Fretting about post-Tiller coverage

roseIt’s getting harder and harder to read the coverage of the George Tiller murder, in large part because the Associated Press Stylebook doesn’t have separate references for “pro-life” and “anti-abortion.”

I’m not saying that this journalistic bible should contain two references. Honest. I’m just saying that — as an Eastern Orthodox pro-lifer — I am really yearning for one right now. Why is that? Let me show you, using this bite of a Washington Post report that makes me want to be sick:

Supporters of the right to legal abortion worried Monday that the killing of George Tiller in his Wichita church could foretell fresh protests and violence even as many abortion opponents fretted that his death could hurt their image and cause.

Although mainstream antiabortion groups largely condemned Sunday’s shooting, Operation Rescue founder Randall A. Terry called Tiller a mass murderer who “reaped what he sowed.” Terry said the antiabortion movement is facing irrelevance and must use “confrontational” tactics and “highly charged rhetoric.”

It’s all there in that deliciously chosen verb — “fretted.”

Also note, once again, that the reaction quote featured is from Operation Rescue, a group that — while condemning the Tiller murder — is going to do everything it can to pour gasoline on the flames, including adding, in that second paragraph, what is clearly a shot at the nation’s real, mainstream pro-life leaders for their lack of radical tactics.

So who are the people who are “fretting” about this murder, the people you don’t get to read about in many mainstream reports? Here’s a list from Baptist Press:

The country’s major pro-life organizations denounced Tiller’s murder. Among those making statements decrying the killing were representatives of the National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Care Net, Susan B. Anthony List, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, American Life League, Operation Rescue, Christian Defense Coalition, 40 Days for Life, Stand True, Priests for Life and Pro-life Action League.

I don’t know about you, but I’m raising my eyebrows right now at mainstream coverage that seems to make alleged gunman Scott Roeder part of a movement that includes the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention and National Right to Life Committee.

The key words, right now, appear to be “Prayer and Action News,” as in the publication (Question: Does it still exist?) that has attempted to argue, from a Christian perspective, that it is morally acceptable to kill abortionists, because of their actions to kill the unborn. You know, eye for an eye stuff.

It seems that Roeder was a subscriber and that he shared this point of view. I think this is where the press needs to search for links, although I predict that reporters will even find that the alleged gunman was on the right fringe of that totally right fringe camp.

This leads to the Los Angeles Times report for day 2, which I think manages to cut to the chase at the very top:

The 51-year-old man held on suspicion of killing prominent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller belonged to anti-government militia groups, had been convicted of carrying explosives in his car and was outraged by the doctor’s speedy acquittal on abortion-related charges, authorities and antiabortion activists said Monday.

Scott Roeder had attended a demonstration outside a Kansas City, Kan., abortion clinic two weeks ago and spoke of traveling to Wichita for Tiller’s trial, said longtime antiabortion activist Eugene Frye. Authorities and friends described Roeder as a soft-spoken but intense man who held low-paying jobs and normally spent his time chatting about the illegality of the federal income tax or esoteric interpretations of the Old Testament.

But Frye said he noticed a difference on May 16.

“He said he’d been down to Wichita for George Tiller’s trial, and he said it was an absolute sham,” Frye said. “He seemed agitated — but agitation for Scott, for a lot of people would be normal.”

OF course, there are also reports of mental illness. But here is my point for journalists who want to be accurate and balanced on this story: It’s all about the arguments between a tiny number of anti-abortion activists who have tried, tried, tried to justify violence against the government and abortion facilities. That is an old story, but it’s still the story that matters. And there is no question where the mainstream pro-life movement comes down on that issue.

You know what the Catholic bishops are going to say, in defense of a consistent ethic of life. But how about the Southern Baptists?

Journalists, please click right here and flash back to a 1994 document called the Nashville Declaration of Conscience. In one key passage it states:

… (We) reject the argument that killing an abortion doctor is an act of violent civil disobedience made necessary by the gravity of the moral evil of abortion on demand. It is our conviction that no act of lethal force can be properly ascribed to the rubric of civil disobedience. Moreover, the contradiction between the use of lethal force and civil disobedience is especially glaring in a democracy, in which so many alternative forms of activism for social and legal change are permitted. We contend that such an act is better described as an act of revolution rather than an act of civil disobedience intended to accomplish reform.

Note that this stance disagrees with the government, but does not oppose the government. That appears to be the dividing line. If you want to see how a very conservative religious leader puts this type of language into use, please check out this Baptist Press commentary from Richard Land: “Tiller’s murder a human tragedy.”

I also have to admit that I appreciated the following image from the Los Angeles Times report. While it quoted reports that Roeder’s minivan had a single rose in the rear window, the newspaper also offered this information about the protesters who regularly marched and prayed outside the abortionist’s office:

Tiller’s clinic sits along a frontage road of a state highway and is normally the site of daily protests. It was closed Monday, and bouquets of flowers lay against its fence, along with a sign from one of the groups that leads demonstrations there, Kansans For Life: “We prayed for his conversion to the prolife viewpoint, not for his murder.”

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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.

  • Mithras

    Check this out.

    While most pro-life leaders condemned the May 31 murder of a controversial abortion provider inside his Wichita, Kan., church, one former Southern Baptist Convention official called it an answer to prayer.

    “I am glad George Tiller is dead,” Wiley Drake, the SBC’s former second vice president, said on his Crusade Radio program June 1. …

    Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., called Tiller “a brutal, murdering monster” and said he is “grateful to God” that the physician is no longer around.

    “There may be a lot who would say, ‘Oh that is mean. You shouldn’t be that way,’” Drake said. “Well, no, it’s an answer to prayer.”

    Drake said he prayed nearly 10 years for the salvation of Tiller, medical director of the Women’s Health Care Services clinic and an outspoken advocate for abortion rights. About a year ago, Drake said, he switched to what he called “imprecatory prayer.”

    “I said to the Lord, ‘Lord I pray back to you the Psalms, where it says that they are to become widowers and their children are to become orphans and so forth.’ And we began calling for those imprecatory prayers, because he had obviously turned his back on God again and again and again,” Drake said.

    Drake called Tiller “a reprobate” and a “brutal, arrogant murderer” who “bragged on his own website how many babies he had killed.”

    “Would you have rejoiced when Adolf Hitler died during the war?” Drake asked. “Or would you have said, ‘Oh that is terrible for him to be killed’? No, I would have said, ‘Amen, praise the Lord, hallelujah, I’m glad he’s dead.’”

  • John Cox

    It’s discouraging reading not just the press accounts but the comments posted to those accounts with the reflexive, uncritical, unexamined presuppositions that “of COURSE someone who believes abortion is absolutely wrong must eventually yield to the logic of that belief and embrace violence to stop it.”

    That’s the basic tack being taken by people like Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite:

    Her commentary is just that — commentary, so one can argue it’s not “mainstream press coverage.” But judging by your evaluation of the coverage so far, her assumptions seem to be those that are influencing how reporters “read” the event and its larger context, and obviously what they write about it.

  • Bob Smietana

    David Leach of the Prayer and Action News has a website –

    I got an email from him saying they still has some subscribers

  • tmatt


    Thanks for posting that.

    That’s an amazing, in my view disgusting statement.

    But should his one statement whip out the actual statement of his entire denomination?

  • Dale

    tmatt wrote:

    But should his one statement whip out the actual statement of his entire denomination?

    It will if you’re interested in slander. From Mithras’ website:

    The “Reverend” Drake is clear on the logic and says so. Other pro-lifers aren’t. They’re either stupid or dishonest.

    So, basically Mithras takes one comment by one individual that supports his negative … view of the pro-life movement, and ignores the hundreds of statements that don’t. Real honest, Mithras.

  • tmatt

    Folks, stay on journalism issues.

    The Mithras quote is interesting material for journalists to use and, I fear, misuse.

    I edited snark from his comment and from that of Dale.

    Journalism, journalism, journalism

  • Larry “the grump” Rasczak

    “Journalism, journalism, journalism”

    There is no journalisim here. This is the mainstream media. … They aren’t going to let something like accuracy or facts get in the way of a good story.

    Don’t you get it? There ARE NO “journalists who want to be accurate and balanced on this story”, same as there weren’t any who wanted to be accurate and balanced about the Obama cannonization … oops I mean the Obama Campaign.

  • Jerry

    John Cox misread Susan Thistlethwaite’s posting. Her key paragraph:

    Violence is a logical outcome of the extreme self-righteousness of those who claim the “pro-life” label as an absolute and yet who do not have an actual, consistent ethic of life such as the views held by pacifists.

    For example, the Catholic Church has an ethic of life as do many other groups opposed to abortion.

  • ImpriMartin

    Why does this have to be in an eye-for-an-eye context?

    I just finished watching Valkyrie with Tom Cruise and the movie makes it pretty clear that he’s doing it to stop Hitler as a last resort. Not for vengence, not an eye-for-an-eye.

    Most christian denominations allow killing (as a last resort) to defend yourself and to defend the innocent (even in advance). They never allow killing for revenge or to deter others (which I would call murder). This is what the accused murderer said, “He doesn’t deserve to live”.

    Now granted, Hitler specifically targeted and murdered a lot more people than Tiller specifically targeted and murdered, but when it comes down it, even one is too much. NOTE: I can call what Tiller did, “murder” because these are late term pregancies. If the mother allowed it, it makes her an accomplice. Not to say that early term abortions are not murder. It’s just that late-term abortions are obvious (i.e. all the questions about brain-wave activity, and baby’s survival chances, et al are moot in these cases).

    It seems that all the media are putting this in the vengence light instead of the defend-future-babies light. I also want to say that Tiller’s murder is not the answer. There are other humane ways to stop him.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Compare the coverage of the almost concurrent murder of an American soldier by a Moslem convert fanatic with the coverage of Tiller’s murder.
    The difference, so far, has been striking. The news media is giving a “bully pulpit” to those who want to blame all pro-lifers, all orthodox Christians, all conservatives for the violence perpetrated against Tiller.
    But I have yet to see anyone in the media even bringing up the issue of the roll of Islam in setting off the soldier’s murderer. On this event, the media seems to have been very, very careful to not spread blame around beyond the actual perp.

  • Kevin J Jones

    The Denver Post article “Slaying suspect saw Nazi in abortion doc” quoted a “I’m glad he’s dead!” protester from Kansas City. This prompts questions about what inflammatory statements contribute to or detract from a story.

    A skeptic might wonder whether the reporter interviewed people until a damning quote cropped up, while some may wonder if this takes the principle of “give all sides a voice” too far.

    One AP story, “Suspect jailed in Kansas abortion doctor’s killing,” joined a response from Operation Rescue to an inflammatory quote from “Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry,” without noting that Terry is no longer with the organization. I just read OR’s web site claiming he left in 1991.

    The relative lack of coverage of the Muslim convert’s slaying of a soldier is indeed concerning. Last month four Muslim jailhouse converts were involved in that bombing plot. That would be a perfect “Is this a trend?” story, a theme inescapable despite its flaws.

  • Mithras

    I think it is fair to call this “fretting”:

    “First of all, I thought, ‘how horrible,’” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recalling his reaction when he heard of Tiller’s murder. “I thought this is going to be the same song and dance that we had the last time this happened, people trying to paint all of us as wild-eyed crazies.”

    Perhaps the quote was unfairly edited, but if it’s not unfair Land’s first thought was how horrible it was for anti-choicers to be cast in a negative light.

  • Mollie

    Kevin Jones,

    Being that I’ve read multiple stories somehow miraculously quoting the same activist in support of Tiller’s murder, I think you’re onto something.

    My big beef with the WashPost lede was that it compared two completely disparate things. In other words, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers might, uh, fret about more violence. And some prolifers might worry about how this affects the movement while some pro-choicers are using the story for political gain. But to compare pro-choicers’ worries about violence with pro-lifers’ worries about political fallout is completely unfair. Not surprising, perhaps, but unfair.


  • tmatt

    Spiking away, folks.

    Journalism, please.

    Take your battle axes back to your weapons closets.

  • tmatt

    Still spiking away….

    Don’t argue the issue. Argue about the journalism.

  • Dale

    Mithras wrote:

    Perhaps the quote was unfairly edited, but if it’s not unfair Land’s first thought was how horrible it was for anti-choicers to be cast in a negative light.

    Well, considering how you neglected to include the following quote from the story you linked to in your original post, I think we know how much weight to give this latest bit of half-truth telling.

    The SBC’s top ethicist condemned Tiller’s murder. “Murdering someone is a grotesque and bizarre way to emphasize one’s commitment to the sanctity of human life. People who truly believe in the sanctity of human life believe in the sanctity of the lives of abortion providers as well as the unborn babies who are aborted,” Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in a June 1 Baptist Press release. “Clearly the killing of abortion providers is unbiblical, unchristian and un-American. Such callous disregard for human beings brutalizes everyone.”

  • Mithras

    I’m not saying that Land didn’t say those other things. I’m just saying that his immediate concern seemed to be the reputation of the anti-choice movement. If the quote was not unfairly edited, then I think Mattingly should feel sickened by Land’s priorities, not the WaPo’s choice of the verb “fretted”.

  • Mary Kay Culp

    A correction. The sign outside the clinic that is attributed to Kansans for Life was actually put there by the group that regularly schedules sidewalk counselors outside the clinic: “Kansas Coalition for Life.”

    The statement released by Kansans for Life, the large, statewide group which is the state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, of which I am state executive director said:

    May 31, 2009


    Kansans for Life Deplores the Murder of Dr. George Tiller

    Statement by Mary Kay Culp, State Executive Director, Kansans for Life

    Kansans for Life deplores the murder of Dr. George Tiller, and we wish to express our deep and sincere sympathy to his family and friends.

    Our organization has a board of directors, and a 35 year history of bringing citizens together to achieve thoughtful education and legislation on the life issues here in Kansas.

    We value life, completely deplore violence, and are shocked and very upset by what happened in Wichita today.

    Here is an op-ed piece I wrote on this subject in 1995 when I was head of Missouri Right to Life — Mary Kay Culp

    Murder inside and outside of abortion clinics
    Page C-7
    Opinion section

    On the heels of the recent shootings at abortion clinics, some pro-abortion leaders claim that the big, mainstream pro-life organizations, such as Missouri Right to Life have a moral crisis to address.

    They call on us to condemn the killing of abortionists, which we have done without hesitation. Now they are saying that we must abstain from referring to abortion as killing. This, they claim, incites violence.

    What word would they have us use to describe the taking of a human life? Abortion stops a beating heart, 4,500 times a day in America.

    Mainstream pro-life people and most clinic protest groups cannot find words strong enough to condemn the recent murders. MRL’s long-term policy has barred officers of our 90 chapters and state and region boards from any
    illegal activity. We do support peaceful, sidewalk protest and counseling.

    We work through the system. Since 1992 we helped turn 15 Missouri House and Senate seats from pro-abortion to pro-life. The number of abortions in Missouri dropped 30 percent between 1988 and 1992, before any lethal violence. Now we’re working to prevent tax funded abortions and for a Missouri law to give women legal redress if they are not provided pertinent facts when considering abortion (before any money changes hands or relaxant drugs are given).

    Planned Parenthood says only a small fraction of their business is abortion. Tell that to the 1,000,000 babies aborted at their U.S. clinics from 1980 to 1990. While there are good people in every organization -
    including Planned Parenthood – too often they have acted against the interests of women. Last year they testified against the Women’s Right to Know Act in Jefferson City. We can count on their opposition to two similar bills this year. A GAO study showed they refer women for abortion three
    times more often than regular health clinics. Women need information and more than one choice – too often they get a sales job.

    After 14 years of selling abortions, Joy Davis, was shaken two years ago after a woman died from a 23-week abortion obtained at her clinic. Before leaving the business she took an abortionist she particularly liked to
    lunch. She told him she had nightmares, and was thinking of getting out. He told her he also had nightmares, and to follow her heart. She said, “What about you?” He said, “I’m working on it.” Joy regrets not having the chance
    to find out: “Now we’ll never know. He (Dr. David Gunn) was killed a few days later by Michael Griffin.”

    Joy got out of the abortion business with the help of a pro-life couple who befriended her. “Don’t hate abortionists out of the business,” she said,”love them.” Who could disagree with that? Joy Davis told this story recently at the third annual convention of former abortionists and abortion clinic personnel turned pro-life. Today she is a counselor at one of the 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers that pro-life people established nationwide to help women.

    It’s time to raise the level of the debate. The demonization of the entire pro-life movement for the actions of a few has gone on too long. It’s time to see pro-life people – students, nurses, secretaries, sales clerks,
    housewives, doctors, teachers, lawyers, as they really are: regular, normal people. It’s time for responsibility by the media.

    Finally, we acknowledge that there are still extremists outside the mainstream pro-life movement that bear watching. Regrettably, they pose a deadly threat to abortion clinic personnel, but they also pose a strategic
    threat to pro-life plans to protect unborn babies. Only peaceful means convince, and long term success must include changing hearts and minds.

    Perhaps it is too long-term a plan for some, but violence only lengthens it. In addition, even though some babies’ lives may be spared when violence temporarily closes a clinic, the hardening of hearts to the pro-life message
    that violence engenders, to an nationwide audience, could actually cost more babies their lives. What a cruel hypocrisy.

    Mainstream pro-lifers have always opposed violence morally, but they also have desperately avoided even the semblance of radicalism in order to gain credibility and hasten the day we are seen for the normal people that we
    are. We believe that will be the truly dangerous day for abortion in America. The day America peeks behind the veil and finds out what Joy knows: Why so many of us were willing to be maligned, ignored, ridiculed – whatever
    it took – to make America look, and to make America care. To expose how abortion hurts women and their children, and find solutions that will allow us to love and cherish them both.

    Culp is president of Missouri Right to Life Inc. (1995)

  • Dave

    I’m raising my eyebrows right now at mainstream coverage that seems to make alleged gunman Scott Roeder part of a movement that includes the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, the Southern Baptist Convention and National Right to Life Committee.

    Today’s journalists are probably familiar with Mao’s aphorism that the people are an ocean and the guerillas are fish that swim in the ocean. This had effective application in the wars in China, Cuba and VietNam. Journalists probably think of the pro-life movement as the ocean and the doctor-killers as fish that swim in that ocean.

    Of course, this misses Mao’s point, that the guerillas must take care not to dry up their “ocean.”