'ABORTION HYPE' PERVADED MEDIA AFTER WEBSTER CASE
ABORTION AND THE MEDIA: Last of four articles about how the press covers this emotional issue.By DAVID SHAW, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1990
Last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its controversial Webster abortion decision, the media responded with a barrage of apocalyptic stories predicting political and legislative revolution.
Even before the court ruling -- which ultimately gave states greater latitude in regulating abortion -- the Boston Globe said in a Page 1 story that "a majority of states" would be expected to "ban abortion in all but extreme circumstances" if the court made such a ruling.
"No more than five states would retain the liberal guidelines" existing before the Webster decision, the Globe said.
The Globe was not alone in what Colleen O'Connor, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union, calls the media "hysteria" that accompanied the Webster decision.
Newsweek listed 19 states that were "likely to restrict abortion." Columnist Charles Krauthammer said an "avalanche of state legislation will soon be coming" to the Supreme Court for review. Peter Jennings, on ABC's "World News Tonight," said, "There is no political campaign in the country this year in which abortion does not play a role."
Media coverage of the political impact of abortion was so massive in the immediate aftermath of Webster that a suburban Washington firm created "The Abortion Report," a daily, 10-page compendium of excerpts from news media reports on abortion and politics nationwide. Journalists and activists on both sides subscribed to the report.
Abortion has indeed been big news on the political front in the year since Webster. But the actual political impact of the decision has not been nearly as great as predicted.
Only one state -- Pennsylvania -- has enacted a new abortion law. One other -- Louisiana -- has passed an even stricter law, but the governor has threatened to veto it because it contains no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. Two other states have made far less sweeping modifications. Dozens of political campaigns have been conducted with abortion playing no role whatsoever.
"The media blew it," O'Connor says. Abortion-rights activists cried "wolf," and the media blew the house down.
Why was there a nationwide epidemic of what U.S. News & World Report has labeled "abortion hype" and "hyperbolic news coverage" after Webster?
One explanation is that most journalists support abortion rights, according to Times interviews and two major studies, and they shared and parroted that movement's fears that a "cataclysmic" disaster was at hand, as O'Connor puts it.
But most journalists deny this, and U.S. News had a different explanation: "Reporters and advocates . . . share a professional interest in spreading alarmist predictions. . . ."
In other words, the threat of sudden, drastic change on an emotionally volatile issue always makes a good story. It gets reportorial adrenaline flowing. It gets television ratings. It sells newspapers and magazines.
That may help explain why abortion clinic blockades by Operation Rescue and shrill pronouncements by leaders on both sides are given heavier coverage than, say, new medical developments.
"Operation Rescue is a live news story," says Martin Nolan, editor of the editorial page of the Boston Globe. "It beats hell out of what's going on in some laboratory."
But critics say the basic nature and limitations of the media and their sometimes sensational, often alarmist' approach to abortion coverage has made certain shortcomings in abortion coverage inevitable.
Despite recent improvements, abortion coverage has generally been "very shallow . . . superficial," says Frances Kissling, executive director of Catholics for a Free Choice. "There's been very little investigative reporting . . . very little looking behind some of the statements . . . of either side . . . no attempt to give people the kind of information they need to make intelligent decisions."
Karen Tumulty, who covered abortion for the Los Angeles Times for most of 1989, says the "real value that we have to add as the media is to give people the information they need to make up their own minds."
Have the media done that on abortion?
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in the media's coverage of abortion has been the tendency to turn abortion into an almost exclusively political story, often to the virtual exclusion of its personal, moral, ethical, medical and even legal ramifications.
"We've gotten bogged down in reporting the political ups and downs of the sides, like we're covering sports, and we've gotten away from reporting the issues," says Barbara Brotman, who has written extensively about abortion for the Chicago Tribune.
"With rare exceptions," Brotman says, "we haven't gone beyond the surface."
Before the Webster decision, news organizations used medical, science and lifestyle writers to cover the different aspects of abortion. The medical and science writers in particular generally provided "more factual, better, more substantive coverage" than the political writers who have written and broadcast most of the abortion stories since Webster, says Kathy Bonk, co-director of the Communications Consortium, a Washington company that helps abortion-rights advocates plan media strategies.
"Political reporters . . . by and large don't know how or don't do a good job covering issues," Bonk says. "They cover horse races . . . campaigns."
The horse race and sports analogies are valid. Covering politics is like covering sports in that there's always a final score, a winner and a loser, clear resolutions that are much easier to write about than such murky, unsettled questions as "When does life begin?" or "Whose rights shall prevail -- the woman's or the fetus's?"
Besides, political coverage has traditionally been a top priority for most news organizations -- a subject that the men who still run most of these organizations are comfortable with and interested in.
In fact, at many news organizations, abortion was long regarded as a "soft story -- a women's story," and male editors routinely assigned it to women reporters, especially before the Webster decision.
Several high-ranking male news executives said in interviews for this story that abortion is still not an issue that greatly interests them. Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," said he was "stunned the way this intensely personal issue has taken over the public debate . . . .
"I'm profoundly tired of the story," Friedman said. "As a citizen, I just resent the fact that it is taking so much time and attention away from other issues that are so critical."
Friedman insists that his "entirely personal" attitude "doesn't affect how much we cover" abortion, though, and he says politics has dominated media coverage of abortion since Webster not because journalists are biased or sensationalist but because that's "the basic new part of the argument."
Many other media executives agree.
"The ethical debate, while intense, seems to me kind of frozen; most people have heard it," says Joseph Lelyveld, managing editor of the New York Times.
That's the unique challenge of covering abortion.
"It's a more frustrating story than many others because it's one to which it is very difficult to bring new ideas," says Henry Muller, managing editor of Time magazine.
Because the abortion debate consists largely of two polarized, constantly repeated points of views, "I don't find a whole lot in the media that's very enlightening on this issue," Muller says.
Time has tried to "find things that add to the discussion," Muller says, especially in a story by Garry Wills last year on Operation Rescue. Newsweek has done two cover stories on abortion, and network television has also tried a few long-form treatments of the subject -- "48 Hours" on CBS, several "Nightline" programs on ABC and a panel discussion after a movie based on the Roe vs. Wade case on NBC.
But space and time limitations intrinsic to those media have largely prevented them from doing thoughtful stories on abortion with any regularity. Television, in particular, "tends to be superficial because of time constraints," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
TV reporters are essentially "quote-shopping" when they do an interview, Johnson says.
Newspapers have often been guilty of superficiality, sensationalism and bias, too, but a few major papers gave individual reporters primary responsibility for abortion coverage last year in an effort to explore the broader issues involved in the abortion controversy.
David Shribman of the Wall Street Journal has spent about 40% of his time as a political reporter doing abortion stories since the Webster decision, and he has managed to expand the relatively narrow confines of abortion and politics. He has written about the diversity within the anti-abortion movement; about grass-roots organizing efforts on both sides, and about the impact of the abortion controversy on the Catholic Church and the Republican and Democratic parties.
Shribman says it took him "at least a month and at least a hundred phone calls" to find the 17-year-old Massachusetts girl he used as the focal point for a story in November on parental consent.
"From a reporter's point of view, this (abortion) is a great issue to cover," he says. "Both sides are willing to talk endlessly . . . to be quoted . . . to help a reporter . . . to be open."
Covering abortion forces a political reporter to speak with "people who are not professional politicians . . . normal people, not like the kind of people that you sit beside on the Bush White House plane," Shribman says.
"In a way, it's very refreshing," he says, because it's easier to avoid the "pack mentality" than on a campaign, when reporters, politicians and consultants all "stay in the same hotel, eat the same food, breathe the same air and pretty soon, you contaminate each other."
In trying to provide such refreshing coverage, to broaden and deepen coverage beyond the political arena, several other newspapers have made abortion, temporarily, a full-time beat, much as some papers did with AIDS a few years ago:
At the Chicago Tribune, Barbara Brotman covered abortion from August, 1989, until mid-April this year, determined to write about "the fundamental differences between the two sides that go beyond whether they believe life begins at conception. I felt there were fundamental differences in how they looked at the world that had to do with how they saw woman's role in the world, how they saw the role of God in their lives."
Brotman wrote an overview of "abortion in America," and also wrote about a home for unwed mothers; about feminists opposed to abortion; about post-abortion trauma; about women who have multiple abortions, and about individual women who "wrestled privately with the philosophical questions that inform the public debate" before having an abortion.
At the Los Angeles Times, Karen Tumulty spent about half her time covering abortion during the first six months of 1989, then spent full-time on the issue for the rest of the year.
Tumulty wrote about abortions in the later stages of pregnancy, about the ambivalence most Americans feel toward abortion and about the shortage of doctors willing to work in abortion clinics; she also profiled both Randall Terry, the head of Operation Rescue, and Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Tumulty didn't write as many major abortion stories as did reporters on the abortion beat at other papers, but other Times staffers have also written a number of such stories, among them one on the impact that criminalizing abortion would have on the adoption system and another on women who later regretted their abortions.
At the Boston Globe, two reporters took on "Abortion: An American Divide" as a special project for all of 1989, starting even before the Webster decision. Ethan Bronner, who covers the Supreme Court for the Globe, wrote about the developing legal story, and Eileen McNamara wrote about the personal and moral side.
McNamara went to Michigan to write about a 15-year-old rape victim and to Vermont to write about a company that was barring fertile women from skilled jobs involving high lead exposure; she wrote about a longtime abortionist and an early abortion crusader, about a family active in the fight against abortion and about why opposition to abortion is so strong in Louisiana.
McNamara says she tried to do "non-obvious" stories and stories away from the fringes, where too much of the abortion debate is being waged.
Abortion opponents argue, for example, that the current law "permits baby-killing right up to the moment of birth." But only one one-hundredth of 1% of all abortions -- about 100 of the 1.6 million abortions done annually in the United States -- occur after 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a special affiliate of Planned Parenthood that does research on abortion and family planning.
Similarly, much has been written and said about abortion advocates' charges that making abortion illegal again would mean a return to the time when when "thousands" of women died every year from back-alley abortions. But the Centers for Disease Control says 39 women, not thousands, died from illegal abortions in 1972, the year before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion with its Roe vs. Wade decision.
Because abortion was illegal, many deaths surely went unreported. No one knows how many.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, now a leading abortion opponent, says he invented the figure 10,000 when he was a leading abortion advocate, hoping to create public and political support for his movement.
The media pay a great deal of attention to such charges made by various advocacy groups on both sides, but "Neither NOW (the National Organization for Women) nor Operation Rescue reflect the feelings of the American public about abortion, in my opinion," McNamara says.
Thus, when she wrote about Operation Rescue, she focused on an ordinary family in the organization, rather than on Randall Terry, its founder.
Like the Globe, the Washington Post has largely divided its abortion coverage between two reporters, both of whom spent about half their time on abortion over the last year.
Dan Balz, a longtime political writer at the Post, covered the political impact of abortion until shifting to the White House beat this month, and -- along with the Wall Street Journal's Shribman -- he was widely praised by activists on both sides for his work on the abortion/politics beat. Balz will continue to write on abortion occasionally.
Cynthia Gorney, whose beat at the Post is called "family and society," has a special interest in the history of abortion in the United States, something most of the media ignore. Gorney, who is working on a book about abortion, has written about clergymen who formed an underground network to help women get
abortions when they were illegal; about a woman who developed a "menstrual extraction" abortion kit in 1971; about the origins of the Webster case and the key figures in it, and about the controversy surrounding parental consent.
Even abortion opponents, who generally complain that the media are biased against them and superficial in their abortion coverage, think most of the work done by the various abortion specialists on these papers has been both fair and comprehensive.
Susan Carpenter-McMillan, media spokeswoman for the Right to Life League of Southern California, for example, calls Tumulty's Los Angeles Times Magazine story on abortions in the later stages of pregnancy "the most unbiased thing I've ever seen, the best thing the Los Angeles Times has ever done (on abortion)."
Nancy Myers, communications director for the National Right to Life Committee, offered similar, if somewhat less hyperbolic, praise for Gorney's Washington Post Magazine profile in April on John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
Reporters who frequently cover abortion come to know more about the subtleties and complexities of the subject and the sincerity of the people involved, which means "fairer coverage," Myers says.
Making abortion a special beat doesn't guarantee "fairer coverage," of course. Nor does everyone agree on what constitutes "fair" coverage. Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, did not think Tumulty's story was fair, for example, because relatively few abortions are actually done in the later stages of pregnancy (a point the story makes clear).
But abortion is so broad a topic that no one or two reporters can cover the whole field, and even the best papers, with the best of intentions, have been criticized for bias, superficiality and sensationalism -- charges that most editors and reporters deny. But a few papers also win wide praise for specific stories, even without special beat assignments.
The Miami Herald published a Sunday magazine story last fall on substandard conditions at many of the state's abortion clinics; the story led to a statewide investigation and the closure, at least temporarily, of four clinics.
The Milwaukee Journal published the entire, 21-page typewritten text of Archbishop Rembert Weakland's statement criticizing the tactics of many in the pro-life movement, then printed more than a half-page of letters on the statement; Editor Sig Gissler says some priests in Milwaukee publicly urged their parishioners to buy the Journal to read the archbishop's statement.
The Philadelphia Inquirer has given its readers some of the most aggressive and provocative abortion coverage in the country since the issue became a major controversy in Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s.
Abortion opponents in Pennsylvania have vigorously criticized the Inquirer, accusing it of bias, imbalance and "prejudicial" language. One anti-abortion activist -- Ted Meehan, a member of the media committee for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Coalition -- sent the paper a 23-page critique of its coverage.
James Naughton, deputy managing editor of the paper, responded last week with a 15-page rebuttal. Half a dozen top editors previously met with anti-abortion representatives to discuss their charges.
Naughton concedes there is some validity to the criticism, "here and there," but both he and Executive Editor Eugene Roberts insist that the paper's coverage has been fair and balanced overall and that most of the criticism stems from the anti-abortionists' own subjective views and from their failure to understand the news-gathering process.
The Inquirer has yet to create an abortion beat, but when the situation warranted it, the paper assigned a reporter to write about abortion full-time for weeks, sometimes months at a time.
As far back as 1981, the Inquirer published a powerful account of the "hundreds of times a year in the United States (when) an aborted fetus emerges from the womb kicking and alive." The Inquirer has also published major stories on late-term abortions; on a municipal judge who "helped operate a network of abortion clinics in three states;" on the beliefs and motivations of various abortion protesters; on teen-agers involved in both sides of the abortion campaign; on the economic pressures put on companies by activists in the abortion debate, and on a doctor who performs abortions and who invited angry protesters to come into his office to counsel women seeking abortions.
The New York Times has also provided interesting, insightful abortion coverage at times, especially in recent months, without assigning a reporter to cover abortion full-time.
The New York Times has written major stories about doctors refusing to do abortions; about abortion protesters jailed in Vermont; about abortion and the Catholic Church; about abortion and politics in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Connecticut; about Operation Rescue, and about several abortion controversies in New York.
Twice in the past year, the New York Times has published Page 1 stories on centers established by abortion opponents to provide unwed mothers with baby clothes, career counseling, legal assistance and housing -- "the pretty side of the right-to-life movement," as the director of one such center said in the paper's May 13 story.
Activists on both sides say media coverage has generally improved of late, but they still think critical issues go largely uncovered. Many reporters agree. The moral implications of the abortion debate, in particular, are generally ignored or treated superficially in newspapers.
Perhaps that's why the most thoughtful stories on the moral dilemma of abortion have generally been done by magazines, most notably by Jason DeParle last year in the Washington Monthly and by Mary Gordon last spring in The Atlantic.
Abortion opponents cite the possible economic impact of abortion as another area that the media -- newspapers, magazines and television alike -- have generally ignored. What would the state of the U.S. economy be today, they ask, if many of the more than 20 million fetuses aborted since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision were now alive?
Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington says the media should write about the effect all these potential consumers and workers might ultimately have on the "looming labor shortage," the closure of some schools and the future of the Social Security system.
Because poor people have a disproportionately large number of abortions, one could also ask what the effect of legalization might be on the tax base, welfare rolls and various other social programs.
And what, for that matter, is the psychological effect of legalized abortion on our society? Because liberals often argue that capital punishment contributes to a climate of violence and a cheapening of human life, conservatives would like to see the media examine whether abortion has had the same effect. After all, the United States -- which has one of the highest abortion rates in the Western world -- also has one of the highest murder rates in the Western world. Is there a connection?
The analogy may not be valid, the connection non-existent, but few in the media have even raised the question.
Nor have the media written much about the ramifications of new medical developments related to abortion and contraception, say Janny Scott and Robert Steinbrook, medical writers at the Los Angeles Times.
Although some abortion opponents argue that greater availability of contraception leads to more sexual activity, more unintended pregnancies and more abortions, studies strongly suggest just the opposite -- that more effective, more accessible means of contraception would mean fewer unintended pregnancies and fewer abortions. Either way, contraception is -- or should be -- part of the abortion story.
But Scott says the problems of reproduction and contraception are "felt far more profoundly by women than men," and she wonders if this explains why such issues may be "given short shrift in papers where . . . the editors are primarily men."
Scott and Steinbrook are especially critical of their own paper in this regard, and they cite several examples, among them coverage in February of a report issued by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. That report said the United States now lags far behind many other countries in developing new methods of birth control, a lag resulting in many unwanted pregnancies and unnecessary abortions.
The New York Times and Washington Post put the story on Page 1. The Los Angeles Times put it on Page 24.
Times editors deny that gender bias or insensitivity influenced the placement of this (or any) story. Norman C. Miller, national editor of The Times, says the story wound up on Page 24, in part because there were "other strong stories that day" and in part because international news generally precedes national news on the inside pages of the paper. (After Page 5, where a story appears in the main news section of The Times generally has less to do with the story's importance than with the configuration of available space on the pages.)
But international news also precedes national news in the New York Times, and both the New York Times and the Washington Post had "other strong stories that day," and both still put the contraception story on Page 1.
The basic problems of abortion coverage in the media go beyond one issue or one story or one newspaper, though. Despite recent improvements and a conscientious effort by most journalists, critics say coverage often remains biased and superficial, as previous stories in this series have documented.
Television "rakes off the emotional energy" on abortion, providing "the passions . . . lots of demonstrations, people yelling, very colorful sound bites," and the print media provide the political and legal arguments on both sides, says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, but "no one gives you context."
Critics often say much the same thing about media coverage of other important issues, just as they often accuse the media of bias on other issues. But abortion is an especially sensitive, complex and volatile issue, and just as some journalists do seem to have more trouble keeping their personal feelings from unfairly influencing their stories on abortion than on other issues, so coverage of abortion does seem more superficial and lacking in perspective than does coverage of other issues.
Perhaps that's inevitable.
"At base, abortion isn't about politics, and it isn't about the law," says reporter Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe. "It's about philosophy and it's about morality and it's about your world view, and newspapers are ill-equipped to deal with those issues."
Peter Johnson of The Times' editorial library assisted with the research for this article.
Copyright 1990 The Times Mirror Company