Why ex-abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell deserves news coverage (but not the kind some critics want)
One of my pet peeves as a media critic is when people say a significant issue gets “no coverage” by the news media.
That’s because, most of the time, those who make those allegations have no idea whether major news outlets have actually covered the subject, or how they have covered it.
Just over a week ago, I sat on a panel at the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver with several journalists who insisted the news media hadn’t critically covered President Obama’s controversial use of drones to kill terrorists (and, occasionally, accidentally kill civilians) before the 2012 elections.
I said then I “didn’t buy” the argument that the subject wasn’t covered, only to be assured the news media held back. But a quick Google search reveals stories on CNN, NPR, the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times and Slate (and more Slate) before the 2012 election on Obama’s use of drones to strike at terrorists.
What people often mean when they say something got “no” coverage, is that the story didn’t become one of the select few subjects held at the top of the news agenda, given saturation coverage and blasted across every news outlet at the same time, like the push for gun control legislation or the trial of accused murderer Jodi Arias.
In fact, what they're really asking, is why hasn't it become a big TV story. Because that's how big local news stories become national issues.
Which leads us to the current handwringing in media circles over the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician accused of operating a house of horrors abortion clinic where babies were delivered alive and then killed under awful conditions where fetus parts were stashed across his office. According to the charges, women were kept sedated by unlicensed staff; the place smelled of urine and with cat feces on the stairs; some instruments were rusty and corroded.
Gosnell is on trial now and conservatives say the mainstream media have ignored the case because they are supportive of abortion rights and don’t want to spread word of an abortion doctor gone wrong. As conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg put it “How could the same people who can’t get enough of Jodi Arias and who turned Casey Anthony into a household name, ignore such a story? Why isn’t this page one news all over the country?”
Critics of the criticism note that some conservative media outlets also ignored the Gosnell trial until people began talking about the lack of coverage. The New York Post, for example, published a column criticizing the lack of national media coverage without noting it hadn’t covered the story, either.
A column by conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell in 2011 noted that NPR, the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, CNN and Fox News all covered the case back then, when a 281-page grand jury report was issued on the charges against Gosnell, but not to the degree Bozell felt was warranted.
Look around online, and you’ll see that Gosnell got lot of coverage when the grand jury report was released, thanks in part to a press conference by prosecutors. Good Morning America, Pro Publica, ABC News, liberal magazine The Nation and many other news outlets told the horrific story then.
But Gosnell’s trial hasn’t gotten nearly that level of attention until now. And wondering why that’s happened is a pretty good question.
Still, it’s not a given that coverage of this case adds up to a black eye for abortion rights advocates. If the allegations against Gosnell are true, such procedures were already outlawed by the state and considered murder. Claims that rollbacks in clinic inspections happened due to pro-abortion political pressure seems odd, given that Pennsylvania Congressmen fought openly over whether abortion would be even be covered by Obamacare in 2009, before he was arrested.
Many of the patients at Gosnell’s clinic were poor women who presumably couldn’t afford such procedures at better facilities; so his operation could also be considered an argument for what happens when abortion is made less accessible, either by price or by law.
As a cynical media observer, I think there are plenty of non-political reasons why this case hasn’t become a big TV story -- I mean, national firestorm.
There are no cameras in the courtroom. Stories become national firestorms mostly due to TV coverage, but Gosnell’s trial is closed to cameras. And television outlets hate covering stories with no dramatic pictures. Think of any court case turned into a sideshow by media coverage – from Arias to the Steubenville rape case verdict to Casey Anthony – and you have TV coverage fed by footage available from the trial.
The perpetrator and most of his victims are black. One of the other elements which spark TV coverage is a sense that the victim or the accused criminal resonates with a mostly-white news audience. Arias, Anthony and Amanda Knox were all pretty, middle class-looking white women who seemed tailor-made to star in the real-life version of a Lifetime movie; which is the type of story most cable TV and morning television news outlets crave. But Gosnell, age 72, and most of his victims don’t fit that narrow mold, lacking the visual appeal TV demands.
It’s an old story. The grisly details of the charges against Gosnell were revealed two years ago – an eternity for hyperactive online and TV news operations. The Trayvon Martin shooting was covered most when shooter George Zimmerman was walking free and Florida officials seeemed disinclined to charge him with a crime. TV loves an ongoing controversy much more than an old story.
It’s a grisly story. The details are so disgusting, the story once again grows less attractive to the TV outlets which turn these events into mega-stories. Given the other strikes against the story listed above, the fact that the details will put you off your breakfast in a hurry, makes trial coverage even less attractive to morning TV and cable news.
The government inertia and mistakes which kept officials from investigating the clinic was exposed long ago. State officials got lots of warnings about Gosnell before he was discovered by law enforcement which planned to bust him for operating a pill mill and discovered his aboirtion operation. The grand jury report in 2011 laid out the reasons -- including citing pressure from abortion rights advocates wary that aggressive regulation could be a defacto denial of the procedure. But the Philadelphia Inquirer also noted that Gosnell wasn't shut down over complaints that he didn't properly dispose of medical waste and stored vaccines in filthy refrigerators. So it seems Philadelphia and Pennsylvania's health authorities may have more to answer for. And investigative reporters won't make much of a splash re-covering governmental mistakes which were first exposed two years ago.
There are highly charged political outlets demanding coverage for their own ends. For any one major media outlet to stake out sustained coverage of this trial when others are not would have required a bit of neck-stretching. Liberals and conservatives have competing arguments for and against coverage. Again, given the other strikes against the story, Gosnell trial coverage could seem like risking criticism to highlight a trial which mostly has purient interest.
And that’s the issue for me. It seems as if some people decrying the lack of Gosnell trial coverage want the same sort of lazy nonsense we’ve gotten on the Arias trial and Anthony trial and so many proceedings of limited impact to most of the world.
There are issues here which deserve coverage. Are there other clinics in the city or state operating similarly due to lax oversight? Are some of the abortion restrictions passed in Pennsylvania after he was arrested a reaction to the allegations? Is there any way to sort out the political arguments here to determine if the horrors alleged were a result of a lax attitude toward abortion or a too-strict demonization of it? (Slate did just such a series of stories back in 2011; they are certainly worth an update now.)
All of that requires reporting and investigation, not sitting a reporter in the trial proceedings and scooping up the latest morsel of salacious testimony.
So I hope we do see more national media coverage of the Gosnell trial. But I believe it should actually involve journalism, not court stenography and vitriolic on camera arguments.