Chain letters and unnamed sources

n11531People who oppose abortion are divided on how best to fight the political threats they face in the current environment and one area in particular that pro-lifers have been divided on is how to fight the Freedom of Choice Act. The bill, which was first introduced in 1989, is described by supporters as an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade at all levels of government. Opponents note that it could be used to fund abortion and invalidate parental notification laws, informed consent laws, and bans on partial birth abortion. Which brings us to this curious article in Time magazine, written by national editor Amy Sullivan, "The Catholic Crusade Against a Mythical Abortion Bill":

The U.S. Catholic Church's crusade against the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) has all the hallmarks of a well-oiled lobbying campaign. A national postcard campaign is flooding the White House and congressional offices with messages opposing FOCA, and Catholic bishops have made defeating the abortion rights legislation a top priority. In the most recent effort to stop the bill, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia sent a letter to every member of Congress imploring them to "please oppose FOCA."

There is only one hitch. Congress isn't about to pass the Freedom of Choice Act -- because no such bill has been introduced in the current Congress.

Okay, beyond the hystrionics, ("Crusade?" Really?) there are some basic problems with the reporting. The Catholic Conference of Bishops does have a postcard campaign running right now. And it does relate to FOCA. But it's beyond absurd, for anyone who knows about the legislative process and how quickly a bill can become a law (particularly with this Congress!) to suggest that groups are only allowed to lobby once a bill is in committee. But what's more, the postcard campaign specifically notes:

Passing the "Freedom of Choice Act" would achieve these pro-abortion goals in one extreme piece of federal legislation, though this same "FOCA agenda" could be pursued in a series of smaller steps.

Italics mine. The postcards themselves ask members of Congress to "oppose FOCA or any similar measure, and retain laws against federal funding and promotion of abortion."

So even if one agrees with Sullivan that FOCA is not a realistic threat, the Catholic campaign is about fighting any abortion-rights legislation. Is Amy Sullivan promising us that not one piece of abortion-supporting legislation will even be introduced during this Congress? That seems odd, doesn't it?

Let's check out this paragraph:

At a time when the United States is gripped by economic uncertainty and faces serious challenges in hot spots around the globe, some American Catholics are finding it both curious and troubling that their church has launched a major campaign against a piece of legislation that doesn't exist and wouldn't have much chance of becoming law even if it did. To many critics, it feels like the legislative equivalent of the dog that didn't bark.

Oh for the love of all that's holy. One of the main reasons why FOCA doesn't have much of a chance of passing as a complete package (although components are another story) is because groups like the Catholic Conference of Bishops are fighting it tooth and nail on the front end. And this moral equivalency schtick of comparing the economy with the sanctity of human life is fine for a cocktail party discussion, if many drinks have been consumed and the banter is not at its most erudite, but not for a reporter who has an obligation to get all sides of the story. And that "dog that didn't bark" line? As one reader noted, the dog that didn't bark is a clue in a Sherlock Holmes story that leads to the identification of a murderer -- not evidence that there was nothing happening. (The dog didn't bark because he knew the murderer.)

The article then goes on to underplay what FOCA would do to current laws restricting abortions before underplaying how far-reaching Roe v. Wade itself is. Then we get this drive-by:

A chain e-mail of unknown origin soon began making its way into Catholic inboxes, warning of an imminent threat to the anti-abortion cause. "For those of you who do not know," it read, "the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is set to be signed if Congress passes it on January 21-22 of 2009. The FOCA is the next sick chapter in the book of abortion." The e-mail urged Catholics to say a novena -- a devotion of dedicated prayer for nine successive days -- beginning on Jan. 11 and ending the day prior to Inauguration Day.

When Jan. 22 came and went without a Freedom of Choice Act becoming law, the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities announced a nationwide postcard campaign to blanket congressional offices and the White House with appeals to stop FOCA. Anti-FOCA groups on Facebook soon had more than 150,000 members and added thousands more each day. Priests started preaching against the legislation, and churches began circulating petitions to oppose its passage.

Oh Amy. So an email that has nothing at all whatsoever to do with the campaign of the Catholic Bishops is sent around to unknown and unquantified email boxes. Thanks for sharing. But then note the second paragraph . . . which clearly makes it seem like the two are related. They're not. And beyond that, sigh, Sullivan is factually wrong again. In fact, the postcard campaign was announced long before Jan. 22, not after. It was launched the weekend after the inauguration and continued through mid-February but it was voted on in November and announced then. It's not like you can launch a national campaign without some level of effort, after all.

Here are other problems:

In the midst of all this activity, the fact that there was no Freedom of Choice Act before the 111th Congress went largely unnoticed and unmentioned.

A Freedom of Choice Act was introduced in the 108th and 110th Congresses (from 2003 to '05 and '07 to '09, respectively) by Representative Jerold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Um, considering that some of the lobbying efforts against FOCA began before the 111th Congress itself began, the first paragraph is nonsensical. That Congress has only been in session for a few weeks now. And even the second paragraph is flawed since earlier versions of the bill were also introduced in 1989 and 1993.

So why in the world are these crazy, awful, deranged, lying pro-lifers worried about such a mythical piece of fantasy legislation as FOCA? Well, buried deep in the piece, Sullivan mentions this:

In some respects, President Obama has only himself to blame for the current controversy. As a presidential candidate, the then Senator himself pointed a spotlight on the legislation he co-sponsored when he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007 that "the first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing I'd do."

chainbreaker Oh, so the sitting President of the United States promised not only to sign FOCA (which he co-sponsored in the Senate in the last Congress) but to make it his first act as President? So pro-lifers believed the words that their president said? How dare they! And how dare they assume that even if FOCA doesn't get passed that other abortion-rights legislation might be a significant threat? They are clearly deranged and awful people who should be taken off the street and mocked in the pages of Time magazine.

The piece goes on to say that President Obama hasn't done much to support abortion, only citing the Mexico City policy. Of course, he's also filling the executive branch with fellow travelers and laying the groundwork for various other changes. And I don't think Planned Parenthood enjoyed cocktail hour at the previous White House. But, per the beginning of the story, pro-lifers are only allowed to notice such things after there is little to nothing to be done about them.

Sullivan's piece devolves into pure partisan analysis before quoting an official from Catholics United, a liberal organization. He questions the motivations of the bishops, saying they only care about this issue because it raises money for them. No one is allowed to respond to the character assassination.

And the piece ends with what I like to call "the Sullivan special." Here it is:

Some of the USCCB's own policy staffers are reportedly frustrated by the attention given to FOCA. And a few Catholic officials have even taken the rare step of speaking out to correct misinformation about the issue.

The Sullivan special is where you claim some special knowledge that is not shared in detail with readers. It may be conservatives secretly giving her, a liberal reporter, information off the record that miraculously supports her point. Or maybe it's just a personal interpretation of data. It's kind of hard to know how seriously to take these anonymous sources since they appear so frequently in Sullivan's pieces and always in favor of the point she's so obviously trying to make.

There's also the problem that the false information she mentions comes from a bleeping chain mail. I mean, since when do we make organizations that have nothing to do with chain email answer for them? It's just ridiculous and horrible to do that to an organization like the Catholic Bishops who are speaking quite loudly on the record for all to see. And one more thing, one of the pieces of supposedly false information is actually not false. Or, at least, there's no way to know whether an estimate of how many more abortions will be performed if FOCA were passed is right or not. But if taxpayers fund abortion and other restrictions are removed, it's not false to estimate that abortions will increase. Sullivan may disagree with the estimate but that's different than calling it a "false claim" as she does. It makes her article no better than a chain letter.

There is much more that could be said but one final note. In a piece of this length, how does the "reporter" "reporting" on the story for a "news magazine" not manage to speak with a single, solitary person in favor of the campaign? Is Sullivan's advocacy so fragile that she can't actually discuss the topic with someone who doesn't share her views? Does she need help locating the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops? She should just follow this hard-to-find link for better sources on future stories.

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