When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wrote my master’s thesis on the struggle in mainstream newsrooms to improve coverage of religion. A short version of that turned into a 1983 cover essay for Quill.
On the 10th anniversary of that cover piece, I did a Quill update on the same topic — with an emphasis on what I believe are the four biases that most influence work on the Godbeat. That shorter essay opened with an anecdote about — GetReligion readers will not be surprised — the language that journalists use to describe competing camps in a major story. Here it is:
Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests. I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?
The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of “pro-choice.”
The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”
The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.
I’ve been thinking about that issue ever since, especially when covering the work of people who are politically progressive, yet also opposed to abortion on demand. The basic question: Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”? Do we need some term — other than “anti-abortion” — to describe people whose views are more complex than those of, let’s say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell?
You have probably guessed where I am going with this — the U.S. Supreme Court. Easily the most interesting story during the Week One coverage of John G. Roberts Jr. focused on a fascinating biographical detail about his wife, Jane. The Los Angeles Times had the scoop and reporter Richard A. Serrano set the tone.
The key: Jane Roberts held “antiabortion” views. And she appears to be a devout Catholic.
A Roman Catholic like her husband, Jane Roberts has been deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. She provides her name, money and professional advice to a small Washington organization — Feminists for Life of America — that offers counseling and educational programs. The group has filed legal briefs before the high court challenging the constitutionality of abortion.
A spouse’s views normally are not considered relevant in weighing someone’s job suitability. But abortion is likely to figure prominently in the Senate debate over John Roberts’ nomination. And with his position on the issue unclear, abortion rights supporters expressed concern Wednesday that his wife’s views might suggest he also embraced efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
The obvious question: What does it mean when a highly educated Catholic lawyer is part of a group called Feminists for Life?
What does this group stand for, other than its opposition to abortion on demand? The title implies that this group is not, let’s say, a kissing cousin of Focus on the Family.
The only hint in this groundbreaking story:
Feminists for Life has sponsored a national advertising campaign aimed at ending abortion in America. One of its mission statements proclaims: “Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”
Now think back to what my editor said in Denver. The people who call themselves pro-life are not really pro-life. They are the kinds of people who think human rights begin at conception and end at birth. They are pro-unborn child, but anti-woman.
So here is my question for my fellow MSM journalists. What happens if Jane Roberts (and even her husband) holds views that are not easily jammed into a perfect left-right split? What if she was and is some kind of pro-life moderate? Someone who was trying to heed all of the Catholic Church’s teachings? What if she was what some call “consistently pro-life”?
Reporters Lynette Clemetson and Robin Toner of The New York Times chased the original Los Angeles Times story and at least suggested that Jane Roberts might not be a right-wing robot.
Here is a section of that report, which once again included that interesting concept that American society has “failed to meet the needs of women”:
Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”
Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.
Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”
Read that again — “but not enough.” That might be an interesting concept for further coverage and, might I add, some questions from courageous Democrats. If they ask those questions, people on both sides of the issue will be nervous. That will be good. There is a ghost in there. Trust me.