On Sarah Kliff’s mea culpa on Gosnell (a national story)

If you have been on Twitter in the past week or so, you probably know that our own M.Z. Hemingway recently wrote a post that noted:

… Since tmatt has me reading the Washington Post every day, to look at how the paper’s health policy reporter was covering Gosnell. I have critiqued many of her stories on the Susan G. Komen Foundation (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Sandra Fluke controversy (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Todd Akin controversy (you know where this is going). In fact, a site search for that reporter — who is named Sarah Kliff — and stories Akin and Fluke and Komen — yields more than 80 hits. Guess how many stories she’s done on this abortionist’s mass murder trial.

Did you guess zero? You’d be right.

So I asked her about it. Here’s her response:

Hi Molly — I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.

Yes. She really, really, really said that.

Well, about 120,000 or so social media interactions later, this journalistic discussion achieved that state that I think young people (as opposed to old people like me) call “going viral.” I think that’s the term. Did I get it right?

A whole lot of water has passed under the bridge since late last week and I have asked Mollie to continue to chart the debates with, as always, our emphasis focusing on people who are trying to promote accurate, balanced coverage of the religious, moral, cultural and scientific issues linked to this trial. In other words, we think the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a big, national news story and it really doesn’t matter where one stands on abortion rights, or how often one does or does not go to church, to realize that.

If you have not read it already, and you have a strong stomach, let me recommend in particular the Conor Friedersdorf piece in The Atlantic online that ran with this blast of a two-decker headline:

Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Trial Should Be a Front-Page Story

The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.

That piece ended with this journalistic shot over the bow:

To sum up, this story has numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story. And setting aside conventions, which are flawed, this ought to be a big story on the merits.

The news value is undeniable.

Why isn’t it being covered more? I’ve got my theories. But rather than offer them at the end of an already lengthy item, I’d like to survey some of the editors and writers making coverage decisions.

Now, Friedersdorf is back with that promised follow-up piece that is simply too complex to discuss in this context, as suggested in his similarly massive headline:

14 Theories for Why Kermit Gosnell’s Case Didn’t Get More Media Attention

Every one of them amounts to someone saying, “This is how I think American journalism works.”

The key, for me, is that the debates about the Gosnell trial are, in the end, about the current health of what historians call the American Model of the Press. It’s pretty obvious at this point that many very powerful journalists raised in the ’60s (Yes, I’m talking about Bill Keller’s Austin speech again) no longer believe that it is necessary, or possible, to be accurate and fair when covering moral/religious news stories, as opposed to political stories, strictly defined. In a column for Scripps Howard, I wrote this about the views of the newly retired leader of The New York Times:

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America’s hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That’s all.

I think this is part of what Friedersdorf is getting at in his 10th theory on the lack of Gosnell coverage:

(10) Ideological Bias Distorts the Crusades Journalists Are Willing to Embark Upon

This theory is advanced by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column. As he sees it, outlets that aspire to “objective” news coverage are pursuing two different goals that are in tension with one another: on one hand, they try to report and write every story in a fair, balanced, non-partisan manner; on the other hand, they believe a core duty of journalists is “fighting for the powerless against the powerful and leading America toward enlightenment.” On culture war issues, “an official journalistic commitment to neutrality coexists with the obvious ideological thrust of a thousand specific editorial choices,” Douthat writes. “What kinds of questions are asked of which politicians; which stories get wall-to-wall coverage and which ones end up buried; which side is portrayed as aggressors and which side as the aggrieved party, and on and on and on.” As the sparse coverage of the Gosnell trial suggests, he continues, “the problem here isn’t that American journalists are too quick to go on crusades. Rather, it’s that the press’s ideological blinders limit the kinds of crusades mainstream outlets are willing to entertain.”

In comments, a reader retorted, “When it comes to human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to women’s rights, which after all are human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to abortion, there is only one right side (it’s the side that says women are people and have the right to bodily autonomy). The story of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion provider you mentioned, isn’t about abortion per se. It’s about the lack of access to safe abortion in this country. It’s about how substandard health care *is* the standard in poor areas. But it is NOT about the morality of abortion.” If enough decision-makers in the media agree with that perspective (an impossible question to answer), coverage of the Gosnell case was affected by it.

Anyone who has read media-bias studies since, oh, roughly 1980 or so knows that journalists, especially in urban, tolerant, sophisticated zip codes, lean solidly forward (that means to the left) on abortion.

But remember that, in this case, we are not talking about a bias of commission in most of the Gosnell coverage. Instead, we are talking about a bias of omission, we are talking about the lack of coverage.

This brings us, by a long route, back to Kliff.

Many GetReligion readers will know that, earlier this week, she posted an article at a Post website that opened like this:

When I described the case of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell on Twitter last week as a local crime story, I was clearly wrong. The egregious and horrifying crimes committed in the physician’s West Philadelphia abortion clinic have become a matter of national attention.

The key words in that paragraph, to me, are “have become.” The implication is that the story, for key decision makers, has become a national story because of the tsunami of digital discussion of the coverage (including ink in strategic locations, such as The Atlantic, that would be respected by elite editors) turned this into a national story.

Kliff’s name (and often her photo) jumped into the middle of this discussion because Twitter is Twitter and the names are right there in bold, when journalists allow them to be. MZ noted that, as a policy-beat star, Kliff has written many, many, many times on topics with strong connections to the DNA of the Gosnell trial. Where was her byline, this time around?

That’s a fair comment to make and Kliff’s amazingly blunt “local news” response served as a perfect hook for a social-media explosion and, well, her name was on the tweet.

But let’s not miss the obvious here. Most stories end up on A1 because editors sit around a conference room table and make decisions about what stories belong where. The Gosnell trial is a national story and, in the Post newsroom, that means that the key decisions were made by the editors on the national desk. This is one reason why, about 99 percent of the time, your MZ and the rest of your GetReligionistas choose to praise and criticize entire newsrooms, rather than individual reporters.

We know that editors make the most important calls on these issues, at the Post and in other newsrooms. National-desk editors make the key decisions on national-level stories. Right?

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.

  • Jerry

    Mollie’s faith has moved mountains or at least in this case the NYTimes mountain. Their piece raises an important secondary question: has the political outrage outstripped the coverage of the trial for anti-abortion conservative media? And there were a couple of digs in that piece as well:

    But others noted there had been scant coverage in conservative news outlets. Kevin Drum, a political blogger for Mother Jones, pointed out that one conservative paper, The Washington Times, had published one wire-service article about the trial and seven stories “complaining that other media outlets aren’t covering the trial.”

    The New York Times, which covered the news of Dr. Gosnell’s indictment in 2011, was one of the few national outlets to report on the opening of the trial March 18.

    In any event, the coverage has arrived. CBS News reported on the trial Monday morning, as did the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.” The Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle was in the courtroom on Monday for the first time…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/us/online-furor-draws-press-to-abortion-doctors-trial.html

    • mollie

      That was the piece with the honest headline about the lack of coverage and how it got turned around, the lede with false information, and a not-the-whole-truth kicker.
      But there’s also something of note in the portion you excerpt. Why is The Washington Times “conservative” but Mother Jones just “Mother Jones.” Isn’t that hilarious? Kevin Drum is just “a political blogger.”
      And that portion doesn’t mention that Fox News did cover the trial 10 times before their contributor Kirsten Powers wrote about the lack of coverage in USA Today.

      All in all, in other words, quite a bit of parsing and revisionist history for a straight news piece.
      And after writing a couple of incorrect paragraphs about the trial, the reporter is off the case and the New York Times is going back to obsessing on stories of one stripe and downplaying another. When asked why he was pulled from the story, the reporter said he wasn’t pulled — the paper would still cover “highlights.”

      So so so so so so interesting what makes for highlights of, say, Komen-Akin-Fluke-SSM-Augusta National-gun control and what makes for highlights of Gosnell.

      • John Pack Lambert

        Mollie keep up the good work. The fact that the NYT thinks that having their reporter just show up for a day shows they still do not get this. There needs to be way more coverage.

  • JohnMcG

    In the end, it’s a question of who gets the credit and who gets the blame.

    And it’s a little more complicated in this era where we know the names (and faces) of the reporters, and some of them are minor celebrities. They tweet under their own names. They may have blogs under their own names at their employer’s website.

    It’s not unlike professional sports. LeBron James gets much of the credit for the Heats’s success, rather than the coaches and management that have put him in a position to be successful. Should the Heat falter in the playoffs, as they did two years ago, James would get a good portion of the blame, even if the Heat failed because of poor coaching and management decisions, and most observers are ignorant of the decision process.

    To the outsider like me, who subscribes to the RSS feed of Ezra Klein’s blog that includes many items from Sarah Kiff, we imagine that these writers have at least some influence over what they will cover and not cover. I imagine that the old model where the decision about what to cover comes down from a management meeting is now antiquated in the era of blogs. If Sarah Kiff really wanted to cover the Gosnell trial, I imagine she might have met some resistance from the WaPo staff, but they wouldn’t have formally stopped her. And she would have individually received tremendous credit for it.

    I suppose it’s a bit of an insider/outsider distinction. From an “outsider” the “face” of coverage is not The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate, etc., but Sarah Kiff, Conor Friesendorf, Ezra Klien, Will Saletan, etc. And when I direct credit and fault, I generally do so toward the individuals rather than the institutions.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am just in shock that anyone can claim this shows we need less regulation. Gosnell’s clinic was legally registered. The government new about it. The government had at least reason to believe that things were not right. Yet the regulators did nothing. It is an example of little regulation not enforced leads to bad things. “Legal” abortions were supposed to mean regulated in safe situations. Gosnell was a legally licensed abortionist, his clinic was know to the government. The failure to regulate shows that regulations without enforcement are never an answer, it does not show regulations are in any way creating problems. For all intense and purposes there were no regulations on Gosnell because there were no inspections.

  • Ben

    Conor’s #10 point (or Ross Douthat’s actually) is a good one, but I’d also commend readers to #4: Covering Abortion Is Miserable. On one level, it’s an extremely lame excuse — covering a story is a reporter’s job, miserable or not. But I can tell you that I’ve had many of those feelings listed as a,b,c,d,e covering various hot-button social issues in the past. Constructive criticism will lead to a better press, but the flaming hatred in com-boxes and personal attacks on reporters’ motives just leaves the country with worse coverage outcomes.

    • John Pack Lambert

      That sounds good, but when there is such huge coverage of some abortion related issues (like Akins comments) and none of this abortion related issue, the claim that covering abortion is tough just does not hold up under scrutiny.

      • Meg

        If the reporters are halfway human, covering this story is presumably miserable in a whole different way than covering the Akins story.

  • dalea

    While I really want to know what went wrong with the regulators, I can not readily think of what sort of reporter would be capable of explaining this. Are there reporters who specialize in news of regulation and enforcement? I have no idea. Regulations and their enforcement are not as readily comprehensible and explicable as they might seem.

    First, the reporter would need to have a firm grasp of just how the local agencies handle their duties. And this probably varies city by city, county by county, state by state. Then, the reporter would need to just which exact agencies, and which departments in those agencies, would have responsibility for Gosnell’s clinic. And if the clinic had current licenses and how these were checked up on. There is a lot more up=front knowlege the reporter must have than seemed so at first glance. What sort of specialized reporter would know what questions to ask?

    The only idea that springs to my mind is where was the fire department? And were the problems things a fire inspector would notice? I thought about the earthquake inspectors, then realized they are probably a West Coast specialty. Really can’t figure out who could write this part of the story.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Near as I can tell, they’ve all been under orders from the Governor’s office since 1993 to leave abortion clinics alone. Something tells me that Kermit Gosnell may just be the tip of the iceberg.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Yes, Kliff experienced the problem that occurs regularly now – the issue people are reacting to is, at least in part, either a widespread structural issue, or the responsibility of people with little public profile (others may have the same attitudes but that group makes the decisions). But someone with a public profile indicates their agreement with the end result and so becomes the football being kicked in the ensuing debate. It is one of the less savoury aspects of modern political and social discourse – the need to discuss the abstract through the concrete and personal. By all means she needs to be held responsible for her words and attitude, but the reaction was partly because she was symbolic of something wider and less public.

    I hope GR does dedicate a post to Friedersdorf ‘s article. It is really very good – dispassioned and sane, and covers multiple theories and only discusses them when he sees there’s a bit that needs a bit more input from him, otherwise he just states the theory, explains it, and moves on. It feels like a modern version of the old model – just the facts, minimal interpretation, albeit that the facts here are the theories being advanced. Reading the article I felt informed to better shape my opinion on these issues, and that I hadn’t been massaged to a preferred final position.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Sarah Kliff’s comments are all the more bizarre in light of this March 28th, 2013 NPR story http://www.npr.org/2013/03/28/175459510/pennsylvania-tightens-abortion-rules-following-clinic-deaths

    On one level it is odd that in March NPR was reporting on a law that passed in December of 2011. On the other it is a very telling article. To me the really under reported angle is Semika Shaw, her death, and how this caused her cousin, a liberal Democrat, to support these additional regulations, which are ususally opposed tooth and nail by people who claim to be “pro-choice”. What is even less clear is how abortionists can plead special regulation when they are being held to the same standards as anyone else. Why this law was at all controversial. and had any votes against it should cause people to really pause and ask questions. As the grand jury report noted, nail salons in Pennsylvania were more heavily regulated than abortion clinics.

  • John Pack Lambert

    As can be seen from this article [http://articles.philly.com/2011-12-16/news/30524783_1_clinic-bill-abortion-clinics-gosnell-clinic] and this [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKZ7hSzQ04s] youtube clip, Margo Davidson, the policy maker who is most directly connected to this tragedy since her cousin was one of the women who died as a result of a botched abortion done by Gosnell, the clear outcome is there is a need to make regulations of abortion clinics matters of actual laws and not just bureacratic dictates. The Gosnell case has already lead to policy changes in Pennsylvania.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In his opening arguments Gosnell’s lawyer tried to claim that the prosecution of Gosnell was an “elite, racist” prosecution of a doctor serving the poor. This [http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700108194/Pa-senators-vow-abortion-clinic-investigation.html] February 2011 AP article as published in the “Deseret News”, which is mainly about how two state senate committees were holding hearings on Pennsylvania departments that has oversight responsiblities over Gosnell and failed with bi-partisan support for holding hearings and effecting change, mentions that Gosnell made a net proffis of $1.8 a year from his abortion business. This quite probably does not cover any income he had from also working in Delaware. The case has also prompted Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general to at least claim he will investigate, so it invlves multiple state government at the state level, hardly the stuff of local news. I wish more people would point out the leve of profit Gosnell was making. He was running a sub-standard clinic and making huge profits from killings, and no one is really calling him on it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here [http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700217445/APNewsBreak-Ill-cracks-down-on-abortion-clinics.html] is a January 20, 2012 AP article as published in the Deseret News which shows what the Gosnell case should lead to. Actual inspections. One clinic closed down as a result of the “surprise inspection”, also as a result of failing to perform CPR on a patient. This is the type of holding officials feet to the fire revelations that a clinic could go 17 years with no inspection should result in.

  • cvg

    The Friedersdorf article was excellent. I really enjoyed seeing the multiple theories behind the under-coverage. The strongest theory presentations discussed how both sides interact with the same information yet find proof for radically different positions (#1, #13). Great stuff.

    After reading this article I’m left wondering how one could dump in some quick background information on how slippery slope issues enable give no-ground extremist entrenchment and all-or-nothing framing wars. Do you fish for a solid scholar on group dynamics who’s used to analyzing the heuristics & darwin machines that kick in on these topics (say a Scott Atran), or just leave it alone? I’d normally say, leave it alone, but Friedersdorf’s #1 and #13 were interesting precisely because there’s somethings huge under the radicalizing dichotomies revealed here.

  • Joelson De Victoria

    Have any government officials from the health department been indicted besides Gosnell? If not, has anyone, i.e., especially the MSM, looked into why anyone in the government has not been held accountable to this unspeakable crime?

  • John Pack Lambert

    Governor Corbett fired 6 government officials. However others had retired. No charges were brought because either a-there were no actual laws that were violated by government officials, or b-the statute of limitations had run. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the firings, and they were also covered by the AP, and the story was run by some publications. That was back in February 2011.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Some health department officials were fired back in February 2011 just after the grand jury report came out. The District Attorney could not however find any actual crimes that were not past the statute of limitations.

  • Pingback: Who’s worthy of more coverage: Akin or Gosnell?


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