“Why isn’t the national press reporting about the Gosnell trial?”
Several of my friends on Facebook asked that question recently. Here was my quick response to one of them.
“They don’t know to handle something like this. Speaking as a 40+ year journalist, I can tell you that the press of today is nothing like the press of the 1960s and early 70s. We had no agenda but to tell the truth about anything and everything. Today’s press and media have a strong liberal agenda and are committed to promoting their agenda every day in every report. The Gosnell trial should lead newscasts and headlines across this country, but the liberal agendas have caused the liberal media a big problem. They have promoted the abortion agenda for so long that they have no way of reporting honestly on what is clearly a trial about serial killings of the most reprehensible kind. The press and media cannot do their jobs now because they have not done their jobs for decades. They stood by while millions of innocent citizens of this country were ‘legally’ murdered, so they have blood on their hands. The press and media lost their ability to report objectively and fairly when they fell to subjectivity and unfairness. That is why the press is ignoring the Gosnell story. They created Gosnell and others like him by ignoring their responsibility to report all the news honestly and fairly.”
The legal guilt or innocence of Dr. Kermit Gosnell will soon be in the hands of a jury, but the larger question is how we got here in the first place. How can we as a supposedly civilized people question whether the mass slaughter of human beings is a crime? Let me share some historical perspective that may help.
I remember when the debate began. I was a young reporter, talk show host and atheist at the time. Reporting about illegal abortions came up from time to time, but not often enough in a local broadcast market to give it much thought. Abortion was classified as a crime in most states, though legal under certain circumstances in some. The issue of abortion was not something we debated in the newsroom at the time. That was until the case of Jane Roe.
It seemed like just another federal lawsuit at the time. Lawyers for Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe) filed suit in federal court in 1970 challenging abortion laws in the state of Texas. The case was known as Roe v. Wade (Wade was Henry Wade, Dallas County District Attorney at the time). The U.S. District Court in Dallas ruled in favor of Roe based on the 9th Amendment to the Constitution (“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”). The court relied on a US Supreme Court ruling in a 1965 case known as Griswold v. Connecticut where the justices, by a vote of 7-2, invalidated a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. They ruled that the US Constitution protected a person’s right to privacy, including the right to “marital privacy.”
Roe v. Wade headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, but the high court waited to hear the arguments of Roe vs. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (a similar case) until they decided Younger v. Harris (dealing with the jurisdiction of federal courts in certain types of cases). They also were dealing with an abortion rights case in the District of Columbia known as United States v. Vuitch. Milan Vuitch was an abortion provider who had been indicted on charges of providing illegal abortions. Vuitch sued in federal court claiming a D.C. abortion law was unconstitutionally vague. Federal District Judge Gerhard Gesell ruled in favor of Vuitch, which was the first time a federal court declared that an abortion law was unconstitutional. That was in 1969. The District of Columbia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the high court narrowly ruled in favor of the District in 1971, though it was not a clear victory for those who opposed abortion rights. Though the justices voted that the District of Columbia’s law was not “vague,” they treated abortion as a medical procedure, which opened up the appeals from Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.
Those appeals were scheduled to be heard by the full court at the end of 1971, but were delayed because of the retirements of two Supreme Court justices (Black and Harlan). At the same time, individual states were dealing with pro-abortion legislation. The issue of abortion was becoming a major issue for journalists. It was growing in importance as a news story, so how would we cover it? Like we covered every other story – objectively and fairly.
If you are under the age of 30, you may have never seen an objective and fair newscast, at least not on the national level. There was a time when reporters, anchors, producers, and news managers refrained from allowing anyone outside their immediate family know their personal beliefs about controversial news topics. That included abortion. We were under strict rules not to talk about our personal views on the air or even in the newsroom. Expressing personal views in a public forum used to be a fireable offense.
I was an atheist when the abortion debate began in the 1960s, but became a Christian in 1971. My personal views about abortion changed dramatically, but it didn’t change the way I covered news stories concerning abortion. I knew the importance of doing my job the way I had been trained and following the purpose of the people who designed the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The beauty and power of the press (news media) as determined by the founders of our country is that a free press would be a vital part of a free nation. It is (or at least was) the responsibility of journalists to represent the people by holding the government accountable for its actions as servants of the people. When the press no longer covers the news honestly and fairly and, in some cases, promotes its own agenda before the rights of the people to know the truth, the freedom on our country is placed in great jeopardy.
After the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade in 1973, it opened a floodgate for legal abortions in every state in our country. As a journalist it meant that abortion was no longer a crime story, but that didn’t mean abortion was no longer a story. Journalists have covered abortion legislation, legal appeals, court trials, protests for and against abortion, bombings of abortion clinics, and assaults, kidnappings and murders of abortion providers.
So, how did we do? The answer is “not well.” Instead of discussing the angles and merits of the story, journalists talked about their personal feelings about abortion. It fell on the shoulders of news managers to make sure coverage of abortion-related stories was handled objectively and fairly. Unfortunately, many managers decided against doing abortion stories or allowed their coverage to become unbalanced.
One thing the press has failed miserably at doing is telling the story of aborted children in our country. Tens of millions of babies have been killed since Roe v. Wade in 1973. They were and are the forgotten victims in the abortion story. The road to truth is narrow and must be taken to find it. Trying to avoid the truth or follow another path will not lead one to “the truth.” When we close our eyes to truth, truth will close its eyes to us.
It has been a huge mistake to allow personal beliefs and emotions to dictate how any news story will be covered. Unbalanced reporting leads to an imbalance in our freedoms. Instead of people knowing what’s true or false based on reported evidence, they are “led” to believe what journalists want them to believe based on “sloppy” reporting at the least or “misdirected” reporting at the worst. We have seen both types of reporting of the abortion issue since Roe v. Wade. It is the combination of sloppiness and misdirection that has led us to this day – to the strange story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
Modern journalism often becomes a blend of partial truth and opinion. Anyone who has gone through journalism school should recognize that as the dangerous “mixed opinion” in defamation law. When journalists have no desire to cover a story completely and fairly or are not allowed to do so by management, the nation they supposedly serve is on its way to losing freedoms that are at the core of its ability to function properly. Just weeks before her death, my 91-year-old mother told me that she had never seen our government run this way. I agree and to some degree blame the press.
So, what do we do now? Continue down a path we know leads to death and destruction? Or find the path that leads to life and liberty? While it may seem that our days as a free nation are numbered, the possibility for renewed freedom is still with us. How do we do that? More on that in our next post.
(Mark McGee was a career broadcast and print journalist from 1967 until his retirement in 2009)