Partial-truth semantics at the Times

I have a confession to make. From time to time, I have been known to read about a fascinating article that is in some elite publication that does not publish online versions of its articles and then wait to blog about it until somebody, somewhere goes ahead and posts the text anyway. Thus, I can link to it. Bloggers out there: have you ever done this? Come on. Come clean. You see this happen on bulletin boards all the time. Well, that happened for me the other day when the Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn posted a long and detailed note about an essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy by veteran Newsweek Godbeat scribe Kenneth Woodward. He sent her the text, so she posted large chunks of it.

The topic is most provocative, especially in light of our recent GetReligion go-round (or two) about newspaper style issues involving coverage of abortion. Woodward set out to study The New York Times and its refusal, under any circumstances, to publish the term "partial-birth abortion." Welborn sums up the basic thesis:

(Woodward) begins by noting the difficulties of defining and naming this procedure from 1995, when it first came to public attention and Clinton vetoed a bill banning it. The difficulty is that it's not a medical term (but then, neither is "heart attack") and that the medical community had not named it, mostly because it was a procedure not performed by reputable physicians, for the most part. It was an underground procedure. Once names were determined (Intact dilation and extraction), for example, they were too awkward for headline writers. So even though "partial-birth" abortion was the term of choice for pro-life advocates, it became the most popular way to refer to it, in journalism, usually in scare quotes or with "what opponents call" attached to it.

But not . . . Woodward notes . . . in the NYTimes which steadfastly refused to use the term at all, even in scare quotes, even without the modifier.

The Times jumped through row after row of journalistic hoops to avoid the actual words that were being used in this heated public, political and legal debate. Clearly, notes Welborn, this is a matter of journalistic dogma. The newspaper's point is that "partial-birth abortion" does not exist if the Times does not say it exists. This horrific procedure is, merely, a myth created for political purposes by those who are opposed to abortion on demand.

It is a "metaphor," a "slogan." That is all. There is no moral content to the discussion.

Thus, Woodward concludes (with a nod to recent debates about how the Times views the world in general):

This conclusion should not surprise long-time readers of the New York Times. Nor am I under any illusion that the Times will, on this subject, rethink its one-dimensional newsroom practices, much less its constraining newsroom culture. A walk through the Times, as Okrent put it, can indeed make readers feel like "you are traveling in a strange and forbidding world." It is a strange world where "women" carry "fetuses" but where it is forbidden to ever write that "mothers" carry "babies."

In the end, it is a battle over words that is more than a battle over words. But in journalism the words matter. As Woodward noted in a Notre Dame forum last March focusing on "objectivity" in the news:

Woodward also said that magazine writers and editors look for a story line and controlling themes.

"Journalism is not a science and not an art, but it is a craft," he said. "Morality in journalism has much to do with our commitment to the language."

If anyone sees another source for the complete Woodward essay, please let me know. Perhaps Woodward can post it somewhere himself? I will try to ask him.

Please respect our Commenting Policy