NYTimes finally makes some changes on the fetus front

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Oh to have been a fly on the fall during any editing discussions at The New York Times national desk during the time between the newspaper of record’s early report on the verdict in the Dr. Kermit Gosnell case and the final version that is currently online.

Yes, there were a few changes.

Now I — naive old me — failed to save a copy of the early story. Frankly, I thought the Times team would leave that online as the early, deadline version and then publish a separate second-day story. Yes, I am naive every now and then.

However, the Newsbusters crew wrote a commentary that included some of the language that I also saw early on. It interesting that when you click on the URL in this commentary that is supposed to lead to the early Times report, you now head over to the radically changed final version. Slick.

The key statement in the early text is that the “verdict came after a five-week trial in which the prosecution and the defense battled over whether the fetuses Dr. Gosnell was charged with killing were alive when they were removed from their mothers.”

Now, that is an accurate statement, from one perspective. The whole point of the trial was whether Gosnell’s coworkers were speaking the truth when they reported that he regularly delivered late-term fetuses alive before killing them. Then again, as your GetReligionistas have been noting, there is no such thing as a fetus that has been delivered. Once it’s delivered, it’s an infant or a baby. Look it up.

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.

What part of “to the moment of birth” is so hard to grasp? One really doesn’t need get into arguments about abortion, morality, religion, science and law to read the a few words in a dictionary.

However, it is also important to note that the Times team was challenged with reporting, accurately, the claims of voices on both sides. Gosnell’s defenders were clearly using “fetus” language and it was important to quote that language as part of his case. Thus, the early Times report also stated that “Dr. Gosnell was acquitted of one first-degree murder charge involving an aborted fetus.”

Right. The jury apparently did not believe that the evidence of a live birth was as strong in one of the “snipping” cases. But what about the victims in the three guilty verdicts?

Over at The Washington Post, the early report went with the simple language of the trial itself — a good choice. The attributions are clear and strong.

PHILADELPHIA – After a two-month trial and 10 days of deliberation, a jury on Monday decided that Baby A, Baby C and Baby D lived a few fleeting moments outside their mothers’ wombs before their spinal cords were severed at Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in West Philadelphia.

The way those brief lives ended didn’t amount to abortion but to three acts of first-degree murder, jurors concluded.

So what happened in the revised Times report? Let’s walk through that one, starting with the blunt lede:

PHILADELPHIA – A doctor who was responsible for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions was convicted Monday of three counts of first-degree murder in a case that became a sharp rallying cry for anti-abortion activists.

The doctor, Kermit Gosnell, 72, operated a clinic in West Philadelphia catering to poor women that prosecutors called a “house of horrors.”

The case turned on whether the late-term pregnancies Dr. Gosnell terminated resulted in live births. His lawyer, Jack McMahon, argued that because Dr. Gosnell injected a drug in utero to stop the heart, the deliveries were stillbirths, and movements that witnesses testified to observing — a jerked arm, a cry, swimming motions — were mere spasms.

But after deliberating 10 days, the jury found Dr. Gosnell guilty in the deaths of victims known as Baby A, Baby C and Baby D. He was found not guilty of murdering Baby E. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty when the trial moves into the sentencing phase next Tuesday.

While abortion rights groups argued that Dr. Gosnell operated far outside the legalities and norms of women’s health care, abortion opponents seized on the case to raise questions about the ethics of late-term abortions. Put simply, they asked why a procedure done to a living baby outside the womb is murder, but destroying a fetus of similar gestation before delivery can be legal.

Wait a minute: Was it established that Gosnell himself injected the patients with these drugs? I thought a key element of the trial was the fact that this kind of work was often done by unlicensed and marginally trained assistants.

Still, note the contrast between the “living baby” reference and the accurate use of “fetus” at the end of that passage.

Much of the story, of course, focuses on the raw politics and the media politics of this case. This, alas, includes a reference that comes very close to equating the work of the liberal Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers — who attacked the mainstream press for all but ignoring the trial — with the goals and logic of activists who consistently oppose all abortions. Criticize the press on this kind of issue and you are INSTANTLY an anti-abortion conservative.

Of course, the story also had to include a “Hey! Conservative bloggers! We’re covering this story!” reference. Thus, the story closes with the following:

Several weeks into the trial, which began March 18, anti-abortion activists and some conservative commentators accused the national news media of skipping it, a charge amplified across social media. …

Even as reporters from national newspapers arrived in Courtroom 304 of the Criminal Justice Center, a blog war continued between abortion-rights supporters, who had written of Dr. Gosnell’s abuses from the time of his indictment, and conservatives, who continued to fault broadcast television for a “blackout.”

On Monday, there were 29 reporters in the courtroom and a row of television crews on the sidewalk.

Perhaps it would have been good to mention that one of the reports was on ABC News, ending that major networks, well, 56-day blackout of coverage on the trial.

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.

  • McB

    That’s nothing compared to the original BBC News article about the story, which actually included these paragraphs in the original 21:16 report:

    “Anti-choice activists said the case exposed the grim
    reality of the procedure, and accused media of ignoring the case because
    of liberal bias.

    But pro-choice groups warned it showed what would happen
    if laws on such procedures were tightened, driving desperate women to
    unregulated backstreet clinics.”

    Thankfully someone at the BBC got wise to this and changed it to antiabortion and abortion rights respectively 15 minutes later.

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