It was, for those of us who study media bias, one of the most famous anecdotal leads in the history of the mainstream media’s awkward attempts to write about itself.
When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.
“Her message was clear,” Okie recalled recently. “I felt that they were . . . (saying) ‘You’re hurting the cause’ . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line.”
Okie says she was “shocked” by the “disquieting” assumption implicit in the complaint — that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.
It was crucial that this appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was crucial that it was followed by a stunning wave of feature-length reports that dug into a wide range of topics linked to abortion and the press. It was also crucial that the byline above this story and the ones that followed belonged to David Shaw, one of the small handful of MSM reporters who built a career on stories that probed into the inner workings of the very news industry in which he worked and excelled.
The “nut graphs” that followed that first lead back in 1990 stung many mainstream reporters and editors. But there was no way to deny his conclusions, because of the massive research files that backed them up. Here we are, 15 years later, and rarely a month goes by that I do not see or hear a quote from the Shaw reports on abortion coverage. This series looms in the background of event after event — such as the upcoming Supreme Court wars.
Shaw was low-key but blunt:
But it’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employes at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”
On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.
The whole series was read into the Congressional Record and, quite frankly, I wish someone up on the Hill would stand up and do some kind of tribute speech sooner rather than later. I say this because the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and writer died earlier this week at the age of 62 after a battle with brain cancer.
Shaw wrote about a wide range of topics linked to the press, including, to cite the Times obituary, “movie criticism, best-seller lists, editorial cartooning, the use and abuse of political polls, the perceived influence of editorial endorsements in politics, coverage of the abortion issue, restaurant criticism, the Pulitzer Prize selection process, coverage of the pope and obituary writing.” He also, beginning in the mid-1980s, covered the ongoing struggle of the MSM to, well, get religion.
I know from personal experience that Shaw felt awkward, at times, discussing these topics. It must have been painful to have fierce critics of your industry waving copies of your work during rallies. Shaw wanted his work to be read as journalism, not as punchy polemics painted on protest posters. You could hear this tension in his voice when you asked him questions about the implications of his work — especially the abortion series.
But, let’s face it, this series is the cornerstone of his career. If someone could deal with this hot MSM bias topic, they could deal with just about anything. The Times obituary said as much.
Admirers of his work cite one series in particular that showed Shaw’s eagerness to blaze new ground on a topic. That was the four-part report, published in 1990, on coverage of the abortion issue, which scrutinized journalists’ cherished self-image of impartiality.
For the series, he reviewed print and television coverage of the issue over an 18-month period and interviewed more than 100 journalists, as well as activists on every side of the abortion debate.
He found “scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play.”
Writing in National Journal last week, William Powers noted that the series “dramatically shifted the paradigm of abortion coverage, overnight.”
So if you care about basic values of fairness, balance and accuracy in journalism, take some time this weekend and read this Shaw series once again. And brace yourself for the Supreme Court hearings. Come on, people: It’s journalism.