Whatever the Reason, There’s No Excuse for Media Ignoring Kermit Gosnell Trial

Under pressure from pro-life websites and writers, several national news outlets have reluctantly began covering the trial of ghastly abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Beyond that, a handful of liberal media figures are finally beginning to ask the important question of why such a sensational trial--if it bleeds, it supposedly leads--received almost no attention whatsoever in the national press.

In a scathing piece, Washington Post blogger Melinda Henneberger, a rare pro-life liberal journalist, rounds up some excuses from her colleagues about why they think the media ignored the Gosnell case. One of her co-workers responded that the story of the abortionist’s alleged crimes seemed more of a local news story than a national one. Of course, local crime stories such as the disappearance of Natalee Holloway or the case against Andrea Yates, are routinely covered by nationwide news outlets.

Henneberger also relays a new common retort: the media elites just didn’t care about Gosnell because his crimes too place in Philadelphia and his victims were poor, minority women. That also is an absurd excuse considering that television networks love hearing about the plight of people allegedly being victimized by society--especially if said victimization can be used to promote a Democratic policy point. In any case, as noted by Kirsten Powers, neither the Nation nor Salon.com, two left-wing publications which supposedly advocate for minorities and the poor, have been interested in the story.

While many have theorized that the overwhelmingly liberal media ignored the case against Gosnell because they believe that publicizing it somehow would undermine support for abortion rights, Henneberger argues the story has been neglected primarily because liberal journalists have gotten so used to reporting about (and against) pro-lifers that they have difficulty thinking about someone being excessively pro-choice:

I say we didn’t write more because the only abortion story most outlets ever cover in the news pages is every single threat or perceived threat to abortion rights. In fact, that is so fixed a view of what constitutes coverage of that issue that it’s genuinely hard, I think, for many journalists to see a story outside that paradigm as news. That’s not so much a conscious decision as a reflex, but the effect is one-sided coverage.

Now, I assign plenty of “rights under threat” stories myself, for She the People [the Post blog for which she edits and writes], and see them as perfectly valid. But we in the news business do cover the extremism of some who oppose abortion rights — attempts to run after pregnant women with transvaginal probes, for example — far more than we do the extremism of some who favor abortion rights, as per the Planned Parenthood’s Alisa LaPolt Snow, who said recently that when a baby somehow survives an abortion, it’s up to the woman, her family and her doctor to decide that child’s fate.

This is an interesting contention and one that seems true. Unfortunately, however, the self-declared fourth branch of government is so utterly opaque about editorial processes, theorization is basically what press critics are left doing. Attempts at actually trying to report why media organizations decide to ignore or play up stories are met with stony silence.

By his own account, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple has tried several times (including in the case of Gosnell) to uncover the story behind the non-story. His attempts to do so have been unsuccessful:

On those occasions, the Erik Wemple Blog brings the matter to the attention of any allegedly offending news organization or journalist. At that point, a pretty common transaction unfolds. We are not at liberty to quote news organizations or journalists, but we can say that, when presented with questions that have their origins in MRC/NewsBusters research, the typical response is something along the lines of ”Get out of my face with this agenda-driven stuff, and come back when you have a real story.” In fairness, we do get similar responses to research from the watchdog on the other end of the “mediological” spectrum – Media Matters for America.

GetReligion blogger Mollie Hemingway was unsuccessful at finding out why Atlantic.com--which had provided nearly obsessive coverage of the local story of the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin or the silly comments about abortion from Missouri Republican Todd Akin--had ignored Gosnell. 

In response to a Twitter question from Hemingway, Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor of the site, denied that she had “a blackout on him” and instead referred to a single mention of the case in a news-of-the-moment roundup she had filed in March. When Hemingway responded that one story is not exactly real coverage, Franke-Ruta retorted back: “I don’t know why you’re acting like I assigned every Atlantic article ever written.” She then proceeded to delete her earlier tweet and refused to answer further questions on the topic.

While some media execs or representatives have been somewhat more forthcoming to questions about their coverage, many of the responses, as Brent Bozell noted earlier today, have been almost laughable, particularly Washington Post editor Martin Baron’s response that he had never really heard of Gosnell until just recently. While a top editor’s job is more about culling stories rather than becoming aware of new ones, it says a lot that none of Baron’s lieutenants had ever bothered to tell him about it previously.

Could there indeed be some deliberate bias at work? That is definitely the case according to liberal Huffington Post video host Marc Lamont Hill who argued that in a segment yesterday:

“For what it’s worth, I do think that those of us on the left have made a decision not to cover this trial because we worry that it’ll compromise abortion rights. Whether you agree with abortion or not, I do think there’s a direct connection between the media’s failure to cover this and our own political commitments on the left. I think it’s a bad idea, I think it’s dangerous, but I think that’s the way it is.”

Trying to support abortion rights might not be the only deliberate choice that journalists are making by ignoring the case against Gosnell. Partisanship could also be a factor as well since the abortionist is accused of directly and indirectly murdering infants who had survived the abortion process, something President Barack Obama has long insisted was an impossibility. Since several of Gosnell’s employees have admitted to doing this, Obama’s earlier assertion that there is no need to protect the civil rights of born-alive infants in abortion clinics is ill-founded.

Whatever their motives, the fact remains that the media still have much to answer for by choosing to ignore the trial of Kermit Gosnell. While there has been more coverage of late, the fact remains that the elite media still are not really covering the case. According to a local Philadelphia Inquirer reporter interviewed by Wemple, the media have “never come close to filling” the available seating cordoned off in the courtroom for the press.

It is telling that journalists are voluntarily calling themselves racist and classist rather than owning up to the very real problem of the vast underrepresentation of conservatives and pro-lifers in the media.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013