NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy?

NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy? July 25, 2014

Apparently, this past spring, the Republican National Committee held a closed-door meeting in which a circle of conservative women discussed a topic that they have been discussing for decades — how to talk about abortion when dealing with mainstream journalists, especially television reporters.

Apparently, someone taking part in this meeting decided to invite a reporter from The New York Times to step inside the closed doors. Bravo for whoever made the brave decision to do that.

Apparently, however, it took quite a while for editors at the Times to decide that this was a story worth printing, since it just ran in late July, under the headline, “Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion.”

On one level, this is pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have one rather basic journalistic question: If this was a closed-door session, was the Times reporter actually invited to attend or did someone slip into the meeting? Consider how this issue is framed at the top of the report.

It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion.

They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong.

Please hear me: The content is valid either way. However, shouldn’t this question about access to the meeting have been mentioned? If a reporter snuck in, that’s interesting, especially in terms of decades of tensions about abortion coverage and mainstream news-media bias. If a reporter was invited into the meeting, then that is even more interesting — for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, I thought it was rather strange that the Times team thought that this session focused on an “unlikely set of skills.”

Honestly, I have heard about these kinds of sessions going on since, well, since I first arrived on the religion beat in the late 1970s. In fact, I have attended several sessions of this kind — invited in as a reporter and, once, as a speaker (years after I left full-time work on the beat) who was asked to address some of the debates inside newsrooms about the language used to address life issues.

It’s clear that the Times thought this event was rather unique, which I think is fascinating. Was the new angle that REPUBLICANS were sanctioning such a gathering? If so, that strikes me as an angle that should have been explicitly stated. As the story noted, with good cause, GOP insiders are very divided on social and moral issues.

Thus, readers are told:

… (A) vocal group of social conservatives, dismayed both by their party’s apparent dismissiveness of their passion and by the Democrats’ success at portraying Republicans as prosecuting a “war on women,” are rewriting the anti-abortion movement’s script. The problem, they argue, is not that conservatives talk too much about social issues, but that they say too little, and do it in the wrong way.

They are urging greater compassion for women with unplanned pregnancies and aggressive confrontation whenever Democrats accuse them of opposing women’s best interests.

“Don’t let them corner you,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican former congresswoman from Colorado who is a longtime anti-abortion activist. She advises candidates to shift to the more complicated question of terminating pregnancies after the 20th week, which is now illegal in nine states. Polling also shows that large majorities think second-trimester abortions should be illegal. “Put them on their heels,” Ms. Musgrave added. “Ask them: ‘Exactly when in a pregnancy do you think abortion should be banned?’ ”

In response to the post-2012 assessment by the Republican National Committee, some prominent conservatives accused Republican leaders in Washington of timidity. While liberals punch on social issues, “the Republican and conservative elites retreat and change the subject,” said a report issued by the group American Principles in Action. “Our self-mute strategy permits the Democrats to frame the issue on their own terms.”

Several times, during this report, the Times team skips past the elephant in the living room — which is that most Americans, especially married women and voters active in religious groups, would like to see some kind of compromise that would make abortions rare and, after the first term, all but illegal.

While stating that they support Roe, a majority of Americans favor restrictions on abortion that are not possible under America’s current legal regime that is built on cases that followed Roe. This is even true for surprising numbers of Democrats, as shown in the fine details of a Pew Forum study in 2006. As I wrote at that time:

Study participants were asked if abortion should be “generally available,” “allowed, but more limited,” “illegal, with few exceptions” or “never permitted.” As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats.

Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which … might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions. …

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions.” … Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

This is what the GOP women gathered behind those closed doors were trying to discuss. How do they talk about those realities during encounters with the mainstream media?

The bottom line: If you control the language, you have a better chance of winning public support. Again, the Times notes:

Republicans acknowledge that their communication on women’s issues has been inadequate, especially considering that Democrats have skillfully co-opted words like “choice,” “freedom” and “health.”

“That was one of the top five public relations coups of all time: making their movement pro-choice and purging the ugly word ‘abortion’ from the lexicon for decades,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who has conducted research on women’s issues for anti-abortion groups and the Republican National Committee. In the boot camps, Ms. Conway is the one warning candidates to treat “rape” like a four-letter word.

And she urges them to challenge Democrats when they use the term “women’s health.” “Women’s health issues are osteoporosis or breast cancer or seniors living alone who don’t have enough money for health care,” she said.

All in all, this was a pretty interesting story, if only because it’s interesting (a) that the Times team thought this closed-door session was unusual and (b) that it took so long to get this article into print.

Oh, to have heard some of the behind-the-scenes newsrooms debates about this piece.

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