Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

I need a break from @Pontifex posting for, well, a few hours at least.

So let's do an evening think piece on a different media storm, the one that has in recent days surrounded Carly Fiorina and her GOP debate comments challenging President Barack Obama and others to actually watch some of the Planned Parenthood sting videos that (a) they seem to deny exist, (b) they dismiss because of editing (while the unedited videos are even more horrific) or (c) haven't addressed in public in the first place.

Journalists know that it really matters how truth claims are stated. For example, with my reporting students I always talk about the implications of the following statements.

Millions of people believe that God hears their prayers and sometimes people are healed. Again, it's absolutely true that millions of people believe that. Is it true that this happens? Hard to prove. Ah, but what if Ivy League medical studies show that prayer is positive for your health? That still doesn't prove something, but it is another level attribution linked to a source of authority. Alas, I have heard journalists in real newsrooms say that they would never quote any of that because they know that healing is a fraud. End of story.

OK, back to candidate Fiorina. In her case, the accuracy of her statements depends, in part, on how one interprets key statements in connection with video images that are taking place at the same time. It also matters whether one admits that the videos exist. Here is what she said:

"I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' This is about the character of our nation. If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us!" 

Now to the think piece. Take it away, Ross Douthat of The New York Times:

There has been an impressive amount of angry liberal commentary, which has spilled over into the mainstream press coverage (or do I repeat myself?) of the issue, about how in the last Republican presidential debate Carly Fiorina allegedly cited an entirely imaginary video in order to make a crazy claim about Planned Parenthood’s brain-harvesting ghoulishness that’s totally unsupported by the facts. 

Now, to what degree has Fiorina been guilty of a "big lie" in her Planned Parenthood statement? Douthat gets down into the very bloody details of the videos and, here is the crucial part, discusses what her critics would need to prove in order to say that she simply made all this up, as opposed to mistaking, for example, what events happened at what second during a narrated video.

You must read his whole argument. Please. But, well, here's the heart of the matter, looking at this in terms of how journalists need to quote and parse facts:

If the scene in question literally did not exist, which is what the language of her critics consistently suggests -- if Fiorina had conjured up a vision of an intact fetus with a working heart and twitching limbs having its brains harvested out of her hyperactive pro-life imagination -- well, that would merit liberal shock and outrage. But she didn’t conjure or invent it: It’s very easy to figure out what scene she’s talking about, and the discrepancies between what’s in the documentary and her description aren’t wild or incredible or weird. There’s no outright fabrication here, in other words. ... (A twitching, dying fetus? Check. A firsthand description of harvesting a brain from an intact fetus? Check again.)
So for Fiorina to actually be proven as wildly misleading and fundamentally dishonest as her critics keep suggesting, they would need to marshal evidence beyond just a parsing of her words, and demonstrate that the thing she’s describing is an inaccurate depiction of what happens inside abortion clinics that double as tissue procurement centers. They would need to prove that, for instance, the technician in the video is lying about what she saw and did, or that the footage of the twitching fetus in the bowl is fake, or that abortionists never approach the procedure with an eye toward making sure the fetal body comes out intact, or that the idea that this leads to “born alive” cases is just a myth and all testimony (including, implicitly, Planned Parenthood’s own) to the contrary is false or misleading.
Evidence on any of those counts would actually rebut Fiorina’s essential claim, which is that the process of acquiring organs from the unborn involves practices and habits that would shock the squeamishly pro-choice if they ever had to confront the reality -- and that they ought to confront it, politicians very much included included, ideally by watching the videos the Center for Medical Progress has produced.
But I don’t see that kind of counter-evidence being offered. ...  So I’ll put it to Fiorina’s critics: Is what she’s describing actually a pure fantasy? 

So, before things go crazy in our comments pages, let's just state that the goal here is to discuss whether Fiorina has accurately described the basic elements of what happens in the crucial video (key moment here). Has the journalism coverage of this firestorm accurately dealt with the contents of the statements and evidence on both sides.

No name calling, please. Deal with the on-the-record statements and the video images.

And thanks Douthat for his effort on this journalistic, and political/moral, topic.

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