I was taping the Crossroads podcast earlier and host Todd Wilken asked me something about why reporters were mishandling the news that Senate candidate Richard Mourdock believes even a human life conceived in rape can be a “gift from God." I was kind of at a loss. I reject the idea, advanced by some critics, that it's just partisan bias or an attempt to help President Barack Obama in the final days of his campaign. But the coverage was so over-the-top, it was hard to defend at all. My big beef in this whole thing is not so much that pro-life candidates are being asked tough questions. Abortion is a super tough topic and one deserving of tough questions. What chaps my hide is that reporters are incapable of asking any tough questions of pro-choice candidates.
To that end, you should be sure to read this piece by Trevin Wax headlined "10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is Never Asked by the Media." Please. Read it.
A few days ago, we remembered the data that show that about 25 percent of Americans say they favor no restrictions on abortion, about 20 percent of Americans say they support consistent protection of the unborn and the rest want something in between. I think the problem with the media might be that they're incredibly familiar with that group who favor no restrictions on abortion and have trouble looking at things from a different angle. As tmatt noted long ago, citing a Pew Forum poll, there are even fascinating numbers that show how many DEMOCRATS want to see strong restrictions on abortion rights.
I was reminded of all that during this fascinating exchange on Twitter between a political reporter at the Weekly Standard, John McCormack, and a religion reporter at Newsweek/Daily Beast, David Sessions. It began with McCormack complaining about disparities in press coverage. I'll just reproduce the exchange here:
John McCormack: At the very least, someone might want to get the president to say precisely what his position on late-term abortion is (link)
David Sessions: Seriously, nobody cares.
John McCormack: What do you mean?
John McCormack: People don't care about abortion? Are you an idiot?
David Sessions: the weird idea that its "corrupt" not to ask about Obama's abortion position when we know it & it's not a campaign issue.
David Sessions: his position is plenty clear to people who care about that issue.
John McCormack: Please tell me: What is Obama's position on third-trimester abortions?
John McCormack: He's evaded the issue (link) ... You may yawn at killing of almost born human beings. Others think it's an atrocity.
David Sessions: who cares? If you care what the answer to that is, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough.
John McCormack: Who cares? So you can't say.
John McCormack: Country may be divided on abortion early in pregnancy. 86% say it should be illegal late in pregnancy per Gallup.
John McCormack: But nothing to see here. "Who cares?" You are a disgrace to journalism.
David Sessions: it's absurd to pretend like this a huge moral press failure when it's not even close to being a campaign issue.
John McCormack: It is a human rights issue. What is/is not a campaign issue depends on what the media asks the candidates.
John McCormack: And it is a gross double standard for the press to make IN & MO Senate candidates abortion stances the BIGGEST STORY EVER...
John McCormack: without even thinking for a second whether Obama himself might hold extreme positions on abortion.
David Sessions: I completely agree about that.
OK, so hopefully each side on this journalistic tussle can learn something. I want to add a few thoughts. First, people really care about abortion. It may not be the single most important issue in every singe mind when we go into the voting booth, but of all the issues out there, it's a biggie. Consistently. If you are a religion reporter, it's good to know this. Also, plenty of people who are fine with first-trimester abortion are not fine with third-trimester abortion. You should probably know that, too, so saying "If you care what the answer is about his third-trimester abortion position, his position on 1st-trimester abortions is bad enough" is just not true.
OK, as to the charge that abortion is not an Obama campaign issue, I don't really know what to say other than you might want to watch even a tiny little snippet of any portion of the Democratic National Convention from this year. (Some jokingly called it an Abortion Jamboree or Abortion-palooza.) Also, as a swing state resident, I would say that abortion ads are the number one thing I'm seeing from Obama's campaign. I've received glossy mailers, emails and a deluge of TV ads. Trust me, it's possibly his biggest issue that he's running on in Virginia. If you are a national reporter, you should probably have some familiarity with this. Or as the New York Times put it last week:
According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, the Obama campaign and Democratic groups have run commercials relating to abortion about 30,000 times since July 2 -- about 10 percent of their ads — including one that falsely claimed Mr. Romney’s opposition to abortion extended to cases of rape and incest.
The ad with the false claim was still running in Virginia as recently as last week, I'm pretty sure (although it's possible I saw it on a DVR'd program from earlier in the month).
Now, as McCormack writes, even if it weren't a major plank of President Obama's campaign, it's still important enough as a human rights issue to cover. To put it another way, that last debate showed us that neither candidate disagrees with each other on the U.S. policy of using drones to target terrorists. Does that mean that since it's not a campaign issue, it shouldn't be covered? Hardly. I think the press can rightly judge certain topics of importance meriting coverage even if votes aren't being won or lost on them. But, again, that's not even the case with abortion coverage.
But at least we can all agree that however this topic is covered, it should be done so in a balanced way. If the press posture is that it's extreme to hold the position that Mourdock holds, the one that only 20 percent of the country shares, where does that put President Obama and his positions? And if only one set of political actors is treated as extreme, as needing to apologize for a position, as if their existence on a party ticket is scandalous, and the other side is treated as if "nobody cares" about their positions, how good is that?
Photo of a disinterested child via Shutterstock.