it’s the wrong term to use when discussing children who have been born. Newborn will do fine for that. While Gosnell claims he killed the children in utero, he’s charged with killing born children. So if a reporter were to describe Gosnell’s defense, fetus would be fine. If a reporter were describing what he’s on trial for, it would not be fine.
LOPEZ: What are some positive examples from the press on the issue of life?
HEMINGWAY: I’m sure there are some, but I am having trouble thinking of any.
LOPEZ: What do you hope comes out of this all?
HEMINGWAY: A robust press is very important for a civil society. While our media do a tremendous job with some stories, we have some serious problems with how social issues are covered. And that’s to the detriment of everyone in civil society. If newsrooms seek to improve coverage of abortion in any way, that would be a good result. After decades of witnessing problems, I’m not holding my breath. But it would be a great way for newsrooms to win the trust of their readers.