Two views of SCOTUS abortion decision — both on NBC

Two views of SCOTUS abortion decision — both on NBC June 27, 2014

Is NBC News going schizoid? The way the network reported the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on abortion buffer zones sounded like it was done by different people, maybe even on different stories.

As you probably know by now, the nine justices — in a remarkable unanimous decision — struck down Massachusetts’ law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet from abortion clinics. Now, the prolifers can apparently protest right up to the clinic entrances.

Pro-abortion folks said the protesters harassed and even scared women who sought to enter the clinics. But the high court said the buffer zones were an overly broad approach and that the rights of free speech and public discussion were more important.

NBC’s 2:53-minute video report and 473-word text report were produced by Pete Williams, the network’s Supreme Court specialist. But the two are starkly different, both in tone and in the facts and opinions they hightlight.

The video report is calm and reasoned; anchor Brian Williams straightforwardly introduces it without the dry disdain he often uses. He says the decision “struck down one of the toughest in the country intended to limit protests at abortion clinics.”

He quickly turns over the fact-telling to Pete Williams, who observes: “This Court is deeply divided on the issue of abortion, but it was unanimous today in declaring that Massachusetts went too far in trying to prevent violence at clinic entrances.”

The video shows file footage of picketers shouting at women that “They’re lying to you, and they’re going to kill your baby!” Then it switches to the more peaceful protesters nowadays, and Williams reports that they say the buffer zones “violated their free-speech right to calmly suggest alternatives to abortion.”

He gives a soundbite to one of them: soft-spoken, grandmotherly Eleanor McCullen, who complains that clinic patients “need somebody to care for them, and I truly care,” but that the no-protest zone keeps her from talking to them. The challengers’ lawyer, Mark Rienzi, says the decision means that Massachusetts can’t “round everybody off and haul them off to jail just for speaking close to an abortion clinic.”

Cool soundbite from Chief Justice John Roberts, too. Pete quotes him as writing, “A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.”

Pete Williams says the court decision “probably dooms” similar laws in Pittsburgh, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Portland, Maine and Burlington, Vt. He says the decision doesn’t address the idea of “floating bubble zones” — legal requirements to keep protesters a certain distance from abortion clinic patients — but hints that it “casts a cloud” over them.

He gives some time to the other side, too. He quotes Massachusetts’ attorney general Martha Coakley, who says the state will strive to provide protection to clinic patients and staff, heavily implying that the anti-abortion violence may recur. Williams also indirectly quotes women’s groups saying that the Supreme Court maintains a buffer zone for itself, banning protests on the plaza at its entrance.

In contrast, Williams’ text report leans heavily toward the pro-abortion side. He does say accurately: “The court found that Massachusetts had violated the First Amendment and shut off a traditional public forum. It held that the state had not tried less intrusive methods to address its concerns.”

But he then gives the first reaction quote — an alarmist one — to the opposition:

In a statement, the National Organization for Women condemned the court’s “cavalier disregard for the physical safety — the lives, even — of women seeking abortion care and the health care providers who serve them.”

The organization said the court had dismissed the fact that Massachusetts passed its law after a gunman entered two clinics on the same street in a Boston suburb in 1994 and opened fire, killing two receptionists and wounding five other people.

The story continues with a Twitter screenshot from NOW: “SCOTUS Tells Women It’s the 1950s.” It says that the no-protest zones were established after “a history of clinic violence in Boston,” just in case you skipped over the tweet.

There’s also a disapproving comment from a Boston politician:

Martin Walsh, the mayor of Boston, said he was disappointed. He said the law had been passed with the support of law enforcement officials who wanted to ensure public safety and protect clinic patients and staff.

“A woman seeking reproductive health care should not be harassed, judged or shamed,” he said in a statement. “The buffer zone allows protection from this harassment while also still allowing protesters to exercise their first amendment rights.”

What about the prolifers? What do they think of the Supreme Court decision? “The National Right to Life Committee did not immediately return a request for comment,” Williams reports. Was it that hard to type up Rienzi’s and McCullen’s quotes?

Another puzzle: Williams writes that although the Supreme Court voted down the Massachusetts law 9-0, four of the more conservative justices gave varying legal reasons for doing so. Like what? He doesn’t say. Then why bring it up? He doesn’t say that, either.

Finally, his article twice mentions “bubble zone” laws, saying that a 2000 decision allowed them and yesterday’s decision didn’t affect them. This seems to contradict his video report, in which he said the decision put them in doubt.

What happened here? Did the text story get adds and a rewrite from an unnamed editor? Did Williams have second thoughts when he sat down to type? Or did he just decide to put the other side in writing, assuming that we’d all watch the video and read the article?

If it’s the latter, it’s a hazardous assumption. Even on Facebook, people often comment on posted articles without reading the articles. At the very least, Williams should have said something like “Here’s the other side.” Without some indication otherwise, the total effect seems, well, schizoid.

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