Abortion violence: Why not talk to real pro-lifers?

Please be patient with me as I dig through lots of material that built up in my infamous GetReligion guilt folder. Here is a story from a few weeks ago that raises a very, very, very basic journalism question.

Well, there’s an important question here in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution story if you still care about the American model of the press and hard-news coverage that attempts to accurately cover perspectives on both sides of hot issues.

The headline is very basic: “Women’s clinics on heightened alert.” The lede on the story is very hard news and to the point:

Heightened fears about a series of burglaries and fires targeting abortion and OB-GYN clinics around metro Atlanta have triggered heightened security across the country.

The FBI, which is leading a joint investigation, is looking at the cases as possibly domestic terrorism or civil rights violations, according to ATF spokesman Richard Coes.

“We are concerned about the escalation and activity,” said Vicki Saporta, president of National Abortion Federation, which sent out notifications to all member clinics about the Atlanta incidents twice this week, urging them to take additional precautions. “It’s not a good sign when one arson follows another, after following several burglaries. Something clearly is escalating there and we’re hoping that the strong law enforcement so far can stop it.”

Obviously, one side of this story is represented by professional organizations such as the National Abortion Federation. That’s the lede. That’s an essential voice. Later on, there are voices from the Feminist Womens Health Center in DeKalb County, more investigators, etc., etc.

That’s all valid. But stop and think about this for a moment.

What’s the obvious question that is being asked here? Who is — in effect — being accused of these possible acts of domestic terrorism?

The story says the authorities are asking for public input, for links that can drive the investigation? To whom will they need to talk? To whom do journalists need to talk?

I know that this is hard to believe, but the pro-life movement involves a wide range of people. Often, the people who end up committing these kinds of violent acts are people who have been driven OUT of mainstream pro-life organizations. Why is that? The mainstream groups are, as a rule, committed to forms of protest and activism rooted in nonviolence and/or forms of confrontation build on civil disobedience principles.

Tragically, some of these disaffected people lack the patience for this approach. They want to strike back.

So who would be the authorities on that side of the issue? Where would the newspaper find valid, informed input of this kind? Here’s another clue, drawn from the very end of this story:

Jack Killorin, a retired ATF agent who helped work on the Rudolph case and a former agency spokesperson, said that the heydey for abortion clinic violence was in the 1980s and 90s. While the abortion debate remains strong, crimes against abortion clinic operators have largely tapered off, he said.

According to Killorin, these types of acts historically don’t involve large conspiracies, but one or a small number of disaffected people. The individuals usually don’t have criminal records, since they aren’t motivated by profit, but by ideology. The culprits are typically not affiliated with organized anti-abortion groups. Instead, they often believe those organizations are all talk and no action, Killorin said.

“This could very well be a lone wolf actor glorying in their powerful secrecy,” Killorin said. “And if so, they are very hard to find.”

OK, so the Journal-Constitution team could not find a single person who is involved in genuinely pro-life work who could help explain this reality? If these lone wolves are “disaffected people” this implies that they are people who have dropped out, or who have been forced out, of other groups.

At some point, it would have helped to have talked to people — at least one or two — from mainstream groups that oppose abortion. Who knows, they might have relevant insights. You think?

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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.

  • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG JohnMcG

    I’m not sure about the journalism, but I’m pleased enough that the story noted that clinic violence has tapered off, and that the little that remains comes from outside the mainstream of the pro-life movement, regardless of the source for that information.

  • Martha

    That story is a mess, and it’s not the fault of the “Atlanta Journal-Constitution”.

    We’re told that the FBI are treating these events as possible domestic terrorism (oh, those crazy fundie clinic-bombers at it again!) but the details in the stories don’t add up.

    Either we have two separate sets of crimes: ordinary old-fashioned burglary (e.g. the theft of a desktop computer from one clinic) which happened before the arsons and are not related, and the presumed anti-abortion arson campaign which is for principle not profit, or both are linked, and it’s not an anti-abortion campaign. We’re even informed in the story that some of the clinics don’t carry out abortions!

    There was an arson at a local church in my own town last year, and it was on account of a failed burglary; the geniuses who tried to break into the church decided to burn down the door when they couldn’t get in and fire being fire, it got out of hand.

    As it is, generally anti-abortion campaigners who go for the violent route don’t engage in petty theft, and opportunistic burglars/vandals aren’t doing it as a matter of social protest. But if we are to believe this story, the cops haven’t a clue who they should be looking for: the kind of crazies who write long rambling letters to the papers complaining about the abortion clinics? professional burglars? pyromaniacs? All of the above?

  • Maureen

    I know a writer I respect, who wrote a mystery novel with an abortion sort of setting, and a particular pro-life guy as a suspect. You met all sorts of charming people who were abortion escorts, but you never met anyone except this one particular guy (and his beaten-up wife) who were on the other side. Not even to give the detective multiple suspects.

    So yeah, I wrote the person (admittedly feeling gypped for spending good money on a bad mystery novel, after trusting her name enough to buy it on sight) asking why she didn’t make there be multiple activist groups on the other side, probably feuding with each other, as was normal and usual. Never did get an answer, much less an explanation of why you’d need so many escorts if the other side amounted to two people.

    Pretty much any issue, there’s going to be multiple groups of people with variant goals and ideals, on both sides. Every group is going to have people of various personalities, who tend to take on different group functions. And plenty of groups will live in fear of somebody who’s not a joiner, but just goes out and does crazy stuff that will reflect on the other group. There will also be people whose idea of political heroism is trying to make the other side look bad by sending fake calls and letters in their name, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin. And there’s also a lot of prankers and trolls who really don’t care for anything but making trouble.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Martha, I would disagree with you about the fault. You’re right that the story is a mess. But that’s not the FBI’s fault or that of any other law enforcement agency. The fault belongs entirely to the AJC. They did not have to publish that mess of a story. Any editor worth his or her salt will look at a piece and make a judgment about whether or not it’s worth printing. If it’s not, it shouldn’t go in, period.

    The thing with this story is that there was nothing really pressing it forward. The paper had already given the basic coverage of crimes against the clinics in the Atlanta area. This piece was supposed to be one with a national scope. This could have easily been held until some very basic questions had been answered: What do the main pro-life groups think about this violence? Who else has taken these kinds of actions and what were their relationships with the main pro-life groups? Why is the information from the law enforcement agencies in such a mish-mashed state? Is this really something that the feds need to be involved in or can it be handled by local police?

    There’s a lot that can be done here and, because there was no real pressing need to get the story out, they could have taken the time to do a proper job without compromising the news value.

  • Martha

    Thomas, I’m presuming the reporter wrote the story based on what the police were willing to tell them, and if the official sources aren’t sure what’s going on, I can’t blame the paper for taking the word of the abortion clinics that this is a Sinister Campaign By You-Know-Who.

    I mean, if you have (1) abortion clinic folk saying this is an organised campaign of intimidation (2) obstectrics folk saying they don’t carry out abortions and they don’t know why their clinic was burned down (3) burglaries before the arsons then – to me at least – step (4) is asking the police or whomever is investigating the crimes “So, Officer/Agent Robinson, who are your suspects?”

    And if Agent Robinson looks grim and mutters something about ‘domestic terrorism’, then what else are you going to print?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    But Martha, there’s still a huge hole missing, as tmatt pointed out — there’s absolutely no pro-life voice at all. None, zilch, nada. That’s simply inexcusable. If the FBI and other law guys are saying, “domestic terrorism,” then the AJC has the responsibility to go ask a pro-life person or two (or three or four), “What do you think about this?” Publishing a story like this without that essential perspective is a basic sin against the virtue of objective journalism.

    I’m also rather disturbed by the listing of the alleged numbers of acts of violence against abortion clinics that was helpfully provided by the National Abortion Federation. If I was writing this story and the NAF provided that list to me, I’d have to ask a lot of questions, like “How do you define violence? Do you have the data to back up all of these claims? Do law enforcement agencies agree with you?” No doubt that some abortionists have been the subject of violence. But 761 such incidents in 2005? That seems hard to believe. And again, by not asking the pro-life groups about this list, the implication is that it’s a “Sinister Campaign By You-Know-Who” (thanks, Martha).

    What this says to me is that the MSM have given abortionists and their supporting network an air of final authority on this issue. They’re the ones who do this “necessary” and “constitutional” work, so they’re the ones who have the real — and only — authority to speak on the matter. All those other “You-Know-Who” people are just babbling nonsense. And that judgment is made even before talking with them.

  • Martha

    Thomas, I would agree with you and tmatt that a pro-life group or groups should have been asked for a comment – but about the domestic terrorism in general, and not these clinic burnings specifically.

    Why? Because asking your local pro-life group “So who do you think burned this clinic, if it wasn’t one of your lot?” is buying the line being peddled that this is a purely or mostly anti-abortion campaign of ‘domestic terrorists’.

    And I don’t think the facts support that yet. I wish the “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” had done a bit of pushing regarding the burglaries when talking to the police and FBI; questions such as “Are burglaries common before clinic attacks?” or “Have any clinic bombers/attackers been convicted of, or linked to, robberies?” and “Why don’t you think the robberies are a separate thing?” and “If people are burgling clinics, and arson attacks are being carried out on offices that don’t perform abortions, have you considered these might be ordinary crimes?” rather than just printing what they were told, but again I say, if the police are taking the line that this is anti-abortion activism rather than common theft, what else are the paper going to print if they need to print “What the police think”?

  • Mark C.

    I’m a bit mystified as to why comments from the mainstream pro-life groups are necessary here, apart from some idea that if it’s about abortion there should be quotes from pro-choice and pro-life individuals or groups. The article makes a point in noting that these sorts of things, if they are acts of domestic terrorism with an anti-abortion agenda, don’t happen from within the mainstream pro-life groups. Why is what they have to say relevant to the issue, except tangentially?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mark C.,

    “Why is what they have to say relevant to the issue….”

    I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out. Even though the AJC summarizes a law enforcement person as saying, “The culprits are typically not affiliated with organized anti-abortion groups,” they did that in the penultimate graph. But as Martha said, the implication from the NAF and its allies high up in the story is that this is a “Sinister Campaign By You-Know-Who.” The pro-life groups should have be given a chance to — at the very least — give their denial. Not doing so looks like an agenda.

  • Mark C.

    Thomas, but if you read the article, it’s quite clear that mainstream pro-life groups aren’t the “you-know-who” Martha refers to. There is thus no need to give them a change to deny when the article doesn’t implicate them. Asking them to deny, or quoting them as denying involvement, only makes it look like they should be regarded as suspicious. It suggests there is a need for them to deny something. The article already reports that there isn’t such a need here.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I’m not sure that it was necessary to get a “we don’t condone that” quote from a mainstream pro-life group. When some lunatic fringe environmentalist puts deadly spikes in trees to attack loggers, is it necessary to call the Sierra Club for their perspective? It wouldn’t have been bad to have such a quote. But if the writer had to make a choice for space reasons, I would much rather have the retired ATF agent making that same point, because he’s going to have more credibility.
    I think that the broader problem is with abortion coverage in general, and that problem is coloring how we look at this story. In too many cases reporters either ignore or are ignorant of mainstream pro-life leaders. Instead of interviewing someone from the National Right to Life Committee or Americans United for Life, they’ll bring out some fringe leader whose opinions don’t reflect the broader movement. That’s a huge problem when covering legislative stories. I’m not sure it was a critical problem here.

  • NMH

    I don’t have any issues with this story as written. The line about the FBI looking at the case as either a domestic terrorist issue or civil rights violations in the capacity of leading a joint investigation is really just answering why they’d be involved in the first place if this is a local phenomenon. It’s not meant to imply something negative about those groups who publicly oppose abortion.

    I also don’t think it’s necessary or even appropriate to select random pro-life groups for commentary for the same reasons Ann lays out.