Kurtz: Of course Komen stories were biased

As you poor GetReligion readers know, I’ve been pounding the beat on media coverage of Planned Parenthood’s campaign against Komen. You can read my earlier posts: “Media discover Planned Parenthood is controversial” (which took issue with how media reports told only half the story about how people feel about Planned Parenthood), “Media genuflect before Church of Planned Parenthood” (which critiqued how they were engaged in advocacy on behalf of Planned Parenthood), and “Planned Parenthood and media thank each other” (which cataloged how they thought they’d done good work in advocating for Planned Parenthood). I also wrote a piece for CNN collecting some of these thoughts: “My Take: On Komen Controversy, Media Told Half The Story.”

Now I know from the many emails and comments we’ve received here on this topic that people reacted quite strongly to the way the media advocated for Planned Parenthood and against Komen. My views are well established. There has been a bit of other media criticism in recent days, and I wanted to highlight those, too.

The first is the piece embedded here, by Howard Kurtz. He’s a media writer for the Daily Beast, after years as a star media-beat reporter at The Washington Post. He says many obvious things about how biased most stories about Komen were. He doesn’t even think it’s a bad thing, necessarily, he’s just saying that it was.

So Kurtz says there’s no question that the media drove this story, forced the apology from the Komen foundation and have been approaching the whole narrative from the left. He remarks on how Andrea Mitchell hammered Komen, but adds that most journalists in the mainstream media were doing the same thing. He notes that many in the media simply weren’t interested in telling more than one side of the story, likely due to their strong feelings. But their framing was overwhelmingly similar: that Komen was stupid ever to have thought it could pull funding from such a wonderful and apolitical organization as Planned Parenthood. He points out the obvious double standard of viewing funding of Planned Parenthood as apolitical but no funding as political. A snippet from what might not be a perfect transcription:

I have to call them as I see them. The way I see this, the pressure was so relentless, the publicity so bad, the headlines so negative, the media pressure forced the Komen Foundation (despite its initial insistence that it was just fine) to reverse itself, to restore the funding, to apologize, to seek forgiveness from its supporters. That shows you something about the power, the clout of mainstream media, even in this era of Facebook and social networking. But it also tells you something about the way in which the media frame sometimes these controversial subjects, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps without meaning to perhaps because everyone the reporter knows thinks the same way. But in this case it was clearly framed form the liberal side of the argument.

You don’t say.

For another view, you can read Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple’s haughty retort to Ross Douthat’s column on the media malpractice we saw this last week. He gives “Four reasons why Ross Douthat’s media-bias argument is bunk.” Apparently Ross Douthat could have found stories that weren’t as bad as some of the one he highlighted. Ross also didn’t look at Twitter or other social media when he criticized mainstream media (no, I don’t get it either). The third is that Komen deserved its treatment. The fourth is that Wemple doesn’t buy Douthat’s contention that people such as me exist.

(Confidential to Washington Post: half the readers of GetReligion could do better, more interesting and less conformist media criticism.) Journalists sure love being contrarian until it requires disagreeing with the center-left consensus in which they exist. I could be wrong, but he didn’t even bother doing any media crit of the Planned Parenthood advocacy until he could do the contrarian “backlash to the backlash” approach he took here. And please correct me if I’m wrong.

OK. A better Washington Post response (and to be sure, Washington Post coverage on this story has been better than much of what we’ve highlighted here at GetReligion) came from reporter Sarah Kliff. Kudos to her for responding substantively even if defensively and without enough reflection on where things fell apart with the media:

As one member of the media who spent a lot of time covering this story, I thought I could offer a bit of perspective on this question. Douthat is right that those who supported Komen’s decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood got significantly less media coverage than those who opposed it. But he’s wrong about why.

As Lena Sun and I reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, Planned Parenthood had a very aggressive media strategy: Within a day of the Komen decision, the organization blasted out the news it had raised $400,000 from 6,000 online donors. On a press call Friday, the group announced it had raised $3 million in 72 hours.

Throughout the past week, I’ve repeatedly called and e-mailed Komen requesting comparable data. So far, nothing. The closest I got came on a Thursday conference call with Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, who said donations were “100 percent up,” although she declined to give specific figures. It was difficult to report anything more extensive than that 100 percent figure, when Komen declined to provide further information on the topic.

This reminds me of when my sister went to the hospital to deliver her first full-term child. She began hemorrhaging as she waited to be induced. My brother-in-law immediately went to get a nurse and was brushed off. He had to make a scene to get help and my niece Sophie was delivered via emergency C-section 15 minutes later, saving the lives of both my sister and her baby.

Sometimes you have to freak out beyond belief to get noticed. I made a point when lamenting the poor coverage of this year’s March for Life that pro-life groups might think less about complaining about the coverage and more about helping reporters. It’s not something I think is particularly good about media coverage, but the fact is that many reporters are slaves to public relations campaigns. As anyone who followed this controversy can figure out, Planned Parenthood broke this news to coincide with a fundraising campaign. It had known for months about Komen’s funding guidelines. It worked with, sure, an unbelievably pliable and servile media, but credit where it’s due: it ran a tight public relations and fundraising campaign. All the ducks were in a row.

And certainly Komen had no idea it would be up against not just Planned Parenthood’s huge resources but a media that worked in lock-step with the organization that provides 330,000 abortions a year. It may have even believed, due to years of favorable treatment in the press, that the media would give it good or even just fair coverage. It was completely unprepared for the Church of Planned Parenthood and the fervent witness of its members and clergy.

But still. If you have a savvy public relations campaign that just happened to have the perfect sources available to speak at the moment the reporter wants to speak with someone versus just, you know, Americans who are just sitting around and only hear about the story after it’s already been framed as something that no female breast cancer survivor right-thinking person human could ever support … it’s no contest.

I’m not saying that such press release journalism is how the media should work. But it’s how it does work. Yes, much of this story is about institutional bias in newsrooms, but some of it is just about how hard it is to report stories on deadline while competing with tons of other reporters.

Like Kurtz said, perhaps it’s just a function of everyone in the newsrooms having the same view. And few people would argue that such conformity of backgrounds and ideological are healthy. Well, maybe Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, would say it’s healthy. He has essentially argued that the Times is unbiased on politics, but not culture, morals and religion. This would be a fantastic example of what happens when you embrace the bias on the culture, morals and religion beats — and you see how it bleeds over into politics, too.

But what are you going to do? Let’s say you’re a reporter who’s been spoon fed a PR campaign, has gotten Planned Parenthood talking points, gets conference calls pushing the narrative, and everyone you know agrees with them … it will color your perception of the story. How do you even find people (such as me) who gave their first contribution to Komen last week? After we donated, an automatic note went up on my Facebook wall (I took a screen capture here) and those of many of my friends but we don’t know any of the reporters on this story at the Post. We weren’t told to donate by any pro-life group that could collect our stories and have us speak on conference calls and the like. Komen obviously didn’t want to further embroil itself in the abortion wars after the surprise attack from Planned Parenthood — that’s what they’d been trying to get away from in the first place! — so they were no help to countering the narrative.

Anyway, I’m really not trying to blame the victims here but the point is — if you want to play the game, sometimes you have to be a bit more media savvy. There are lessons for many people in this story — public relations professionals, media critics, partisan organizations and breast cancer charities and more.

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  • Glinda

    As a lifelong Catholic who believes deeply that matters of conscience should be left to thinking individuals and not … [cough] mediocre bloggers, I would challenge this site to respond to the concern that most of the women that mobilized for Komen had: How do you provide adequate cancer screening to marginally employed, unemployed and uninsured women without Planned Parenthood.

    The only factual answer is, you can’t unless you support Obama’s healthcare plan. Major FAIL on your part.!

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Hey all.

    Just wanted to say I really appreciate the work you guys do with this site. I mean your coverage in general is sharp, and I love how you all focus on the (for many people) subtle spin that goes on in religion stories that are otherwise overlooked.

    The entire Komen story was a fiasco, but it’s good to see someone covering the coverage, so to speak, and doing so well at it.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    The only factual answer is, you can’t unless you support Obama’s healthcare plan.

    That’s a tremendous exercise in self-delusion. So Obama’s health care plan is now the only way – the only possible way – for poorer women to get any kind of breast cancer screening, even in principle? That or involving Planned Parenthood. There are simply no other ways, even for an organization that spends hundreds of thousands – millions? – in charitable funds.

    Also, you forgot to use quotes. ‘A lifelong “Catholic”‘ is what I believe you were going for, in the interest of accuracy.

  • sari

    I think Kurtz was on to something when he suggested that reporters, like most people, surround themselves with people (friends, sources) who share similar points of view. Perhaps one solution would be to encourage reporters to seek out experiences which challenge their worldviews. Exposure would broaden their horizons and, perhaps, allow them to humanize the people they currently demonize. A little bit of intellectual flexibility would be very welcome.

  • Jeff

    But Sari, that would mean mixing with the hoi polloi, the bitter-clingers — and they might get cooties that way.

  • Jeff

    Reporters, that is. ; )

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Glinda, et. al.,

    We’re a media criticism site. Please keep comments focused on journalism coverage.

  • Roger

    Sure, Kurtz is right that the media drove this story, yet ultimately its the donors made Komen react to the story. In any organization like this the donors have the biggest voice with their money. The Komen Foundation recognized it was alienating its lifeblood, the donors and participants where all its funding comes from. So the donors get to have the last word.

    Don’t shoot the messenger just because you don’t like what’s being reported. Sure, Andrea Mitchell is biased as a breast cancer survivor and a donor to Komen, yet she has every right pry into Komen’s affairs as a donor. Mitchell’s bias represents the interests of the multitude of other donors that have every right to know what’s up with their donations. Brinker was caught claiming that the organization was not becoming political, and it clearly was – the VP who quit admitted as much. So ultimately donors perceived Komen was politicizing women’s health issues and don’t like it, to the tune on hundreds of thousands of responses from donors. Sure you can blame the media for reporting on Komen’s internal changes that apparently Komen had not been sharing with its donors, but donors were bound to find out. The donors are the victims here and consequently will decide Komen’s future going forward.

    This is a case study of a brand with a self-inflicted public relations catastrophe, whether it is fatal remains to be seen. It is not a case of flawed journalism – the media criticism is unwarranted. When the truth comes out, the press is doing its job. Inquiring minds want to know, and its good to see people act on information. Get over it.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    And I suppose I, disagreeing with this, speak for millions of people who thought the coverage of the Komen coverage was absolutely ridiculous. Man, it’s apparently easy to be a representative.

    This isn’t a case of merely reporting on an event, and no one is suggesting that the media should have remained quiet. Instead what’s being pointed out is the tone, the bias, and weight of coverage in handling the affair. That’s where the problems were, and it doesn’t become a non-issue just because someone squeaks ‘Well it’s NEWS and clearly some people wanted to know!’

    The media drives certain stories and has a bias. It’s plain as day, and this event only helped to outline it. Quit fooling yourself.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I’ll say what I said on the last thread, Roger’s comment at 8 (which is by no means unique to him) shows how it will be almost impossible to ensure that something like this debacle doesn’t happen again.

    He can look at what happened last week – the obvious bias, a Mitchell ‘interview’ that he would decry from the rooftops if its equivalent had happened on Fox to someone on the progressive side (imagine Obama being interviewed and the interviewer just ranting, asking questions, cutting him off mid-sentence to rant again and ask whether that would be good journalism) and give it a 100% bill of health.

    One would imagine that in the circles that most journalists live in, everyone is doing the same.

    When the left complains about incivility in public discourse, a tendency to polarise and to promote hate, they’re never going to realise that they are roughly one half of the problem. If they could, they could see that this was bad journalism.

    I think Komen needed to have realised that Planned Parenthood would come after them, and that the media would be in the can – arguing that somehow not funding PP was political but funding it was apolitical (LOL). They should have worked out their strategy in advance. Or, getting caught, should have immediately contacted a PR firm and got a strategy in place within 24 hours of the shark attack beginning.

    What they shouldn’t have done, under any circumstances, was trust the mainstream media to do their job with basic objectivity. Fighting for abortion rights is simply too important, and its goodness too obvious, to leave much room for reporting a different side of the story. The best you could hope for is to match PP’s PR campaign with your own. Something like objectivity comes only from *both* sides manipulating the media to their advantage, not from the media actually being true to its calling.

    And that is simply depressing for those of us who want the media to be the fourth estate.

  • Martha

    Glinda, you have a good point in that I didn’t see any hard figures in the whole media storm.

    What bits I’ve seen state that the Komen foundation funded 19 local programmes with Planned Parenthood where there were manual breast exams carried out and (I imagine) referrals for mammograms.

    So I don’t know exactly how many clinics or affiliates Planned Parenthood has, but 19 out of a total of X doesn’t sound like a lot to me.

    If you’re a poor, uninsured or unemployed woman who doesn’t live in the area where one of these local programmes is running, Planned Parenthood won’t help you there either – or at least, that’s the impression I get.

    If I’m wrong, I’d love to see facts. And I didn’t see any of the media producing facts, just “How dare they drop funding due to religious nutcases exerting political pressure!”

    Also, I can see why the Komen foundation would prefer to donate to clinics where there is a ‘one-stop-shop’ system; you get your breast check and if you need a mammogram, you can make an appointment to come back to the same place next week where they’ll already have notes on you, rather than sending you on to a different clinic where you have to go through the whole recital again. But that is just my opinion.

  • Bain Wellington

    You don’t have to be in favour of “outing” women who attend abortion clinics to see that Alan Keyes’ treatment of Neal Horsely in November 2006 was another unacceptable manifestation of faux-interview syndrome on MSNBC.

  • Ben

    Thanks for these posts on Komen, Mollie. This was not a good moment for much of the press.

  • Stan

    Am I banned here? I tried to post a response to your post yesterday but apparently it was spiked. It was directed to journalism issues, but it disagreed with you. Is the comment section here just supposed to be an echoing chamber of what you post?

    My perspective is that in blaming the media, you are letting Komen and others off the hook. They made the decision to get involved in the culture wars and the media simply reported on that decision. The uproar came from people like me who have donated to Komen over the years int he belief that they were a nonpartisan organization devoted to finding a cure for breast cancer. The facts, we learned, are not quite as simple as that. We learned the facts first through the social media and then the mainstream media. I think the media should be commended for doing their job, but they did not cause Komen’s crisis nor did they cause Komen to attempt to resolve it in the way they did.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    she has every right pry into Komen’s affairs as a donor.

    Worth repeating: Mitchell wasn’t acting in her capacity as a donor (or survivor). She was acting as a journalist.

    In any profession, you sometimes hit a conflict you can’t work around and you step aside. It’s no shame. If a police officer encounters a criminal he ran with in high school, he is obligated to treat that criminal just like any other. If he can’t, he turns the situation over to someone else.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stan,

    You’re not banned but comments that are off-topic are deleted (particularly if you’ve been warned repeatedly, as you’ve been warned repeatedly).

    Remember, you can always take things to the CoffeeHouse if you want to talk about your personal feelings about Komen being awesome or not.

  • Stan

    Mollie, I don’t recall ever being “warned.” But where is the Coffee House? Do you have a link?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stan, here’s a link to the coffee house.

  • Dave

    An under-reported (imho) part of this story is the role, or lack thereof, of the local Komen affiliates. From the fragments I’ve been able to piece together, the whole decision to defund Planned Parenthood was made at the top hierarchical levels of Komen without any consultation with the locals. The Komen upper echelons evidently caught flak from their local affiliates, and had not anticipated that in some cases close working relationships existed between local Komen affiliates and local PP clinics.

    I daresay a good look at this would show that the whole flap was set off by a few pro-life operatives coming into Komen at the top and lobbying for the defunding; and that Komen’s grass roots have proven to be stronger than the top echelon appreciated.

    When I was five years old I stuck a hairpin into a wall socket. I was shocked,burned and hurt, but survived with a much healthier respect for electricity (and my mother, who tried to warn me off). Seems to me that Komen, at the top, stuck this hairpin into this socket with what should have been a better understanding of likely ramifications than a five-year-old’s. And that any media bias amplified a response that was implicit in the situation, rather than creating it. YMMV.

  • Kris D

    Here is a link to an old NYT Magazine column, “The Ethicist”. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/26/magazine/26ETHICIST.html
    In it, Randy Cohen states that to support Curves if one is pro-choice is basically an unethical thing to do since your membership dollars support pro-life causes that you don’t believe in. Contrast this with the “apolitical” funding of PP by the Komen foundation as the MSM reported it & you really do have to wonder why the media’s blindspots aren’t recognized. Sauce for the goose apparently isn’t sauce for the gander.

  • http://hoystory.com Hoystory

    “Komen was stupid to have ever thought it could pull funding from such an apolitical organization as Planned Parenthood”

    Apolitical = not political.

    You mean ultrapolitical, intensely political, etc.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Hoystory,

    What Kurtz is saying is that the media narrative that was pushed was that Komen was stupid, that it should have never thought it could pull funding, that Planned Parenthood is apolitical.

    As he points out, there are problems with this narrative.

    Surely you’re not saying that an organization that is one of the most important lobbyists and political donors in the country is political are you?

    I think Andrea Mitchell would disagree.

  • Jeff

    Planned Parenthood is apolitical in the same way the Obama White House is post-partisan and the Mainstream Media “get” religion and other Stuff White People Don’t Like — i.e. hardly at all.

  • Will

    I see nothing in the Coffee House for over four months.

    Perhaps we should ponder why people apparently do not want to discuss things there.

  • Will

    “Crude”, that is a pertinent (if in your case, rhetorical) question. A commenter on another post asserted that “NOBODY [capitals hers] offers direct mammogram services”. If “NOBODY” does it, how are mammograms obtained?

  • carl

    Mollie

    As he points out, there are problems with this narrative.

    So Howard Kurtz thinks there were problems. Does anyone in the MSM really care? Does anyone actually think Kurtz’s crticism will change how the MSM chooses to frame a story about abortion in the future? Somehow I don’t see an Editor at the NY Times saying “We better be careful or Howard Kurtz will say there are problems with our narrative.” The problem is that the MSM has arrogated to itself the right to define the ‘objective’ context of the story. PP is apolitical because the MSM says so. It’s going to do exactly the same thing tomorrow regardless of what Kurtz says.

    Sometimes I think that critics like Kurtz exist simply so that the media can pretend to be critiquing itself. It don’t really change its behvaior, but it can posture as if it does. Right about now, someone should jump in and remind me that the MSM is not my ideological enemy. Events like this tend to make me forget that the MSM is trying to please me.

    carl

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    carl,
    And remember, he didn’t even really criticize the behavior of journalists involved. He was just acknowledging the reality obvious to everyone: it was biased and included double standards.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Carl,

    The problem is that the MSM has arrogated to itself the right to define the ‘objective’ context of the story.

    I’m not sure MSM has ‘arrogated’ to itself the right to interpret. That’s actually their responsibility. The problem is that they’re not discharging it properly, but in a partisan manner. I’m not sure we want some other body telling the media what the objective truth is – that’d be worse than the current problem in time. A decentralised body of truth-speakers whose commitment is (at least aspirationally) the the truth (and not to an institutional authority or to a democratic vote who decides what the truth is) is, in my view, one of the legacies of the Reformation.

    The problem is that they’re partisan. They’re supposed to be an umpire, but they’re acting like a sports commentator who got the gig of commentating because he’s a one-eyed supporter of one team on the field.

  • http://hoystory.com Hoystory

    Mollie, I think you’ve got the wrong word where I’ve indicated. You’ve got it right later on.

    Full sentence:

    But their framing was overwhelmingly similar, that Komen was stupid to have ever thought it could pull funding from such an apolitical organization as Planned Parenthood.

    This sounds like you’re saying it, not Kurtz at this point. I don’t think Kurtz would characterize PP as apolitical.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Hoystory:

    OK, I edited it to make it more clear that I was simply summarizing Kurtz’s argument about how the media framed the story. I hope it works better.

    The point is that the *media* presented PP as apolitical.

  • sari

    But Sari, that would mean mixing with the hoi polloi, the bitter-clingers — and they might get cooties that way.

    Actually, Jeff, I would extend it to anyone who limits his or her associations to only people with like worldviews. People seem to feel most comfortable when their assumptions go unchallenged, but that way leads to intellectual rigidity and stagnation. It’s clear, here and elsewhere , that folks laud what they agree with and disparage what they don’t, often with little understanding of the alternative position. Iow, the problem is not unique to journalists.

  • Jeff

    Sari,

    The problem, though, is that journalists and other wordsmith intellectuals are paid and granted prestige on the basis of their having more knowledge and broader perspectives than most people do, when, in fact, they often do not, and maybe even have less social knowledge and narrower social perspectives than most people do. Intellectual rigidity and stagnation are problems for everyone, but not everyone claims to have overcome them the way that wordsmith intellectuals tend to do, and not everyone’s sense of their own flexibility and vitality of mind falls as far short of reality as in many a wordsmith intellectual’s case. This is true not just of journalists, but also academics, lawyers, people in the arts, and on down the line. It is perhaps more true of people involved in organized partisan politics than it is true of anyone else.

  • carl jacobs

    Mark Baddeley

    I’m not sure MSM has ‘arrogated’ to itself the right to interpret. That’s actually their responsibility. … The problem is that they’re partisan.

    Isn’t interpretation an inherently partisan act? They either reject one narrative in favor of the other, or they reject both narratives and substitute their own. This is why I used the word ‘arrogated.’ They have made the world view of the journalist the grid by which all stories are interpreted. It’s as if Journalism has become the Keeper of Objective Truth – a secular priesthood, as it were.

    carl

  • sari

    I disagree, Jeff. Journalists, as opposed to commentators, are supposed to report news, not provide commentary. Writing clearly and well has nothing to do with being an intellectual. On what basis do you believe that the people you list are any more prone to inflexible thinking than the general populace? My experience suggests that most people are pretty narrow and rarely question their own assumptions. If they were more critical, they’d question what they read, question their physicians, question their politicians, question their own motivations–but most don’t. Blind acceptance is a pervasive problem.

    I would like to see a comprehensive article on women’s access to healthcare, one which addresses all options available to women, including P.P., and which examines what effect legislation meant to rein in P.P.’s activities has had on other facilities that do not perform abortions. It might be need to done state to state, as each state’s demographics help determine government priorities. Over and over we’ve been told at GR that P.P. Generates a billion dollars from abortions. Has someone got the financials in hand? I’ve yet to see a breakdown of services. Who will provide for the children born into poverty or to parents who don’t want them? What percentage of pro-life people are willing to raise children not their own?

    I’d also like someone to address whether or not some religious groups are, in effect, denying members of other faiths the right to practice. It seems like there’s a lot of disrespect and inflexibility on both sides–too many groups who are righteous in their righteousness. That should be reported, too, but neither side seems desirous of understanding the other’s rationale.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Hey Carl,

    Isn’t interpretation an inherently partisan act? They either reject one narrative in favor of the other, or they reject both narratives and substitute their own. This is why I used the word ‘arrogated.’ They have made the world view of the journalist the grid by which all stories are interpreted. It’s as if Journalism has become the Keeper of Objective Truth – a secular priesthood, as it were.

    Well, it’s inherently an act of judgement, and so isn’t neutral, but I’m not sure that that means it has to be partisan. Is a literary critic who decides on an interpretation of a Shakespeare play ‘partisan’ just because they have to decide on an interpretation? Is a judge who has to interpret the law ‘partisan’? Is a jury who interprets the cases for prosecution and defense as made in court? Is an umpire who interprets the rules and the play in front of him or her?

    By the measure you measure to others will be measured to you, yes. But does it have to be ‘partisan’? Can a conservative person fairly report what happened and not simply stack the deck in favor of abortion law reform? Do progressive journalists really have to stack the deck in favor of PP in their reporting, or did they do something wrong – not just in being in favor of abortion, but also in being bad journalists?


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