Media continues to ‘Gosnell’ abortion coverage. Why?

YouTube Preview ImageThis blog played a bit of a role in highlighting Gosnelling, the media practice of ignoring or downplaying politically inconvenient abortion news (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It wasn’t great prior to that incident, but the mainstream media has an even worse credibility problem when it comes to reporting on abortion news. So I’d hoped we’d see some efforts to improve it.

And we are. There has been, for instance, some media coverage of the abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial, which is currently in the phase of jury deliberations. Today the jury requested to have a transcript of one testimony re-read to them and while that’s happening, reporters from Reuters, Fox News, the Wilmington News-Journal and CBS News are present. It’s not where it should be, but it’s a start.

But what about the larger picture? How is that being covered? While abortion rights advocates and many in the media have suggested that Gosnell is an extreme outlier, pro-life media keep uncovering more and more stories that suggest the mainstream media is failing to highlight. It’s not that there’s no coverage, again, there is. Kirsten Powers wrote in a recent USA Today column about the “drumbeat” of clinic closures and links to media coverage are provided:

Last week, Ohio officials shut down an abortion clinic after inspectors found that a medical assistant administered narcotics to five patients, that narcotics and powerful sedatives weren’t properly accounted for, that pharmacy licenses had expired and that four staff members hadn’t been screened for a communicable disease.

This month, a Delaware TV station reported that two Planned Parenthood nurses resigned in protest over conditions at a clinic there. One nurse, Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich, said, “It was just unsafe. I couldn’t tell you how ridiculously unsafe it was.”

Last month, Maryland officials shut down three abortion clinics, two for failings in their equipment and training to deal with life-threatening complications.

Last year, an Associated Press investigation found that Illinois hadn’t inspected some abortion clinics for 10 to 15 years. After state health officials reinvigorated their clinic inspections in the wake of Gosnell, inspectors closed two clinics, including one fined for “failure to perform CPR on a patient who died after a procedure,” according to AP.

But there’s a difference between a prominent media critic connecting the dots here and a news report that does the same. You’ll note the difference between how the media drumbeat is hit for a cause such as, say, gun control and a cause such as abortion clinic control. The disparity is immediately apparent and difficult to explain on journalistic grounds.

Or I pointed out a few weeks ago how no angle was too small to cover when the media obsessed over the Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding the country’s largest abortion provider. Compare that with the media downplaying every fresh angle on the Gosnell coverage, this just being today’s latest example.

Today, the conservative publication National Review has published a harrowing and lengthy expose of abortion clinics in Florida. It is a brutal read, but very important journalism. Here’s how National Review promoted it:

Jillian Kay Melchior exposes the so-called doctors, clinics, and the women affected, at these Florida abortion clinics. This is a must-read article that details the callous lack of humane practices and a brutal alleged infanticide. In Abortion’s Underside:

  • Three Florida clinics with a disturbing history of criminal activity continue to operate — and there’s little the law can do to stop them, raising alarming questions of the safety and standards inside abortion clinics in America.
  • The doctors employed at the clinics have shady malpractice histories, and some were not licensed to practice medicine.  
  • Witnesses say a baby was born alive and then murdered, but no one was ever successfully prosecuted for her death.

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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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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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Power to hype or downplay: On Gosnell and the NYTimes

Many in the media are indicating that they really want to move on from the Gosnell trial that they’ve struggled to cover — or ignored — from the get-go. You’re not seeing much coverage. Earlier this week I came across a small example that demonstrates how media frenzies are fed or squashed. It’s instructive.

Let’s go back to the Winter of 2012. You’ll remember that when a private foundation devoted to fighting breast cancer decided to stop subsidizing the country’s largest abortion provider, all hell broke loose. The media effectively bullied the Komen foundation into reversing its decision under threat of extinction. It led the newscasts. There were unbelievably hostile interviews — praised by media critics — of the breast cancer charity’s founder. The major media got many facts of the case wrong, such as that this decision was “sudden” or that the clinics being funded by the foundation offered mammograms.

OK, so this week, six dozen or so members of Congress signed on to a letter demanding that broadcast networks provide coverage of the murder trial of abortion practitioner Kermit Gosnell. Last year, two dozen senators signed a letter urging the Komen foundation to fund Planned Parenthood.

Let’s compare the media coverage of those two letters. ABC News’ had a story on the Komen letter.

The Senate has added to the pressure on the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Twenty-six Democratic senators today sent a letter to Nancy Brinker, the group’s founder and CEO, urging it to reconsider the decision to cut funding from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for the poor.

The Washington Post covered it:

The pressure on the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation to reverse its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for poor people — a decision which has caused an uproar among women’s groups and on social media — is about to get significantly more intense. Nearly two dozen Senators are set to enter the fray.

The Los Angeles Times had an article. So did the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, CNN, National Journal, The Hill and Reuters.

That’s just what I found on the first page of Google results for Komen+letter+Senators.

So two dozen lawmakers signing a letter about Komen yielded news coverage from major outlets.

And what does six dozen lawmakers going after broadcast networks for failure to cover Gosnell get you?

Hmm. Well, let’s see. I found two blogs, two pro-life media outlets, and the Washington Times. Further digging brought up an item in the Daily Caller and The Hill. None of these are what you’d call major mainstream media and only one of them qualifies as mainstream media period.

Absolutely fascinating, no?

If you want a story to be big, you can keep feeding it. We know that Gosnell is hot news and that folks have been hungry for updates — and largely denied those updates by the media that control what is and what isn’t a story. This letter-from-members-of-Congress story I’m mentioning is just an update. Just a quick and easy item like the Komen letter was. If it was worth writing breathless reports about the Komen letter, why is this one buried?

I get — I really get — that the media want to just move past this story and hope that people forget. For the sake of the media industry’s credibility and for the sake of civil society, it would be better to just begin covering it rather than leave this dark mark on the record.

And a quick aside. I asked on Twitter about where the Gosnell story was from the New York Times‘ excellent media reporter Brian Stelter. A prolific writer, his most recent headlines include “Robin Roberts Update,” “At Fox News, Less Attention Paid to Gun Debate Than Elsewhere,” “A Pulitzer Prize, but Without a Newsroom to Put It In,” and “A Top Producer Leaves ‘Katie’ for CNN.” I was hoping we’d see him focus on broadcast news’ treatment of Gosnell, since his focus is on broadcast media and that’s a big part of the larger story. So, I tweeted:

Where’s @brianstelter’s look at Gosnell media coverage? He’s had days to work on it, no?

I found his reply just fascinating:

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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?

Media’s Gosnell reputation isn’t going to fix itself

Days after my quest for answers about why the media downplayed abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s abortion trial went viral, we have seen approximately eleventy billion media analysis pieces about the coverage. Many folks have written mea culpas copping to pro-choice bias, ignorance, or other journalistic failures. Some folks have tried claiming that the coverage was really there, usually pointing to either 2011 or the day the trial began (a curious approach, given what we know about the time-space continuum). Others have said that since conservative outlets didn’t cover it (except, you know, they did), that excuses the lack of mainstream coverage. Some folks just reacted defensively, yelled at me and called me names. It really ran the gamut.

What we haven’t seen terribly much of, however, is good coverage of the trial, the abortion industry, regulation of said industry or the larger issues in play. The New York Times hasn’t run anything in days, after one particularly weak story that barely mentioned the trial.

Or take the Los Angeles Times. Let’s take a trip through its search engine. When birth control activist Sandra Fluke was called a bad name, did it think that a story worth covering? Yes, big time:

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Videos (1)
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Photos (6)

What about that Komen/Planned Parenthood dust-up? The East Coast media flipped out about the decision by a private breast cancer foundation to stop funding the country’s biggest abortion provider. Did the Los Angeles Times? Yep:

All (38)
Stories (25)
Videos (5)
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Photos (8)

What about that Missouri Representative, Todd Akin, who said something very stupid about rape? Uh, yeah:

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Stories (64)
Videos (8)
Galleries (0)
Photos (6)

So before we look at how the trial of Kermit Gosnell has been covered by the paper, let’s look at how the paper has covered another distant case, one that hasn’t even gone to trial yet. The case dealing with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Oh boy:

All (281)
Stories (165)
Videos (74)
Galleries (4)
Photos (38)

Which brings us to the Times‘ coverage of Kermit Gosnell.

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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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WPost demonstrates how not to respond to Gosnell critiques, again


It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. That’s what processing all of the information coming out right now about either the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell or the problems with the media coverage of same is like. I have 600+ emails in my inbox to open and they keep coming. Many want to just talk about the media coverage but some are from reporters asking for help covering the story. It’s very good news that reporters and editors are working to improve coverage of this story.

I’ve heard privately and publicly from major publications and media outlets, either linking to their work on the matter or telling me that they will be working on it.

The two big stories we have right now are the trial itself, which is ongoing, and the media coverage failures. These are separate issues. Someone asked on Twitter whether coverage of media failures count as Gosnell coverage. It’s an excellent point. Even though we’re media critics here, and we live to discuss the media, our aim is improved coverage. I’d take one quality story on the Gosnell trial for every 100 mea culpas or defensive reactions for the media failures.

As I said to USA Today:

Mollie Hemingway, who writes about religion and the media in a blog called “Get Religion,” said the USA TODAY column brought to the forefront something religious groups, conservatives and abortion opponents had talked about for months. “But they have a limited audience,” she says. Powers’ column “revealed to a whole new audience what the media had been hiding from them.”

Hemingway cautions against conspiracy theories. But, she says, journalists need to figure out how to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

“We have a lot of catchup to do,” she says. We have to cover this (trial) well, cover it prominently, and we have to restore trust with our readers.”

The best way to restore trust is to simply cover the story. I hope to see more of that basic news coverage in the days, weeks and months to come. The piece at the top of this post by CBS News this morning is a fantastic start.

But if we’re going to write the navel-gazing pieces, we can’t rewrite history, react defensively or ignore reality. Sadly, that’s what Paul Farhi does in his very odd defense of the Washington Post‘s coverage failures “Is media bias to blame for lack of Gosnell coverage? Or something far more banal?

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