Breaking the silence on abortion doctors like Gosnell

Sometimes other people do such fine GetReligion-esque media criticism that we just like to point at it and then walk away.

So that’s precisely what I’m going to do with Melinda Henneberger’s piece “Are there more abortion doctors like Kermit Gosnell? And do we want to know?” that ran online at the Washington Post. What I like about her criticism is that she puts the best construction on what her journalistic colleagues are doing while also asking hard questions — she combines nice and tough to great effect.

She begins by noting some of the revelations in the new undercover videos released by pro-life activists this week. (Quick note: you know that the Gosnell media scandal changed media coverage even slightly since these videos received some coverage here and here.) Then she wonders why the National Abortion Federation didn’t report some of what it found when it inspected Kermit Gosnell’s unsanitary clinic (“If what she observed — a padlock on an emergency exit in a part of the clinic where women were left alone overnight, for example — was so far outside the norm, then why didn’t it inspire a single phone call to the state, according to the grand jury report?”).

She criticizes media coverage of abortion clinics:

Other such criminal clinics have only made the news as local stories, while most mainstream abortion coverage details threats to abortion rights rather than to women themselves.

Even when a New York woman died after a third-trimester abortion performed in Maryland in February, the coverage questioned not the care that led to her death, but the breach of privacy she suffered when antiabortion activists publicized the case.

Henneberger notes that there is an egregious double standard:

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Does journalism matter?

Does journalism matter? Not as much as it once did – if audience numbers or circulation rates are any guide.

The influence and authority of the nightly network news and the morning metropolitan daily is on the ebb. They like the sea of faith were once, too, at the full, round earth’s shore and lay like the folds of the bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world — sorry, can’t help myself when I get that Arnoldian urge.

Perhaps journalism is going the way of poetry?  In 1992, Dana Gioia, (who would later become the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts), wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?”.   Unlike fiction­, poetry no longer mattered, and had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group, he argued. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. Journalism — as practiced by the New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, the BBC and the American networks — suffers from the ills of poetry and fiction — domination by a priestly caste whose views are formed by a closed world shaped by secularist materialist political-left pieties and an increasingly outmoded publishing platform.

Host Todd Wilkin of the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio and I discussed these questions on 25 April 2013 in the context of my GetReligion articles “Gosnell fog blankets Britain” and “Master of my domain”. We began the show with an overview of the British press coverage (none to speak of save in the op-ed columns of the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which has written more about this story than any non-Philadelphia paper.) I did give Todd an update on the Guardian, noting that on 19 April one of its loonier left Comment is Free contributors explained to the comrades of Islington:

Now the [Gosnell] trial is underway, and anti-abortion activists are insisting there’s been a cover-up by ideologues intent on averting honest discussion about the case in order to suit a cynical political agenda.

They’re right. But the ideologues doing the cover-up are on the “pro-life” side.

Yes, its those nasty pro-lifers who are responsible for the news blackout. Go figure.

Todd then moved to a discussion of Diane Winston’s Religion Dispatches article “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy”. I observed her arguments were rather thin — blaming the reader for being stupid is never a convincing argument before we turned to the assertion that this was not a religion story.

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

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Secular-sacred union between Washington state hospitals

Suffice it to say that your GetReligionistas frequently receive emails that sound something like this:

In the Sunday, April 28, 2013 Seattle Times there is an interesting story on the potential impact of Catholic hospitals taking over public hospitals. … Overall the article is interesting and informative; however, as a former reporter I found it perplexing how the author … slips into what is essentially an advocacy role in the story.

Paragraph four reads: “But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.”

That strikes me as editorializing. …

Actually, this is a close call for me. The key is an editing rule that I try to teach my journalism students every semester.

Consider this journalism question: Must reporters include an attribution phrase with each and every sentence, or even paragraph, that they write? This is an especially tricky issue when reporters offer paraphrased quotes built on multiple interviews, as opposed to direct quotes from one specific individual or document.

I teach students this rule: Never let readers go more than one paragraph without knowing the source of the information. Stated another way: It’s OK to have a paragraph without an attribution clause if its information is clearly connected to information in a previous paragraph that is clearly attributed to a source or a group of sources.

In this case, the story opened by discussing debates in a Washington town called Sedro-Woolley about changes linked to the merger of their small, struggling secular hospital with a multistate Catholic health-care system. In that context, readers are told:

Critics say they’re not anti-Catholic or anti-religion. And they don’t underestimate the hardship and hard work of the dedicated nuns who brought health care to remote logging and mining towns in Washington before it was even a state.

But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.

“When a hierarchy of a religious entity is in charge of the ethics of a hospital, then they are in control — not the members of a community,” says Mary Kay Barbieri, 69, co-chairwoman of People for Healthcare Freedom, which is fighting the proposal.

Well now. For me, what we have here is a questionable attempt to chop one strong summary paragraph — note the connecting “but” in the third sentence — into two punchy paragraphs, perhaps to quicken the pace for readers.

However, in doing this, editors created a strongly opinionated second paragraph that is not clearly linked to that earlier attribution phrase, “Critics say they are not …”

Would our GetReligion reader have reacted negatively if the editors had been more old school and added a few more words to the offending neo-opinion paragraph? What if the story had said: “But over the years, these critics have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they insist that they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else — surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle — to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.”

Better? What does the story lose through that tiny addition?

It’s likely that our reader would not have had a negative reaction to that, or if the two paragraphs had been combined with that crucial “but” clause in the middle.

Picky? You bet. But this is an important and loaded topic. There are, to state the obvious, crucial church-state issues involved and the setting is oh, so provocative. As the story later notes:

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Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth

There is nothing new about journalists arguing about the loaded language that surrounds our public debates about abortion.

For starters, there is the whole “pro-choice” vs. “anti-abortion” thing and all of the years in which editors in so many mainstream newsrooms granted one side of the debate it’s positive, vague, self-chosen label while slapping a label on the other side that was, for many, too negative and too narrow. Most of all, only one side of the debate had to wrestle with the ugly word “abortion.” Who can oppose “choice,” the ultimate buzz word of the American Way of Life?

I have also heard my share of newsroom debates about the word “fetus.” For example, in a news story about a pregnant woman, some journalists argued that it was best to avoid direct quotes in which the mother referred to her “baby” if, in the next paragraph, the reporter would be using the newsroom-approved term “fetus.” Didn’t that clash look awkward? Perhaps it would be best to paraphrase the mother to remove that tricky language?

Obviously, in the eyes of some journalists, it was always better to paraphrase all of the quotes from those religious nuts who kept inserting the words “unborn child” or “unborn children” into their soundbites.

Everyone knows that an “unborn child” is actually a “fetus.” After all, the dictionary says:

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.

However, if this is the case, what in the world is going on in the top paragraphs of the following story in USA Today?

PHILADELPHIA – One clinic worker testified that she saw aborted fetuses moving, breathing and, once, “screeching.” Another described a 2-foot-long fetus that “didn’t have eyes or a mouth, but it was like … making this noise. … It sounded like a little alien.”

A third witness recalled how, as ordered, she used surgical scissors to snip the spine of an aborted fetus she’d found in a toilet, its arm still moving. “I did it once, and I didn’t do it again,” she said. “… It gave me the creeps.”

The creeps are an occupational hazard for jurors in the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, accused of running a clinic where seven babies were allegedly killed after botched abortions and an adult patient was given a fatal overdose of Demerol.

Now, isn’t the whole point of this aspect of the Gosnell trial — as opposed to many other hellish issues being raised in that courtroom — that associates of the abortionist have testified that, when performing late-term abortions with viable fetuses, it was his practice to administer drugs that induced labor, to deliver the children and then, after the births, to use the “snip” technique to kill them?

So the whole point is that the viable child was outside the mother’s body — past the moment of birth. Has anyone disputed that this happened in some cases, in a number of cases that needs to be determined?

If that is the case, why are some journalists using “fetus” language to describe the newborns that are being “snipped”?

Perhaps this new and, for me, bizarre journalistic debate has something to do with this other passage drawn from that USA Today piece:

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Master of my domain

… (T)he best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.

Twelfth Night, 2.3.150-152 (1623)

The counterrevolution has begun.

The press is pushing back against its critics over the Kermit Gosnell affair. Stung by the criticisms and the hypocrisies detailed by Mollie Hemingway on this website, Kirsten Powers at USA Today and other outlets, some have begun reporting on the murder trial of the Philadelphia abortionist. Other outlets in their op-ed sections have defended their non-coverage or sought to deflect criticisms – – the New York Times‘ Tiller editorial is classic sleight-of-hand, substituting one story for another. “Nothing here to see folks. Move along.”

A few have embarked upon the high road. Writing in Religion Dispatches Diane Winston argues in “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy” there has never been a golden era when reporters

provided smart, in-depth, contextualized coverage of religious leaders, issues, ideas, and communities.

In support of this contention, the article offers historical examples purporting to show the press has always done a poor job — missing stories, printing pablum in place of news or voicing prejudice such as H.L. Menken’s critique of Fundamentalism in his account of the Scope’s “monkey” trial or the “anti-Hindu coverage that ran through Western newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s.” The crux of her argument is that the problem is not a lack of:

trained religion reporters, but rather Americans’ widespread ignorance about religion. Religion is absent from many high school curricula and university classrooms, and many of us barely know the religious history of our own country much less the role of religion worldwide.

But her argument then pivots, stating:

Yet, I’m not convinced that improving the American educational system is really at the heart of Cannon’s plaint about religion coverage and his subsequent post on Kermit Gosnell.

Making more Americans aware of religion and historical incidents like an anti-Hindu press — a history of which I was not aware — would not have mattered in the Gosnell story as:

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

I do not agree. There is just a hint of Coriolanus going before the plebs here. That large sections of the media believe an abortionist charged with multiple counts of murder is a crime story without significant religious or moral overtones speaks to the failings and biases of the press, not readers. (One need only look to the loss of market share and trust the mainstream media have experienced to know that all is not well — or the studies and monographs on the triumph of ideology over reporting in major American newspapers.)Nor does she show a logical connection between her observations about ignorance of the audience and the silence about Gosnell.

Criticisms voiced by GetReligion have nothing to do with the private conscience of reporters who write about religion but about their ignorance of the topics they are covering coupled with a self-satisfied, complacent, high opinion of their own importance and disdain for views that conflict with their own. Large sections of the American press are like Mr. Podsnap who “stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion,” — they see religion reporting through the lens of anthropology and institutions, not through the culture and belief of people.

And it is this failure of intelligence, relevance and imagination that lies behind the Gosnell fracas. The personal views of reporters are irrelevant — it is their professional competence at issue.

Let me offer an example of good religion journalism to illustrate my argument of ideology free competent reporting. In a front page story Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza last week reported on a paper released by the Polish Bishops’ Conference (Konferencja Episkopatu Polski) objecting to in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, and contraception, arguing they were a threat to humanity.

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Gosnell fog blankets Britain

Last week my colleague at GetReligion Mollie Hemingway broke the American media blockade surrounding the Kermit Gosnell trial. Mollie, and Kirsten Powers writing in USA Today, reported on the absence of national press coverage of the trial of the Philadelphia abortionist — questioning why reporters who never tired of Sandra Flake or Komen Foundation stories shied away from this national news item.

Some members of the press and newspapers have sought to repair their damaged credibility and are now playing catch up, while others have retreated into the bunker (Nixonian allusions spring to mind but would likely be lost on the miscreants).

However, the British press appears not to have received the memo. As of the date of this post, the BBC has yet to air a story on the Gosnell affair (though it did run one web piece on 15 April after the Hemingway storm broke and the American media mea culpa.) ITV and Channel 4 have yet to report.

The newspapers have not raised the average. The Times ran one story on 13 April, but the Guardian and Independent have remained silent. The Telegraph does a little better — it had one news article dated 12 April entitled “Kermit Gosnell: US abortion doctor could be put to death over ‘baby charnel house’”. Op-Ed writers Damian Thompson and Tim Stanley weighed in on the Gosnell story as well as the media blackout. On 12 April Thompson wrote:

But British readers must know about the case of Dr Kermit Gosnell, which has been played down in the American media – possibly because the allegations of a homicidal abortion doctor don’t fit into their pro-choice narrative.

Well, Philadelphia is very far away after all. And a story about an abortionist on trial for infanticide in Philadelphia may not be interesting to the British newspaper reading public. American newspapers are notorious for their lack of in-depth overseas reporting due to the perception that  its readers don’t care about the outside world.

Perhaps the Daily Mail is an outlier — it has published 26 stories since 2011 on the Kermit Gosnell case — a number greater than all the news stories of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBS, and CNN combined. It must be due to the large number of transplanted Philadelphians residing in Surrey.

The popular British blog Archbishop Cranmer explains the reticence stating:

This low-key response is almost certainly because Dr Gosnell’s case takes us to the question of what it means to be human and humane, and this is why it is so important. What he was doing crossed a fundamental line in law and morality between abortion and infanticide. Abortion prioritises the health of the mother. Dr Gosnell is accused of killing babies after the child was outside of the mother, at a time when the risks of childbirth were passed, though they were now entering the risk-laden world of Dr Gosnell’s post-operative care.

He sees a political explanation in all this. The same news outlets who pushed Barack Obama into the Oval Office are protecting their investment.

There is a political reason behind the silence amongst a media that subjected President Obama to as little scrutiny as Dr Gosnell. There have been efforts to legislate for doctors to be required to provide full medical treatment to babies who survive abortion procedures. Three times the President has voted against it, imperiously ignoring the possibility that men like Dr Gosnell exist. The US Federal Government provides 45% of the $1billion budget of Planned Parenthood, the US major abortion provider.

They, like the President, are very equivocal about this issue of infanticide as this video demonstrates. The lady struggling to answer the clear and direct questions is Alisa Lapolt Snow, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood giving evidence to a committee of Florida legislators. Dr Gosnell’s trial puts the inconvenient truth of abortion and infanticide plainly into the public domain. It puts the brutal bloody facts to the sanitised language and could prove to be the tipping point in the public debate as ordinary people see for the first time how far the pro-abortion lobby are prepared to go in defending their industry.

There is a reason we talk about the ‘slippery slope’.

Why are so few people in the media, American or British, asking these questions?

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:

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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):

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