My article didn’t speculate about why the story didn’t play bigger in the national media prior to late last week. I didn’t want that debate to overshadow Gosnell’s actions or the failure to stop him.
But the debate about coverage is important and fascinating.
Journalists, news junkies, and casual news consumers are all offering theories of what drives the media. Wildly divergent theories. And every last one amounts to a fellow member of our polity saying, “This is my notion of how America’s primary means of civic communication works.”
There is, of course, no single explanation for why any news story unfolds one way instead of another. “The media” is an abstraction. It encompasses TV, radio, print, and digital; editors, reporters, and bloggers; the Drudge Report, The New Yorker, USA Today, and Feministing. Many of the factors that shape how a story is covered are seemingly random or just plain undiscoverable. But it’s possible to refine our understanding of factors that did and didn’t shape coverage.* With that in mind, let’s scrutinize some of the wildly divergent theories of American media.
Keep in mind that my inclusion of a theory doesn’t necessarily mean that I endorse it.
One side sees the Gosnell case, thinks: “abortion is an atrocity.” Other side says, “abortion is too unsafe.” The “center” just can’t look.
— Matt Frost (@mattfrost) April 12, 2013
This theory accounts for the fact that social conservatives and progressive feminists both wrote about the story more than “mainstream” outlets.
For late-term abortion opponents, what more powerful demonstration of its brutality than an abortionist who severs the spines of already delivered babies? If you think the culture surrounding abortion destroys respect for human life, what would bolster your belief more than the fact that multiple employees willingly assisted Gosnell? And for progressive feminists, who worry that restricting abortion causes women to seek out horrific black-market procedures at great risk to their lives, what better confirmation than hundreds of women paying to receive treatment from a man whose office was filled with severed baby feet, blood spattered blankets, and cat feces?
Folks in the mushy middle are there precisely because they’re persuaded by arguments from both sides, but are uncomfortable adopting the final position of either. This is true on the rare occasions when they think about the abortion debate. But the Gosnell case doesn’t even permit us to think abstractly. The babies with severed spines and the immigrant woman dead from a botched abortion are both right there, described by the grand jury report in brutal detail. It makes sense, if social conservatives and progressive feminists both think their world views are vindicated by this case, that abortion “centrists” would find it particularly awful to fully confront.
And for what? Many centrists aren’t sure that whatever position they’ve calibrated is correct. They worry advocating for it would make them feel culpable for the inevitable babies or women hurt as a result. (If the king of a benevolent monarchy emailed to say that he’d implement in detail whatever abortion policies I suggested as soon as I wrote back, my first impulse would be to close my laptop, wrap it in duct tape, motor out to the deepest part of the Pacific and drop it overboard.)
Writing about this is uncomfortable and unpleasant for everyone. But if you’re confident in the lesson to take from this case and believe some specific change to abortion policy would definitely improve the world, of course you’d feel that covering it is less uncomfortable and more rewarding. Notably, this theory implies that most mainstream-media reporters aren’t die-hard abortion-rights advocates. If they were, they’d have reacted like some progressive feminists, proceeding as if this case clearly demonstrates the need for, say, publicly funded, safer, legal abortions. Instead, this theory implies that the Gosnell case makes the average journalist feel conflicted. In my experience, most journalists, like most people, are deeply conflicted about abortion. Media capitals like New York and D.C. are also places where being conflicted about expanding abortion rights is more socially comfortable than being conflicted about restricting them.
2) The Poor, Black Victims Theory
This theory holds that sparse coverage shouldn’t surprise us, despite the sensationalistic details of the Gosnell case, because horrific things happen to poor black people in urban areas all the time, and the press ignores them. Why should this be different? This theory is at odds with the counter-theory that the liberal media typically obsesses over stories about poor, black victims, at least when they’re subjected to blatant racism like the women in the Gosnell case. Sparse coverage, despite the provocative racial angle, proves a media coverup, according to the counter-theory.
Setting aside the conclusions, neither premise is completely wrong.
Horrific things do happen in poor, minority neighborhoods all the time without anyone in the press (or elsewhere) seeming to care. Newspapers cover rich neighborhoods better than poor ones, in part because that’s where a disproportionate number of subscribers live. Journalists are surrounded by educated, comfortably middle-class people. When they get a story tip from a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance, it is seldom a poor person. Blacks are underrepresented in newsrooms.
At the same time, direct evidence of racism sometimes fuels viral stories. If a doctor in Newport Beach gave white women botox in a sanitary office, but treated black women in a room filled with blood and cat feces, killing one of them through malpractice, would that be national news? I think so. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if the racial angle in the Gosnell case had made it go viral.
I don’t know how to reconcile a news media that routinely and unapologetically ignores black kidnap victims while making a fetish of blue-eyed, blond-haired kidnap victims and that regards racial justice as an editorial imperative that explicitly shapes numerous stories, except to say that it’s complicated. There are both blind spots that touch on race and class, and a desire among journalists to be champions of racial and class justice. The results are often unpredictable.
3) We Treat Newborn Deaths As If They Don’t Matter As Much As Kid Deaths
This theory holds that if a pediatrician had killed seven 5-year-olds at the request of their mothers, it would be the story of the year. But because the Gosnell’s victims were voiceless babies (or because the culture of abortion makes us think killing babies, however awful, is also different, or because wanting to kill newborns is more common), his case wasn’t the story of the year.
4) The Covering-Abortion-Is-Miserable Theory
It goes beyond the unpleasantness-of-subject-matter and personal conflictedness. Writing about abortion, like writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, guarantees (a) extreme abuse from readers no matter where you come down; (b) extreme, tedious scrutiny of every word you write; (c) certain knowledge that personal friends and family members will find themselves in strong, emotional disagreement with you; (d) the discouraging impression that no fact or argument presented will change anyone’s mind; (e) the accusation that you are complicit in something even worse than what Hitler did, or else that you hate women and want to control their bodies, or both.
There’s also the feeling that, by raising the subject, you’re bringing out the very worst in some people. The way they behave to one another in comments and characterize people on the other side of the debate over email is unsettling. Perhaps there’s a journalistic analogue of deliberately avoiding abortion at dinner parties, even ones where political debate is valued and encouraged.
5) The Gag Order Matters
This theory points out that the judge in the Gosnell case imposed a gag order on all involved. It is almost certainly true that doing so had some effect on the amount of news generated from the case.
6) Politicians Drive Political News
News items are often pegged to national politicians speaking out. If Tea Party senators or the Congressional Black Caucus or President Obama or John McCain and Lindsay Graham had really wanted to make the Gosnell case a big story, they could have. But no elected official was behaving in the way that they do when they want to make a piece of news into a big political story.
7) Journalists Live in a Pro-Choice Bubble
As articulated by Dave Weigel of Slate, political journalists “are, generally, pro-choice. Twice, in D.C., I’ve caused a friend to literally leave a conversation and freeze me out for a day or so because I suggested that the Stupak Amendment and the Hyde Amendment made sense. There is a bubble. Horror stories of abortionists are less likely to permeate that bubble than, say, a story about a right-wing pundit attacking an abortionist who then claims to have gotten death threats … a reporter in the bubble is less likely to be compelled by the news of an arrested abortionist.”
Says Erick Erickson, “networks focus on the things people along the coast are interested in and not what people along the American river valleys are talking about. In churches, local restaurants, and small town hair salons a lot of people across the country are talking about the terrible trial of Kermit Gosnell in Pennsylvania. It’s just not the people who interact with those who produce the news in New York City.”
8) The Media Has a Bias Against Graphic Descriptions and Imagery
After I filed my Gosnell story, an editor sagely added a warning I should’ve thought to include myself: “Please note: This post contains graphic descriptions and imagery.” Conveying the reality of this story demanded words and images more graphic than any newspaper or magazine typically includes. For that reason, journalists (or producers) who relied on, say, an Associated Press or New York Times dispatch understandably underestimated its newsworthiness. Once producers, editors, and reporters started reading the grand jury report, as conservative and progressive bloggers had, they finally realized, “Whoa, the newspaper stories really didn’t do this justice. The most graphic bits in them weren’t just cherry-picking the most sensational parts. If anything, they left out numerous gruesome details and extremely uncomfortable angles.”
Newspapers almost certainly weren’t sanitizing the story just because it was about abortion. They sanitize everything. Have you ever seen the dead body of a child killed in American drone strikes? Or what a cafe in Israel looks like after a suicide bomber attacks? How much blood do you see in the photographs curated by your local daily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? If you saw all the wire photos you’d get a much different impression of modern war. And if the CBS Evening News aired a Gosnell story while you were eating you’d probably have turned it off. (That is one reason why dinner-hour news shows don’t air certain gruesome stories.)
9) Pro-Choice Journalists Are Willfully Ignoring the Story to Avoid Giving an Advantage to Pro-Lifers
Folks in the pro-life community earnestly believe this theory. My interactions with journalists have never given me reason to think that any significant number would ignore what they knew to be a newsworthy story for blatantly political reasons. Admittedly, I’ve interacted with a small subset of all journalists, and the very nature of this theory is that it cannot be definitively proven or disproved. But it seems to me that, for example, David Shaw’s “Abortion Bias Seeps Into The News” offers a much more plausible account of how ideological bias might creep into newsroom behavior. I do not know if his account was correct in 1990 when published or if it is correct now.
10) Ideological Bias Distorts the Crusades Journalists Are Willing to Embark Upon
This theory is advanced by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column. As he sees it, outlets that aspire to “objective” news coverage are pursuing two different goals that are in tension with one another: on one hand, they try to report and write every story in a fair, balanced, non-partisan manner; on the other hand, they believe a core duty of journalists is “fighting for the powerless against the powerful and leading America toward enlightenment.” On culture war issues, “an official journalistic commitment to neutrality coexists with the obvious ideological thrust of a thousand specific editorial choices,” Douthat writes. “What kinds of questions are asked of which politicians; which stories get wall-to-wall coverage and which ones end up buried; which side is portrayed as aggressors and which side as the aggrieved party, and on and on and on.” As the sparse coverage of the Gosnell trial suggests, he continues, “the problem here isn’t that American journalists are too quick to go on crusades. Rather, it’s that the press’s ideological blinders limit the kinds of crusades mainstream outlets are willing to entertain.”
In comments, a reader retorted, “When it comes to human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to women’s rights, which after all are human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to abortion, there is only one right side (it’s the side that says women are people and have the right to bodily autonomy). The story of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion provider you mentioned, isn’t about abortion per se. It’s about the lack of access to safe abortion in this country. It’s about how substandard health care *is* the standard in poor areas. But it is NOT about the morality of abortion.” If enough decision-makers in the media agree with that perspective (an impossible question to answer), coverage of the Gosnell case was affected by it. Douthat is certainly correct that there is no such thing as strict neutrality when editorial decisions must be made about what to cover, how much coverage to extend, and which stories merit efforts to “start a larger conversation.” There aren’t clearly articulated, consistent standards for any of those judgment calls, and I’m not sure that it would be possible to create them.
11) The Case Doesn’t Map onto a Specific Legislative Debate
Writing in The Daily Beast, Josh Dzieza argues, “When Trayvon Martin (to use the standard comparison) went from local to national story, it was partly because there was a debate over stand-your-ground laws and whether his killing constituted murder or self defense. There’s no such dispute here. The question isn’t whether what Gosnell is accused of doing should be illegal: he’s on trial because it clearly is. Gosnell could become a useful pro-life bogeyman, but it’s not clear what policies the antiabortion movement would use his case to push for.” Meanwhile, he adds, abortion rights activists are both wary of passing more abortion clinic regulations (lest access decrease) and mortified by the regulatory failures that enabled Gosnell.
Perhaps there’s something to the notion that neither side in the abortion debate could use the Gosnell case as a clear cut argument for passing a specific piece of legislation they’re currently prioritizing. The fact that much of what he did was already illegal changes the political implications of the case. And political implications often drive coverage more than a story’s importance.
12) Conservatives Are Engaged in a “Work the Refs” Hustle
Kevin Drum makes the case by reviewing coverage in The Washington Times:
On March 18, they ran an AP dispatch about the start of the trial. Since then, they haven’t published a single additional piece. However, they have published the following:
- March 27: An op-ed by Christopher Harper about the media’s “shameful” silence concerning the Gosnell case.
- April 8: A news story about the “media blackout” of the Gosnell trial for “political reasons.”
- April 11: An editorial deploring the fact that “this grim story was not something for the morning papers or the evening news, at least not for those reading the ‘mainstream’ newspapers or watching ABC, CBS or NBC.”
- April 11: A news story reporting that conservative House members “took to the floor to denounce what they call a ‘national media cover-up’ of the sensational case.”
- April 12: A news story reporting that “conservatives and other pro-life advocates who are upset with the lack of coverage of the case are taking to social media sites in droves.”
- April 13: A weekly news recap headlined, “Abortion doctor on trial, but media not interested.”
- April 14: An op-ed about our “undistinguished press corps,” listing all their recent shortcomings. “Most egregious of all, though, has been the lack of coverage on the ‘House of Horror’ trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell.”
And that brings us to today. Adding it all up, we have a grand total of one story about the trial itself and seven stories complaining that other media outlets aren’t covering the trial. It’s pretty obvious what the priorities are here.
There are, as I’ve mentioned, conservative outlets like National Review that have always treated the Gosnell story as if it’s important. Certain writers, like Mark Steyn, don’t fit Drum’s theory. But there are definitely outlets and writers who gave Gosnell less coverage than, say, the New York Times, and are now expressing outrage at the lack of coverage. Media Matters accuses the New York Post of doing this. Said Paul Mirengoff in an April 12, 2013 post at Powerline:
I don’t believe we have commented on the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. I guess that’s because, although some, if not all, of us at Power Line are pro-life (I haven’t taken a full survey), none of us has the abortion beat. Or maybe it’s because we have had nothing of particular interest to add to the discussion of this gruesome affair, in which a child screamed after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure, the spinal cords of babies were snipped, and fetuses “rained” (in the words of one witness). Power Line does, however, handle the media beat. Therefore, we should at least note the lack of coverage the Gosnell trial has received.
Movement conservatives spend a lot more time covering “the media beat” than the abortion beat. Or any other beat, for that matter. Would this story have attracted more attention sooner if, rather than writing media-bias columns, conservatives just kept rendering details of the grand jury report? Hard to say. My account of the grand jury report was widely shared on social media. And writing it didn’t require a travel budget or “mainstream media” pixie dust. The whole thing is online.
13) Horrific as It Is, This Case Doesn’t Speak to Anything Larger About Abortion
This theory runs through a lot of left-of-center commentary. Way back in 2011, for example, when William Saletan used the Gosnell case as a vehicle to discuss late-term abortion generally, a writer at Feministing argued doing so was inappropriate because “If this doctor delivered these infants, live infants that were breathing and then killed them? Let’s make something clear: That is not abortion.”
Only 1.5% of abortions occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy. And what do you think the overwhelming majority of those cases are? Women who might die if they don’t have one. Fetuses who wouldn’t survive outside of the womb. Fetuses with such extreme abnormalities that they’d suffer during what would be a very brief time on this earth. The fact that people assume women actually want to have an abortion in the third trimester is beyond me — not to mention unbelievably offensive to the women who have had to make these very difficult decisions.
If I can interject here, if you want to understand why the debate over the media coverage of Gosnell is so polarized, it’s important to remember that some people, like the writer above, emphatically believe Gosnell is an aberration that says nothing larger about abortion in America. And other people, like Peter Wehner, emphatically believe that what he calls the “lethal logic” employed by Gosnell cannot be entirely disconnected from policy debate over abortion.
He cites this exchange in which a lobbyist representing the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates speaks to Florida legislators:
I’d actually love to see the Feministing writer and Wehner debate the question.
14) Lots of Horrific Stories Don’t Get Covered
Here’s a list of children who have been killed in drone attacks approved by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. How many of their stories have you read about? Could you say how many kids we’ve killed in Pakistan and Yemen? I have theories about why those dead kids haven’t ever been treated as a major national story. What’s certain is that neither liberal media bias nor pro-choice bias are among the reasons … which may or may not tell us anything about Gosnell coverage.
*To avoid confusion, let’s be explicit about what that coverage actually entailed. Prior to late last week, the Gosnell trial generated significant local coverage within metropolitan Philadelphia. As for outlets outside Philly, there was coverage back in 2011 from Katha Pollitt in The Nation, Lori Adelman at NBC’s The Grio, Will Saletan in Slate on three separate occasions, the Associated Press, NPR, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Rich Lowry in National Review, the editors of that publication, Mark Steyn on various occasions, Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard, niche sites dedicated to feminism, abortion rights, and anti-abortion advocacy, and others I’m missing. After 2011, the next time that multiple prominent outlets covered the subject was in March 2013 when the trial started. Here’s the New York Times story noting that news. It ran on page A17 of the New York edition. That rundown shows there wasn’t a mainstream media “blackout” or a literal conspiracy to keep the case secret. At the same time, many outlets failed to cover the story, and most outlets that covered it didn’t give it the depth or prominent play that I’ve argued it deserved.