Vote! Which is the worst Gosnell lede?

A few positive thoughts before we look at coverage of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial.

(1) I can not begin to thank you for all the kind words and support you’ve sent my way, publicly and privately, during this time. It is appreciated and it helps. Yes, I took some heat, which is to be expected. But the kind words of support, ranging from embarrassingly effusive to constructive advice, were wonderful to receive. A thousand thank yous.

(2) I joked at some point that one bright thing to come out of this craziness is that at least now my family understands what a media critic does.

(3) While this expose of Gosnell disparities did lay bare what a huge problem we have with how the media handle a wide variety of issues in this country, I want people to know that I heard from a great many newswriters, producers and editors throughout major national media as well as many local and regional outlets. The Gosnell brouhaha enabled some helpful conversations about the struggles these fair and honorable journalists have in newsrooms throughout the country. Some people merely thanked me for bringing the issue to light. Others told stories of how they have to fight for better coverage of various topics.

So here is something to remember: If you’re despairing about journalism in general, keep in mind that many journalists throughout the country are worried about the diminishing credibility of their industry, as a whole.

Yes, I know some news folks still think that denying the problem is the way to go. Such defensiveness only further harms credibility. The first step to addressing a problem is, well, admitting that you have a problem.

Anyway, a reporter sent me a link to a recent Gosnell story and asked if it didn’t contain the worst lede in the history of the world:

Say what you will about abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, the man was something of a naturalist.

Yikes! And it goes on like that, sort of a charming and fluffy feature about Gosnell’s love of plants and animals in a place where he is accused of butchering untold humans. It is a tone-deaf lede but probably suffers more from bad timing in this media climate. It ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer and comes from a reporter who actually has been covering the trial. So forgive me if I think other journalists need more criticism. When you’re covering a weeks-long trial, you look for new and interesting angles. That’s how I view this fluffy feature on the man who may be one of history’s greatest serial killers.

A different journalist pointed out another lede on this story that may be even worse. It comes from the New York Times piece headlined “Online Furor Draws Press to Abortion Doctor’s Trial” (and mentions my work):

PHILADELPHIA – Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by “snipping” their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

Except that Gosnell isn’t charged with killing seven “viable fetuses” by snipping their necks with scissors.

That is a perfectly legal procedure performed around the country all the time by doctors supported editorially by The New York Times. That’s how late-term abortions are performed, frequently. What makes Gosnell’s work different, however, is the location of the child when he allegedly performed these neck-snippings. He’s accused of delivering children — living, newborn babies — and then snipping their necks.

So, “fetus”? As in:

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es
… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

I don’t know why The New York Times used the incorrect language it does here. We are talking about the killing of babies after they have been born.

But the error is telling, in a way. The things that makes this story so fascinating are the tremendous legal, regulatory and philosophical questions it raises. Should it be legal to snip a baby’s neck in a birth canal but not moments later when it’s outside of it? How much difference is there between a human we call a fetus and a human we call a baby? Why do we use these terms? What do they represent about how we view this topic? These types of questions. These types of questions.

As I write this, I see that James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal tweeted:

The story about #Gosnell being undercovered is now overcovered. But the story about Gosnell is still undercovered.

I think they’re both legitimate stories, but it’s so true. Undercovered in some cases, definitely. Poorly covered in others, as these ledes show. This is an important story to cover prominently and cover well. Doing otherwise does a serious disservice to news judgment, our readers and the larger industry.

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  • Paul Marxhausen

    It was ironic to read on CNN that the judge warned the jurors that there was “enhanced media coverage.” Really? “Prior to dismissing the court Monday, Judge Minehart reminded jurors that there was “enhanced media coverage” of the trial and to “remain vigilant” in their order not to read, watch or listen to media stories relating to the proceedings. ” http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/16/us/pennsylvania-abortion-doctor/index.html?hpt=hp_bn1

  • Jerry

    Say what you will about abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, the man was something of a naturalist.

    That seriously tempted me to walk into “Godwin’s Law” territory.

  • Gerry Carlson

    Your tenacious, even-handed, clear thinking, clarity trumping reporting on this story is breaking through. You have shined the light into the darkness — with intelligent doggedness. Some are scurrying, others are drawn to the light. Keep it up! Truth will triumph! The Genie is out of the bottle and let the truth roll on.

  • Martha

    I think the “Naturalist” article was less fluffy and more black humour; the sort of “Hitler loved dogs” angle. I can understand a local reporter who has been covering the dreadful details since the story broke being overwhelmed in a way by the barbarity and taking refuge in “This guy had no problem treating women like piggybanks to be smashed open and pillaged, but he loved his turtles so much that he bought them fresh clams”.

    The kind of disconnect that is all too familiar in the area of arguing over rights for the unborn, where when you get to the point of deciding that it’s not a pregnancy, it’s a preventable medical condition that needs to be treated; it’s not a baby, it’s the “products of conception” and that you mustn’t even imagine laws requiring doctors to provide medical treatment should a neonate survive an abortion because that might in some way be seen as giving credence to the notion that a foetus is a person and persons have rights .

  • northcoast

    Note the striking difference in the way that the Enquirer and the Times report the courtroom exchanges concerning the frozen remains estimated to have been aborted at 28 weeks. “Baby Boy B” is one of the lives in Dr. Gosnell’s 10 counts of murder. The Times account at the above link ends with Medical Examiner Dr. Gulini admitting that life at delivery could not be proved, but the Enquirer account continues with him having no explanation why the neck would be “snipped” if the child was not alive. The exchange, with courtroom drama worthy of Perry Mason, leads the 4/16 Philly.com account.

    The way attention has exploded I’m surprised the judge hasn’t moved to sequester the jury.

    • mollie

      Yep, and it also confused the various bodies we’re talking about in this trial — some born, some unborn, etc.
      But the way this article handled that exchange was a perfect example of telling the truth, but not the whole truth, of the day’s events.
      It also shows the importance of staying in the courtroom for a while.

    • northcoast

      Oh fudge, it’s Inquirer. But you knew that.

  • Melissa

    Are you sure that snipping a baby’s neck with scissors is legal in the States? I thought that procedure was outlawed with the partial birth abortion ban.

  • ceemac

    Mollie,

    Curious as to what you would consider adequate media coverage of the trial outside of the Philly area?

    I’d think that in my neck of the woods (Dallas, Tx) two articles would be sufficient. One at the beginning of the trial and another when the trial is over. Unless there are intriguing twists in the trial or some interesting characters emerge there does not seem to be any need for regular updates.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      The complaint that Mollie and others are bringing, and which many people are deliberately overlooking, is that the national mainstream media are ignoring this story. So sure, the Dallas Morning News may just carry a story at the beginning and one at the end since it’s not a Dallas-specific event (but then again, it could be more relevant if Texas has some legislation being considered that would regulate abortion clinics.) But it should be covered on the major networks and in the major national newspapers. That’s what the complaint is about.

      • John Pack Lambert

        Considering how much covereage national publications have prodived of the trial of a person accused of a single murder in Arizona, I see no reason that there should not be heavy coverage of this mass murderer.

      • ceemac

        But what would those complaining think would be adequate coverage outside the Philly area?
        I’ll rephrase my earlier comment:
        I’d think that in any neck of the woods outside of Philly, including national media, two articles would be sufficient. One at the beginning of the trial and another when the trial is over. Unless there are intriguing twists in the trial or some interesting characters emerge there does not seem to be any need for regular updates.

        • Adam

          The idea of adequate coverage must consider the context of the news. What must people want is for this story to receive coverage similar to that of other abortion-related news stories, such as Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood funding dispute. Both of those stories received far more than two articles. Another parallel might be the stories about mass shootings and the subsequent trials. Many such incidents receive more than two articles covering them.

        • Martha

          ceemac, there are a whole list of things included in this trial. It’s not just that this was a legal, licenced clinic carrying out illegal abortions.

          There were no inspections – contrary to the law – for years. Complaints by hospitals and others seem to have been shelved. Bodies who knew about the conditions either sat on their hands or – it looks like – made the complaints “disappear” by ignoring them.

          There’s a lot of angles that could be covered, including “If this happened in Philadelphia, is it happening here? What are the relevant authorities doing by way of inspections and the like? How is it that a place carrying out surgical procedures is held to lower standards than a tattoo parlour?”

          No, they don’t need to run a story a day every day, but saying “Kermit who?” and “Oh, we don’t cover local crime stories” is pretty feeble for investigative reporters serving the public interest.

          • ceemac

            I am not arguing that it should not be covered. I am not excusing any errors that have been made.

            I am curious about what would be considered adequate coverage of the events in the courtroom. Are there intriguing twists in the trial or some interesting characters emerging? Is so then more than a story at the beginning and another at the end might be warranted.

            A trial is a contest between two teams of lawyers. Unless it is either a very well played or extremely poorly played contest is doesn’t need a lot of coverage outside of Philly.

        • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

          What is adequate coverage when a private foundation decides to stop funding a particular cause? Why was coverage of the Komen Foundation’s quiet decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood wall-to-wall when the only coverage of the UPS Foundation’s decision to stop funding the Boy Scouts because of the Scouts’ stand on active homosexuals was a 300-word piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?

          What was adequate coverage for Jeffrey Dahmer? That happened in Milwaukee. It was a local crime. OK, so it involved cannibalism as well as serial murders, but it was all pretty much kept in the Milwaukee area.

          Adequate coverage is judged by the topic and its relevance to our daily lives. Since abortion has been part of the national conversation for the last 40 years, it seems particularly relevant. An abortionist who was doing the kinds of things Gosnell did and got away with for decades — that seems to me to deserve more than a piece at the beginning and end.

    • mollie

      Local and national coverage is different. So do local killings result in national coverage? Usually they must meet some threshold. They involve mass murder (Aurora, Newtown). Or they don’t but they touch on a hot topic (Trayvon Martin). Serial killers almost always merit coverage and their trials are frequently covered extensively. That goes more for those serial killers who keep trophies of their vulnerable victims.

      I don’t actually agree with the widespread coverage we give some events, but what I think is important, for the purpose of credibility with readers/viewers, is that we be consistent and not hype some issues for political gain while burying others for same.

      So if calling a birth control activist a bad name is worth a good 8 months of daily histrionic coverage, then what does that mean about how we cover the larger sanctity of life events. If a congressman saying something asinine about rape means we must ask 100% of all pro-lifers in the public square to respond, then what does that mean about what we ask of pro-choice activists in light of Gosnell? And what does it mean about what we ask of those pro-choice activists who have fought against born-alive infant protection acts.

      Media frenzies happen all the time. How they happen fascinate me almost as much as how they don’t happen. Much of last year I was critiquing the Komen frenzy. But if a private foundation deciding to not fund a highly-profitable abortion industry giant means that the media must give repeated front-page, top-of-the-broadcast coverage until the private group backs down, and if this handling of the news is justified because of the far-reaching implications of such a tiny little decision, perhaps some consistency is in order with a case that touches on local, state, national abortion politics both in the medical community and the larger philosophical community.

      Anyway, if you’d been reading the daily trial updates I have seen, you’d be shocked at some of the intriguing twists or interesting characters emerging there. Some very difficult questions for society as to how this happened on a macro level and a micro level and everywhere inbetween.

      • ceemac

        Mollie,
        I wrote this before I saw your comment: A trial is a contest between two teams of lawyers. Unless it is either a very well played or extremely poorly played contest it doesn’t need a lot of coverage outside of Philly.

        The “questions for society” are irrelevant at this point.

        Sooooo…. is this trial well-played or poorly played by the lawyers. Is the judge calling it tight or is he letting them play.

        • Bain Wellington

          You seem not to have been following the story in getreligion, or you are being deliberately obtuse. You are offering the same line Sarah Kliff of WaPo originally offered for not covering the trial – she said it was local crime and she does policy.

          Well, now digest what she is saying
          http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/15/the-gosnell-case-heres-what-you-need-to-know/
          and then get back to Mollie on what might or might not be left of your point.

          Covering the case doesn’t necessarily mean detailed reporting of the daily grind of evidence and forensic argument – but then again, that is precisely what MSM does do with all sorts of local crime stories. What requires an explanation is why the Gosnell trial isn’t getting the same type of treatment from MSM.

        • Martha

          ceemac, am I understanding you correctly? That the only value in a trial is its entertainment value (interesting characters) or appeal to the art (legal professionals judging whether the lawyers, etc. are playing well or poorly)?

          National or social issues be darned? If this trial was about re-introducing slavery, the only reason to give it daily or weekly coverage would be if Mr. Justice Cocklecarrot made a devasting bon mot from the bench in response to m’learned friend?

      • Paul

        Mollie, why do you call Akin’s comment “asinine” but carefully avoid using derogatory terms such as that to describe pro-abortion individuals? I find that a little odd. Akin’s comment about the capabilities of a woman’s body was factually wrong. You are editorializing when you call it asinine, something that you have refrained from doing with regard to those who have made similarly indefensible statements.

        Please be consistent in your civility!

  • Laura

    Mollie,
    I didn’t have time to give my support to you last week until now, but I just want to add my appluaze. Keep it up. You’re doing a great job. Just on a personal note, when I read the Atlantic.com article published last week and saw the picture of the 25 or 24 week old, I can’t remember, little girl, I was chilled. I was born at 25 and a half weeks. I’ve seen pictures of myself taken by my worried parents when I was in the hospital and I realized, that baby, was exactly what I looked like when I was born. I know we should stick to criticism of the media and journalism here, and I whole-heartedly support that, but I couldn’t help sharing how I felt. I appreciate the Atlantic article for that honesty and shared it on facebook. I agree with commenters around social media who have said, including myself, that everyone should read that grand jury report, even at the risk of being sickened by it. It raises very hard, but very necessary questions for those who would argue for abortion on demand, at any time of the pregenancy. Bravo Mollie and thanks again.

  • Julia

    Even if a reader is pro-choice all the way up through late-term abortion, wouldn’t that reader be concerned that a facility providing abortions was allowed to be that filthy, have untrained staff, treat poorer people worse than others, and actually end the lives of babies that were born alive? It does make one wonder if that kind of place is operating without supervision in other locales.

    I’m a retired lawyer – believe me, trials are not just contests between the attorneys. Example: unfortunately, my Catholic diocese in Southern Illinois lost 10% of its priests in the early 1990s because of the exposure of sex abuse that was allowed to occur. The civil trials in the fall-out have continued over the years and testimony is always front page news because of the horrible lack of vigilence that is being revealed. Too bad our local troubles didn’t get national attention which might have prevented Boston’s dealing with bad priests getting so bad. The bishop that was sent to clean up our mass just happened to be the President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops when the Boston story broke and had hard-won experience to back him up in pushing for radical change. Too bad that until Boston his experience was ignored b/c it was just a local story in small town Southern Illinois.

    • sari

      “Even if a reader is pro-choice all the way up through late-term abortion, wouldn’t that reader be concerned that a facility providing abortions was allowed to be that filthy, have untrained staff, treat poorer people worse than others, and actually end the lives of babies that were born alive? It does make one wonder if that kind of place is operating without supervision in other locales.”

      Yes, Julia. A very good reason for publicizing Gosnell’s and similar cases .

      My daughter brought up an interesting point. Poor oversight by regulatory agencies is endemic and not confined to abortion facilities. In particular, food, slaughterhouses, and pharmaceuticals are very poorly supervised, through a combination of insufficient funding and business/government collusion. Often, the public is the very, very last to know. There is, of course, an added moral component to terminating pregnancies, especially of potentially viable fetuses, but we should be mindful that government regulation is rarely as efficient as it should be.

  • dalea

    It seems that part of getting national coverage depends on where the event occurred. If the story begins in NYC, DC, San Francisco or LA, then there will be national coverage. Almost anywhere else will be hit or miss. These are the four cities where the national media is concentrated. Philadelphia is not a national media center, which may explain part of the lack of coverage.

    Trials in LA get loads of coverage because they are televised, rapidly become total circuses and frequently have celebrities involved. When I served on a jury, I learned that lawyers here send out press releases to try and drum up coverage. I d0n’t think that happens other places.

    • Alan K

      The murder trial of Jody Arias in Phoenix is getting plenty of ink. The story of Todd Akins’s comments got plenty of ink even though he was running for office only in Missouri. Yes, location matters sometimes, but other times it seems that editors look at content and make decisions as to what content they believe would, could and should play at the national level.

  • helen

    It may not be the criticism of the news that you are looking for but:
    If a person has convinced him/herself that abortion is A-OK, even late term, (when anyone without blinders on would recognize a baby), why would they worry about killing that baby a minute or two after it’s delivered? The name of the game is “Get rid of the baby!” (by whatever name).

    What will matter in this trial is that Gosnell kept a filthy shop, and killed a customer.
    [Evidently he damaged a few customers, too, but is he on trial for that?]
    Discrimination as to quality/cleanliness of facilities may end up looking like a bigger crime than murdering babies when the MSM finally starts paying attention!

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    The media here seems to have made a story out of their own inaction; perhaps this could be the basis for a play called How to Succeed in Journalism while Writing Nothing. And no doubt, the media is its happiest with they are in fact the story.

  • FW Ken

    It seems to me an enterprising reporter could make a name for himself/herself answering the questions that matter: how many women died last year in how many clinics? How many were left sterile or otherwise maimed? How many involved late-term abortions? Second trimester abortions? First-trimester abortions? How many children survived an abortion, leading either to a normal life or being a victim of post-birth abortion? How many of these children were actually viable, with reasonable care?

    These kinds of questions definitely have policy consequences, but perhaps we can push the shrieking hysterics out of the public conversation. I’m completely pro-life, but could a start be to restrict abortion clinics to first trimester procedures, with later abortions occurring in day surgical centers or hospitals? Could medical providers be present at VERY rare late term abortions to save the child, if possible?

    I think these are shoes that need to drop, and an honest media will have to do it. The abortion industry has a vested financial interest, pro-choice and pro-life groups have their points to make, and the public in general, while shifting to the pro-life position, lack data to formulate a settled philosophy.

    An honest media, indeed.

  • Pingback: Power to hype or downplay: On Gosnell and the NYTimes


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