With the release of two more videos this week, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) is continuing to cause political problems for Planned Parenthood, while at the same time presenting a challenge to media outlets: How to strike a balance between covering the group’s activities and inadvertently abetting it by spreading its strident anti-abortion message.
On Tuesday, the CMP released its third video: the first episode of a series called “Human Capital,” which will continue the exploration of what the organization claims are illegal activities by Planned Parenthood — specifically, monetary transactions for the transfer of tissue from aborted fetuses to medical clinics for research purposes.
The first two edited videos, released earlier this month, consist mainly of clandestine recordings of lunch meetings with senior staffers at Planned Parenthood in California, discussing the procedures in frank and explicit detail.
The new video, “Human Capital — Episode 1,” centers on an interview with Holly O’Donnell, a phlebotomist who worked at StemExpress, a California-based company that facilitates the transfer of tissue and other specimens to medical researchers.
“Human Capital, Episode 1” repurposes some material from the first two videos, namely footage of Dr. Deborah Nucatola and Dr. Mary Gatta discussing the monetary aspects of the transaction. Other Planned Parenthood doctors are shown throughout the nearly 12-minute video discussing pricing and tissue collection, among them Dr. Savita Ginde, a medical director at Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, who is the subject of a fourth video, which was released Thursday.
The videos employ the same techniques that the CMP used in its previous pieces – ominous music, black-and-white stills. “Human Capital” includes graphics of a fetus in a womb with monetary amounts displayed over body parts. At one point, O’Donnell admits that she fainted on her first day on the job, when she discovered staffers would separate fetal tissue from vaginal tissue.
The CMP’s strategy of releasing visceral, deliberately upsetting videos is working: Several states have called for an investigation into Planned Parenthood, and both the Senate and the House are considering legislation to strip the nonprofit organization of its federal funding.
Although Republican politicians have been the most outspoken on the issue, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton have weighed in. Clinton diplomatically reiterated her support for the work Planned Parenthood has done but said the videos “raise questions about the whole process,” while Sanders denounced the videos and O’Malley dismissed them outright.
All this is occurring despite evidence that Planned Parenthood is doing nothing illegal, as Media Matters, FactCheck.org, and RH Reality Check have all reported – which is also made clear through the transcripts of the unedited footage that the CMP released.
But Planned Parenthood’s image has been hammered repeatedly, and when CEO Cecile Richards’ comments only fanned the flames, the organization hired crisis communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, a company that has long had ties to Planned Parenthood and Democratic causes. And now the nonprofit’s attempt at damage control has become its own story – and a new target for its opponents.
Conservative media is asserting that mainstream and liberal-leaning news organizations are failing to adequately cover the story. Sean Davis in The Federalist points to the Huffington Post, Vox, and BuzzFeed for evidence of a media blackout, while NewsBusters, which exists solely to combat what it sees as liberal bias in the media, has scrutinized the television coverage from several organizations, including CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and PBS.
Their claims have some merit: SKDKnickerbocker issued a memo to journalists earlier this week “that discouraged them from airing the undercover videos, arguing that they were obtained under false identification and violated patient privacy, Politico reported.
Planned Parenthood’s “patients’ privacy should not be further violated by having this footage shared by the media,” the memo reads. Politico even tweeted about receiving the memo – although the tweet was later taken down.
The memo describes the CMP as “an extreme activist organization whose sole mission is to prevent women from accessing health care and to destroy Planned Parenthood,” and links the group to those responsible for the 2009 murder of the Kansas late-term abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller.
Furthermore, Valley News Live, the website for KVLY and KXJB in Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, respectively, reported that their local Planned Parenthood affiliate sent them, along with other journalists, the same release, asking them not to air the video for patient privacy. A portion of the memo, which they reprinted in full, reads:
When your network decides whether to consider this story newsworthy, or whether to use any of this footage at all, we urge you to keep this in mind: The extremists who entered Planned Parenthood labs under false pretenses violated research protocol, and, worse, violated the privacy of patients involved. Those patients’ privacy should not be further violated by having this footage shared by the media.
Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on the backlash. Camille Paglia, an avowed liberal, told Salon that it was “shockingly unprofessional” for liberal media to ignore or under-report the story:
When the first secret Planned Parenthood video was released in mid-July, anyone who looks only at liberal media was kept totally in the dark about it, even after the second video was released. But the videos were being run nonstop all over conservative talk shows on radio and television. It was a huge and disturbing story, but there was total silence in the liberal media. That kind of censorship was shockingly unprofessional. The liberal major media were trying to bury the story by ignoring it. Now I am a former member of Planned Parenthood and a strong supporter of unconstrained reproductive rights. But I was horrified and disgusted by those videos and immediately felt there were serious breaches of medical ethics in the conduct of Planned Parenthood officials.
Despite conservative protestations, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vox have each reported on the controversy, though the extent of their reporting has varied. Vox has elected to cover each new video release by updating its previous coverage, rather than publishing new pieces, as per the site’s stated style for covering ongoing stories. BuzzFeed has published a couple of articles about Republicans’ comments when the story first broke, as well as an explainer. And Huffington Post has run several stories, mostly by political reporter Laura Bassett, covering the political and legal response.
David Daleiden, the anti-abortion activist and the CMP’s executive director, told The New York Times that he had enough footage for about a dozen videos “that he can release at the rate of one a week for the next few months.” On Friday, they promised 8 to 10 more videos were on the way. This puts media outlets in a tight spot: If the CMP continues to unveil new videos underscoring the same points, do they have the obligation to cover, and effectively promulgate, each new release? And what about the dubious actions of the CMP?
Thanks to the CMP’s efforts, there are now federal probes into Planned Parenthood, but four congressional Democrats have asked that Attorney General Loretta Lynch and California Attorney General Kamala Harris investigate the California-based group itself; Harris has announced that she will.
After the third video was released, featuring the interview of an ex-StemExpress employee, the company filed for a temporary restraining order against CMP. The order, granted by the Los Angeles Superior court, prohibits the CMP “from releasing any video of three high-ranking StemExpress officials taken at a restaurant in May.”
While that appears to be the first legal action against the CMP, RH Reality Check has reported that the group’s agents allegedly used fake names, fake identification, and a sham company – BioMax Procurement Services, LLC – to infiltrate conferences, some of which had incredibly strict security and screening procedures. If the CMP operatives are revealed to have forged the state government seal and obtained California driver’s licenses using false names, they can be charged, Michael Kraut, a California defense attorney, told RH Reality Check reporters.
Daleiden told Federalist Radio that he was aware of the potential legal issues involved in what he was undertaking:
I had a pretty clear sense… of exactly what I was getting myself into doing a project like this. I’m quite aware of all of the applicable laws that come into play when you’re doing investigative journalism-type work. I’m proud to say that The Center for Medical Progress follows all applicable laws in the course of the work that we do.
There is also evidence that one of the names used by the operatives, Brianna Allen, is the name of a pro-choice advocate and president of a student feminist club at Davis Senior High School in Davis, California, which is where Daleiden graduated in 2007. Brianna M. Allen of Davis said that, while she doesn’t have proof that he used her name for his activities, she hasn’t been able to access her credit report, and contacted RH Reality Check to let them know that she had no ties to the CMP nor to Daleiden.
As one might expect, the videos decline to emphasize that fetal tissue has long been used by researchers, including, notably, in the development of the polio vaccine. Because fetal tissue is also less likely to be rejected in grown humans, it has possibilities for treating patients with Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and heart disease. The National Institutes of Health spent $76 million in human fetal tissue research last year. Planned Parenthood has said that fewer than five states actually supply tissue for donation, and that tissue is not donated unless consent is given by the woman, which happens after she has already decided to have an abortion.
CMP claims its “Human Capital” “exposé” is the result of 30 months of investigative work that includes “dozens of eyewitness testimonies, and nearly 200 pages of primary source documents,” which they will be releasing on their site. The group’s message to Planned Parenthood, politicians, and journalists is clear: They aren’t going away, and neither are the issues they have raised.
Photo: via Flickr
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