From bias to blackout?
Let's stipulate at the outset that the trial of Kermit Gosnell -- who is charged with murdering seven babies and one patient in his nightmarish, unmonitored Philadelphia abortion mill -- which began on March 18 -- should have received more coverage from national media outlets. (You can catch up with the story by reading Mollie Wilson O'Reilly's dotCommonweal posts here, here, and here-- published in January and February 2011.) As New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has pointed out, while her paper's work on Gosnell was "not insubstantial," there "certainly could be more coverage." But was the relatively limited national coverage of the early stages of Gosnell's trial, following, as it did, lots of coverage of the nauseating grand-jury report two years ago, motivated by journalists' prochoice bias, as so many critics claim? Was it a "full-blown, coordinated blackout throughout the entire national media"? Or merely one that looked planned because of the media's uniformly prochoice ideology?
Is this such an open-and-shut caseof media bias? I'm dubious.
I see at least four problems with the idea that liberal media bias is mostly to blame for the "blackout." First, where were these critics while the liberal media was mum on the Gosnell trial? Kirstin Powers made a splash with her column, "We've Forgotten What Belongs on Page One," but if the trial is as newsworthy as she says, then why did she wait until April 11 -- three weeks after it began -- to mention it? On the same day, a New York Post editorial claimed that the reason for the "media blackout" was "obvious: Much of our press corps skews to one side on abortion." Yet that editorial seems to be the first time the Post mentioned Gosnell at all. What about Rupert Murdoch's other New York paper? Turns out the Wall Street Journal apparently hasn't covered the trial either. Other conservative outlets? Not much better. The conservative Washington Times, Kevin Drums points out, has published just one story on the trial (but several on the "media blackout"). And Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald found little coverage of the story from conservative news organizations: "the Weekly Standard has done three pieces (the magazine has run six stories on Justin Bieber)." (One of the standard complaints is that the national media has covered far less important stories much more frequently.) And what about our elected representatives -- not members of the press, of course, but news-makers all the same? The three congressmen who spoke about Gosnell on Thursday -- all Republicans -- apparently had nothing to say about him during the 2011-2012 session of Congress. (Indeed, Seitz-Wald found that the 2011-2012 Congressional Record contains no references to Gosnell.) Do they have a role in the "blackout"? Or is there a chance these critics just weren't paying much attention until now?
Problem two: Some of the first people to cover Gosnell were prochoice writers. From the start, they argued that the terrible details in the grand-jury report redounded to the benefit of their cause. Indeed, some used the case to press for more public funding of abortions -- precisely because many of Gosnell's patients were poor women. Simon van Zuylen-Wood summarized their arguments this way:
The moral to be drawn from the Gosnell trial is not that current abortion laws are screwed up. Indeed, Gosnell broke them, which is why hes on trial. Rather, its that as individual states increasingly restrict abortion rights, more and more illegal clinics, like Gosnells may crop up.
Or, as Katha Pollitt put it, "This is what illegal abortion looks like." Of course, not everyone agreed. Former Commonweal columnist Melinda Henneberger was among the first to point out that no, actually, this is what unregulated abortion looks like. Gosnell's offices hadn't been inspected for nearly two decades. According to the grand-jury report, when Gov. Bob Casey left office in 1993, the Pennsylvania Department of Health stopped inspecting abortion clinics:
The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey [a prolife Democrat] to Governor Ridge [a prochoice Republican], officials concluded that inspections would be "putting a barrier up to women" seeking abortions. Even nail salons in Pennsylvania are monitored more closely for client safety.
As Henneberger points out, even though a National Abortion Federation representative visited Gosnell's clinic (at his invitation, amazingly) and found it "the worst...she had ever seen," according to the grand jury, she didn't inform authorities. Strange behavior for someone whose job is to ensure that women have access to safe, legal abortions. Gov. Tom Corbett eventually fired the officials faulted by the grand jury, and ordered that abortion clinics be inspected annually.
In my judgment, Henneberger has the stronger argument. But the policy question is not the same as that of media bias. One may not agree with the lessons prochoice writers think we should learn from the horrors cataloged by the grand-jury report, but they did not shy away from its contents. Indeed, disagreement between journalists like Pollitt and Henneberger makes it difficult to assert that the Gosnell case obviously supports one cause or the other. That complicates charges of liberal media bias. And the report was covered by major national news outlets -- as soon as it was released.
Which brings me to the third problem for the allegation of liberal bias: Why did it take the liberal media so long to figure out how damaging the Gosnell story was to their pet cause? If they were really interested in shielding Gosnell from public view, why would they have run lots of stories on it two years ago? Why would the AP be reporting on it every day? If this is a "mainstream media blackout," it's the worst ever.
A fourth problem: What kind of coverage do the critics want? All day Friday, and throughout much of the weekend, Twitter was blowing up with interrogations of tweeting reporters: Why aren't you covering this trial? But has anyone suggested how the story should be covered now? "Cover it immediately, every day," seems to be their mantra. Few acknowledge that trials are different kinds of stories, requiring different resources -- more than it takes, say, for someone to sit in front of a computer with a grand-jury report, typing out its most stomach-turning details. How should reporters and editors approach the story in a way that distinguishes it from their previous coverage? Where is the tension? Does anyone believe Gosnell will get off? Do prolife critics want the horrors recounted every time someone takes the stand? But, a news editor might wonder, if they have already been widely told -- two years ago, when the grand-jury report dropped -- why do it all again by reporting daily testimony against Gosnell?
The New York Times had someone there at the beginning of the trial. The paper will have someone there for the end (if someone isn't there already). Others will follow suit. Trial coverage often goes this way. Television is picking up the story again now, although since when did we start pining for TV news coverage of anything? For now it's mostly commentary on the alleged "blackout." This is a difficult story for TV news -- and not only because TV cameras aren't allowed in the courtroom. People don't want to think about baby dismemberment as they start their day, over dinner, or before bed.
Perhaps that's the key to understanding the limited coverage of this trial. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly acknowledged this during a Friday segment on Gosnell coverage: "We have not been covering this story in great detail because it's so horrific.... It's just too dark to talk about the murder of all of these babies. And the testimony has been so gruesome. It's a hard subject to put on the front page or in your program every day." She might have added that the exploitation of poor women isn't exactly the media's favorite subject.
Credit where it's due: those who lobbied for more trial coverage are going to get it. This is a good thing. But did they need to indulge their darkest fears about the "mainstream media" in the process? Did they have to call it a "blackout"? Presuming ill will is always a dangerous move -- after all, as the coverage of the coverage shows, it can cut both ways. Is it impossible that some reporters and editors looked away because they didn't want to spread bad news about abortion? Of course not. But is it the only, or even the best explanation for the media handling of Gosnell's trial? As much as I agree with those who are outraged by the contents of the grand-jury report, and as much as I'm persuaded by Henneberger's response to that terrible document, I can't answer yes to that question. Occam's razor applies.