When twenty children and six adults were gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, it rightfully made huge news. Since the killings, the media have worked energetically to keep the atrocity front and center in the public consciousness—as a story still important in its own right, to be sure, but also as a way to lend support for gun control laws currently being debated in Congress and state legislatures.
That’s the media’s job. Unfortunately, this hit-the-story-from-all-angles approach is often selectively applied. When a news item does not further the media’s ideological templates, issues and events that would cast disfavor on political or cultural agendas supported by most journalists generally receive curt treatment—and sometimes, no reportage at all.
Case in point: It is no secret that most in the mainstream press embrace abortion rights and take every opportunity to cast pro-life advocates in a bad light—as when they use a politician’s insensitive or mangled words to smear the entire movement. In contrast, the late-term abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, currently on trial for murder in Philadelphia, is being treated as an obscurity.
For those who may not know, Gosnell is charged with running a veritable abattoir at which clinic personnel allegedly severed the spines of viable babies and killed an abortion patient. Evidence has revealed that fetal body parts were stored at his clinic in jars as macabre trophies. All of this, of course, also grossly violated the laws of the state of Pennsylvania, as well as any reasonable baseline of medical ethics.
The Gosnell story should be huge. But the media have generally looked the other way. As of this writing, the major network nightly news programs have not even covered the trial, and most reporting outside of the Philadelphia area has been sporadic, placed on inside pages, and written blandly—the kind of low-voltage reportage easily lost in the constant white noise of media overload. On March 19, for example, the New York Times reported the start of the trial on page A-17, and has not covered the graphic testimony or provocative allegations of racism by the defense (Gosnell is African-American.)
I saw the same “see little evil” phenomenon in the media’s overwhelmingly friendly reporting of the assisted suicide campaign of the late Jack Kevorkian. The man was a veritable ghoul. But you wouldn’t know it from most media reports. When Kevorkian ripped out the kidneys of one of his assisted suicides, and called a press conference offering them for transplant, “first come, first served,” the story made little splash and was soon forgotten.
It was also the rare journalist who reported on Kevorkian’s self-stated motive for pushing his assisted suicide campaign. As he described in Prescription: Medicide, Kevorkian used assisted suicide primarily as a means to a stomach-churning end. From page 214 (emphasis mine):
I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim . . . It is not simply to help suffering or doomed persons to kill themselves—that is merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) . . . What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish—in a word, obitiatry.
In other words, Kevorkian wanted to engage in human vivisection on still-living people.
Why conduct invasive experiments on those being euthanized? To serve his death-obsession: On page 34, he expressed an intense desire to “study all parts of the intact, living brain.” Toward what end? On page 243, he explained, “If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death—even superficially—it will have to be through obitiatry.” “Obitiary” was a term of his coinage, used to describe the pseudo-profession of medical death delivery. At the very least, Kevorkian’s own words belied his supposedly selfless motives, and yet the media rarely mentioned it.
Here’s another key aspect of his story not often reported: His first targets for obitiatry were condemned prisoners. Kevorkian spent years visiting prisons and corresponding with death-row inmates, seeking permission to conduct “obitiatric research” on those being executed. It was only when that effort failed that he focused his attention on the sick and disabled.
Most people are unaware of these facts because the media rarely did their job. Rather, the narrative in most stories was of Kevorkian as a defender of personal autonomy—a favorite media meme—accompanied by emotional stories of the suffering people who wanted to die.
Here’s the bottom line: When the media believe that a provocative story will further their ideological predilections, they drive it to a high public profile through blazing headlines, prominent story placement, top-of-the-television news coverage, the use of vivid language, and repeated follow-up reports. But when newsworthy events conflict with desired media narratives, coverage will usually be sporadic, buried, blandly headlined, matter-of-factly described, and dropped as soon as practicable. That may help certain favored political causes, but it subverts the media’s proper role in our free society.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.