You may have heard about a dark conspiracy that’s afoot. An activist cabal has plotted to influence media coverage of the trial of a notorious abortion doctor. Their scheme has been wildly successful, leading to a dramatic shift in media attention. Only, as Salon’s Irin Carmon notes, the real conspirators shaping coverage of the murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell have been anti-choice activists and not, as the anti-choicers claim, their pro-choice counterparts.
Gosnell, as you may have heard, is a Philadelphia-based physician on trial for charges that include illegal abortions and the murders of a patient and seven newborns who died under his care. The allegations are horrific, and from the moment they were publicly revealed, feminist journalists and mainstream media outlets were on the story. In early 2011, Katha Pollitt, Michelle Goldberg, and Amanda Marcotte wrote about Gosnell. Stories also appeared in the New York Times and CBSNews.com (a comprehensive roundup of coverage can be found here). The case was far from being ignored.
But last week, anti-choice activists unveiled a clever campaign designed to persuade the media, and the American public, of the opposite. An op-ed by Fox News Democrat Kirsten Powers kicked things off. Soon after, an army of flying Twitter monkeys descended on prominent journalists, berating them for allegedly ignoring the case.
Unfortunately, a number of them swallowed the sucker bait. Among the journalists who clearly didn’t do their homework and falsely blamed feminists, and the media, for ignoring Gosnell were Dave Weigel, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Megan McArdle — centrist and center-right pundits all.
Next came conservative bloggers, who used the case to screech about the media’s alleged liberal “bias” — how fresh! A few even claimed that media coverage of Gosnell demonstrates the need to employ more Christian-right reporters. The usual mainstream media bowing and scraping followed, as both the New York Times and the Washington Post promised, and delivered, still more coverage.
So, more than a week into the anti-choice movement’s campaign, what have learned? For opponents of women’s reproductive freedom, the case is of prime strategic importance, because it can be used to portray abortion clinics as dangerous, late-term abortions as common, and abortion doctors as monsters. These assertions are false (for example, nearly 90 percent of abortions occur in the first trimester, and only 1.5 percent occur after 20 weeks), but to the extent the general public believes them, they can increase political momentum to place more obstacles between a woman and her right to choose. The media surrender to activist demands for additional trial coverage is, then, a triumph. Score a victory — and a big one — for the anti-choicers.
Another winner here is the vast right-wing conspiracy. They have won another battle in their decades-long war to “work the refs” and shame the media into serving as a propaganda arm for the conservative movement. Once more, they have played this game very well indeed.
Finally, we come to the centrist and center-right journalists who, with unseemly haste, sought to mollify the anti-choicers’ complaints. In doing so, they embarrassed themselves; they accused the media of “ignoring” the case when a five-second Google search would have provided ample evidence contradicting that claim. Nor did they bother to provide much context. How much national media coverage do U.S. trials get anyway, particularly in this era of ever more limited media resources? Jodi Arias is a tabloid heroine, but so far her murder case, which has transfixed millions of cable television viewers, has produced only one New York Times story.
Kirsten Powers claims that the Gosnell trial is about “basic human rights.” But it is a criminal trial, and has been covered as such by local media. A case that genuinely is about human rights is the Bradley Manning trial, which concerns vitally important issues such as national security and civil liberties. Yet as PBS.org reports, no mainstream U.S. reporters are covering Manning’s current pretrial hearings.
The centrist media types are dead wrong about the meaning of this trial and the coverage it’s received,. But they do get to score cheap points off feminists, earn instant credibility with wingnuts, and pat themselves on the back for being such fearless contrarians. How flattering to their egos — and how nice for their careers!
Alas, there is one group that stands to lose from the anti-choicers’ media coup — and that is poor women. As Bryce Covert points out, those who submitted to Kermit Gosnell’s grisly ministrations were destitute women who had no other choice. The services Gosnell offered were as much as 80 percent cheaper than comparable treatment elsewhere. If anti-choicers succeed in restricting abortion access, more low-income women will be forced to resort to ghastly back-alley operators like Gosnell. Women of means will always have more civilized options, but poor women will face far higher chances of suffering and death. As the media falls all over itself to curry favor with the anti-choice movement, it would be refreshing if reporters and producers at least took the opportunity to report on the impact that restricted abortion access continues to have on the lives — and deaths — of poor women. But somehow I doubt that will be very high on their to-do list.
AP Photo/Philadelphia Police Department via Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, File