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Why abortion doctor's trial coverage is not a firestorm

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 such allegations have no idea if they're right.

About two weeks 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 Barack Obama's controversial use of drones to kill terrorists (and, occasionally, kill civilians in the process) before the 2012 elections.

I said then I "didn't buy" that argument, 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 before the 2012 election on Obama's use of drones to strike at terrorists. (This very Perspective section devoted most of its cover to the issue last September.)

What people often mean when they say something got "no" coverage is that it hasn't become one of the select few subjects given saturation coverage and blasted across every news outlet at the same time, like the push for gun control legislation or the lurid murder trial of Jodi Arias, accused in the 2008 killing of an ex-boyfriend.

What they're really asking: Why hasn't this become a big TV story?

Which leads to the current handwringing 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. According to the charges, women were kept sedated by unlicensed staff; babies were delivered alive and then killed; the place smelled of urine with cat feces on the stairs; some instruments were rusty and corroded. It was horrific.

According to the charges, Gosnell induced labor in women seeking late-term abortions so they would deliver babies. He would then kill them by a process he called "snipping" — sticking scissors in the back of baby's neck and severing the spinal cord. (Pictures of a dead baby in the grand jury report show a child which seemed big enough to survive after birth.)

Gosnell is on trial now, and conservatives say the mainstream media have ignored the case because they are supportive of abortion rights. 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 many 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. (The Tampa Bay Times published one Associated Press story in January 2011 on Gosnell and another in December 2011 making a fleeting reference to him.)

Look around online, and you'll see that Gosnell got coverage in 2010 when he was arrested and in 2011 when a 281-page grand jury report was released detailing the gruesome charges. 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 much attention until now. And wondering why that's happened is a pretty good question.

Still, it's not a given that reporting on this case reveals 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 (terminating pregnancies after 24 weeks is a crime there). Claims that clinic inspections were rolled back due to pressure from abortion rights advocates seems odd, given that Pennsylvania's members of Congress fought openly over whether abortion would be even be covered by Obamacare in 2009, before Gosnell 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, ether by price or by law.

As a cynical media observer, I think there are plenty of nonpolitical 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 crime 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 seemed 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 is 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 were 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 stumbled on his abortion operation. The grand jury report in 2011 laid out the reasons for the lack of response, including pressure from abortion rights advocates wary that aggressive regulation could be a de facto denial of the procedure.

But the Philadelphia Inquirer noted Gosnell also 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. Lots of trial footage and bloviating.

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 recently passed in Pennsylvania 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 solid journalism from national news outlets on the Gosnell trial.

I'm just not sure that's what some critics of the media reaction so far really want.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or edeggans@tampabay.com; his blog, The Feed, is at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged with murder, accused of implementing abortions in women after 24 weeks of pregnancy. An incorrect time frame was given.

Why abortion doctor's trial coverage is not a firestorm 04/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 4:54pm]

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