The Gosnell Trial Is About Many Things, but Media Bias Isn't One of Them

A wave of complaints about mainstream media bias crested on Friday with the belief in some circles that the murder trial of former abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is being completely ignored by the national media. 

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A wave of complaints about mainstream media bias crested on Friday with the argument from some circles that the murder trial of former abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is being completely ignored by the national media. The message culminated Friday in this USA Today editorial by Kirsten Powers. She states that "there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page." She takes it as "obvious" that "this should be front page news," but because it's so "obvious," she, like others who have followed her lead, doesn't give much explanation for why the story needs more airtime.

To begin with, the idea that the trial hasn't been covered by news outlets is disproved by a cursory search of the archives. Most major outlets have written something about the trial. In fact, a lot of them did so two years ago when the story first brokeThere hasn't been as much coverage in the last three months, but that's partly because the 280-page grand jury report has been available for some time, and the "headline-worthy testimony" has not been kept a secret. If you haven't heard about it until this week, it's only because you were reading the wrong websites. (Plus, local outlets are doing a great job of staying on the trial and aren't that hard to find.)

One particular reporter who has come under fire is Sarah Kliff, who is a national policy reporter for The Washington Post. She wrote about all of last year's big abortion/health care controversies, like the Susan G. Komen Foundation debacle and Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, but hasn't touched the Gosnell trial. When confronted about that fact by blogger Mollie Hemingway she explained that it was a "local crime" story, not a policy story, which only enraged her critics more. Isn't it her job to make it a policy story?

And what policies could possibly be under discussion with this Gosnell trial? Other than, you know, abortion clinic hiring practices? And enforcement of sanitary conditions? And laws on abortion practices that extend to killing live infants by beheading them? And the killing of their mothers? And state or federal oversight of clinics with records of botched abortions? And pain medication practices? And how to handle the racist practices of some clinics? And how big of a problem this is (don’t tell anyone but another clinic nearby to Gosnell was shut down this week over similar sanitation concerns)? And disposal of babies’ bodies? And discussion of whether it’s cool to snip baby’s spines after they’re born? And how often are abortion clinics inspected anyway? What are the results of inspections? When emergency rooms take in victims of botched abortions, do they report that? How did this clinic go 17 years without an inspection? Gosh, I just can’t think of a single health policy angle here. Can you?

The problem with this line of approach is there is no debate to be had about any of these questions. If one is asking "should abortion clinics be regulated and safe?" then who would possibly answer "No"?  As a legal matter, these issues have all be addressed. The state may have failed in its duty to enforce the laws in the Gosnell case, but the laws are there to be enforced and no one thinks they should be taken away.

To be fair, Kliff could have written that story if she chose to, using Gosnell's trial as an opening to the larger issue of abortion policy. However, to do so honestly she would have to begin by admitting that the two really aren't related. Gosnell isn't on trial for conducting abortions. He's on trial precisely because what he did went beyond all legal definitions of abortion, and into the realm of murder. (He also killed one of his adult patients, committed numerous safety and health code violations, and is charged with several drug-related crimes.) Pro-choice or pro-life, there is no question that his actions would constitute a horrific crime that should be duly punished.

If Kliff (or anyone, even a pro-life writer) wanted to write about abortion, there's are plenty of other stories that would give them a more appropriate, if less shocking, entry. Police officers sometimes kill in cold blood, but that's usually not the best way to have a national conversation about law enforcement.

Conservatives have also pointed to other stories like the Trayvon Martin case, as classic examples of "local crimes" that received outsized national attention. But the Martin case was ignored by the national media, for nearly a month, until a New York Times column by Charles Blow thrust it into the national spotlight. And the reason it generated it so much outrage was because there was a real debate about whether the shooter, George Zimmerman, had even committed a crime at all. It isn't Martin's death that created the sensation; it was the arguments it started over race, stand-your-ground laws, gun control, and how communities should deal with crime in general. The angry and provocative tone of the debate only added fuel to the fire. 

In the end, the conservatives beating the drum about Gosnell's crime have gotten their way. The media is now responding to the charge, by either admitting they haven't done enough or defensively pointing out what they've already accomplished. But they've also inadvertently exposed, another lesser-known truth—that they don't just want coverage, they want coverage that they agree with. Complaints that media doesn't want to cover the story imply that there's an agenda at stake, but the critics have their own agenda too. They have plenty of reasons why liberals wouldn't provide coverage, but conservatives are less clear about why they think it deserves more.

Charles Krauthamer manages to get at that truth in a roundabout way, saying that the media is avoiding the story because "the pro-choice people imagine that any regulation, at any level, at any kind, is the beginning of the end of abortion rights." But isn't that what pro-life advocates actually want? Wouldn't they ultimately like to see a slippery slope that carries us to a place where abortion is outlawed?

Having said all that, there probably is some truth to the notion that the biggest media outlets (particularly the cable news networks) have underplayed the story, because it does make viewers  uncomfortable. Yet, pro-choice and feminist writers have not only talked about Gosnell, they've denounced him and tried to use him as club against those who shut down other abortion providers. In a way, pro-choice activists would welcome the spread of the more horrifying details because it helps support their argument (which dates to pre-Roe v. Wade "back alley" era of abortion politics) that shutting down responsible abortion clinics only empowers the unscrupulous ones.

Everyone wants to see more coverage of the issues that matter to them the most. The problem is that they insist that the coverage also reflect their values.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.