Kenneth Woodward's "What's in a Name?"

Earlier this month, I shared a dark confession. I was really hoping that somebody, somewhere, would post a copy of veteran Newsweek scribe Kenneth Woodward's provocative essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy about The New York Times and its efforts to avoid the term "partial-birth abortion" in its headlines and stories. Well, duh. It finally hit me that perhaps we could post it here at GetReligion. After several days of emails, I have been given the all-clear sign -- by the author and the Notre Dame information office -- to post the essay (PDF file).

This is one of those cases where it really helps to read the article for yourself. Let me warn comment-writers in advance: It's crucial to realize that Woodward is raising journalistic questions, not questions about Catholic theology or other issues linked to public battles over abortion on demand. Woodward is talking about issues of journalistic style and content, not science or faith.

I also need to say that I had, based one some of the clips from his essay posted elsewhere, misunderstood a key point about Woodward's thesis. How?

It helps to discuss an example. The Times ran a story the other day -- the headline was "Clinton's Challenger Says She Opposes Late-Term Abortion" -- in which reporter Patrick D. Healy used the words "partial birth-abortion" in the lead. Here's the start of that story:

Jeanine F. Pirro, the new Republican challenger for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat, said yesterday that she opposed the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, after taking a muddier stance on the issue four years ago.

Ms. Pirro, a favorite of moderate Republicans whose new position will probably help her woo the conservative voters she needs, said in an interview that she decided to oppose the procedure -- except to protect the life of the woman -- after researching and reflecting on the issue.

After seeing this, I dashed off a note to Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn -- the source for the original tip about Woodward's piece -- in which I suggested this meant hell might be getting cooler. You see, I was impressed by pieces of Woodward's essay in which he noted the remarkable lengths to which the Times had gone in its news copy to avoid the partial-birth abortion term (which, by the way, just entered the Webster's New World College Dictionary). I thought this meant they were not using these words at all.

Wrong. Woodward quickly dropped me a note to say the wording used in this case -- "that critics call partial-birth abortion" -- is actually quite normal. Business as usual. Old hat.

I wrote back and said that I thought people really needed online access to his essay so they could evaluate his whole argument.

So here it is, as an HTML page.

Thank you, Ken Woodward and thank you, Notre Dame.

P.S. Attention, fans of the late David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times: Check out footnote No. 4 in Woodward's piece, offering a postscript on the famous Shaw series on media bias in abortion coverage. You are not going to believe it.

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