PBS Finally Covers Gosnell Trial, But Denies There Has Been Insufficient Media Coverage

After more than a month of silence, PBS finally covered the murder trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell on Monday’s NewsHour. Considering that all other major news outlets have barely given Gosnell a mention, if they mentioned him at all, it was refreshing to see PBS devote a full seven-minute story to the gruesome abortionist (even if that story came at the very end of the broadcast). However, there was still a stench of disingenuousness in the air as the PBS journalists subtly dismissed the notion that the trial has not received sufficient media coverage up until now.

Anchor Jeffrey Brown introduced the story as “the murder trial of an abortion provider that has captured national attention.” But if the trial has captured national attention, why has PBS waited until now to mention it? Why have we seen nothing more than a trickle of coverage from other major national news outlets? The story might have rightfully captured national attention from the pro-life crowd, but the liberal commercial broadcast media, which favors abortion, has been unwilling to give it national attention.


Judy Woodruff, who presented the story, admitted “A judge and jury in Philadelphia began hearing testimony in the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell more than a month ago.” True, yet PBS, along with the rest of the national news media, sat on the story until very recently. Woodruff admitted that the sudden (but still extremely limited) coverage followed "both sides of the abortion debate ... fighting over its significance." Again, true, but the fight over its significance was led in no small part by this blog, our parent organization the Media Research Center, and countless conservatives via social media shaming the legacy media into covering the story.

I suppose you could say that the trial has received “more coverage” in the past two weeks, but going from no coverage to almost no coverage is hardly a reason to celebrate. At any rate, Woodruff seemed to suggest that the media has only begun to cover this trial because the argument over its significance has become too loud to ignore. But she didn’t attempt to explain why PBS and others completely ignored the story when it first broke. Of course, the implication is that the media believed it to be unimportant.



Near the end of the segment, Woodruff asked her guest, AP reporter Maryclaire Dale, about the contention that the Gosnell trial has not received enough media attention. Dale brushed aside that argument: “[T]here has been coverage throughout the trial.  There was more once there was some back-and-forth about whether enough media outlets were covering it.”

That mild language misses the point. There has not been enough national coverage to elevate this story to the status it deserves. A few media outlets bowed momentarily to the mounting pressure to cover the story, but they have since zipped their lips again.

Dale then tried to excuse the lack of coverage: “Cameras are not allowed in courtrooms in the state of Pennsylvania and there's a gag order in this trial which prevents lawyers from speaking outside the courtroom, so it is a bit tough for broadcasters to, you know, get the kind of footage that they typically might wish to get.”
 

It may be difficult for broadcasters to acquire footage for B-roll, but that is no reason for serious journalists to ignore the trial completely, particularly serious journalists on a taxpayer-subsidized network who don't rely on advertising revenue and who insist that they cover the stories that really matter, even the ones the commercial media won't touch.

There are plenty of other ways to cover a trial. All a reporter needs is a pen, notepad, and audio recorder. And if the lawyers aren’t allowed to speak outside of the courtroom, broadcast journalists could always conduct a few man-on-the-street interviews to gauge ordinary folks’ feelings about the trial. Indeed, PBS did many of those during the Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage last month. The Supreme Court doesn't allow cameras and releases only audio of the oral arguments.

All of the major news outlets have been slow to report on this trial for the simple reason that they don’t want to cover it. They have spent so much time cheering on abortion rights that they can’t bear to admit that there is a gruesome side to abortion, a side which, shown in broad daylight, fills most people with horror and prompts a desire to do something to stop it. To cover the Kermit Gosnell trial in earnest would have a profound effect on the national debate on abortion in a way that is not acceptable to the pro-choice lobby nor to the socially liberal newsrooms that sympathize with it.

Below is a partial transcript of the segment:


JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, the murder trial of an abortion provider that has captured national attention. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A judge and jury in Philadelphia began hearing testimony in the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell more than a month ago. But over the past two weeks, the trial has received more coverage from national news organizations after both sides of the abortion debate began fighting over its significance. Gosnell is being tried on eight counts of murder-- seven of them for allegedly killing babies that prosecutors say were born alive and viable. The eighth count is for his role in the death of an immigrant from Bhutan. Attorneys say she died from an overdose from a sedative she was given. The case stems from an FBI raid on his Philadelphia clinic in 2010. Investigators found horrific conditions and say he performed some abortions after the 24-week legal limit in Pennsylvania. Gosnell's defense is scheduled to begin this week and observers are waiting to see if he will testify.

***

WOODRUFF: Maryclaire Dale, one final question. We mentioned the dispute about whether the media's focused attention. How much media attention has there been on this trial?

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Well, there was quite a bit when the grand jury report came out in 2011. That was almost a 300-page report. There was both local and national media. And there has been coverage throughout the trial. There was more once there was some back-and-forth about whether enough media outlets were covering it. The one thing is there – cameras are not allowed in courtrooms in the state of Pennsylvania and there's a gag order in this trial which prevents lawyers from speaking outside the courtroom, so it is a bit tough for broadcasters to, you know, get the kind of footage that they typically might wish to get. There are more people here now covering the trial. And so we'll see from here on out.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.