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Watch the headlines for pro-abortion bias

The Tampa Tribune, June 6, 1996

In a videotaped interview on May 2, Billy Graham told columnist Cal Thomas that he had privately met with President Clinton and criticized him for vetoing the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. This story poked into a few newspapers. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times gave it a line or two, deep in round-up articles. A computer search failed to turn up any mention of it in The New York Times or The Boston Globe.

The same day, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., told New York Post reporter Deborah Orin he would vote to override the abortion veto because partial-birth abortions are "too close to infanticide." All four of the above-mentioned newspapers apparently skipped this story. Three weeks later, The New York Times quoted Bob Dole as agreeing with Moynihan - which must have mystified Times readers who don't also read The New York Post, since they hadn't yet been informed about Moynihan's stance. Even an editorial barb in The Wall Street Journal about the nonreporting of Moynihan's comment had no effect.

It's particularly odd for the Times to ignore an anti-veto stance by a hometown senator with a prominent abortion-rights record. This is like Jesse Helms attacking the tobacco industry and getting no ink in North Carolina papers.

Of course, in the daily rush of breaking news, many stories fall by the wayside. But some stories are stronger candidates for the wayside than others.

Among the surefire wayside candidates are reports that some hospitals have limited second-trimester abortions because nurses refused to attend the procedures; all stories about health violations at abortion clinics or the large number of anti-abortion Democrats; and most stories about savage treatment of abortion protesters, especially when the ACLU looks the other way and declines to defend them.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University charges that the American press has underrepresented the depth of anti-abortion sentiment in America. This is happening again with the partial-birth issue. Though the media keep representing opposition as essentially religious and Republican, a Gallup Poll shows that a majority of Americans support the ban (57 percent for it, 39 percent against). A more partisan poll conducted by the Tarrance Group for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 55 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of those identifying themselves as pro-choice supported the ban.

On the broader issue of abortion, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has charged that by misrepresenting the sweeping character of Roe vs. Wade for so long (despite its famous trimester divisions, it actually allows women to abort at any time during the nine months of gestation), the media have effectively drained away a lot of potential reform sentiment.

And David Shaw, the Pulitzer-winning media critic of the Los Angeles Times, in his long, four-part 1990 series on media coverage of the abortion issue, concluded that reportage on this touchy subject has been uniquely biased in a pro-abortion direction. This was a very serious indictment, one that the media should have felt some obligation to address but didn't. Shaw's series was photocopied and passed around widely, but the media essentially gave it the silent treatment. Neither of the nation's two leading journalism reviews has ever written about Shaw's findings or taken up the bias issue on its own.

If he wished to return to the subject, Shaw would have a field day with coverage of the partial-birth issue. Much of it has stayed remarkably close to the arguments and position papers put out by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Many have accepted Kate Michelman's claim that anesthesia kills the fetus before the procedure begins. Few reporters bothered to add that the head of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, Norig Ellison, says it isn't so: "Very little of the anesthetic given the mother ever reaches the fetus."

Honest reporting would also say flatly that abortion opponents are right to say that a ban on partial-birth abortions with an exception for the "health" of the mother is no ban at all. The language is right there in Doe vs. Bolton (1973), the case in which the Supreme Court defined "health" as "freedom from any physical or emotional problem."

Is this procedure confined to serious genetic defects or cases of serious risk to the mother, as Clinton thinks? Well, no. Some news reports seem to take Michelman's argument at face value ("It's a lie" that the procedure is used when a mother's "depression" or an infant's potential cleft palate is cited as justification). The rest leave that claim unexamined and add a line like, "Foes of the procedure argue it is used to perform elective abortions."

But two leading practitioners of this procedure have said elective use is not unusual. Dr. Martin Haskell told an interviewer from American Medical News: "I'll be quite frank: Most of my abortions are elective in that 20- to 24-week range ... 80 percent are purely elective." And James McMahon said he had performed partial-birth abortions for an array of reasons, including depression and cleft palate. If pro-life forces were making the sort of dubious and clearly false claims that are coming out of NARAL, the media would do some hard investigating. Why can't more reporters bring themselves to do it now? John Leo's column is distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

Copyright 1996 The Tribune Co. Publishes The Tampa Tribune