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Abortion And The Media


Abortion And The Media. Second of four articles about how the press covers this emotional issue. Next; Abortion bias-protests and politics.

Los Angeles Times , July 2, 1990

When abortion opponents picketed Turner Broadcasting System last summer to protest the showing of a film promoting abortion rights, TBS Chairman Ted Turner called the demonstrators "bozos" and "idiots."

Many in the anti- abortion movement say Turner was simply giving public voice to what many in the media privately think of their movement.

Some reporters agree.

Journalists tend to regard opponents of abortion as "religious fanatics" and "bug-eyed zealots," says Ethan Bronner, legal affairs reporter for the Boston Globe, who spent much of last year writing about abortion.

"Opposing abortion, in the eyes of most journalists . . . is not a legitimate, civilized position in our society," Bronner says.

Many journalists vigorously deny having this view.

"There's a certain amount of newsroom debate about abortion, " says Eugene Roberts, executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "and my general impression is that . . . there's a good deal of respect for both sides."

Tom Bettag, executive producer of "The CBS Evening News," says CBS has "a large number of people . . . who feel very strongly on both sides" of the abortion issue and "that helps us cover it fairly. If we slip, someone inside tells us, 'Hey, that's loaded.' It's a very constructive, worthwhile debate, a very creative process of each side trying to check the other and report this in as open-minded a way as you can."

But several reporters who have written a lot about abortion agree with Bronner.

Cynthia Gorney, who covers abortion for the Washington Post, says she's troubled by the media's tendency to portray the anti- abortion movement as "dominated by religious crazies" and to "ignore what I think are the very understandable and reasoned arguments that are put forth by the pro-life side."

Susan Okie, medical reporter for the Post, says she herself "had a sort of mental image of the anti- abortion groups as all being extremists" before she began writing much about them.

But Bronner, Gorney and Okie have covered abortion extensively, and they've come to realize that there are intelligent, rational, sincere people on both sides of what is an extraordinarily complex issue. Few big-city reporters -- or editors, television anchors or news directors -- have the opportunity that these three have had, though. Abortion is but one of many subjects they deal with every day, and because most of their colleagues, associates and friends generally share their support for abortion rights, it may be inevitable that they have a skewed view of abortion opponents.

"Reporters often say to me, 'Gee, you're reasonable,' as if all pro-life people are unreasonable," says Mirianne Rea-Luthin, president of the Value of Life Committee of Boston.

Reporters even try to perpetuate that stereotype, Rea-Luthin says, by asking her to "make sure you look angry" when she's being interviewed on television.

Abortion opponents say the media further stereotype them, not only as fanatics but as almost exclusively conservatives.

David Shribman of the Wall Street Journal, who has spent about 40% of his time writing about abortion over the past year, says the media is mistaken in perpetuating this stereotype. The anti- abortion movement is actually "one of the broadest political coalitions in American history," Shribman wrote on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal last summer.

Shribman pointed out that the movement includes feminists, opponents of the death penalty and people opposed to U.S. military involvement in Central America -- all positions customarily associated with liberals. Journalists insist they try to be fair to both sides, no matter how they feel about the people they cover. Much of the time, they are fair. In recent months in particular, abortion coverage has often been more evenhanded. Some news organizations have even tried, on occasion, to provide explicit balance in their coverage by selecting one aspect of the abortion controversy and providing opposing viewpoints and experiences on a given day.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did that after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Webster decision a year ago Tuesday, giving states more latitude in regulating abortion. The Inquirer published stories on Page 1 about activities at the offices of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and at the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington.

The Los Angeles Times has several times done something similar.

Twice last year, The Times published stories on women who had had abortions, and in each story, one woman told of deeply regretting her act while the other defended hers. The Times also published same-day stories on a women's health center where abortions are performed and on a crisis pregnancy center where women are encouraged to "deliver babies rather than seek abortions. " On two other occasions, The Times has paired opposing abortion viewpoints on its opinion pages. Attempts to provide balanced abortion coverage sometimes backfire, though.

Early this year, concerned that The Times might have paid more attention to abortion -rights advocates than to abortion opponents, editors assigned a profile of Susan Carpenter-McMillan, whom the resultant story described as the "rich, crisp, stylish, sometimes sarcastic and always emotional media representative for the Right to Life League of Southern California."

But in the course of his reporting on McMillan, reporter Paul Dean learned that she had had an abortion herself 20 years earlier, long before she began to oppose abortion. McMillan had kept the abortion secret from most of her family, friends and colleagues, and when Dean wrote about it, she was enraged.

Given McMillan's public stance on abortion, the information was clearly relevant to the story. But the controversy it engendered demonstrated anew what a minefield the abortion subject has become for the media.

Indeed, the earnest intentions of most journalists notwithstanding, an examination of media coverage of abortion over the past 18 months suggests there is often an implicit bias against abortion opponents, and some of that bias may stem from the media's stereotypical view of those activists. This may help explain, for example, why reporters looking for abortion opponents to interview, especially on television, sometimes choose people who take extreme positions, while quoting and interviewing abortion -rights advocates who invariably seem reasonable and reputable.

"The media (are) determined to get people who are inflammatory, who call their opponents 'baby-killers'," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, vice president of Feminists for Life.

But journalists say they interview the people they find the most relevant, articulate, available and outspoken on a given story, and at least one abortion opponent and media critic agrees with at least part of that explanation.

L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Media Research Center, a conservative media monitoring agency just outside Washington, says he doesn't think the media's choice of abortion opponents necessarily reflects the "pro- abortion bias" to which he thinks the media generally succumb.

"It has nothing to do with agenda," he says. "I think it has everything to do with . . . journalism. The raunchier the quote, the better it is; the more fire and brimstone, the better the story comes out." Television news executives deny being either biased or sensationalistic.

"We . . . bend over backward . . . to make sure that we don't go for the crazy on any particular issue," says Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." "One of the problems we sometimes have on that side of the issue is avoiding the people who will do damage to their cause because they're so extreme and so almost incoherent on the subject."

John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, the largest anti- abortion organization in the nation, is probably the most frequent spokesmen for abortion opponents, and he is no extremist. As the Washington Post Magazine said in a cover story on him in April, "he clearly takes some pleasure in the country doctor aura and assumes in conversation a sort of kindly formality . . . . He does not inspire people to passion, or to civil disobedience."

But, like activists for any cause, many other abortion opponents are belligerent, even fanatical, and Susan Smith, the committee's associate legislative director, says bias -- intentional or not -- is the only way to explain why some in the media interview them instead. Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, who opposes contraception and who says, "I've been described as a religious fanatic . . . which I don't really mind," has often been chosen to represent the anti- abortion side, rather than someone from Willke's organization, which takes no position on contraception.

Randall Terry, a born-again Christian who likes to brandish a dead fetus in a tiny coffin and who founded Operation Rescue, which tries to blockade abortion clinics, is another frequent television guest.

But the abortion -rights position is often represented -- and sometimes paired on television with either Terry or Brown -- by Faye Wattleton, the calm, attractive president of Planned Parenthood of America. In fact, when abortion opponents complain about bias against them, they angrily point to the descriptions of Wattleton and Terry in the media.

Time magazine headlined its profile of Wattleton last December "Nothing Less Than Perfect" and said she was "self-possessed, imperturbable, smoothly articulate," "imperially slim and sleekly dressed . . . a stunning refutation of the cliche of the dowdy feminist." The New York Times Magazine put Wattleton on the cover last summer and described her as "relentlessly high-minded," "telegenic," "immaculately tailored," "a striking six-footer with an aristocratic bearing," "a tough, shrewd operator" and said, "Calmly, rationally, every hair in place, she will lead the faithful into battle . . . ."

But Terry is almost always described as "a former used car salesman"; the Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Newsweek, among many others, have all referred to him that way.

The phrase suggests something "a little unscrupulous . . . not quite trustworthy," says Eileen McNamara, who spent virtually all of 1989 covering abortion for the Boston Globe.

McNamara, who admits having used the "used car dealer" phrase herself in one story, says most reporters "try to be fair," but most support abortion rights, and "I think we were delighted to find out that he sold used cars."

Critics say the media's bias against abortion opponents is evident not only in the stature and characterization of the people they choose to interview but in their failure to identify some sources as proponents of abortion rights, thus leaving readers and viewers with the mistaken impression that the sources are impartial.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York is probably the single-most widely quoted source for studies and statistics on abortion, for example, but except for the Washington Post, the media rarely point out that the institute is special affiliate of Planned Parenthood of America, a major leader in the battle for abortion rights.

Even in the matter of numbers of sources quoted, the media often favor the abortion -rights side.

Counting the number of people quoted in a given story -- or the number of inches or the number of photos used, as abortion opponents often do -- is not necessarily the best way to evaluate fairness, of course.

As Sig Gissler, editor of the Milwaukee Journal, says: "It's hard to be balanced, especially in a given story. There are a lot of subtle factors," including deadlines, the availability of sources and "what else is in the news that day." What a good news organization tries for, Gissler and others say, is "balance over time." But over time -- the first eight months of last year -- the New York Times, Washington Post and three network evening news shows combined quoted abortion -rights activists 60% more often than activists opposed to abortion, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and Molly Yard, head of the National Organization for Women, were quoted 76 times during this study period. Willke and Terry, the two most frequently quoted anti- abortion activists, were quoted 26 times. (President Bush, who also opposes abortion, was quoted 22 times.)

Sometimes, the media don't quote anyone on the anti- abortion side.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled in April that a pregnant woman may refuse medical treatment even if that jeopardizes the survival of her fetus, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times each quoted a source praising the decision but no one critical of it. When the Louisville Courier Journal published a story on a Kentucky law requiring minors to get their parents' consent for abortions, it quoted several sources critical of the "extremely burdensome" nature of the law but quoted no one who favored the law.

Abortion opponents insist that this failure to give them "fair representation" is typical of the "double standard" the media apply to the abortion debate. The media is generally careful, for example, to include comments from abortion -rights advocates in stories about abortion protests, but coverage of abortion -rights activities sometimes fail to include balancing comments from abortion opponents.

Moreover, the media rarely illustrate stories on abortion with photographs of aborted fetuses -- or even, generally, of developing fetuses -- claiming that to do so would be in bad taste and might offend readers. But no such concern inhibits the media from showing photos of starving, tragically bloated children in Ethiopia.

Nowhere is the media's "double standard" more true, critics say, than in the treatment given Operation Rescue and other aggressive abortion protesters, on the news pages and the editorial pages alike.

Abortion opponents realize that newspapers have the right to express their opinions on their editorial page and that, in most newspapers, that opinion favors abortion rights. But they don't think most papers apply the same standard to them as they do to others involved in public controversies.

Abortion protesters say they have been the victims of police brutality, overzealous prosecution and the misapplication of a federal statute designed to fight organized crime, and the media have largely failed to defend or even question the civil liberties implications of these actions.

"These are the kinds of issues that the media would normally make a big stink out of," says Wendy Wright, communications director for Operation Rescue. "But they don't stand with us on abortion so they ignore what's being done to us."

Or, as Wright's boss, Randall Terry, likes to say: "Most of the secular media has become the lap dog, the ideological slave of the death industry. The fervor of their commitment to abortion makes them willingly blind to the abuses and injustice that we have faced."

When the federal government used the RICO act -- officially, the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- against white collar criminals on Wall Street, major editorial pages questioned whether this was an appropriate use of a statute originally designed to fight the Mafia and other "scurvy hoodlums," in the words of the New York Times. A Los Angeles Times editorial said flatly that the RICO act was "out of control and ought to be repealed."

But the RICO act is also being invoked in civil suits against Operation Rescue (and other abortion protesters), and while the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and a half-dozen or so medium-sized newspapers have editorialized against this, most of the major papers -- the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune -- have ignored it. (The Washington Post included a paragraph critical of this application of the RICO act near the bottom of an editorial praising court action against Operation Rescue in a non-RICO case).

Editorial page editors deny that bias against the anti- abortion movement has influenced their policies.

Jack Rosenthal, editor of the editorial page of the New York Times, says he didn't even know RICO was being used against abortion protesters until told of it in the course of an interview for this story. Thomas Plate, editor of the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, said the absence of any RICO/ abortion cases in Los Angeles was largely responsible for his paper not having commented on the issue. The Los Angeles Times did include a sentence in an editorial last year saying that charging Terry with conspiracy in a non-RICO, Los Angeles case was "an excessive restriction on free speech."

But the Los Angeles Times publishes many editorials on subjects with no immediate local connection, and newspapers in Phoenix, Lexington, Richmond, St. Louis and St. Paul -- all far more locally oriented than The Times -- have editorialized vigorously on the use of the RICO act against abortion protesters, focusing primarily on a case in Philadelphia.

While supporting conviction of the protesters for trespass and disorderly conduct, these papers editorialized that using the RICO act against them was an inappropriate restriction of legitimate political protest -- "unfair," "unreasonable," "outrageous," "an abomination."

Newspapers have generally covered the various court decisions involving RICO and Operation Rescue in their news pages, but there have been few examinations of the civil liberties threat that some say this use of the statute poses. The Wall Street Journal published such a story in May, but most other RICO stories have emphasized its use in white-collar crime cases.

Similarly, there have been major media stories asking if the government, in its zeal to prosecute drug traffickers, is using "measures that may erode basic rights" of the accused, as a Page 1 story in the New York Times put it last October. But there have been few stories raising questions about the erosion of basic rights by the "police brutality" that Operation Rescue activists have alleged in dozens of cities, not even after Congress enacted a law last year banning the allocation of certain federal grants to cities that fail to prevent such "excessive force."

The Los Angeles Times has written two long stories this year -- one on Page 1 -- about the special weapon (a nunchaku) and special "pain-compliance" techniques -- the infliction of pain to force protesters to follow orders -- the police have used in these cases, and the Chicago Tribune published a similar story last year. But apart from an Op-Ed page column in the Wall Street Journal, the subject has been largely ignored by the national media.

Nor has there been a flood of outrage on the nation's editorial pages, as there was when civil rights activists here and anti-apartheid activists in South Africa accused police of brutality.

Most major editorial pages were equally silent when the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year refused to grant a stay against an injunction prohibiting Operation Rescue from demonstrating at abortion clinics in Atlanta. Columnist James Kilpatrick, who praised another court decision unfavorable to Operation Rescue activities, criticized the Atlanta decision as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

"Something is grossly wrong," Kilpatrick wrote, "when the courts tell freeborn Americans that they may not speak before they have spoken." A few other columnists -- Nat Hentoff, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Shields, Fred Barnes -- have criticized the treatment of abortion protesters, but most commentators and editorial writers have been largely silent on civil liberties issues involving abortion protesters.

It can be argued, of course, that the intimidating tactics used by Operation Rescue "traduce any kind of civility and go beyond the limits of reasonable discourse," in the words of Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times.

Although Operation Rescue says police are responsible for the violence at their protests, the courts haven't necessarily agreed. But many Operation Rescue protests are not violent, and while they certainly could not be described as genteel, many civil rights and anti-war protests weren't genteel in the 1960s and 1970s, and the media covered these activities heavily and often defended the First Amendment rights of those involved.

Coverage of abortion protesters' problems has been so slight that both Rosenthal and Meg Greenfield, editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post, said they had never heard of the "pain-compliance" practices and resultant charges of police brutality by Operation Rescue.

Rosenthal and Greenfield said they try to give anti- abortion forces the same respect and attention they give abortion -rights advocates, but Greenfield conceded that, in general, "I can't say it would astonish me to learn there's a double standard in writing about them."

Abortion opponents say the media's First Amendment "double standard" goes beyond their treatment of Operation Rescue and others who try to blockade abortion clinics.

When Roman Catholic bishops individually spoke out on abortion or, collectively, hired a public relations firm to aid them in the battle against abortion, some in the media grumbled about the church's intrusion into the political arena. Similar media lamentations were forthcoming when bishops criticized (and raised the specter of ex-communication for) public officials who refuse to oppose abortion. But no such criticism was levied at the bishops in earlier years, when they endorsed a nuclear freeze or opposed Reagan Administration economic policies. In fact, newspapers generally praised religious leaders who actively participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It can be argued that the bishops' decision to hire a public relations firm to help in the battle against abortion is a secular step beyond anything clergymen did in the 1960s, but that step alone seems insufficient to justify a media turnabout like that noted by columnist Mark Shields. In 1962, Shields points out, a New York Times editorial expressed admiration for the "unwavering courage" of the archbishop of New Orleans when he excommunicated a Louisiana political boss and white supremacist who had "publicly opposed the archbishop's authority in desegregating diocesan schools." But in 1989, when Bishop Leo Maher publicly denied Communion to Lucy Killea for supporting abortion rights in her campaign for the California State Senate, a New York Times editorial accused him of threatening "the truce of tolerance by which Americans maintain civility and enlarge religious liberty."

Rosenthal insists the two situations are not analogous, but others disagree.

Media treatment of the bishops -- and of police and RICO actions against abortion protesters -- raise a "legitimate question," says reporter Barbara Brotman of the Chicago Tribune. Had organizations other than abortion opponents been involved, "I think there might have been more of an outcry," she says.

But abortion opponents say the media often ignores -- or are very late in covering -- many issues and events that would receive thorough coverage if abortion -rights advocates or other liberal activists were involved. When the National Organization for Women had its annual convention in San Francisco last week, the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to cover it and made it the lead story in today's View section. But when the National Right to Life Committee had its annual convention in Sacramento last month, not a word about it appeared in The Times.

Nor did The Times -- or most of the other major media -- pay much attention to the discovery by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post last year that two justices who had played a major role in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion had conceded, in private memos, that they knew they were "legislating policy and exceeding (the court's) authority as the interpreter, not the maker of law," as Woodward wrote.

Abortion opponents had long made this very criticism of the Roe decision, and they are convinced that if a reporter of Woodward's stature had discovered private memos showing, say, that justices knew they were "exceeding the court's authority" in last year's Webster decision, the media would have swarmed all over the story. But except for a brief mention in Newsweek three months later, no major national media seem to have picked up Woodward's story.

Why not?

"There are more people in the news media than not who agree with the (Roe) abortion decision and don't want to look at how the sausage was made," Woodward says.

Peter Johnson of The Times' editorial library assisted with the research for this article.

Copyright 1990 The Times Mirror Company