Politics & Policy

The Media After Gosnell

Now it's time for journalists report on the “meat-market style” abortions at a Delaware clinic.

If there were an award for Most Constructive Shaming of the News Media, the clear winner would be Kirsten Powers, the brave Fox News pundit and Daily Beast columnist. Last Thursday, she called out the mainstream media for failing to adequately report on the ongoing trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who is charged with murdering seven newborn infants and a patient seeking an abortion. Powers’s USA Today piece provoked an instant response from many sheepish journalists.

Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast acknowledged she “should have” written about the “horror Doc’s” clinic. The Washington Post made the stunning admission that “we should have sent a reporter sooner.” Dylan Beers, Politico’s media reporter, flatly stated that “Gosnell should be front-page, top-of-the-hour news by primetime tonight.” Jeffrey Goldberg concluded, “It’s remarkable that it took this long.”

#ad#Indeed, the silence had been stunning since the Gosnell trial began back on March 18. No mention of the story at all on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, or MSNBC, and no front-page stories in any major paper. National Review, the Weekly Standard, Breitbart.com, and Michelle Malkin, on the other hand, provided early and consistent coverage. J. D. Mullane, the columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times who has been a tiger on the story, reported last week what he found in the courtroom: In the entire 40-seat section reserved for the media, he was the only one present. A couple of local journos were scattered elsewhere around the courtroom.

The lack of interest is striking in an era when “if it bleeds it leads” thinking pervades the media. As Valerie Richardson of the Washington Times noted last week:

The Gosnell case would seem to contain all the ingredients of must-see television: a formerly respected community leader accused of unspeakable acts; the death of a young immigrant woman; a parade of former employees offering graphic testimony on the gruesome deaths of more than 100 just-born infants; and even the implication by the doctor’s lawyers that the charges have been motivated by racism. Dr. Gosnell is black and his clinic was in a mostly minority neighborhood.

It’s natural to think that some of the lack of interest stems from the gruesomeness of the details. Gosnell’s “practice” was so grisly that some people might wish to turn away and ignore the nightmare. But unpalatable images and facts don’t stop the media from reporting on the horrors of famine-stricken North Korea, even though there are almost no pictures available. It seems undeniable, then, that abortion politics played a role in the blackout. When Mullane asked a member of the court’s staff why there was so little media interest, the man pointed to the filthy medical equipment set up in the courtroom as an exhibit and asked, “If you’re pro-choice, do you really want anybody to know about this?”

It’s not as if there isn’t good reason for pro-choice journalistic sleuths to pursue the story for simple muckraking purposes. It’s a stunning tale of bureaucratic neglect and incompetence. Despite its law against partial-birth abortions, Pennsylvania stopped regular inspections of abortion clinics in 1993. But regulators still received frequent — and credible — complaints about unsanitary or horrific practices taking place behind Gosnell’s clinic door. And they did nothing.

A 2011 grand-jury report singled out racism and politics for the “see no evil” attitudes. “We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion,” the grand-jury report stated. Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams, a liberal Democrat and one of the prosecutors in the case, maintains that abortion clinics are held to lower standards than other businesses are. In 2011, he asked, “How is it that we have more oversight in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of women’s hair salons than we do over abortion clinics?”

#page#Kudos to those in the media who are now quick to play catch-up on Gosnell. We might owe some of this course correction to the fact that the chief critic of media malpractice on Gosnell, Kirsten Powers, is not a conservative. Powers is a former Democratic political consultant who worked in the Clinton White House, and she supports most liberal causes, but she hasn’t spent her entire career in the media or the professional Left. She grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, understands the values of the Heartland, and is a practicing Christian. From her perspective, many people at both ends of the political spectrum wear ideological blinders. “This inability to engage in debate or handle disagreement is becoming the calling card of the Left,” she told the Religious News Service last week. “It should be a top concern for Americans, especially if you are a liberal and you believe dissent is a critical part to democracy.”

#ad#It’s sad that it took a liberal such as Powers to shame so many journos into waking up and doing their jobs. The blunt truth is that if a conservative had written her piece, the response would have been far more muted — or journalists would have attacked the messenger. Jeff Toobin of CNN offered a preposterous explanation for the media’s handling of the Gosnell case: “Well, the people making those [media] criticisms are by and large conservative. They are saying the liberal media is trying to protect abortion rights by not showing this horror show. I don’t buy that at all. . . . It’s a business decision. We are not operating with the political agenda here. We pick stories, by and large, for reasons that we think people would be interested. I don’t think we’re covering this up.”

Moving forward, there are two good ways to test Toobin’s hypothesis.

First, two former nurses at Planned Parenthood of Delaware told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia this month that conditions at the clinic there are dangerous. Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich, one of the former nurses, said: “It was just unsafe. I couldn’t tell you how ridiculously unsafe it was.” “They could be at risk of getting hepatitis, even AIDS,” added the other nurse, Joyce Vasikonis. Channel 6 reported that both nurses were stunned “by what they called a meat-market style of assembly-line abortions.” It noted that in Delaware, abortion clinics are not subject to routine inspections: “Planned Parenthood is essentially in charge of inspecting itself.” Will any national reporters follow up on Channel 6’s reporting? 

Second, a leading Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania is Allyson Schwartz, a five-term Democratic congresswoman who represents part of Philadelphia, where Gosnell had his clinic. Democrats are openly fretting that Schwartz, a passionate liberal, has political baggage. Not only has she voted against any and all restrictions on abortion, but from 1975 to 1988 she ran a women’s health clinic in Philadelphia where abortions were performed. Schwartz is “a dream candidate for Republicans,” one Democratic strategist told Philly.com this month before the Gosnell story erupted nationally.

J. D. Mullane is one journalist who is on the case. He has peppered Schwartz with questions on Twitter for days now. One sample: “Thoughts on Gosnell? Did you know him? Did you ever refer women to his clinic while you directed yours?” We’ll see how many journalists follow his lead with questions about her stance on partial-birth abortion, her record at her clinic, and her thoughts on the poor regulatory history of abortion clinics in Pennsylvania. So far, there has been only silence from the Schwartz camp.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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