The word in TV newsrooms has long been that “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that a crime story is often the fastest way to get media attention and coverage. It doesn’t even have to be bloody — witness the wall-to-wall coverage of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-assault case at Penn State last year. But the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, currently America’s most grisly serial killer, has been an exception.
Two weeks ago, Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers dropped a bomb on the mainstream media when she called them to account for failing to adequately report on the ongoing trial of Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was charged with murdering seven newborn infants and a patient seeking an abortion. (On Tuesday, Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart reduced to four the charges of murdering infants.) A photo by J. D. Mullane, a reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times, of the empty media gallery at the trial provided further shaming.
The media did start showing up at the trial after that, though coverage has been sporadic — and “strange,” says Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, the managing editor of GetReligion.org. “There’s still a lot of confusion about the victims being called fetuses when they were clearly babies. Many reporters can’t get their arms around the story.”
The trial is winding down. The defense ended abruptly on Wednesday, with Dr. Gosnell not taking the stand nor any defense witnesses being presented. The case will soon go to the jury.
But if a new Fox poll is accurate, many have already convicted the news media of bias in the Gosnell case. Among registered voters, 41 percent think the dearth of coverage is due to a pro-choice tilt in the media. Another 28 percent say it’s because the case was only a local story, and 17 percent think it’s because the gory subject matter is a turnoff.
Most telling is that 68 percent of voters are completely unfamiliar with the case. Of those who do know something about it, a telling 57 percent think the story was underplayed because of media bias. Respondents who were pro-life or Republican were nearly twice as likely to know about the case, an indication that they may have been tapping into new-media sources that covered it extensively. Only 22 percent of pro-choice or Democratic voters were familiar with the case.
Noting how many media types, from Washington Post editor Martin Baron to CNN analyst Jeff Toobin, had denied that bias was behind the near-absence of coverage, I threw down a challenge in my column on Gosnell almost two weeks ago. Two other abortion stories in the Philadelphia area could have connections to the Gosnell case. Would the national news media now follow up on those?
The first concerned two former nurses at Planned Parenthood’s clinic in nearby Wilmington, Del. They complained that conditions at the clinic were unsanitary and unsafe. In just the past three months it has sent five women to the hospital. Like clinics in Philadelphia, the Delaware clinic was not subject to routine inspections by the state. Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV reported that “Planned Parenthood is essentially in charge of inspecting itself.”
Since then, the Planned Parenthood story has continued to be ignored, save for stories on a few websites and in local media. “We have reporters camped out on the lawns of the aunts, uncles, and friends of the Boston bombers,” Nicole Collins of Delaware Right to Life tells me. “But somehow they can’t reach the former Planned Parenthood employees? One would think the media would want background on a medical facility that routinely puts women in physical danger.” Planned Parenthood is a nationwide business worthy of scrutiny. It performed 985,731 abortions between 2008 and 2010 and received $487.4 million in taxpayer money in 2009–10 alone.
Then there is the story of the leading Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, congresswoman Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia. Before entering politics, she owned a women’s-health clinic in Philadelphia that performed abortions from 1975 to 1984 and after that referred patients to facilities in Philadelphia. Schwartz has yet to answer Mullane’s persistent questions whether her clinic ever referred anyone to Gosnell. Indeed, she has said nothing about the case at all.
The issue of abortion will inevitably come up in her race for governor. In December, Schwartz was on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, commenting on the Newtown school shootings. A caller observed that “we encourage the culture of death by giving money to Planned Parenthood — they kill more people. Now it’s terrible what happened in Connecticut, but unborn persons killed with the support of taxpayer money — these are persons too.” Schwartz clearly tried to deflect the issue, saying that she thinks “the respect for life is something that we were built on, certainly, in our country, and that means — obviously different things to different people.”
When I raised my challenge to the national media to delve deeper into the issues surrounding the Gosnell case — the poor inspection record of many abortion clinics, the question of who may have referred patients to him — I suspected not much would happen. Sadly, nothing much has.
Is it any wonder so many people are convinced there is media bias and continue to abandon major newspapers and broadcast networks?
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.