Tough questions: ‘You gonna put those shoes on again?’

Tough questions: ‘You gonna put those shoes on again?’ July 1, 2013

Embedded above is a clip from CNN where media critic Howard Kurtz says what is bleedingly obvious to everyone — the media have cheered on Wendy Davis’ and her abortion filibuster in biased fashion. He asks the rhetorical question of how the same media would cover the same filibuster if, instead, it were against abortion.

This last week has been pretty bad, as far as journalism coverage of this religion ghost-haunted story goes. It’s almost as if the media, which did such a good job of pretending that the reality inside Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic had no policy implications, are confused as to why state legislatures are acting as if it did.

I was shocked to read what one critic compared to a fundraising letter for Wendy Davis in the New York Times. That vast majority of Americans who — in poll after poll — oppose late-term abortions are just ruthlessly ignored. Instead, the language of the piece is more like a watered-down NARAL press release:

Her feat of stamina and conviction gained thousands of Twitter followers in a matter of hours. Pictures of the sneakers she wore beneath her dress zoomed across computer and television screens. The press corps demanded to know her shoe brand. (Mizuno, it turned out.) Hundreds of men, women and children waited for hours at the Capitol to sit in an upstairs gallery and watch her in action, standing in lines that snaked around the rotunda. Even President Obama noticed, posting a Twitter message on Tuesday that read, “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”

It goes on like that to the end, (“the perfect symbol in a fight over what a woman can do”) ignoring actual polling on this particular bill or the topic of late-term abortion in general. (“One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends is that Americans oppose late-term abortion.”) It’s embarrassing.

First off, this paragraph ignores that the social media campaign was — as any media professional could figure out in a hearbeat — highly orchestrated. (Washington Post: “Wendy Davis ‘tweetstorm’ was planned in advance”) Not that it’s not worth mentioning, but it’s just fascinating how easily rolled by savvy public relations our media is willing to be, depending on the cause. And it needs to be acknowledged that abortion rights media campaigns are so highly successful in ways that almost no other public relations campaigns are because the media are fully compliant and overwhelmingly supportive of said campaigns. This is a scandal. (See, e.g., my substantive analysis of the media handling of Susan G. Komen last year.)

At least the Times piece is more subtle than this Guardian take on the matter:

Wendy Davis channels anger of millions as new Texas makes itself heard

The dramatic events of Tuesday night brought to the surface tensions that had been building for years — in an increasingly diverse Texas where white Republican men still call the shots

It will surprise no one that the networks also ran stories about Wendy Davis’ shoes, even if they forgot to ask why she thinks it should be legal to kill viable unborn babies. Let’s take a look at how Jeff Zeleny, ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent, gushed about the situation:

We got a first-hand look at the now-famous shoes of @WendyDavisTexas. Our interview is Sunday on #ThisWeek

The “This Week” twitter account joined in. These media presentations of a woman who filibustered for late-term abortion are so fluffy that it’s almost as if the media are trying to avoid the reality of what the filibuster was about and what Americans, much less Texans, think about killing unborn children in the second and third trimesters. Texans back banning abortions on unborn children of five months or more by a whopping 32-point margin (62 percent to to 30 percent), according to a Texas Tribune poll. Has that reality been reflected in any way in the media coverage? Ha!

Zeleny took some heat for how cavalier he was about an issue that needs less cheerleading and more substantive inquiry. So he later promised:

How did Wendy Davis keep talking during Texas-size filibuster? A catheter. We talk that and substance on #ThisWeek.

Except that there was literaly no substance, if by substance you mean that Davis was asked even a single question about late-term abortion or public health standards for abortion clinics. John McCormack wrote out the six questions Zeleny asked:

1. Why did you decide to wear your running shoes?
2. You were receiving support from a lot of people, including movie stars and the president.
3. Gov. Perry has made this very personal against you. Is that offensive?
4. Do you believe SB5 will become law?
5. Will you have to filibuster again?
6. You gonna put these shoes on again?

I … have no words. I didn’t go to journalism school, but I know enough to know that those aren’t anywhere near the questions one might ask if seeking substance or anything resembling it. Sample question offered by McCormack in place of one those? “Why should it be legal to abort healthy, viable babies?”

When the subject of the interview spoke of the need to avoid government intrusion, Zeleny didn’t follow-up by pointing out that the same concerns in Pennsylvania led to the regime under which Kermit Gosnell killed and maimed people. It’s almost as if the media have lost any desire for facts, substance or balance when the topic is abortion.

Sigh. Later on at ABC News, conservative pundit Peggy Noonan was on a pundit roundtable. She gave voice to those people who don’t share the media’s views on abortion:

But it seems to me — and I think it seems to many Americans — that what she is speaking for and standing for is something we would recognize as infanticide, late-term abortion, the taking of a little child’s life. That is really, really serious.

Well, great. So they included that perspective. But why not ask a related question of the woman they’re gushing over. Why not ask her some questions about the moral distinction between what Kermit Gosnell was convicted of and late-term abortion? Why not ask her why abortion doctors should not have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, in case of problems? Why not ask her why abortion clinics should not have the same standards of care as other ambulatory surgery centers? These aren’t gotcha questions and they’re not even tough. Certainly someone who filibustered the bill has thought through the answers but I’ll be darned if I can find a single journalist who thought to ask these questions of the media’s favorite politician this week.

I had hoped that shining the light on the media’s failures to cover Kermit Gosnell and the late-term abortion industry would lead to greater reflection and efforts to improve.

Sadly, this story seems to be shaping up in the same way as previous abortion stories. Where’s the journalism? There are few, if any, attempts by mainstream reporters to offer accurate, balanced coverage of articulate voices on both sides of this issue.

Until the media stop being in the tank, we will link the classic David Shaw series on media bias in mainstream news coverage of abortion. Shaw was a liberal, on abortion issues, but one of the nation’s top writers — ever — on media issues. The series was published, of course, in The Los Angeles Times back in 1990. It needs to be read by reporters as much today as ever.

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