The media as referees. NBA referees.

Apparently Dan Rather was on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show not too long ago where he scoffed at the idea that the media is biased in a liberal fashion. He said that criticizing the media for liberal bias is just “working the refs.” I’m going based on second-hand reports because I’m traveling right now and for some reason the wifi system I’m on won’t let me actually watch this video.

This is a somewhat common liberal response to conservative complaints of bias, suggesting that conservatives are targeting the media itself in order to curry more advantageous coverage.

I’m less interested in having a conversation about conservative complaints or the liberal response to those complaints than I am in exploring the idea that journalists are referees. What do you think of that idea? Should they be seen as refereeing society or should they be seen more as announcers in the broadcast booth? Should they have an active role on the field or should they simply be informed observers?

I’m just noodling on this right now so I’m curious what you think. Obviously journalism includes all sorts of judgment about what to report on and how and in this year alone we’ve seen that this news judgment means that we see light coverage of massive pro-life rallies but massive coverage of Susan G. Komen’s decision to stop giving funds to Planned Parenthood. We’ve seen restrained coverage of the largest religious freedom lawsuit in recent memory with, for instance, some networks ignoring it and other networks devoting a solid 19 seconds to it. And while it was hard to go a day, much less a few hours, without a “war on women” update for a few months, we have seen very little coverage of recent news about Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers’ support of sex-based abortion.

I think coverage of the abortion issue is really where we see the media behaving like refs, albeit NBA refs, and less like observers. I was thinking of this when following Salon journalist Irin Carmon’s coverage of the Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health’s Provider Awards. Former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse keynoted the event which fetes those who perform abortions:

Carmon tweeted a few lines:

“I do feel part of the family. I wrote my first article on abortion in The New York Times in 1970.” — Linda Greenhouse

Greenhouse says she’s been “liberated” from the “sanctimonious” journos who condemned her for speaking out as prochoice

Greenhouse is a mightily talented reporter but her personal opinions dominated her coverage, a practice she attempted to defend a few years ago. The second tweet may be a reference to how her bosses told her to ease up on the literal marching with abortion rights supporters she was doing.

Anyway, all of this is a really long introduction to note how the media are covering (or not covering) the recent stings from anti-abortion activists showing that some abortion clinics are fine with doing abortions for no other reason than the unborn child is female.

The video above is the third undercover journalism piece put out by group LiveAction. (I’m on record as opposing undercover journalism, but most mainstream media outlets are fine with it and many win awards for doing it themselves.) The Washington Examiner‘s editorial page did write up the most recent news coming out of these videos:

Staffers at two National Abortion Federation clinics in Arizona agreed to help a woman get a sex-selective abortion, which is a felony in the state, according to video taken by pro-life activists at Live Action.

“Don’t tell us that, because we don’t want to know,” the worker at a NAF clinic in Phoenix told a woman who said she wanted to get an abortion because she didn’t want to carry a girl to full term. The NAF aide explained that “state law says we cannot do a termination on somebody just because of race or gender.” The woman told the NAF aide that she wanted to try to have a boy.

The NAF aide then told the woman she could feel comfortable telling the abortion doctor that she wanted to get an abortion due to the gender. “You can tell her, she’s gonna tell you the same thing, just: Don’t let it be known! She’s really good about that,” the Phoenix staffer said, adding that she had dealt with other cases of women who wanted an abortion due to gender-selection.

I’m looking for more mainstream coverage of this and not seeing it. I also noticed a lack of coverage of the earlier videos. They are difficult to watch but not in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate for broadcast journalism. Watching the way professional clinic staff handle the counseling of women seeking to abort their unborn daughters is just captivating, if uncomfortable. It would seem like it would make excellent fodder for news shows and articles.

According to the pro-life media site LifeNews, coverage of the sting has been uneven:

The three broadcast networks continue to act as guardian angels to Planned Parenthood, shielding the abortion provider from any hint of controversy. Live Action videos showing Planned Parenthood’s apparent willingness to cooperate in sex selection abortion have been completely buried by ABC, CBS, and NBC for an entire week (morning shows of May 30-June 5, evening shows of May 29-June 4).

Live Action has come out with twovideos showing Planned Parenthood staffers actively assisting a Live Action actor to procure a sex-selection abortion. In the week after the story broke, the networks gave zero coverage to the Live Action reports. (Cable outlets CNN and Fox News have both given the Live Action videos coverage.) The videos coincided with a House vote to ban sex-selection abortion, which the networks also completely ignored.

The broadcast networks’ silence regarding the Live Action videos is standard operating procedure when it comes to negative news about Planned Parenthood. But when cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure planned to stop giving less than a million dollars a year to Planned Parenthood, the networks unleashed a blitz of stories against the cancer charity.

So what do you think? How well is the media refereeing public discussions regarding abortion? Are they people in authority who are responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on the fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport? Or are they more like NBA referees? And is “referee” the right way to view journalists in the first place or is there a better way to look at it?

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  • Dave

    LifeNews identifies the providers in the sting video as Planned Parenthood. The video does not.

  • Mollie

    That excerpt refers to the first two videos — which were of Planned Parenthood. This third video is of other abortion clinics.

  • Martha

    Journalists and editors and newspaper proprietors are human. So they’re going to have personal preferences and sympathies and biases. It’d be great to think everybody in the media is aware of their own inclinations or could overcome those and be neutral reporters of the facts, but I don’t think that happens on big issue stories.

    So the second-best option is that people are aware of which side of an issue they stand on, and are honest about it. Also, a bit more clarity about the difference between the reporter and the columnist; people may buy the paper or watch the TV programme or listen to the radio programme to hear what that nutty right-wing/left-wing loon is going to say now, and the newspaper/station can sell a lot of advertising on the back of that, but if Joe Journo is meant to be just giving us the facts, then tilting the story even in subtle ways (by the use of “plot” versus “plan”, for instance) is not doing the job.

    But even just by reporting the stories, the media are putting their own interpretation on what is presented to the public. I’ve complained on here before about all the stories that begin by telling us that “Blonde thirty-six year old mother of two, Susan Nice, had no idea that Wednesday morning when she decided to stop at her favourite coffee shop for a latté and a cinnamon-orange muffin that she would be the heroine in a desperate tug-of-love clash”, but that’s the trick used to reel us in and keep us reading and getting us interested. What tug-of-love clash? What happened next? Did Susan ever get her muffin?

    If papers and tv news feel the need to jazz up stories by regaling us with a breathless human-interest style, I really can’t see how the same people are going to keep their real and genuine emotions and philosophies under control when it comes to something they honestly feel passionately about.

  • Chris M

    When a similar sting operation was carried out by The Daily Telegraph in the UK earlier this year, it received quite a bit of coverage in the right wing press, as well as the BBC, and surprisingly, even The Guardian (a paper that sponsors one of the UK equivalants of PP, Marie Stopes).

  • Susan

    Just before I clicked to read this story, I read one at Touchstone’s Mere Comments blog that blew me away. I think it’s worse than we realize. The MSM is not only suppressing the news about gender selection abortions, but also how deep Planned Parenthood is in the bag with ObamaCare. I don’t think the MSM and abortion providers want to allow a national debate – especially prior to the elections in November.

    The link below will take you to the 2 minute video and an embedded link that shows the documentation for the video. It was reading the documentation that really got to me. Please check it out:

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Sure I would rather journalists be announcers, but when I’m watching the Rangers play Oakland (to be topical), what I hear depends on whether I’m listening to the Ranger announcers or Oakland announcers. Their announcing is shaped by their interests and their audience. Now, were they to depart from the facts, or ignore another double play, we are starting to get into problem areas.

  • Les

    Hi, first time commenting here after lurking for a while.

    I’ve never viewed journalists as refs but more like lawyers who are presenting their case but it seems as if some or most of these guys slip into the role of judge as well. They determine what people will hear or read and it seems want to determine what I’ll think about what I’ve just read. I wish it weren’t so but I’ve grown more cynical about journalism in the past few years and have a tendency to doubt what I’ve read until I can find another source for confirmation. Journalists, particularly on T.V., are acting as if the internet didn’t exist and don’t seem to realize the dissonance between what they report and what people can easily find at other sources online.

  • Bill

    What about peer pressure on journalists? When most in a newsroom view the world from a certain political, philosophical and moral perspective, how many reporters are willing to swim against the current? I suspect that in most of the media, a pro-choice journalist is far more likely to feel confident in showing his hand than a pro-life journalist.

    Rather than a ref, I’d prefer to see reporters as honest butchers. Weigh the meat accurately and keep your thumbs off the scale.

  • Jeff

    “Rather than a ref, I’d prefer to see reporters as honest butchers. Weigh the meat accurately and keep your thumbs off the scale.”

    They’re butchers alright.

    But what they slice and dice and cut and chop and grind up into chuck is the truth, is actual reality.

    And they’ve always got their thumbs planted firmly on the scale.

  • Mollie


    You’re painting with way too broad of a brush. Many reporters do a great job of presenting accurate stories.

  • Jeff


    I was painting above in an expressionistic mode, so a broad brush and a bold palate were what were required. ; )

  • Rebecca

    I am a pro-life journalist. I work for a paper with a liberal editorial board. They have never told me what to write (because that would be inappropriate). I am not shy about my Christianity or my pro-life (even after they’re born) beliefs. But I also swear, so maybe that makes them trust me.

    Maybe it’s time GetReligion differentiates a bit more between when it is talking about the major-market media, and those of us who labor (some by choice) in the mid-tier or smaller papers and news stations. Our local CBS affiliate has an anchor who once listed the Left Behind novels as his favorite books (a problem for a whole host of reasons). The other station has a guy who went to Liberty. But they report on issues like the state’s defunding of PP without bias, either way. I try to do the same, though with my beat, I rarely have such interaction with “cultural” topics.

    Most reporters I work with, at my outfit or others, try really hard to be fair. They may not be very good, or they may have a ton of other pressures that keep them from having the story they really want before their station airs it or their paper publishes it. But they try. And many, many many of them would be characterized as conservative Evangelical types (I’m Orthodox).

  • Mollie

    Love the comment, Rebecca. And not just because I also swear.

  • tmatt

    Hmmmm. An Orthodox journalist who swears.

    I think I know this Rebecca.

  • Bill

    Love the comment, Rebecca. And not just because I also swear.

    I am shocked – shocked – to find that swearing is going on in here!

    There are differences between swearing, profanity, obscenity and good, clean, dirty language. A lot has to do with context and audience. I know a lot of ribald jokes, but I would not tell them to children, those I thought would be offended, or as is done these days, on the air.

    I have a friend who is serious about her faith and a boardmember of her Methodist church. She is an artist with salty language, in the same major league as my late father, a daily Communicant. I try, but am a clumsy amateur next to those giants.

  • Rebecca

    I think you do too, tmatt. :)

  • James

    If the media were a basketball referee, they would say, “LeBron James thinks he was fouled, but Kevin Garnett says he didn’t foul him. Clearly the answer must be somewhere in the middle. We’ll let you all decide.”

    A referee’s job is to determine what actually happened, to blow the whistle and make a call.

    If our media were actually being referees, they would do some investigation into what the truth is, and then confront the liars with it—rather than letting anyone with enough big corporate money spout unchallenged lie after unchallenged lie, while pretending that the truth-teller is on no firmer footing than the liar.

    The right-wing has worked the referees—into not doing the job of referees at all.

  • Ron Henzel

    Rather’s metaphor is grotesque. To apply the term “referee” to the media is arrogant and presumptuous. A referee presides over a game and enforces its rules, not merely as a passive neutral observer, but also as an active authority. Even its honorary title as the “Fourth Estate” does not confer anywhere near this kind of authority on the media.

    Our Constitution already provides for a referee: the judicial branch, and thus, ultimately, the Supreme Court. For Rather to apply that term to the media is “rhetorically proximate” (to borrow from another liberal journalist’s recent gaffe) to indicating that his brain inhabits some parallel universe while his mouth continues to afflict this one.