Sounds of silence

I am posting this video here for discussion for a very specific journalistic reason, even though I know I am stretching the boundaries of what we do here.

I have been looking for news coverage that mentioned this very specific angle of inauguration day 2009. For weeks, months even, I have heard activists on one side of the right-to-life issue discussing this element of the story of President Barack Obama. I am sure, because abortion issues make news, that some of these people have been interviewed by major media.

Yet I have never seen this issue mentioned in mainstream coverage, let alone in a way that took it seriously — either to quote those who would salute this argument or the opinions of those who would condemn it. Instead, there is silence and silence is rare in journalism on such an obvious and controversial image and idea.

Come to think of it, I have not seen any stories in the Washington Post that note that another rather large group of people will start gathering here inside the Beltway today — overlapping with the joyful throngs still here in the wake of yesterday’s awesome and inspiring rites of civil religion.

It’s a rather obvious story, since it happens every year. It would be highly symbolic timing if the March for Life takes place hours after Obama signs an executive order restoring federal funding for abortion. Whatever you think of that issue — that’s a news story. Silence?

Anyway, here is a link to the YouTube page for the pro-Vatican activists at and their other materials, if you want to put this Obama ad into context. Here is another question, if CatholicVote found the funds, would any major broadcast or cable television network take this ad? What about during the Super Bowl?

All of this reminds me of that Sojourners issue long ago that changed my mind — I was, remember, a moderate Baptist at the time — on the issue of the sanctity of life. The famous author of one of its key articles later wrote a parallel essay for a National Right to Life publication. It included these words, while arguing that government supported abortion was a form of institutionalized racism:

“What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of person, and what kind of society, will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually?”

The author? The Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Please focus your comments on the media issues raised by the CatholicVote ad. I also request your help in looking for mainstream, traditional journalism coverage of the issues raised in this post.

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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.

  • Russ Pulliam


    Where can I get the rest of what Rev. Jackson wrote, along the lines of abortion and black genocide? I remember his comments along those lines, in the 1970s, looking at them in the 1980s, when he was running for president.

    Russ Pulliam

  • Margaret

    I didn’t know that the “official” story of our new president was that his father abandoned him. I thought that his parents had an amicable parting of the ways and his mother married another man.

    I like the angle of this commercial, I just think there are other famous people who would really “fit” this storyline.

    If the ad could be aired during superbowl time, how about using the stories of one of the players for the baby in the womb?

    God bless you for posting this, I will be on the lookout for mainstream media stories.

  • Joe

    Is the event news worthy of broad coverage? It happens every year, pro-life public officials don’t bother to attend (who was the last president to speak in person?), and the arguments never change. That does not scream front page attention even on the slowest of news days.

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  • Margaret

    Another thought, while I do think the subject of life in the womb and what can be done with it is worthy of front page attention, I do also question the ad as portraying our president’s mother as struggling to raise him. As a pro-life person, it is important to me for the movement to get the story straight, because the public isn’t stupid. I believe most people want to see a pregnancy end with a live baby.

    Again, I think there are mothers out there who have struggled against all odds and often alone, without help and little encouragement, but they have raised a person who now contributes greatly and in a positive way to our society. OK that may not be a football player, but again, it may be!

  • Bern

    Strictly journalistically: the sonogram shown cannot be that of President Obama so I think right here a truth in advertising line has been crossed that no network is going to want to go there. I also agree with Margaret: the point of the ad does not need to be “ramped” by claiming President Obama was “abandoned” by his father–and stretching the truth in any manner can backlash on an issue as contentious as abortion. And, of course, the argumenthas been used before: Beethovan comes to mind.

  • tmatt

    Mr. Pulliam:

    I have added this link to another source for that Jackson article in National Right to Life News.

  • Dave

    Joe (#3), my recollection is that no president has ever attended a march for life in person. Reagan spoke to at least one via a telephone link, but denied it the photo opportunity of a sitting president on the podium. Bush Sr may have done the same, but don’t quote me on it.

  • Jerry

    It would be highly symbolic timing if the March for Life takes place hours after Obama signs an executive order restoring federal funding for abortion.

    I first read that as stating that he has signed such an order. But I can find no reference to President Obama signing such an executive order at this point. If he has not, then I think you should have instead written “if Obama signs an such an executive order today”. Presumably he will reverse President Bush’s executive order on federal funding for abortions, but that might easily happen later on.

  • FrGregACCA

    Dave (#8), you are correct with regard to Bush Sr. I don’t know how many times but he spoke to the march in this way at least once.

    Regarding the ad, and comments from Margaret (#2, #5) and Bern (#6): the ad does indeed follow the lines of Obama’s official story. Regardless of whether or not his parents parted amicably, it is objectively true that his father did abandon him, and yes, his mother struggled to raise him, being on foodstamps and turning his care over to his grandparents. I don’t think the sonogram issue should be of much concern: if it is, the ad could be tweaked slightly. That said, I doubt that any MSM outlet would touch it with a ten-foot pole and certainly not during the Super Bowl.

  • Mollie

    Margaret, et. al.,

    President Obama actually wrote a book about being abandoned by his father — Dreams From My Father.

    It is a remarkably well-written and heartbreaking memoir, particularly considering he was only in his early 30s when he wrote it.

    It details the struggles his mother went through in trying to raise him, too.

    So while I’m not sure if it’s been officially corroborated or is in any other sense “official” — it’s definitely what President Obama himself says.

  • Margaret

    Thank you for the correction!

    I had not read the book, but had gotten the impression that he came from a loving and involved family; I will admit that I had the impression his grandparents and his stepfather were more involved than his father and maybe even than his mother.

    Although I don’t keep up with a lot of politics, I am pro-life and the message of the sonogram ad is a grea one, but I do think that using our new president as the baby in the womb would not be ideal.

  • Jerry

    FYI. the contact function is broken:

    Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
    I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
    This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.

    This address no longer accepts mail.

    I had tried to send a couple of comments—

    I find the list of those that spoke at the prayer service interesting. I was surprised at the statement that “Other clergy recited simple, responsive spiritual readings that were crafted by Obama’s faith advisers and cathedral staff.” Really? That’s shocking given the wide range of those offering prayers. They were all willing to read what others had written? That’s “news” to me.
    (second message:)
    It’s on a blog, why not on a regular web page – the program itself and a video of the service:

    Reading the program, my earlier questioning of how the short sections came about makes more sense to me but still the issue niggles at me a bit.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for telling us about the problems with our contact form, Jerry. I’ve asked our host to have a look at the problem.

  • Brian Walden

    Strictly journalistically: the sonogram shown cannot be that of President Obama so I think right here a truth in advertising line has been crossed that no network is going to want to go there.

    The people enjoying products in commercials are actors – they may not actually be enjoying them. Should they be investigated as well for truth in advertising?

    The advertisement isn’t selling copies of Mr. Obama’s sonogram, then it would be false advertising. The baby in the ad is an actor playing young Barack – personally, I think the kid’s got talent :)

  • Margaret

    After reading my comment over again, I believe what I wanted to express is I have never gotten the idea that there was any question that Barak Obama was a wanted baby. Even if his father left Obama’s life early, even if his mother struggled, I had gotten the impression that his life was a wanted life, so the question of whether this life would have ever been up for abortion is just not a good example for the ad.

    A good example for the ad would be if you could find the single mother who had questioned whether or not to abort her baby and whose child is now an adult contributing to the political process for the Democratic party. I’m sure they’re out there.

  • Jerry

    Instead, there is silence and silence is rare in journalism on such an obvious and controversial image and idea.

    Why is it so controversial? I know no one who likes the idea of abortions. The ad is perfectly consistent with a “Democrats for Life”-style choose life campaign, for example.

    To the point about coverage: Granted it did not get a lot of attention, but Google news comes up with quite a few hits on “March for Life”. discusses groups that are advocating means of reducing abortions specifically talking about one of my hot buttons: “solutions based on results, not rhetoric,”. In other words, the debate is shifting for many from the legality question to the question of what is the most effective way of reducing abortions. was a pretty straight news story which said that the crowd was “significantly larger” this year.

    And there was an AP story

  • Becca Balmes

    FYI, Jerry (#17), the article you linked from The Olympian mentions only the March for Life rally. The actual March for Life is tomorrow, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and there will likely be significantly more people there for that. It’s the main event. And it hardly ever gets any real mention in the major newspapers, even the local Washington Post.

    I, my husband (a Knight of Columbus) and our kids will all be there with bells on, and anybody in the DC area should think about coming down too! The march starts at 12 noon on 4th Street, on the Mall, and will continue around the Capital to the Supreme Court building.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Visit any crisis pregnancy center, and they will be happy to direct you to mothers who were considering abortion but, after receiving counsel and support, elected to give birth. The whole point of the ad is that a human being’s worth is not determined by the circumstances of their birth.

  • Margaret

    I agree with Mike Hickerson, a human being’s worth is not determined by the circumstances of their birth. However, that wasn’t my point.

    My point was there has got to be a better person to use for this ad than our new president. I really want the Pro-Life movement to be the success that it can be. I have a friend who is a nurse who has received training to perform these ultrasounds and volunteers time at a local crises pregnancy clinic. She has experienced first hand how much seeing these images means to an expectant mother and to the life of the child.

  • Jerry

    Becca, thanks for the clarification. I had not been aware that the rally and the march took place on different days.

  • Ellen

    “It would be highly symbolic timing if the March for Life takes place hours after Obama signs an executive order restoring federal funding for abortion.”

    I think it’s symbolic for the very reason that the March for Life is held on this date. Roe v Wade passed on this anniversary, making it a very significant day for anyone who has strong opinions on abortion on either side. When Clinton revoked the Mexico City Policy he did it on this date. When Bush reinstated it he chose this date also. It’s conveniently right near the inauguration and a powerful anniversary.

    I think this post is suggesting that it would be a particular slap in the face to pro-lifers to repeal the policy on their march day, but the simple fact is that it’s pro-lifers who have been trying to take over a pro-choice anniversary rather than the other way round.

  • Dan Berger

    the simple fact is that it’s pro-lifers who have been trying to take over a pro-choice anniversary rather than the other way round.

    I can’t let that pass without comment. Of all the self-centered statements…

    Perhaps it’s an important pro-life anniversary in the same way that, say, the anniversary of the execution of John Brown was important to abolitionists because it was a setback for their cause. Ya think?

  • Dan Berger

    That said, by the way, it’s perfectly appropriate to reinforce Roe v. Wade by executive order on the anniversary of the decision. The date is important to both sides.

  • John Michael LaRue

    Dr. Mattingly,
    Thank you for writing on this issue. I’m a former PBA student and was directed here by Dr. Mahanes.

    I think there is actually an excellent reason why President Obama is the individual chosen in this add.

    The logic that this add is trying to play upon is the fact that President Obama is a symbolic figure representing the rise of an African American man to the presidency. Countless numbers of people are using lines such as “Since he was able to rise to the level of president, the potential opportunities for me are endless.” Before President Obama, it is apparent that these individuals at least casted doubt upon their worth/abilitiy in light of the apparent racism they still face.

    This add is trying to play upon this same logic. President Obama not only is symbolic of the rise of an African American man. He is also symbolic of the rise of man whose pre-birth life-circumstances perfectly fit for a baby to be ‘justifiably’ aborted.

    For all those who are uplifting President Obama to the status as a representative of their hopes in regards to racial issues, he must also, likewise, be seen as a representative of all unborn babies who should not be aborted for the sake of the supposed life-circumstances.

    This type of add is a major blow against all who use the possible life circumstances that a baby will be born into as justification for abortion.

    Moreoever, this add is finally a reminder to President Obama himself that he is an abortion survivor (like us all). If his mother has listened to the advice of pro-abortion/ pro-choice individuals around her, she most likely would have chosen to abort him.

    I think it is patently clear that this would have been a most tragic misstake.

  • Julia

    Obama is not a good fit for this ad. His parents were married and his father didn’t leave until he was about 2 years old, as I recall.

    I haven’t read his book, but I don’t think there was ever any question of abortion. His parents got married.

  • Pam

    I believe this ad has been aired on BET, and the website seems to say that it will also be aired on CNN.

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