We seem to be in a moment when the national mainstream media either has, or is about to prominently cover the Gosnell horrors. The week-long prolife campaign to increase coverage seems to have finally broken down resistance to covering the Gosnell trial in the most prominent forums of the most popular outlets. The New York Times hasn’t put the trial on its front page yet, but that might well be coming. CNN led off with the story yesterday. Conor Friedersdorf (in a wonderful essay) is correct to wonder how the Gosnell story hasn’t become a prominent national story earlier given all the story’s many horrible news hooks. Megan McArdle admits that her own pro-choice sympathies might have inclined her to shy away from the story. I would like to think that most journalists at mainstream outlets are similarly rethinking their coverage of abortion, but I doubt it. Friedersdorf and McArdle are pro-choice on abortion, but they are also libertarians rather than liberals. While most mainstream media outlets will surrender to the pressure and cover this story more, I think that most of their liberal staff members will consider this a defeat at the hands of their enemies rather than a lesson on how to do their jobs better.
First let’s be clear what I mean by “mainstream” media. It isn’t MSNBC. Like many (but not all) programs on Fox News, MSNBC exists to make money by making its viewers feel better about being on either the conservative or liberal ideological team. MSNBC has a mutually beneficial relationship with Fox News and conservative talk radio in which each side trolls the other. Most people don’t get their news from either MSNBC, or Fox News or talk radio. The mainstream media like ABC, NBC, CBS, and the New York Times might be called culturally biased news. The vast majority of the journalistic and editorial staff for these outlets have left-of-center staffs, but they don’t think of themselves as partisans. They think of themselves as journalists first and think of advancing their policy preferences second or third or almost never.
The personal and collective biases that come from working in an overwhelmingly left-of-center environment blends into the work, but their self-understanding as journalists places some limits on the impact of those biases. They will write stories about the promised benefits of Obamacare, but if some unflattering information comes out, they will report that too. Bias still shapes the coverage. Positive stories will have a coherence that make the case for Obamacare in a the negative stories won’t make the case for Republican opposition. You can see the reverse on Fox News’s excellent Special Report With Bret Baier (which is an example of conservative culturally biased news.) On Special Report, the benefits of Obamacare are mentioned but not emphasized while the drawbacks of the law are spotlighted. The “mainstream” media won’t connect the anti-Obamacare dots for the reader or viewer, but they will eventually get around to reporting those dots – if only in a scattered and confusing way.
The mainstream media’s coverage of Obamacare is based on the norm that the journalists need to satisfy themselves that they made a good faith effort to present both sides of a public controversy. Their shared left-of-center culture influences what “good faith” means, but just the existence of the norm shapes reporting in a healthy way.
On abortion, this norm goes out the window. We are going to hear excuses for why mainstream outlets were so slow and so spare with their coverage of Gosnell. We have seen this before. As Los Angeles Times reporter David Shaw wrote a generation ago “Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.” Reading Shaw’s epic four-part story on the mainstream media’s abortion bias is chilling because of how little has changed.
Let’s just take one example. In 1990 David Shaw wrote:
The Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York is probably the single-most widely quoted source for studies and statistics on abortion, for example, but except for the Washington Post, the media rarely point out that the institute is special affiliate of Planned Parenthood of America, a major leader in the battle for abortion rights.
From today’s NBC report on state-level abortion restrictions:
The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that studies reproductive health, reported this week that 694 state provisions on reproduction have been introduced this year, about half of them to restrict abortion.
Is our media learning? Guttmacher no longer has a formal affiliation with Planned Parenthood, but how likely is it that the reporter did not know the Guttmacher Institute’s connection as a former affiliate of Planned Parenthood? The information is on Wikipedia. It is on the Guttmacher Institute’s website. Leaving out the context was bad faith reporting. Can you imagine a similar oversight about a research organization (however good or bad the quality of its work) that had spun off from the National Right to Life Committee?
We ought to consider that the liberal bias of mainstream journalists on abortion is of a different kind than their liberal bias on other issues. Maybe it isn’t a “blind spot.” Maybe most liberal journalists think of their abortion bias as somewhere between a lovable foible and a civic duty. That might be why we see a journalist tweeting of the spectacular horror of the Gosnell murders even as his own network’s evening news programs ignored the story. They have “ignored or given minimal attention” to the Gosnell story because they thought they were doing the right thing.
This has some implications for how pro-lifers should deal with the mainstream media. We should try to convince journalists and correct the distortions of the other side, but we should also have few illusions with how well such a strategy will do in the short or medium-term – and from reading David Shaw maybe the long-term too. Many mainstream journalists will not be convinced by appeals to their professional consciences. When journalists ignore or give minimal attention to the Gosnell story after they hyped Planned Parenthood’s public relations attack on the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, they aren’t operating on flawed information and the flawed reporting would not be corrected by a a detailed email. They know they are distorting their reporting. They are, to the extent that they can get away with it, choosing their ideological principles over the journalistic self-understanding that informs their work on other issues.
They don’t always get away with it. Pro-lifers and some dissident pro-choice journalists managed to shame more and more of the mainstream media into producing more and more coverage of the Gosnell murders. But there are lessons for how that shaming worked. It didn’t work because it enflamed the consciences of mainstream media journalists. The shaming worked because, after great effort on the part of pro-lifers, the attempt to contain the Gosnell murders as a local crime story failed. The tweeting campaign was effective partly because, by making the Gosnell story a trend, it got the story (if only vaguely) in front of people who were not consumers of right-leaning media. So what are we to do?
We ought to assume that mainstream media journalists will acknowledge inconvenient facts only after they are convinced that a critical mass of the mainstream media’s nonconservative audience has already heard about the inconvenient facts. Rush Limbaugh listeners don’t count. They already distrust the mainstream media. It only hurts the mainstream media when nonconservatives start knowing more about the story than they have heard from the evening news. When it comes to shifting coverage, this nonconservative audience is the key. If you can move them, you can get the mainstream media to react.
The pro-lifer shaming campaign over the Gosnell murders is something to be proud of, but it is not sufficient. In some ways, it only highlights the information power asymmetry between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. If Gosnell had been a serial killer associated with the pro-life cause, then every American would have heard about it a thousand times without pro-choice organizations having to send a press release. Now, after days of work by pro-lifers, the Gosnell murders will still only get a fraction of the mainstream media coverage that the story would have gotten if the two sides were reversed. Pro-lifers won the day, but, to the audience that primarily consumes mainstream media, we lose most days, and we are still on track to lose more days because, when the pressure is off, mainstream media journalists will go back to what they were doing last week and hype ideologically convenient stories while ignoring the inconvenient ones. We just had an election where the incumbent had voted to allow newborn survivors of botched abortions to die without medical treatment and somehow Romney was the abortion extremist.
Pro-lifers should do what they can to get better media coverage. We should have articulate spokesmen and such, but this will only go so far by itself, because mainstream media journalists will always be able to pick their fights by focusing on stories they like and ignoring or minimizing the rest. Pro-lifers need a method for communicating directly with the mass of the public that does not consume conservative media. Paid media seems the most obvious route to me, but we should be open to any alternative. The key is to get people who do not consume conservative media to hear and see a well constructed pro-life argument. Maybe this paid media will even prove nimble enough to move the debate based on events. Such a pro-life institution or set of institutions would expose people to ideas, facts and controversies that they were not aware of. Such institutions would eventually force the mainstream media to respond, not because the mainstream media would have awoken to their professional obligations, but because they would have lost the power to determine what their audience knows and does not know.