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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