Stories have more than one side

mobius-stripA few years ago, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll sent a memo to all section editors expressing his concern that the paper had covered a story about abortion in a remarkably one-sided manner:

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

I thought of that while reading a "Column One" story in the Times about Dr. Warren Hern, a Colorado abortion doctor known for performing late-term abortions. As I mentioned a few days ago, with the murder of late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, stories about the practice of late-term abortion, the women who seek them and the doctors who perform them are important. Unfortunately, the Times story, written by DeeDee Correll, was really nothing much more than a puff piece:

Reporting from Boulder, Colo. -- At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered.

Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window.

This is one of the facts of Hern's life -- no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian's killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, like Hern, performed abortions.

"I can't sit in front of an open window. The shades have to be drawn," Hern said.

After Slepian's shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. "Will I get to live out my life?" he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. ". . . Who's next?"

It's a provocative story and the Hern perspective is well written, as the lede indicates. But that last quote gives a hint at what's missing from the story. He asks if he'll get to live out his life. Later we learn:

Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.

"It ruins your life," Hern said.

Speaking of ruined lives . . . nowhere in the story do we learn anything substantive about why Hern is reviled or considered controversial. We learn nothing about the abortions he performs or why people oppose them. When Stephanie Simon wrote about late-term abortion doctors for the Wall Street Journal, she included some information about what, exactly, late-term abortion doctors do:

Late-term abortions also are grueling. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on one late-term procedure, sometimes called "partial-birth abortion," in which the physician begins to deliver the fetus, feet-first, then punctures its skull. Doctors are still allowed to dismember the fetus in utero. Dr. Tiller's preferred method is also legal. He stopped the fetal heart with an injection of digoxin, a drug used to treat adult heart patients. Then he would induce labor. Patients said they would wait in hotel rooms through two to three days of contractions until they were ready to deliver their stillborns at his clinic.

Such procedures discomfit some abortion doctors. William F. Harrison, who performs abortions in Fayetteville, Ark., said he considered Dr. Tiller a friend and called him "a very brave and great doctor." Yet he has long expressed concern about Dr. Tiller's willingness to abort into the ninth month. "Some of his practices are hard to defend," Dr. Harrison said.

It's such a simple thing to do, including details about the work of late-term abortion doctors. To speak repeatedly about Dr. Hern's life without filling readers in on any details about how he has ended the lives of untold thousands of fetuses is just odd. If Column One is supposed to be an unreflective puff piece, that's one thing. But if it's supposed to treat contentious issues as complex and challenging, this one just failed.

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