“Nobody cares” about Obama’s abortion beliefs? Really?

I was taping the Crossroads podcast earlier and host Todd Wilken asked me something about why reporters were mishandling the news that Senate candidate Richard Mourdock believes even a human life conceived in rape can be a “gift from God.” I was kind of at a loss. I reject the idea, advanced by some critics, that it’s just partisan bias or an attempt to help President Barack Obama in the final days of his campaign. But the coverage was so over-the-top, it was hard to defend at all.

My big beef in this whole thing is not so much that pro-life candidates are being asked tough questions. Abortion is a super tough topic and one deserving of tough questions. What chaps my hide is that reporters are incapable of asking any tough questions of pro-choice candidates.

To that end, you should be sure to read this piece by Trevin Wax headlined “10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is Never Asked by the Media.” Please. Read it.

A few days ago, we remembered the data that show that about 25 percent of Americans say they favor no restrictions on abortion, about 20 percent of Americans say they support consistent protection of the unborn and the rest want something in between. I think the problem with the media might be that they’re incredibly familiar with that group who favor no restrictions on abortion and have trouble looking at things from a different angle. As tmatt noted long ago, citing a Pew Forum poll, there are even fascinating numbers that show how many DEMOCRATS want to see strong restrictions on abortion rights.

I was reminded of all that during this fascinating exchange on Twitter between a political reporter at the Weekly Standard, John McCormack, and a religion reporter at Newsweek/Daily Beast, David Sessions. It began with McCormack complaining about disparities in press coverage. I’ll just reproduce the exchange here:

John McCormack: At the very least, someone might want to get the president to say precisely what his position on late-term abortion is (link)

David Sessions: Seriously, nobody cares.

John McCormack:  What do you mean?

John McCormack: People don’t care about abortion? Are you an idiot?

David Sessions: the weird idea that its “corrupt” not to ask about Obama’s abortion position when we know it & it’s not a campaign issue.

David Sessions: his position is plenty clear to people who care about that issue.

John McCormack: Please tell me: What is Obama’s position on third-trimester abortions?

John McCormack: He’s evaded the issue (link) … You may yawn at killing of almost born human beings. Others think it’s an atrocity.

David Sessions: who cares? If you care what the answer to that is, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough.

John McCormack: Who cares? So you can’t say.

John McCormack: Country may be divided on abortion early in pregnancy. 86% say it should be illegal late in pregnancy per Gallup.

John McCormack:  But nothing to see here. “Who cares?” You are a disgrace to journalism.

David Sessions: it’s absurd to pretend like this a huge moral press failure when it’s not even close to being a campaign issue.

John McCormack:  It is a human rights issue. What is/is not a campaign issue depends on what the media asks the candidates.

John McCormack:  And it is a gross double standard for the press to make IN & MO Senate candidates abortion stances the BIGGEST STORY EVER…

John McCormack: without even thinking for a second whether Obama himself might hold extreme positions on abortion.

David Sessions: I completely agree about that.

OK, so hopefully each side on this journalistic tussle can learn something. I want to add a few thoughts. First, people really care about abortion. It may not be the single most important issue in every singe mind when we go into the voting booth, but of all the issues out there, it’s a biggie. Consistently. If you are a religion reporter, it’s good to know this. Also, plenty of people who are fine with first-trimester abortion are not fine with third-trimester abortion. You should probably know that, too, so saying “If you care what the answer is about his third-trimester abortion position, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough” is just not true.

OK, as to the charge that abortion is not an Obama campaign issue, I don’t really know what to say other than you might want to watch even a tiny little snippet of any portion of the Democratic National Convention from this year. (Some jokingly called it an Abortion Jamboree or Abortion-palooza.) Also, as a swing state resident, I would say that abortion ads are the number one thing I’m seeing from Obama’s campaign. I’ve received glossy mailers, emails and a deluge of TV ads. Trust me, it’s possibly his biggest issue that he’s running on in Virginia. If you are a national reporter, you should probably have some familiarity with this. Or as the New York Times put it last week:

According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, the Obama campaign and Democratic groups have run commercials relating to abortion about 30,000 times since July 2 — about 10 percent of their ads — including one that falsely claimed Mr. Romney’s opposition to abortion extended to cases of rape and incest.

The ad with the false claim was still running in Virginia as recently as last week, I’m pretty sure (although it’s possible I saw it on a DVR’d program from earlier in the month).

Now, as McCormack writes, even if it weren’t a major plank of President Obama’s campaign, it’s still important enough as a human rights issue to cover. To put it another way, that last debate showed us that neither candidate disagrees with each other on the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists. Does that mean that since it’s not a campaign issue, it shouldn’t be covered? Hardly. I think the press can rightly judge certain topics of importance meriting coverage even if votes aren’t being won or lost on them. But, again, that’s not even the case with abortion coverage.

But at least we can all agree that however this topic is covered, it should be done so in a balanced way. If the press posture is that it’s extreme to hold the position that Mourdock holds, the one that only 20 percent of the country shares, where does that put President Obama and his positions? And if only one set of political actors is treated as extreme, as needing to apologize for a position, as if their existence on a party ticket is scandalous, and the other side is treated as if “nobody cares” about their positions, how good is that?

Photo of a disinterested child via Shutterstock.

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  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    Only once in the mainstream media have I seen the information that Obama–as a state senator–was against providing protection to already born babies that somehow had survived an abortion. (Apparently there had been such a case in Illinois.) In otherwords Obama got away with supporting infanticide with barely a blip of information about it in the media.

    • Ann

      deacon, your statements are not factual and have repeatedly be debunked since 2008. From FactCheck:

      Did ‘Elite Media’ Ignore ‘Infanticide’? February 23, 2012

      “Newt Gingrich was wrong when he accused the “elite media” of failing to ask Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign about his votes “in favor of infanticide.” In fact, there were reams of mainstream media reports about Obama’s votes as an Illinois state senator on the “born alive” legislation to which Gingrich refers.”

      http://www.factcheck.org/2012/02/did-elite-media-ignore-infanticide/

      Obama and ‘Infanticide’

      The facts about Obama’s votes against ‘Born Alive’ bills in Illinois. August 25, 2008

      http://www.factcheck.org/2008/08/obama-and-infanticide/

      In addition, the State of Illinois investigated Jill Stanek’s claim that a baby born alive was allowed to die, which would have been a felony. The investigation found nothing to support Stanek’s claims.

  • Alex

    I hate to not focus on the journalism, but since this is focused on a specific persons’ response — it’s just David Sessions. Read his work on his “Patrol Mag” blog from the past few years, including such insightful posts as “The Ten Worst Christian Media Hacks.” and the use of slur “Christianists.” This is unfortunately someone with a predetermind narrative they wish to stick to, which works for gossipy blogs and Newsweek (but I repeat myself), but not serious journalism.

  • suzanne

    Wow. Yet another conservative religious thinker who seeks to “engage” with a reporter by calling him names. I can’t imagine why they make so little headway.

    • mollie

      suzanne, who is the “conservative religious thinker” you refer to? I’m confused.

      • suzanne

        Well that’s kind of the point, isn’t it, mollie? He’s not a thinker, he’s a ranter, who’s persuasive argument is to call another reporter an idiot and a disgrace. And you find this instructive, why, exactly?

        It’s not the first time GR has done this. We’ve been treated (more than once) to video of pro-life marchers ranting about how the media is out to get them, with a disclaimer that says, basically, “Yes, they’re being somewhat offensive here, but there’s an important lesson in it.” And your own posts regularly drip with snark and contempt for reporters. But you also have been known to wail, “Why does no one listen to me? Am I invisible?”

        The exchange you highlight in this post is really the perfect distillation of what GR has become: “You’re an idiot! Why don’t you listen to me calling you an idiot?” The site was once — actually not that long ago — a decent resource for reporters who wanted to do a better job of covering religion. These days, it’s more of an amen corner for people who hate journalists.

        • Alex

          Er, no.

          When a self-described journalist flippantly responds to a criticism of the press’s coverage of Obama’s view on abortion with a “who cares?” it’s worth mentioning. When the self-described journalist can only raise a “meh” out of a question about a presidental’s standing on one of the most contentous issues in the America in the past 40 years, it makes you wonder if said person gets religion or just accepts the stereotypes he’s chosen.

          And when a self-descirbed journalist throws up his hands with “Who Cares?” to anything journalisitically related, just maybe the his job as a religion reporter isn’t too thorough.

        • Mark Baddeley

          You realize the person making the ‘you are an idiot’ comment was a journalist who was complaining about the bad call on the journalistic importance of abortion?

          No problems that it wasn’t the most gracious way to make the statement, but to then say that that is the perfect example of being an amen corner for people who hate journalists is a bit strained. The statement was one of disbelief *by a journalist* about the stance that *another journalist* was taking on the abortion position of the president.

          It wasn’t anti-journalist. It was anti-journalist stupidity by a practicing journalist.

          • Mike

            Well, It was an ideologically-driven opinion journalist ranting at a MSM journalist. Since conservatism has mostl become a continuous rant against MSM and an incantation of “the midia is biased” it relly reflects how conservative “journalisi” and pundits are in constant war with traditional journalists. It’s pretty ugly stuff.

          • Mark Baddeley

            Mike, seriously?

            Poll after poll shows that both Republicans *and* independent voters have record distrust of the media, that the *only* group with more than 50% trust in the mainstream media’s handling of politically related news are self-identified Democrat voters, and you classify this as a ‘conservative’ thing?

            There is only a 5% difference between Republicans and independents (26% and 31% for trusting the media’s reporting) in the latest Gallup pole on the question, http://www.gallup.com/poll/157589/distrust-media-hits-new-high.aspx and a staggering 27% difference between Democrats and independents on the question (58% and 31%). The extent of Democrat variation from the national average can be seen from the fact that confidence in the media averaged out at 40%.

            When the difference is that close between Republican and independent views on the media, and so far between Democrat and independent views it suggests that the attitudes expressed by McCormack are not *simply* conservatism becoming a consistent rant against the MSM. There’s either a real problem, or there’s a serious misperception of the problem *that is shared by most people who aren’t more down the liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum* (a bigger group than just conservatives). Either way there is a problem, and calling it simply “conservative ranting” isn’t likely to help solve the issue.

  • Chuck

    Well, look at it this way. The 20% who oppose abortion in all instances are not going to be Obama voters, so why should he care what they think? The rest of the percentage of those who believe are some restriction are in the “third trimester” camp. They are not a problem because that is not something that folks will carry into the voting booth unless they feel their right to an abortion in the first trimester is being threatened. That is why you can get large pro-choice majorities in states like South Dakota. And the other reasons they may give for restrictions are simply unenforceable, like choosing the sex of child. Who is going answer that question honestly if it is on a release form?

    The fact is that when you take out the “third trimester” scenario, the voting public is overwhelmingly pro-choice. Obama’s people can read numbers and so they know that they are on solid ground by saying that no one cares, because no one who matters does care.

    • mollie

      Chuck,
      Yes, Obama’s people are free to advance that narrative. What concerns us here is when the press carries the water for them. That’s not good journalism.

  • Harris

    To follow up on Chuck’s idea: as a political reality, abortion may have lost its edge as a wedge issue. That is, most of the votes that would be dislodged by it have already been dislodged. Functionally, then attention to abortion and life issues in an electoral context are more a matter of base mobilization, of getting true believers out to vote. The question of mobilization was touched on by the WSJ earlier on Oct. 22.

    Several other observations may be in order. If questions about abortion are no longer wedge, then the Dems of course, have free reign on the issue — for them as for evangelicals, the issue may serve as a base mobilization tactic. Second, if the question of abortion itself becomes old hat, then the news stories naturally want to migrate to the extremes — this would explain the coverage of Akin and Mourdock. In focusing on extreme cases, the Left here is following a similar path to that laid down on late term abortions by the Right.

    And last, the lack of attention on abortion generally may be governed by the dynamic of the Republican campaign itself, where Gov. Romney is at best an imperfect carrier of the pro-life cause. The framing of this election as one centered on the economy and fundamental philosophical differences degrades the role of abortion, if for not other reason than such approaches muscle out such social concerns.

    • Mark Baddeley

      This does not square with either Obama’s camp running so many abortion ads, or with the attention given to Mourdock’s statement this late in the campaign by the media.

      One suspects that if Romney is being forced into defense for something another Republican said about pregnancies, then Obama might be forced into defense for voting for what many/most Americans would consider infanticide, particularly in the key ‘independent’ voting bloc. ie. news of his voting record would be ‘news’.

      One can make the case that his voting record was in the past so is not a current thing, and that’s true. But that then raises the question as to why his voting record on this matter hasn’t been a news issue before now. You can be pretty sure that a Republican would never have gotten to the presidency without a similarly extreme voting record the other way (e.g. voting for no abortion in any situation whatever) being dissected by the media even if that voting had been some years in the past.

      Where politicians stand on abortion clearly is a newsworthy issue – *wherever* they stand on the matter. To complain that *on this issue* the media are only treating one side as newsworthy – the side that their own reporting on their own views indicates that they don’t share – is not anti-journalist. It is anti-poor journalism.

      No-one is asking journalists to be cheerleaders for anti-abortion or for Republicans. People are asking them to treat both sides the same on cultural issues, and to recognize that the stance of politicians on a cultural issue is newsworthy even when it reflects the outlook of most journalists because the outlook of most journalists is not as representative of most people in their country as they might assume.

  • mollie

    Suzanne,
    You’ve referred to a “conservative religious thinker” who you’re railing against and I don’t know who you’re talking about. Are you saying that the journalist who is calling out another journalist for bad journalism is not a journalist but, instead, a “conservative religious thinker”? What am I missing? I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • Matthew B

      I would gather she is referring to you, Mollie.

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