WPost demonstrates how not to respond to Gosnell critiques, again

WPost demonstrates how not to respond to Gosnell critiques, again April 15, 2013

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?

It is because I care about this industry, that I renounce hackery such as what Farhi writes there. Mark Shea felt similarly, writing, “It was for this WaPo article …that the term “bullshit” was coined.” The Post‘s piece defending itself is tone-deaf.

Farhi begins by saying that the trial “would seem to have all the elements of a spectacular news story: shocking allegations, horrifying visuals, sympathetic victims.” But much of the media was silent. Then:

Could it be, as conservative bloggers have charged since shortly after the trial began March 18, that the media had taken a pass because Gosnell — who stands accused of killing seven newborn infants and one mother — is an abortion doctor whose alleged crimes run counter to the mainstream media’s supposed support for abortion rights?

One interlocutor told me that he couldn’t read past the “supposed” line in the paragraph above, saying that failure to acknowledge that real bias made him realize that it wasn’t worth continuing on.

Farhi says that some “media representatives” say that other stories were commanding their attention, that the lack of cameras in the courtroom made it less sexy for TV news, and that the trial was “simply overlooked.” And then this mind-boggling line:

Moreover, some commentators have pointed out, greater media attention to the trial might help, rather than hurt, abortion rights advocates. They say the graphic testimony about illegal late-term abortions, unlicensed staff and shockingly unsanitary procedures and conditions at Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society clinic strengthens the case for keeping abortion safe, legal and affordable, particularly for the poor women who sought Gosnell’s services.

Well, whether or not it helps or hurts one side or another should not be the point (although I think that Tim Carney rather destroys that idea in his “Abortionist’s case raises troubling questions“). The overwhelming sentiment that has been expressed to me since I took on this campaign is deep suspicion that the media buried this story precisely because they did worry that talking about it would be hurtful to abortion rights advocates. But you will probably convince close to zero non-Post newsroom people that this story helps abortion rights activists.

Again, though, our job as journalists shouldn’t be to even think about whether something helps or hurts a cause but, rather, to report the news. No matter how difficult it might be. I have certainly had to write about things I wish I didn’t. But my job isn’t to protect friends or attack enemies but, rather, to write the news.

Then, somehow, the piece gets worse:

The charge of liberal media bias is perhaps undercut by the fact that a number of conservative media outlets — and conservative leaders — overlooked the story, too, until a flood of tweets and commentaries about it began late last week.

The Weekly Standard and the [sic] National Review, two leading conservative magazines, for example, hadn’t published anything on the trial, according to a search of the Nexis database. The New York Post’s conservative editorial board has written one commentary — an editorial lamenting the lack of coverage, which, although it doesn’t mention it, includes its own paper. The Washington Times has published five staff-written articles and guest commentaries on the matter, all focusing on the absence of press coverage.

Now, I am married to someone at The Weekly Standard and I read both The Weekly Standard and National Review (Nota Bene: One can tell whether one reads the latter by whether one puts “the” in front of the name — Farhi clearly doesn’t read it.) And they are but two of the numerous conservative, pro-life or religious media outlets that have flooded the zone with coverage of Gosnell in the past couple of years. But the line above could not be written by anyone who had even a casual familiarity with either of those publications. And I sure hope that Farhi didn’t “Nexis” things rather than, you know, Google them so that he could write something grievously misleading.

Both the Standard and National Review have exponentially more on-line readers than print readers. And online, at least, even the most casual reader of National Review knows how very much they’ve covered this story. It appears that Farhi lifted his idea on this point from a liberal blogger’s soundly debunked claim from late last week. That claim was laughed at by various NRO writers over the weekend as they linked to their coverage over the years. You can review that running commentary here. Or here’s Hot Air, a popular conservative site, showing their coverage of this case.

I have kept abreast of the Gosnell trial mostly through LifeNews, which is an independent pro-life news source that has covered Gosnell for longer than most. I’ve yet to see media analyses give proper credit to this news source for informing people who would otherwise have been kept in the dark by mainstream outlets, for what it’s worth.

What’s so particularly stupid about the claim that pro-life, religious and conservative press didn’t cover Gosnell is that it doesn’t account for the fact that tons of people did learn about the Gosnell case, despite the lack of mainstream media attention. Where does Farhi think everyone learned about this case if not there?

But what’s also so stupid about the “but those guys didn’t cover it either” (in addition to it being laughably false) is that complaints about mainstream coverage are just that: complaints about mainstream coverage. Appealing to coverage decisions by ideological outlets doesn’t change anything about the complaints of mainstream coverage. That the media take cues from ideological outlets is clear, as we saw with the Komen, Fluke and Akin outcries. But if they’re going to take cues, they need to take cues from a wide variety of resources. Clearly, pro-life media is nowhere on their radar.

The most devastating part of the story, though, is what Farhi tries to characterize as something banal and mundane. It’s the most self-indicting thing I’ve read since Sarah Kliff’s tweet to me (curiously unmentioned in Farhi’s story) dismissing Gosnell as “local crime.” Check it out:

Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, offers a more mundane rationale for the newspaper’s lack of coverage: He wasn’t aware of the story until Thursday night, when readers began e-mailing him about it. “I wish I could be conscious of all stories everywhere, but I can’t be,” he said. “Nor can any of us.” …

Added Baron, “We never decide what to cover for ideological reasons, no matter what critics might claim. Accusations of ideological motives are easy to make, even if they’re not supported by the facts.”

The Post editor was unaware of Gosnell until Thursday night. Unaware! Humiliating. And worse. As John Tabin put it:

They’re not ideologically biased, they just happen to read only publications that ignored the story. Umm..

What everyone outside the Post newsroom (and some inside it, too) understands now is that our media is failing. I couldn’t begin to explain what’s needed to fix things, but denying bias, glibly announcing lack of awareness of events of major import, and sneering at outsiders is definitely not going to help put us on the path to a healthy media that serves civil society.

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26 responses to “WPost demonstrates how not to respond to Gosnell critiques, again”

  1. Thank you for your work on this Mollie. This story really demands lots of coverage. I am ProChoice and I am appaled by what went on in Gosnell’s clinic. Where were the regulators and the professional organizations? We rely on the press to keep our public officials and programs honest. If a clinic can ignore its obligations and have no serious oversight, it is up to the press to step in. The situation here is so out of the ordinary, that there needs to be a serious self examination by the press. How could things get so out of control and not be noticed?

  2. It’s hard to conclude that there is not at least some subconscious bias involved here. It forces pro-choice people to consider “edge cases,” like whether it is murder to perform an abortion after the 24th week or to kill the baby outside of the womb *after* it survives a late-term procedure. Gosnell is also being charged with capital murder rather than something like criminal medical malpractice, so (by implication) other abortion doctors could be charged with capital murder if they don’t follow regulations on abortion. More rigorous inspection requirements could force many abortion clinics to close.

    I think reporters are aware that sensationalized coverage (common in medical-doctor-serial-murderer cases) would be a huge disaster for the abortion industry. They are willing to sensationalize stories like, say, “teenager commits suicide after being bullied on the Internet,” and loudly call for legislative reform.

    • I’m having trouble understanding how murder and criminal malpractice is not news or is something to be overlooked. Is there some syndrome affecting authority figures (and reporters) so that they will protect a physician, a priest, a coach, or what have you when they have broken the law and otherwise violated their position of trust? (It is not all that far from Philadelphia to State College. )

      • The Jerry Sandusky case got more coverage because people have been taught to empathize with some victims (the “tangible” ones) and not others. People don’t want to think about how babies actually experience late-term abortion.

      • I might have expressed myself more clearly without the first sentence. How many reporters knew about Jerry Sandusky and didn’t say anything while nobody else was saying anything?

  3. I would have to go digging, but I remember hearing “Nexis search” being cited in a video discussion of the topic on CNN with Erin Burnett recently (Maybe Friday?). I think it was used to cover a broader spectrum than just conservative publications, but I still wondered about its accuracy. Would be interested to hear how the public would be best served in using tools such as Nexis, Google, or even a news service’s own website to search archives on the issue to discuss appropriate amounts of coverage.

    • It’s also true that many media search engines are really bad. Some are great, some are bad. I am not sure, for instance, how to get an accurate read on NYT coverage — their search engine is as unhelpful as helpful.

  4. Breitbart is reporting that the empty courtroom press seats are being warmed today – NYT, WSJ, to name two. http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Journalism/2013/04/15/Report-Media-Outlets-Arrive-at-Gosnell-Trial

    After reading this WPost article, I am beginning to wonder if the main reason the mainstream media have been avoiding this case is really political bias. A lot of people – including men – have been personally involved with abortion – I’m speaking about the women who have had one and the men who have allowed, facilitated, or pressured the choice. A lot of people in the media, both “liberal” and “conservative” would probably fall into this category. And let’s face it, it’s not just left-leaning media that are shying away from covering this case. I doubt the abortion was really pleasant for any of them. Although some may be comfortable and confident with their choice, others may view the experience with regret and pain, and virtually none recall it as happy. And some in the first category may not be as confident as they want to believe…. I wonder now, having read the article, if there’s a reluctance to approach this case because it make people face abortion in a new and very personal way.

    Anyway, I am willing to consider it is not merely “institutional media bias,” but something very personal, very human, and very real to the human beings who work for these media.

  5. Sarah Kliff has apologised :- “When I described the case of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell on Twitter last week as a local crime story, I was clearly wrong.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/15/the-gosnell-case-heres-what-you-need-to-know/

    She has now located some policy issues the case raises, but hasn’t yet found a neutral way of presenting them, choosing, rather, this mode:- “Both abortion rights supporters and opponents have used the Gosnell case to push their policy agendas.” [which she presents as a tussle between those pressing for greater regulatory supervision of abortion facilities and those arguing for, well, less supervision (I guess)]

  6. Well said, Molly. The article was bad before you brought in the embarrassing errors of fact. No it is a self-parody.

    The Washington Post article is a good example of how not to spin the reporting failures on this. “We aren’t biased, merely incompetent (for surely it is incompetency for almost ALL major news outlets to be unaware of this story) – and our incompetency just happens to be in an area where we’d not report if we WERE biased.” You are living in an echo chamber if you think that will restore confidence in journalism.

    All the article is designed to do is enable the true believers – that relatively small group of self-identified progressives who see the media as basically infallible and objective – to circle the wagons and have the resources to reject any idea that the media dropped the ball on this.

    That’s fine, you certainly don’t want to lose people who are ‘in the can’ for you. But the very likely cost of this strategy is to further exasperate the conservatives (another minority, and probably no great loss from WaPo’s perspective) and the majority of Americans who lie in the ideological no-man’s land between the progressives and conservatives in the cultural war.

    If the reason is not bias *at all*, but something more prosaic, then journalism is going to have an even harder time fixing the problem. Bias is something we all are aware of and the strategies for compensating for it are reasonably well-known and tested. GetReligion has linked to articles written by working journalists over the decades on this issue.

    But if it the reason for this debacle is as the WaPo article suggests – that there basically isn’t a reason, and whatever reason it is, it is no-one’s fault – then the pretty well the only thing someone who is not in the can for the mainstream media can expect is more of the same. How do you propose to fix such a nebulous problem? And why should anyone not in the can have confidence in the fourth estate in that situation?

  7. Sorry to double post. Just read Melinda Henneberger’s editorial in WaPo that you linked. I know that GetReligion doesn’t prioritize editorials over news (and rightly so) but I think that one deserves highlighting – it is pretty close to a model of what GetReligion has been calling for. She doesn’t (as far as I can see) take a side, but presents the arguments from both sides fairly and sympathetically and in a way each side would recognize as their position. She might be more sympathetic in this editorial to the pro-life position, but that’s not IMO, inappropriate in a mea culpa editorial when you think systemic pro-choice sympathies led to bad reporting on this. The fact is she has demonstrated the ability to understand and state sympathetically the point of view of a side with which she strongly disagrees – a basic journalistic skill under the ‘old American’ model, and as you’ve documented for a while now, Mollie, something very rare in reporting on these issues.

    She even drew the link between this issue and President Obama’s stance on the matter – which is a big breaking of ranks with how the mainstream media has treated the President on the abortion issue. I’m not particularly anti-Obama (not being an American and all, his presidency is not a pressing issue for me) but asking the tough questions of government is part of the job description of the fourth estate, and that is the first time I think I have seen a genuinely tough question raised of this President.

  8. Turns out there was a bombing in Boston today. And here we thought the media would cover Gosnell this week.

    • Well, it makes sense that coverage would be diverted to Boston right now. The trial is part of a much longer-term story that will need ongoing coverage, but it’s understandable to focus elsewhere for the time being.

      • Just as the media was waking up to finally cover the Gosnell story, you have a bombing in Boston, thereby totally removing focus from this house of horrors case. Now there is no chance of any coverage and all.

        And we wonder why sane rational people are today more willing to believes conspiracy theories!

  9. I found this link which dates back to when Obama was an Illinois senator. “In the audio Obama is arguing against calling for a 2nd physician if the 1st physician – the abortionist – has decided the baby s/he has just aborted alive is nonviable.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUkbuhXzbvI
    I wonder if any reporter has queried then Senator Obama’s position and asked if the President’s has changed it in lieu of the Gosnell trial

  10. I’ll say it again: some editors should resign over this. There are no excuses for this.


    • But John! Journalists are nothing if not very good at holding people accountable. OK, other people, not ourselves. I wouldn’t hold your breath on this as I do see a double standard in the standards we hold leadership to across different professions …
      Ultimately, this is a failure of leadership across a whole swath of the media environment. It destroys an already damaged relationship with certain types of readers.

  11. Mollie, I don’t write “The Weekly Standard” any more than “The New York Times” or “The Ohio State University.” It’s AP style not to use all caps for a company or product name, even if that’s the company’s actual name. So someone referring to “the Weekly Standard” may be rejecting pretension rather than ignorant of the name claimed by the publication.