WaPo Fails to Identify Partisan Bent of Blogs Pushing Bob Marshall Controversy

Updated below (Feb. 24)

The Washington Post was curiously silent about the ideological and/or partisan bent of blogs that prompted its coverage of a controversial statement made last Thursday by Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall (R), who suggested, the Post reports, "that women who have abortions risk having later children with birth defects as a punishment from God."

Kunkle noted that Marshall couched his controversial comments in reference to a study by Virginia Commonwealth University that "was published in 2008 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health and suggested that there is a higher risk of premature birth and low birth weight in children born to women who have had an abortion."

"Few seized on the remarks at the time Marshall made them," the Post's Fredrick Kunkle noted in his page B2 February 23 story, "[b]ut outrage built on social networking sites and political blogs after some Virginia newspapers picked up the story from Capital News Service, a program at VCU's School of Mass Communications."

But which blogs, exactly? It's not a stretch to imagine it was mostly left-wing or Democratic blogs seeking to hype a controversy to make Virginia Republicans -- who control the House of Delegates -- look bad, particularly in an election year in which the Democratic majority in the state senate is in jeopardy.

Yet Kunkle failed to inform readers which blogs tipped him off to the story and what political axes they have to grind.

Kunkle then cited an ostensibly apolitical man-on-the-street to express his disgust:

"I am amazed that someone has been able to slander my child, my wife and my God in one comment," said Brett Wills, 38, a Staunton paint salesman who is the father of an 8-year-old boy with autism. "To imply that someone's disabilities are an act of God to punish women in an immoral society is just the most outrageous thing I've ever heard." 

Wills is entitled to his opinion, but how did Kunkle, based in Washington, come across a random guy from a city in Virginia 160 miles to the southwest?

It turns out Wills is hardly an apolitical Joe Sixpack. A January 8, 2010 story on WHSV.com quoted Wills's anger about proposed budget cutbacks laid out by outgoing liberal Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.):

City and county governments across Virginia are facing the grim prospect that 2010 may be worse than 2009.

Leaders in the public and private sector, along with hundreds of other concerned citizens, met at James Madison University Thursday for a regional hearing on Gov. Tim Kaine's proposed budget for the 2010-2012 biennium.

A survey conducted by the Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League found that nearly 60 percent of local governments initiated hiring freezes or cut funding in 2009. About 45 percent dipped into reserves to close budget gaps, and 70 percent reduced or eliminated projects.

City and county leaders hope their budgets will balance come June 30, the end of the fiscal year, but where state funding will be further slashed is still unknown.

Kaine has proposed cuts in a wide variety of areas, but one that drew significant concern from people attending Thursday's hearing was health care.

For Brett Wills, caring for his autistic son can be a challenge.

"This tightrope here represents what us families with special-needs kids and special-needs adults walk pretty much our entire lives and their entire lives," says Wills, who lives in Augusta County.

During the public hearing, he visually demonstrated with a tightrope, a safety net and a puppet what cuts in state funding mean to families like his.

"The Medicaid waivers are the stabilizing influence that keep them out of that inadequate safety net. We do not need a shorter stick," says Wills.

Kaine proposes cuts to waiver programs that pay for care. People currently on the waiting list would stay there.

Kunkle then noted that "[a]n online petition called for Marshall's resignation, but failed to note the role left-wing blogs -- such as Blue Commonwealth -- are playing in promoting the petition.

To his credit, Kunkle did note that Marshall has apologized for his "poorly chosen words" and noted the Republican legislator is such a champion of government spending on children with disabilities that he was threatened with expulsion from the Republican caucus last year due to his stand in favor of a mandate that insurance companies cover "specialized therapy needed by autistic children."

That being said, Kunkle poorly served readers by portraying the Marshall gaffe as an incident that bubbled up the media food chain without the concerted effort of liberal activists.

What's more, while there are plenty of conservative Christians who would strongly disagree with Marshall's theology, Kunkle devoted just one paragraph -- the 18th in a 20-paragraph story -- to a conservative activist who dismissed Marshall's statement while emphasizing the validity of the VCU study that prompted Marshall's remarks:

"I think there are studies medically demonstrating that there are future health risks to abortion," said Chris Freund, a spokesman for the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. "To say that's evidence of God's judgment goes too far." 

Anyone can disagree with Marshall's personal religious beliefs, but the scientific study that prompted them is harder to dismiss outright, which is why drowning out the study with noise about Marshall's alleged insensitivity is the tack of the media here.

Update (12:35 EST, Feb. 24): I received the following e-mail from one Martha Toomey, who claims Brett Wills is a political libertarian who contacted Kunkle following her Facebook posting on the issue. Below is Toomey's e-mail to NewsBusters:

I am a disability advocate and on Kunkle's radar screen when he is looking into disability issues. He called me and asked my opinion, and asked if I would network to find parents who also had an opinion. I posted on Facebook, and hundreds of people shared this post. Brett and Jennifer responded ASAP to Kunkle, who was on deadline. You are way off base on this one, because Brett is a proud libertarian and shares his political beliefs on FB, and other venues. Since you are reporting on blogs, and alternative media, it will not surprise you to find out that all sorts of people are friends on FB, not segregated by political dogma at all. Brett is furious that you would even suggest he is a liberal.
For the record, I did not assert Wills was a liberal, but merely that he was not an apolitical person that Kunkle randomly found.
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters