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Kurtz: Of course Komen stories were biased

As you poor GetReligion readers know, I've been pounding the beat on media coverage of Planned Parenthood's campaign against Komen. You can read my earlier posts: "Media discover Planned Parenthood is controversial" (which took issue with how media reports told only half the story about how people feel about Planned Parenthood), "Media genuflect before Church of Planned Parenthood" (which critiqued how they were engaged in advocacy on behalf of Planned Parenthood), and "Planned Parenthood and media thank each other" (which cataloged how they thought they'd done good work in advocating for Planned Parenthood). I also wrote a piece for CNN collecting some of these thoughts: "My Take: On Komen Controversy, Media Told Half The Story."

Now I know from the many emails and comments we've received here on this topic that people reacted quite strongly to the way the media advocated for Planned Parenthood and against Komen. My views are well established. There has been a bit of other media criticism in recent days, and I wanted to highlight those, too.

The first is the piece embedded here, by Howard Kurtz. He's a media writer for the Daily Beast, after years as a star media-beat reporter at The Washington Post. He says many obvious things about how biased most stories about Komen were. He doesn't even think it's a bad thing, necessarily, he's just saying that it was.

So Kurtz says there's no question that the media drove this story, forced the apology from the Komen foundation and have been approaching the whole narrative from the left. He remarks on how Andrea Mitchell hammered Komen, but adds that most journalists in the mainstream media were doing the same thing. He notes that many in the media simply weren't interested in telling more than one side of the story, likely due to their strong feelings. But their framing was overwhelmingly similar: that Komen was stupid ever to have thought it could pull funding from such a wonderful and apolitical organization as Planned Parenthood. He points out the obvious double standard of viewing funding of Planned Parenthood as apolitical but no funding as political. A snippet from what might not be a perfect transcription:

I have to call them as I see them. The way I see this, the pressure was so relentless, the publicity so bad, the headlines so negative, the media pressure forced the Komen Foundation (despite its initial insistence that it was just fine) to reverse itself, to restore the funding, to apologize, to seek forgiveness from its supporters. That shows you something about the power, the clout of mainstream media, even in this era of Facebook and social networking. But it also tells you something about the way in which the media frame sometimes these controversial subjects, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps without meaning to perhaps because everyone the reporter knows thinks the same way. But in this case it was clearly framed form the liberal side of the argument.

You don't say.

For another view, you can read Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple's haughty retort to Ross Douthat's column on the media malpractice we saw this last week. He gives "Four reasons why Ross Douthat’s media-bias argument is bunk." Apparently Ross Douthat could have found stories that weren't as bad as some of the one he highlighted. Ross also didn't look at Twitter or other social media when he criticized mainstream media (no, I don't get it either). The third is that Komen deserved its treatment. The fourth is that Wemple doesn't buy Douthat's contention that people such as me exist.

(Confidential to Washington Post: half the readers of GetReligion could do better, more interesting and less conformist media criticism.) Journalists sure love being contrarian until it requires disagreeing with the center-left consensus in which they exist. I could be wrong, but he didn't even bother doing any media crit of the Planned Parenthood advocacy until he could do the contrarian "backlash to the backlash" approach he took here. And please correct me if I'm wrong.

OK. A better Washington Post response (and to be sure, Washington Post coverage on this story has been better than much of what we've highlighted here at GetReligion) came from reporter Sarah Kliff. Kudos to her for responding substantively even if defensively and without enough reflection on where things fell apart with the media:

As one member of the media who spent a lot of time covering this story, I thought I could offer a bit of perspective on this question. Douthat is right that those who supported Komen’s decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood got significantly less media coverage than those who opposed it. But he’s wrong about why.

As Lena Sun and I reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, Planned Parenthood had a very aggressive media strategy: Within a day of the Komen decision, the organization blasted out the news it had raised $400,000 from 6,000 online donors. On a press call Friday, the group announced it had raised $3 million in 72 hours.

Throughout the past week, I’ve repeatedly called and e-mailed Komen requesting comparable data. So far, nothing. The closest I got came on a Thursday conference call with Komen CEO Nancy Brinker, who said donations were “100 percent up,” although she declined to give specific figures. It was difficult to report anything more extensive than that 100 percent figure, when Komen declined to provide further information on the topic.

This reminds me of when my sister went to the hospital to deliver her first full-term child. She began hemorrhaging as she waited to be induced. My brother-in-law immediately went to get a nurse and was brushed off. He had to make a scene to get help and my niece Sophie was delivered via emergency C-section 15 minutes later, saving the lives of both my sister and her baby.

Sometimes you have to freak out beyond belief to get noticed. I made a point when lamenting the poor coverage of this year's March for Life that pro-life groups might think less about complaining about the coverage and more about helping reporters. It's not something I think is particularly good about media coverage, but the fact is that many reporters are slaves to public relations campaigns. As anyone who followed this controversy can figure out, Planned Parenthood broke this news to coincide with a fundraising campaign. It had known for months about Komen's funding guidelines. It worked with, sure, an unbelievably pliable and servile media, but credit where it's due: it ran a tight public relations and fundraising campaign. All the ducks were in a row.

And certainly Komen had no idea it would be up against not just Planned Parenthood's huge resources but a media that worked in lock-step with the organization that provides 330,000 abortions a year. It may have even believed, due to years of favorable treatment in the press, that the media would give it good or even just fair coverage. It was completely unprepared for the Church of Planned Parenthood and the fervent witness of its members and clergy. But still. If you have a savvy public relations campaign that just happened to have the perfect sources available to speak at the moment the reporter wants to speak with someone versus just, you know, Americans who are just sitting around and only hear about the story after it's already been framed as something that no female breast cancer survivor right-thinking person human could ever support ... it's no contest.

I'm not saying that such press release journalism is how the media should work. But it's how it does work. Yes, much of this story is about institutional bias in newsrooms, but some of it is just about how hard it is to report stories on deadline while competing with tons of other reporters.

Like Kurtz said, perhaps it's just a function of everyone in the newsrooms having the same view. And few people would argue that such conformity of backgrounds and ideological are healthy. Well, maybe Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, would say it's healthy. He has essentially argued that the Times is unbiased on politics, but not culture, morals and religion. This would be a fantastic example of what happens when you embrace the bias on the culture, morals and religion beats -- and you see how it bleeds over into politics, too.

But what are you going to do? Let's say you're a reporter who's been spoon fed a PR campaign, has gotten Planned Parenthood talking points, gets conference calls pushing the narrative, and everyone you know agrees with them ... it will color your perception of the story. How do you even find people (such as me) who gave their first contribution to Komen last week? After we donated, an automatic note went up on my Facebook wall (I took a screen capture here) and those of many of my friends but we don't know any of the reporters on this story at the Post. We weren't told to donate by any pro-life group that could collect our stories and have us speak on conference calls and the like. Komen obviously didn't want to further embroil itself in the abortion wars after the surprise attack from Planned Parenthood -- that's what they'd been trying to get away from in the first place! -- so they were no help to countering the narrative.

Anyway, I'm really not trying to blame the victims here but the point is -- if you want to play the game, sometimes you have to be a bit more media savvy. There are lessons for many people in this story -- public relations professionals, media critics, partisan organizations and breast cancer charities and more.

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