Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life

We’ve received quite a few complaints about the religion angle the New York Times chose for its story on the March For Life. And I’d sure as heck like to join in.

But before I do that, I want to point out that the Times also ran a straight news story covering the march and, unlike any year I can recall, it actually ran in the print edition and not just as a brief mention on a blog post. The story that has outraged so many folks is the primary story on the march that ran in a more prominent position than the straight story. In fact, it ran above the fold of the national news section, headlined “In Fight Over Life, a New Call by Catholics.”

The lede:

The March for Life in Washington on Friday renewed the annual impassioned call to end legalized abortion, 40 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. But this year, some Roman Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why so many of those who call themselves “pro-life” have been silent, or even opposed, when it comes to controlling the guns that have been used to kill and injure millions of Americans.

More than 60 Catholic priests, nuns, scholars and two former ambassadors to the Vatican sent a letter this week saying that if marchers and politicians truly want to defend life they should support “common-sense reforms to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation.”

A caption for the piece read:

Anti-abortion protesters flooded the National Mall in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life. Many Catholic leaders and theologians are asking why many of those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ have been silent when it comes to gun control.

You’ll notice that marchers are only called “pro-life” in a scare-quotey sense to cast skepticism on their claims. You might also wonder if the Times broke precedent to cover the massive march so as to be able to criticize it with this more prominent story, but we can’t really know the answer to that question.

We’re a family site here so I’m going to be careful here:

Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you [bleeping] kidding me?

What? This is the religion angle for the massive, hundreds-thousands-strong March for Life that marks the murder of 55 million unborn children over the last 40 years? We’re going to turn it into something nebulous (no specific gun controls are even discussed) related to the media’s current political cause du jour?

And it gets worse.

Believe it or not, this is basically just a press release from the same savvy, highly funded PR firm that has been rolling reporters for the last year. One is beginning to think they enjoy the ride.

The group that put out the letter is … drum roll please …

… Faith in Public Life. Yes, that Faith in Public Life! They’re the ones who came up with the highly successful “Nuns on the Bus” tour that got embarrassingly uncritical coverage for an anti-Paul Ryan campaign featuring not one, not two, but as many as three to four nuns. We’re talking front-page coverage in major media outlets, gushy broadcasts, the works.

You couldn’t pay for coverage this nice. Except, I guess, that George Soros and his fellow donors do pay for this coverage. But you know what I mean.

And yes, this is the same group that, well, despite being the brains and brawn behind the Nuns on the Bus group is also the group that successfully sold reporters the old “these scary Catholic bishops are way too partisan and political (but only when they happen to talk about something in opposition to our favorite political party and leader because if they agree with us we’ll praise them to high heaven)” PR campaign. That they ran both of these campaign simultaneously is sort of a testament to their chutzpah and skill but much more a blistering and depressing commentary on the state of journalism today.

And color me shocked (shocked!) that they might try to sabotage the March for Life by releasing a letter from 60 (not 50, but 60) folks saying that if those hundreds of thousands of marchers enduring brutal conditions were really pro-life, they’d happen to support the issue that President Barack Obama is pushing at the moment. Whatever else might be said on the topic, and I imagine that there are as many views on gun control among the marchers as there are in the general population — some of which would probably be quite worth including in the story and would be challenging to the dominant narratives we hear from progressive activists and their NRA counterparts — what a great way to distract from Roe v. Wade.

A story attempting to combine a push for 2nd Amendment restrictions with a pro-life march could have been pulled off by a reporter interested in exploring the actual views of marchers. Even more so, a story that broached gun violence in a more expansive way than just looking at particular political aims of progressive groups could have been easily done. I know that during my weekend activities, I heard Sandy Hook mentioned many, many, many times. This wasn’t in conjunction with the progressive cause du jour, necessarily, but I heard it mentioned in pro-life sermons and speeches at the life conference I attended. I imagine many or all marchers might say Roe played a role in further coarsening the society, which hasn’t just witnessed the murder of 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut but a staggering 55 million unborn children nationwide who never even made it to first grade. Even just looking at the gun control issue, a story looking at mainstream Catholic debate on the topic could have had much more balance — and specifics.

Of course, with a national media that swallows this more narrow approach of general support for nebulous government restrictions, these Faith in Public Life donors and administrators are doing very well.

Seriously. Couldn’t have worked better. Here’s the press release from Faith in Public Life. Here’s the New York Times story. If you squint, you might not even be able to tell the difference.

For previous looks at how reporters have adopted the press releases from Faith in Public Life, you might look at “Credulity, chutzpah and Catholic battles,” “Savvy PR firms drive coverage of HHS mandate,” “As Fortnight of Freedom begins, media responds,” “Archbishop Lori and his enemies,” and “Cheering on those nuns on the bus,”

Now, if I were presented a press release trying to steal the news cycle from a massive number of human rights activists, I might ask some questions. For instance, I’d try to ascertain their history of involvement with the March for Life. Are they participants? What are the names and sizes of the pro-life groups they led to the march this year? How are they traveling to the march? Are they, as so many others do, renting buses and vans and driving through the night? Don’t tell me they’re not actually in attendance. Did any of the signatories come?

I didn’t recognize any of the signatories as leaders in the pro-life movement but, then again, the pro-life movement is massive. I did recognize some of the names as people who are known for working for liberal causes unrelated to pro-life advocacy. I noticed some of the names are linked to Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which, on Facebook, was very excited about the favorable coverage the press release received in the New York Times. And yet I found no mention of pro-life advocacy or even a statement — much less a clear or strong statement — against abortion on that same Facebook page.

Wait, there’s more. I even found some strong statements critical of pro-life stances! It was almost like exactly the people you wouldn’t want signing a statement such as this … if you were going for something more than a quick and dirty stunt that wouldn’t receive even a slightly critical look before running in the most important newspaper in the country.

So what are some of their tangible, major accomplishments in defense of unborn life? How are they perceived — in terms of defense of the unborn — by pro-life activists who are marking 40 years of speaking against the regime that allows any and all unborn children to be killed throughout the pregnancy? In other words, why would people outside of a New York Times newsroom in general and among the marchers in particular, find their argument compelling and appropriate on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade?

As if this whole debacle isn’t embarrassing enough, the Times article also has this line:

A poll released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, found that among the roughly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants who say the term “pro-life” describes them very well, 64 percent are opposed to stricter gun control laws, while 33 percent favor them.

Oh did they? Isn’t that interesting that a totally neutral, nonpartisan research group that I’m sure does not have the same funders as Faith in Public Life or any contact with them whatsoever happened to be working on a poll that happened to show results that happened to align with this PR campaign? Fancy that! What a marvelous coincidence.

You know, every single time I point out that — whatever else you might want to say about them — PRRI is nowhere near neutral in its funding, goals or manner of polling, I get emails from reporters telling me that everyone knows about their rather obvious bias and I don’t need to mention it and treat reporters like idiots. Well, this is why I point it out. (And for past reference, previous links on this issue here, here, here and here.)

So I’m very sad to say that this is probably my nominee for worst story related to the 40th anniversary of the March for Life. Please don’t tell me you’ve seen worse.

Of course, if I were at Faith in Public Life, I’d start plotting the next easy PR campaign. I mean, is there any limit to what reporters are willing to republish from them? I’m sure we’re all curious to find out.

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  • Dan

    Flogging the NY TImes for its coverage of pro-life activities is beating a dead horse. The Times lost credibility on this and other issues (such as the resistance to the gay agenda) many years ago. Though I appreciate Mollie’s ideological outrage, I do believe that the singular focus by pro-life groups on the politics of abortion leaves them open to the charge of inconsistency on matters relating to health care for pregnant women and children and their apparent unwillingness to engage the violence endemic in our society. This year we have seen a decline in abortions – is it possible that the Children’s Health Insurance Program may have had something to do with the decline? Martin Luther King understood the links between racism, poverty, and the our violent culture and was bitterly denounced for it. But he was correct. Pro-life groups need to consider how all these elements interact in an abortion-obsessed society and focus on changing attitudes toward children, women, and guns. They can’t do that very effectively when they become identified with an ideologically-driven political party and support candidates who have shown themselves less than faithful spouses and who demand that their wives and mistresses get abortions.

    And BTW, it may come as a surprise to learn that the great majority of Americans do not begin their day by reading the NY TImes. It would be appropriate and even heartening to see a relatively rational national discourse on abortion because the issue does strike at the heart of some fundamental religious and American ideals. Just don’t expect it in the Times – though perhaps media critics might raise the issue and contribute to the dialogue.

    • mollie

      While openly acknowledging that I care a great deal about this issue, my concern for this blog’s purpose is for the journalism.

      I was actually speaking with pro-lifers this weekend about the horrible state of media coverage for their civil rights work. I told them that while a good reporter won’t let them get away with this, they can basically a deliver a story to some reporters where the theme, good quotes, and ready sources would be provided by them.

      The reporter who wrote this story is far too good a reporter to have let this happen. I know that if a pro-life group had a savvy PR firm doing the opposite, mainstream reporters wouldn’t fall for it.

      Reporters should be skeptical — but skeptical of all sides, not just the folks who are pro-life, traditionally religious or conservative.

    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      The trouble is everyone in the media seems to start their day with a NY Times fix. This tells the media in the boondocks or in the minor leagues what the story of the day should be and the slant the story should take. The few swamped conservatives in the media–even talk show hosts—have to feature the Times story and regard it as THE story of the day and bow to the slant of the story as rational and legitimate (after all THE Times ran the story and slant ) Never mind that the story and slant are more puff piece public relations than real news.

    • Tony

      1. The New York Times is a major news-feed for smaller newspapers all across the US. So, alas, the Gray Lady’s influence is huge.
      2. Propose this trade for Lord Obama: “We will give you EVERYTHING else that you want: we will hand in all our guns, we will cave in on same-sex pseudogamy, we will let you continue to smile while the Middle East turns more and more hostile to the US, we will smile and say, sure, let the gals be cannon fodder — every stupid thing you can name. You, for your part, will shut down every abortion clinic in the country right now — and yes, indeed, it can be done, because those things violate all kinds of laws every day. He isn’t taking that trade, is he? No, sir. Because the American Left’s Holy Trinity is contraception, abortion, and fornication. To hell with the poor, who are most hurt by these things.
      3. All of us who have been trying to revive marriage in this country have been crying from the housetops for 20 years about the harm that fornication / out-of-wedlock childbirth does to the poor. Twenty stinking years! Who listens? You want to make our streets safer? Get rid of no-fault divorce. Scale back AFDC. Get rid of the perverse incentives in EIC, that punish a woman if she gets married to the father of her child. Get serious about NOT subsidizing the desolation of a whole class of people, and now more — the lower-middle class too.

    • Lisa

      Dan, where are you getting your information that there are fewer abortions this year? If you check the federal statistic sites, they are several years behind. You can’t get a number on abortions in 2012, it’s too soon.

      • Lisa

        Yup, looks like the last true data on abortion numbers in the U.S. is from either 2006 or 2008, depending on which data you are looking for. This from the census.

      • Nina Frank

        If indeed there are fewer abortions, it is due to the commendable work done by Pregnancy Care Centers, and continuous prayers by the Pro-life community, and has nothing to do with any policy changes of the current administration.

  • bert

    On the flip side, why are many of those that strongly favor gun control also often in the pro-abortion camp?

  • Martha

    Deep breaths, Mollie, deep breaths :-)

    Totally biased and speculative comment on my part: it’s been mentioned on here before, but the media tends to be populated by people who are more progressive/liberal on a wide range of political and social matters. Now, if you have a huge march streaming past your office windows with hundreds of thousands of people on the “wrong” side of an issue you feel is done, settled, and a non-issue, it must give you some feeling of discomfort. Particularly if there is a noticeable amount of young people participating, so you can’t console yourself that it’s just a bunch of elderly religious types who will die off and leave the future to the right-thinking.

    So when a helpful agency sends you a nicely packaged release with a particular angle that appeals to your inclinations, it would not be unnatural for that reporter to write a story, or that editor to ask for a story, that portrays a split in the ranks. Sure, maybe those bishops are saying one thing, but look over here – we have equal numbers of clergy and theologians saying they’re wrong! No need to check numbers to see if they are equal in representation or see if those clergy are dissidents or being disciplined by, say, the CDF.

    Also, anything that smacks of hypocrisy (if they really were concerned with children, they’d back gun control!) is always going to appeal to the media, which sees itself as the champion of the public interest, revealing all the grubby secrets and cover-ups, and speaking the truth to power.

  • http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/h2oscrollsandcodices John L Hoh Jr

    Is the “New York Times” still considered “the most important newspaper in the country”? The “Wall Street Journal” has double the subscriber base and I find it more credible. I only read the Wedding section of the NYT for the humor. The “Times” needs to change its motto/tagline to “All the News that’s Fit to Twist/Spin”…

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  • Jake

    Interesting that the NYT would choose this angle considering Sandy Hook is precisely the tragedy that prompted the president to express the exact concerns of most (all?) pro-lifers. It was those words that then prompted this video: http://youtu.be/Opl0jnKbn5Y which essentially says “yes, violence against children–whether by the gun of a lunatic or the scalpel of a medical professional–must stop.”

  • Jay

    Tell us how you really feel Molly :) How did you find out this was mostly from a press release from Faith in Public Life? Did you just go to their website? Just curious.

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  • Dave

    In the sentence is about what the folks call themselves, putting “pro-life” in quotes is legitimate. It’s a quote.

  • Kristen inDallas

    ” found that among the roughly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants who say the term “pro-life” describes them very well, 64 percent are opposed to stricter gun control laws, while 33 percent favor them.”

    Here’s some fun math. 64% (opposed to stricter gun laws) of 66% (who assent to the term pro-life) comes out to about 42% (less than half of the total sample of white evangelical protestants that are both “pro-life” and anti-gun law). That means that the majority of that group are either consistantly pro-life – no scare quote (33-36%, a range because the maths don’t add and they don’t tell us what those other 3% chose) or not pro-life at all ( 33%) Don’t get me started that all the stats are confined to white evangelical protestants in the first place, which is NOT a rep sample of all the people id’ing as pro-life, and especially people at the march.

    • Martha

      What I found interesting about that little “64% of 66%” nugget was that it was contrasted with “61% of 40% of Catholics”. It seemed to me to be trying to pit one section of the pro-life movement against the other, but then again – if this was based on a progressive Catholic press release, it’s probably to be expected that they would try to spin the “Thinking Catholics think like you” angle for a paper like the “New York Times”.

      Mollie, it also occurred to me later that – given that the reasons we have been given for not covering the annual march is because “Oh, it happens every year, there’s nothing new to say about it” – maybe that’s the reason this story was done: tying in gun-control in the wake of Sandy Hook, which is still recent enough to be fresh, made it a “proper” story.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I am actually glad they covered the March. OK they only did it to serve their petty little purposes. Still they did it. I don’t care about gun control at all. I just care about ending abortion. Negative attention is better than no attention. Then they ran one almost positive story to try and maintain some sense of fairness. So it is a win win.

    The role of Faith in Public Life is part of a bigger issue. So often PR firms write press releases and they appear almost word for word as reportage. this happens in the corporate world all the time so it is not just a liberal bias. It is just a choice to swallow a lot without question. Really a lack of thinking like a reporter. In an age when investigating a claim can often be done over the internet there is very little digging done. Not sure if these PR guys know the key editors or if reporters are just lazy but the system is not working.

  • http://bardletsinger.com The Bard

    The corollary to their argument of pro-life people not being for gun control and how that takes away from their ‘pro-life’ stance is that “we can’t put much stock in pro-abortions arguments for more gun-control when 20 children are killed when they have no problem with the murder of 55 million children over the past 40 years, meaning their arguments to take firearms away from law abiding citizens has nothing to do with protecting the lives of children.”

  • http://www.LarryShort.com/ Larry Short

    Stories of outrageous media bias against the pro-life cause barely raise an eyebrow anymore. More than 20 years ago I helped organize a pro-life event (called “Life Chain”) on the streets of a large city in Southern California. About 20,000 people turned out … making it the largest street gathering in the history of the area. I had called all the local papers about it … and only one showed up. They came to photograph the small group (about a half dozen) pro-choice counter-demonstrators who had positioned themselves in the middle of our event.

    Is it any wonder pro-lifers are jaded about being given a fair shake by the media?

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    It’s not just religion that the press is misreporting. They also are ignoring the public health data on violence.
    Two small statistics about America’s murder rate, from a public health standpoint:

    One: The murder rate for the US is not much higher than Europe.
    Source:StrategyPage:
    The murder rate in the Western hemisphere (about 8 per 100,000 people a year) was much higher than in Europe, where it has long been between 3 and 4… The national murder rate (in the USA) has been declining for two decades and is currently about 4.8 per 100,000.

    Fact two: From the CDC:

    In 2007, among males ages 10-24 years, the homicide rate was highest for Non-Hispanic Blacks with 60.3 deaths per 100,000 population. Among females ages 10–24 years, the homicide rate also was highest for Non-Hispanic Blacks with 6.7 deaths per 100,000. For comparison, the homicide rate for Non-Hispanic White males was 3.4 per 100,000 and the homicide rate for Non-Hispanic White females was 1.6 per 100,000.

    In other words, they are (correctly) trying to stop a disease (gun violence) but are aiming their preventive medicine strategy against the wrong population (Middle class white males) whose murder rate is about the same as gun free Europe.

    On the other hand, guns are one reason the suicide rate is so high for white males, but no one seems to be noticing that problem.

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  • http://www.bemadeclean.com PatriciaRose

    I love how Ryan Bomberger handled this “subject changer” on MSNBC. If you haven’t seen it you really need to.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAHN1ac-qxg

    • mollie

      Thank you for this clip. I don’t watch Cable News and I think this clip shows why. The sneering, the misinformation, the ridiculosity.

      So, for instance, when Bomberger notes that 60% of Black unborn children are killed via abortion in NYC, the “anchor” says that’s not true. But he doesn’t have a different number or any actual substantiation.
      In fact, as horrifying as it might sound, it’s completely true:

      According to the most recent statistics, just made available by the New York City Department of Health:

      * There were 208,541 pregnancies in New York City in 2010. They resulted in 124,791 live births and 83,750 abortions, a 40% abortion rate.

      * Among non-Hispanic blacks there were far more abortions than births, 38,574 to 26,635, or 60%. So for every 1,000 African-American babies born, 1,448 were aborted.

  • The Old Bill

    Hmm… where to begin. One can be opposed to abortion, but not opposed to scalpels. One can be opposed to murder, but not opposed to guns. We don’t call abortion scalpel violence. Why call murder gun violence? Cain’s crime was killing his brother, not that he did it with an unregistered rock. But the Times has an agenda, and they print all the news that fits that agenda.

    A similar tack is the oft repeated question: “If anti-abortion protesters really valued life, why don’t they all oppose capital punishment? No distinction is made between the innocent life of human fetus and the life of someone convicted of a capital crime. There are good reasons to oppose capital punishment and good reasons to question the appropriateness of a given sentence, but like the NYT’s story that raised Mollie’s blood pressure, the thrust of the story rests on a false equivalence.

    Years ago, an editor of a well known newspaper called me and asked two questions of a technical nature on small arms, a subject he knew I was familiar with. I forget the exact details of the story, but the reporter had written a story which contained suspect information and he wanted a quick verification. I knew the answer to one question, but suggested he contact one of the curators at the National Firearms Museum, part of the NRA. The reporter refused. Instead, he called Handgun Control. Mind you, this was a technical question, not a political one. I was not the least surprised when the article came out and the technical information was incorrect. But it fit the reporter’s world view.

    • The Old Bill

      In the above post, I wasn’t clear that the editor call me because a reporter had written…” What a difference there is between “a” and “the.”

  • Debra Vessa

    I think it’s important to point out that from Columbine to Sandy Hook, our disturbing epidemic of national violence is symptomatic of an unaddressed mental health issue that desperately embraces adolescent suicide at its core. As a reporter who has interviewed many mental health professionals on this subject, I can tell you that the rate of adolescent suicide in this country (ages 12 to 25) has risen dramatically for complicated reasons. If there isn’t a swift increase in the awareness of adolescent mental health issues, revising gun control laws – though very well intentioned – may merely amount to putting a Band Aide on a critical wound.

  • JOHN GRONDELSKI

    Somebody posted a great video on Youtube cutting together pieces of the Obama statement on Sandy Hook (“how we must protect children” etc.) with the reality of abortion, asking the President–what gives? Perhaps we need to do some spinning of our own….

    BTW, the same folks who want to dilute the pro-life message of the March for Life over gun control also raised the capital punishment issue. So, on that one, use a smart T-shirt one-liner seen at the March for Life: “I Survived Death Roe”

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  • Susan Peterson

    You may be right that the story is successful, but that is only because people’s thinking is terribly fuzzy. This lets me know that “pro-life” is possibly not the best thing to call ourselves, as if we put as the very highest value the preservation of any and all human lives no matter what the circumstances. Running from the enemy under fire rather than standing one’s ground as ordered, and getting killed, is “pro-life” in the debased sense used by those who say that if we are “pro-life” we have to be for the restriction of guns. I have also heard it said that we have to be for abortion if the mother’s life is possibly in danger, as it must be “pro-life” for one person at least to live, even at the expense of another. No, we are not “pro-life” in the sense that our highest value is maximizing the survival of the maximum number of human beings. We are pro life in the sense that we are against the legalization of the killing of innocent human beings. Of course we are against the killing of innocent human beings, but one can’t always do everything it takes to prevent any possibility of that’s happening in this vale of tears. Banning automobiles would probably prevent more deaths than banning guns, but we aren’t so prolife as to want to do that; we know there are competing values. As citizens we are against is a law which makes the lives of the unborn to be not human lives, not lives protected by the law. As individuals, we are against the sin of killing the unborn; we want to persuade people not to commit this sin. Perhaps it is better to be much more specific, because using the term “pro-life” leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of fuzzy minded ploys.

  • Daniel

    For what reason do we so seldom get retractions from the press when they are due? And why are retractions buried or obscure when provided? Could it be that reporters and editorial staffs think they are right 90% 95% of the time? And when they’re wrong, its their perception that its unimportant.

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