Part 2 of 3
By K.J. Farrell
In Part 1 of this three-part series, the focus was concern that the anti-abortion movement has with numbers in the claims that the media discriminates against them. News coverage and extremist branding are the focus of Part 2.
News Coverage Generally
Anti-abortion complaints about the lack of media attention to their annual 1/22 protest against Roe v. Wade were not justified. As noted in Part 1, there was coverage by all major media sources. The annual Roe v. Wade protests are predictable. Given the intense, real-time competition for consumers of print, online, and broadcast news, priority is given to issues of concern to the market – frigid weather and sports this year. There was no ideological media bias involved.
In addition to the Roe protest, anti-abortion groups do not think that their so-called “pro-life” bills are receiving proper attention. Media coverage of restrictive abortion legislation is newsworthy given the impact on social policy and law. Even pro-choice bloggers have observed that basketball has received more media attention. After the media reports the initial announcement of the legislation, though, how many repetitions of predictable responses are necessary or beneficial?
Why is it that anti-abortion organizations make such a fuss about media discrimination or bias but, aside from some random pro-choice blogs, there is little complaint from the pro-choice organizations? Why do they think the media favors the pro-choice position, especially given the lack of attention to the restrictive abortion legislation and its intent to erode reproductive rights for women?
One reader raised an interesting point: Any ideological bias on the part of the media could actually be steeped in religious views that favor the anti-abortion position. Consider a 12/13 Harris Poll that revealed that 74% of U.S. adults believe in God; 54% believe in God with absolute certainty. In another survey, “only 21% of Americans believe humans beings evolved without involvement from God.” When press coverage is poor or unfavorable, pro-choice supporters could make the claim that ideological bias towards the religious leanings of the anti-abortion movement is responsible. What I do hear from the anti-abortion community regularly is reference to the religiosity of “most Americans” and message-manipulated polls that “most Americans” support the anti-abortion position. Thus, it would seem a bit of a contradiction: “Most Americans” would include the media. Therefore, if most Americans are religious and against abortion, media discrimination would be against the pro-choice position. Right? This premise takes me back to the questions, “Why all the fuss? Is there discrimination?”
Abortion-Related News and the Marketplace
Let’s look beyond the annual Roe v. Wade events. The criminal trial of former Dr. Kermit Gosnell is continually cited as evidence of media bias favoring abortion rights. I addressed media coverage of the case and will only say here that as egregious as the case was, the media did cover it fully, beginning with the indictment. It is insulting for anyone to suggest that the pro-choice community wanted it kept quiet – if anything, they wanted it exposed to illustrate what can happen when abortion is inaccessible, especially to poor women.
At this writing, there are 261,000 search engine results for the “Gosnell case” – 551,000 for his name alone. There are 86.5 million for “George Zimmerman case”, 12.5 million for “Jodi Arias case”, and 38 million for “Casey Anthony case” – exponentially more for each when “case” is excluded. Yes, the media responds to the marketplace.
Although anti-abortion groups claim that Americans are on their side, they clearly had/have more interest in cases unrelated to abortion or Gosnell. It would be the same situation if a fertility doctor or OB/GYN was found to be violating standards and law, or an adoption lawyer lost his license due to fraud. Media has ethical and practical responsibilities that are more important than the wishes of activists dedicated to a polarized issue. (Does anyone recall the name of the fertility doctor and the professional consequences he had as a result of his involvement in the Nadya Suleman multiple pregnancy? Probably few of you…but you know the names of all others referenced here.)
The recent “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (NTFAA) that the House of Representatives recently passed will not likely be introduced in the Senate and, even if it was, President Obama would veto it. The Hyde Amendment already ensures that federal dollars cannot be spent on abortion. Prior versions of the NTFAA included language that introduced the political nuances to the legal term of “forcible” rape. This version is really about stopping insurance companies (private) from providing abortion coverage even though more than 80% include it with other reproductive services, including fertility services. The media knows that it will never be passed. Will coverage benefit their advertisers? No. Editors clearly decided that the coverage provided was sufficient to inform the public.
Contrast the coverage of the NTFAA to the political-conservative-initiated boycott of Girl Scout Cookies that began when the Girl Scouts supported Texas Senator Wendy Davis as someone who could be considered a Woman of the Year. Davis is pro-choice so, naturally, that means the Girl Scouts include abortion rights as part of their agenda. They actually have no position on abortion. Their agenda is developing girls into strong, independent women. Period. Role models are from all political and professional backgrounds.
The Girl Scout cookie boycott is newsworthy because the cookies are such an icon of Americana. Few have not had the pleasure of Thin Mints or Trefoils. Most organizers of boycotts want news coverage. Media did not create the news – press releases did! But, anti-abortion strategists realize that this is not the kind of news that will help their cause. That leads to the matter of branding with extremism.
The Branding of the Anti-Abortion Movement by Extremists
Think about the purpose of news – to inform so that readers can form their own opinions. At times, the “goal to be truthful and objective can be at odds with journalistic ethics“ (Carole Rich, PracticalBioethics.org 1994). Those reporting the news must be responsible.
In the summer of 1991, when the notorious Operation Rescue was protesting outside of the clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, a human fetus was pulled out of a jar to illustrate what a late term abortion produces. Responsibly, the media refused to show the dead fetus because there was no evidence that it was connected to Dr. Tiller. Neither the age nor the source of the prop could be verified. Reporting about the fetus took place but without visuals and with context provided to avoid implying that the fetus was from the clinic (Rich).
Operation Rescue was upset that photos of the fetus were not shown. Some anti-abortion groups were upset that it was reported at all because they believed that the media was conspiring to paint all anti-abortion activists as radicals.
To be fair, during the very contentious post-Roe era of Supreme Court decisions, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the media did seem to provide more coverage of anti-abortion activities that involved violence or highly charged characteristics. Various surveys of abortion news concluded that while most likely not intentional, the pro-choice perspective had more column inches about their activities as well as more positive coverage. This prompted news organizations to initiate policies about abortion coverage that remain in place. That said, violence is newsworthy. The media doesn’t control absurd anti-abortion strategies staged for press. Through violence and shock tactics, the anti-abortion movement has branded itself. They have themselves to blame for the media coverage that they find unfavorable. By no means is it discrimination for the media to cover unusual tactics.
When conservative politicians try to justify anti-abortion legislation, they often mention that their constituencies are “everyday” people, not wild eyed religious zealots. It is hard to be convincing when, for example, a person interviewed about traveling to a protest refers to busloads of traveling companions as “die-hard Catholics” and “soldiers of Christ” or when an organizer for an event to celebrate the closing of a clinic in Missouri states that credit for the closure goes to God and those who pray daily. Worse for politicians is when their colleagues, in promoting the anti-abortion position, discount rape or imply that the sex lives of women are the problem. It is also challenging to justify public policy dependent on falsehoods.
No organization appreciates it when an inappropriate source is interviewed or a representative performs poorly. It happens. Among the anti-abortion representatives, there seems to be a preference for people who have no capacity to listen, an inability to be or sound reasonable, and talk over people with unproven, false talking points. In July, 2013, should the media have ignored it when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum “criticiz[ed] the media for portraying the [extremely restrictive abortion] legislation as radical instead of…part of a movement of love”? Had the media not reported, it then would have been accused of withholding media criticism from the public.
The media is not discriminating when religious zealots, ignorant politicians, and inarticulate organizers who alter or deny facts serve as contacts. Years ago, anti-abortion supporters complained that the very articulate, attractive, African American President of Planned Parenthood, Faye Wattledon, was quoted or interviewed so often. Their position was represented by James Dobson of the Family Research Council or Gary Bauer of Focus on the Family. NARAL’s Kate Michelman and NOW’s Molly Yard also spoke to the national media on the pro-choice side. Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, National Right to Life’s John Wilkes or Wanda Franz, and religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did for the anti-abortion side. Criticism about higher quality spokespeople on the opposing side was an internal issue in the anti-abortion movement – it was not discrimination.
Many of us supporting the pro-choice position are ardent supporters of free speech. We do not want a part of any discrimination towards an opposing view. It is safe to say that there is no discrimination in the news coverage of anti-abortion views or activities.
Stay tuned for Part 3, which will focus on the semantics of the abortion issue and the real discrimination that exists in the media coverage of abortion.