Planned Parenthood vs. a straw man

Notebook and pen 01And now it is time for another episode of “As the Notebook Turns,” an ongoing feature in which friends of this blog offers their side of conversations and/or interviews with journalists. In this case, the person on the other side of the reporter’s notebook is, in fact, a journalist herself. This episode is drawn from a post by Dawn “The Thrill of the Chaste” Eden, a fierce blogger who also works on the copy desk at the New York Daily News.

Let’s join the always opinioned Dawn as she talks with a journalist from a major British newspaper and they discuss his research trip into the American heartland — South Dakota — to do a profile of the abortion providers there who live under the gun, so to speak.

He said he wanted to get opinions from the street, which he did, and he also interviewed employees of the abortion clinic. He had notified the clinic ahead of time that he would be coming, and an executive was there to greet him.

“Which one?” I asked.

He took out her card. It was the president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

“Who were some of the pro-life people you talked to?” I asked.

“I talked to a pastor,” he said. He added that the pastor “wasn’t very intelligent” but gave him some good quotes.

I pressed on. “Who was the highest person you spoke to in the pro-life movement?”

“I didn’t want to speak to people from organizations,” he said. “I was there to visit the clinic and speak to people on the street.”

“Yes, I know that,” I said. “But the clinic knew you were coming, and they sent an executive who oversees Planned Parenthood in three states to speak to you.”

He looked at me quizzically. I sighed.

jdkingblond2In the end, it appeared that the British journalist would end up with a classic abortion coverage scenario in which a brilliant, well-prepared female professional speaks for the pro-abortion-rights side of the debate and a straw-man evangelical male yahoo speaks for those who oppose abortion. Truth is, the vast majority of anti-abortion activists are female and it isn’t hard at all to find a female evangelical church leader, a crisis-pregnancy volunteer who has experienced abortion herself, the actual president of a local pro-life network or some other logical person to stand opposite the articulate Planned Parenthood leader.

As it turns out, there is yet another option that some would even say is worse than the straw man. Eden has updated her blog item to include the URL of the Telegraph article by reporter Harry Mount, showing us what ended up in print. Want to guess what happened?

I will show you the end of the story, in which the reporter allows the Planned Parenthood leader to offer her version of what protesters shout outside the facility.

On a story that is this loaded with hot language, it is always best — if at all possible — for journalists to attend real demonstrations and take their own notes instead of letting leaders on one side of the story jam secondhand, loaded words into the mouths of leaders on the other side of the story. Yes, comment-typing folks, that concept would be just as true if you turned the situation around and used secondhand quotes to slam the pro-abortion side.

Every week pro-life protesters surround the Planned Parenthood clinic, bristling with cameras, on the edge of Sioux Falls.

“They shout, ‘Sarah, you’re a Nazi’,” said Sarah Stoesz, the president of Planned Parenthood, which operates clinics across America. “At the parking lot, they shout, ‘How many babies did you kill to get that car?’”

The roads are dotted with posters saying “ABC: Abstinence Breeds Control” and “Abortion — One dead: Two wounded”, next to a silhouette of a grieving couple and a child’s grave on a hilltop.

The quotes may be accurate. It may also be true that there are two or three rude demonstrators, while dozens of other sing hymns and pray silently. It’s hard to know without being at the demonstration. Right?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Claire

    So why exactly did he bother interviewing the pastor?

    “…in the heartland where the Bible and the right to bear arms are held in equal reverence.”

    I’ll admit, I’ve spent even less time in the “heartland” than this British journalist has, but I suspect that the scary implications of the above phrase are both untrue and insulting.

    That really might be the worst “news” story that I’ve read in a very long time. Ugh.

  • Emily
  • prof B

    Wow, TMatt–you’re asking a lot . . . Talk to representative people on both sides, actually show up at an event you’re writing about. Those are only things you do if you’re actually reporting a story–not writing an op-ed disguised as one.

    True, too, that both sides are guilty on that score.

    Claire, the problem is it isn’t news at all. I wonder if the reporter even knows the difference at this point?

  • David S. Roberts

    While it’s a pity that there is pro-choice bias in much mainstream media, if the pro-life camp had willing spokespeople who were not right-wing screamers, perhaps people of faith on the fence would be willing to listen.

    Now, while I am pro-choice, I am so reluctantly. I believe in safe and available medical choices for women in crisis pregnancies due to rape or incest or to protect a pregnant woman’s life. Thus, my view–informed by my faith in Christ– is unwelcome in the pro-life camp.

    There seems to be no way to put he abortion issue into the media without the perception of extremism or bias. What do we progressive people of faith do about this? How about we think for ourselves.

  • Jan Bear

    Mr. Roberts seems to be unaware what the “pro-life camp” is — it’s not a secret drinking club where you have to have the right ideas to be a member — it’s a set of ideas that one either subscribes to or doesn’t. Some of us don’t believe in oral contraceptives; others do; some believe in abortion for the sake of rape or incest. To “join” the pro-life camp, vote pro-life. If a voter can’t stand against abortion resulting from rape, then how about partial birth abortion? How about voting for parental notification? How about voting for informed consent? How about requiring abortion facilities to be subject to the same medical requirements as other surgical centers?

    The leaders of the National Right to Life Committee; the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Pro-Life Secretariat and Focus on the Family and various other mainstream pro-life organizations are not screamers; therefore, they do not get coverage in the newspapers. Mr. Roberts needs to get his news from somewhere other than the MSM.

  • dk

    Thinking a little deeper here, we might note the different appearance of MSM coverage of gauche “not very intelligent” leftist activists or Islamist rioters (“demonstrators”). You can get all the technical parity and accuracy you want and still get spun.

  • Dan

    “If the pro-life camp had willing spokespeople who were not right-wing screamers, perhaps people of faith on the fence would be willing to listen.”

    For starters you might try listening to Nat Hentoff, Hadley Arkes, Pope Benedict, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Frederica Matthewes-Green, Robert George, and Mary Ann Glendon. All are highly articulate. All advance arguments that utterly demolish the pro-choice position.

  • tmatt
  • Kevin Jones

    Amy Welborn commented on this a while back:

    I once heard…I can’t remember her name off the top of my head, but she’s an African-American woman who was for several years the main PR person for National Right to Life. It got to the point, she said, at which the networks (this was really before cable) stopped asking her to represent the pro-life position – why? Because once they heard that she would be there, folks like Faye Wattleton and Kate Michelman would routinely cancel their end of the appearances, not wanting to argue their point with a young African-American woman, but preferring, as they ended up getting, to do so in opposition to a middle-aged white man.

  • David

    So . . . is Mr. Roberts a victim of MSM coverage of the issue (why else would his perception of pro-lifers be what it is)?

  • Ian

    Good post and good point. Just wanted to let you know I posted this to under the New Links section.