Abortion: The most sacred cow of journalists

Abortion: The most sacred cow of journalists

By Carl M. Cannon

In my early 20s, I played for a company softball team called The Sacred Cows. The company was the San Diego Union-Tribune, so the name was supposed to be self-deprecating. In time, I would learn that the joke was on us.

I don't recall who led the newsroom revolt, but I certainly remember the issue that got it going. Our publisher, Helen Copley, had refused to run a paid advertisement from Planned Parenthood. Copley was a strong Catholic — she gave a lot of money to the local diocese and to a parochial college on the hill overlooking our newspaper — and the working assumption in our newsroom was that Helen was obeying the wishes of the local bishop.

A petition was circulated, which reporters and editors signed, and the local television stations were tipped off. The dissidents met to buck each other up — and to choose a spokesperson to go on camera. They approached me. It seemed an odd choice, and I told them why: Although I'd signed their petition, I wasn't involved in the protest, and at 24 I was one of the youngest reporters on staff. Also, when it came to the issue of abortion, I harbored pro-life sympathies.

"We know that," the ringleader told me.

"That's why we want you," she added. "This is not really about abortion. It's about censorship."

So I went on television and reluctantly criticized my own employer. Looking back, we were not wrong about the need for a newspaper to encourage the free flow of ideas. But on the issue of abortion, we were quite wrong about which side really wanted to chill honest and open discussion. That was our real sacred cow.

No one ever put it quite this way, but the traditional media in this country were about to embark on an extraordinary exercise in self-censorship. It is a social experiment that has lasted up until this month, until our industry's shame over a refusal to cover the Kermit Gosnell murder trial brought this issue to a crucible.


In newsrooms of the 1970s and 1980s, a general consensus emerged on two fraught political issues. The first, affirmative action, was understandable. Expanding the pool of what had been a white male-dominated profession was not only a laudable social goal, it was a logical business imperative for newspapers seeking to expand their reach. And it was even more than that. If you worked for any major news organization, including the sprawling newspaper chains that dominated the landscape, it was also official corporate policy.

The second issue, in a sense, grew out of the first. That issue was abortion, or in the vernacular adopted by the media, "abortion rights." To say that big city editors and reporters were "pro-choice" is to understate the case. Mostly, it went without saying: Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, and any reporter or editor who harbored doubts about it — and those who voiced them aloud — was considered a sexist, or perhaps a religious nut.

Editorially, most newspapers supported abortion rights. Two studies done in the late 1980s showed an overwhelming majority of U.S. journalists personally supported legalized abortion, numbers that were almost certainly higher among elite news organizations. And after the Newspaper Guild formally endorsed "freedom of choice," journalists began marching in pro-choice rallies.

James R. Bettinger, city editor of the San Jose Mercury News — the paper I worked for after San Diego — remembers having the nagging feeling that our coverage of demonstrations by those opposed to abortion suffered because of the monolithic views of the reporting staff.

I spoke about that subject recently with Bettinger, now the longtime director of the Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford University.

"I was convinced there were stories we were missing and nuances we were trampling on because we weren't hearing (the pro-life) perspective voiced in the newsroom," he told me. "For all I know, there may have been reporters and editors who felt strongly on the issue, but it wasn't getting voiced. It felt to me like a failing."

In 1990, influential Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw tackled this issue in a 5,000-word opus that began on page one. It pulled no punches. Shaw noted that it is certainly possible for reporters and editors to put aside their personal beliefs and follow the obligation of their chosen professional to be fair and impartial. But, he said, that wasn't happening on this issue.

"A comprehensive Times study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage over the last 18 months, including more than 100 interviews with journalists and with activists on both sides of the abortion debate, confirms that this bias often exists," Shaw wrote. "Careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play."

In the years between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and the publication of Shaw's opus, "viability" — i.e., the amount of time a fetus had to develop before being able to survive outside the womb — had steadily been shrinking. For journalists who ridiculed conservatives' supposed hostility to science, this should have been a huge warning flag. Cutting-edge science and traditional religion were in sync. In the press, we were mainly in sync with Democrats.

In 2008, at a joint appearance with John McCain at Saddleback, the sprawling Southern California mega-church founded by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Barack Obama was asked, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?"

"Well," Obama replied, "I think that whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade."

This answer prompted widespread ridicule of Obama among social conservatives — and of the mainstream press for accepting such a dodge. But the exchange between Warren and Obama succinctly illustrates how the sides in this debate talk past one another. Those opposed to abortion frame the question as being about the rights of the unborn. Those who defend it talk about abortion as being integral to a woman's right to control her own body, a necessity that trumps theological teaching or scientific advancement.

Because it had long ago chosen sides in this debate, the media collaborated with the pro-choice side to sanitize this debate to the point where the details of the procedure abortion are almost never mentioned and the word "abortion" itself is extraneous. Who is so sexist they can oppose "a woman's right to choose"? How un-American to oppose "choice."

That was where things stood until the arrest of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and his indictment on multiple counts of murder. This was a case with a set of facts so grisly that it mocked the very concept of "choice." Here is the opening paragraph of the 2011 grand jury report that heralded the legal proceedings against Gosnell:

"This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy — and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels — and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it."

It is possible to read that entire grand jury report — and to cover this man's murder trial — and still believe strongly in the need for women in our society to maintain control over their reproductive rights. But the elite media seem to have been unwilling to take that chance.

Gosnell's actions pull back the curtain on this procedure and allow Americans to contemplate a disquieting prospect: that abortion itself is an inherently violent act, the grisly details of which remain hidden even from the patients in the operating room — and that if those specifics were truly understood, public support for it would wane.

And so, the national news organizations essentially took a pass on covering the trial. Anticipating a media frenzy, court officials set aside rows of seats for the members of the press. Day after day, those seats remained empty.

A few conservative media watchers raised their voices in complaint. They were joined by a handful of principled liberals, led by Kirsten Powers, who wrote a watershed column in USA Today. What these press critics focused on was the double standard at play on this issue.

It was a major story when 2012 Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin opined that rape couldn't result in pregnancy. It was one of the biggest political stories of the year when Rush Limbaugh crudely criticized pro-choice activist Sandra Fluke. It was front-page news for days when the Susan G. Komen Foundation — a private charity — sought to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Media organizations that provided blanket coverage of these issues apparently saw no conceivable national public policy issue at work in the Gosnell case.

Powers exposed this fallacy in a way anyone could understand: "Planned Parenthood recently claimed that the possibility of infants surviving late-term abortions was 'highly unusual,'" she wrote. "The Gosnell case suggests otherwise."

Her piece and others, such as the coverage on the faith-oriented website Patheos by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, were difficult to ignore. Hemingway contacted journalists who'd written about the Komen Foundation case or the Limbaugh contretemps, and asked them why they hadn't written about Gosnell. Mostly, she got stonewalled. Those who answered her tended to be dismissive. One Washington Post reporter replied, "I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention."

The phrase "local crime" was quickly seized by others. By that definition, wasn't Trayvon Martin's shooting a local story? Newtown? Aurora?

Backed into a corner on the most basic issue — whether their own biases had compromised their objectivity — the lords of the mainstream media responded in four ways:

(1) They admitted fault, and openly addressed the underlying problem. This was the course taken by Huffington Post Live host Marc Lamont Hill. "For what it's worth, I do think that those of us on the left have made a decision not to cover this trial because we worry that it'll compromise abortion rights," he said. "Whether you agree with abortion or not, I do think there's a direct connection between the media's failure to cover this and our own political commitments on the left. I think it's a bad idea, I think it's dangerous, but I think that's the way it is."

(2) They could skip the mea culpa, but attempt to make amends in their coverage. This is the course Washington Post appeared to take. Top editor Martin Baron rejected the conspiracy explanation, but vowed to start covering the trial, and said the Post probably should have done so all along.

(3) They could, as did the New York Times, claim that a confluence of coincidences had conspired against them; that, yes, they probably should have covered the Gosnell trial, but they maintain that this failure proves nothing.

(4) They could double-down, and essentially act as an advocate for abortion providers. This was the road traveled by MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews. In an eight-minute segment on that show, Matthews dispensed with any talk of journalism ethics. Instead, he attacked the actions and motivations of Republican state legislatures seeking to chip away at the Roe decision by outlawing third- — or even second- — trimester abortions.

These are not attempts to reduce abortions, Matthews assured his viewers. "They have given up on persuasion," he said. "What they really want to do is humiliate people." Matthews' reasoning, he explained, is that women who want abortions will get in cars and drive hundreds of miles, if necessary, to have them. Knowing this, he said, Republican lawmakers, are "punishing" the women.

While he was talking, a graphic was displayed on the screen with the number 326 — the number of regulations proposed or enacted during the first three months of this year restricting abortions. That figure comes from the Guttmacher Institute, a rare organization that combines advocacy (it's pro-choice) with reliable research data.

MSNBC's graphic must have seemed unpersuasive to abortion opponents, who find a more salient number to be 50 million. That's the number, also provided by the Guttmacher Institute, of abortions in this country between 1973 and 2008.

One of Matthews' guests in that segment, in fact, was the Guttmacher Institute's Elizabeth Nash. Despite her views, she pushed back a bit on the host's whole rap about "humiliating" pregnant women. Nash was more inclined to think that these anti-abortion laws are designed to actually lessen the number of abortions.

"Well, when you can't come up with the money and the time off of work at that moment when you're pregnant," she said, "your other option is to have a baby."

So in the end, Kermit Gosnell's house of horrors exposed more than the grim reality of late-term abortion. It also revealed what happens when journalists act as though "sacred cows" are more important to us than our sacred duty to follow the story wherever it leads, irrespective of how uncomfortable it makes us — and regardless of the political fallout. Even in these polarized times, I hope this lesson will endure.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington editor of RealClearPolitics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com. Reprinted by permission.