Media coverage of Roe at 40

One could write several volumes under this headline, but we'll just look at a few items to come out in recent days. Let's start with this from NBC:

As the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision takes place on Tuesday, a majority of Americans – for the first time – believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

What’s more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989.

Whenever reading stories about polls, check the underlying data. Check the questions.

It's worth noting that the results of this poll are different from the results of other major polling. Anyway, the poll begins by asking whether respondents approve or disapprove of Roe. Only 39 percent say they approve and 41 percent say they don't know enough about Roe to have an opinion. The pollsters then completely misrepresent Roe, claiming it only legalizes abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. While pro-lifers might wish it were otherwise, there is far more support for the right to end the lives of unborn children in the first trimester than in the remainder of a pregnancy. Roe and its companion court decisions do not just legalize abortion in the first trimester. Far, far from it.

Anyway, the pollsters then ask respondents if they want not to overturn Roe but "completely" overturn it. Why that bizarre qualifier was added to the question is beyond me, but it's a good polling trick to suppress one particular response.

So if you misrepresent what abortion law is and then lead people in a particular direction in your answer, you might get the result you're going for.

Ramesh Ponnuru notes that Washington Post reporter took this information -- and another poll -- and advised that Republicans "need to stop talking about abortion. Immediately.”

The Washington Post asserts:

The trend line is clear, and Americans are becoming more accepting of abortion rights.

Ponnuru responds that this "thesis depends entirely on an overreaction to a few bits of poll data. A fuller look at the evidence does not bear it out."The evidence for the Post's claim is the NBC poll above and a Pew poll. Ponnuru:

Actually, Pew did not find that support for Roe has been increasing. It found less support for Roe than it did in 2005, which appears to be the last time it asked the question. The ABC/Washington Post poll also found declining support for Roe between 2005 and 2010.

There is much more from Ponnuru but the bottom line is that you would be wise to be at least skeptical of this report.

For a broader and more polemical take on this, I'd recommend reading Tim Carney's look at media treatment of abortion, Roe and Planned Parenthood. He begins by noting NBC's misrepresentation of what Roe accomplished, calling it a fitting treatment for its 40th anniversary. He catalogues something you are not likely to even get a hint of from most mainstream media treatment -- how "[l]egions of pro-choice judges and legal scholars have admitted that Roe was bad jurisprudence." He goes on to note that "Planned Parenthood is an abortion business and an abortion lobby" but that its allies in the media obscure this.

He pulls few punches in showing that Planned Parenthood, contrary to media suggestions, doesn't offer mammograms, offers almost no prenatal care and almost never refers pregnant women for adoption. "If you are pregnant, almost the only service Planned Parenthood provides you involves forceps or a scalpel." This is true, of course, but it's not a truth you will learn from most media presentations. Carney is one of the very few reporters covering crony capitalism and how it affects public policy. He talks about how Obamacare authors lobby for Planned Parenthood.

The most important media issue is how we present the terms of the debate. I noted earlier this year that almost all discussion of pro-life work is put in terms of restriction rather than protection. The opposite is true for the pro-choice efforts. If you work to protect unborn life, the media will almost always characterize it as against something. Carney notes a related phenomenon:

In the context of abortion, media and politicians will talk about "terminating pregnancies" and speak as if the only issue at stake is a woman's body. The premise here is that there is no second person involved.

But we know that there is a second person. Look online at the cutting-edge ultrasounds, and you can see a face, and arms, and legs and a beating heart in the first trimester. That's a baby.

Now, the fact is that we actually have seen some good coverage of the pro-life movement 40 years after Roe. I hope to highlight some of it. But a year after I witnessed the unabashed media defense of Planned Parenthood against a breast cancer charity that attempted to extricate itself from the abortion business, my eyes have been opened.

I know that if a fringe pro-life group put out something even 1/100th as tone deaf as this ad we saw this week from a major pro-choice group, we would have seen critical coverage. I know that if a staff writer at a popular publication argued that abortion doctors' lives are lives worth ending, we'd see quite a bit of coverage. Some groups getting pepper sprayed get noticed on all three major networks and others don't, you know? It's just par for the course.

But, again, there is good journalism being done, too. Here are the most recent examples that come to mind of quality reportage, fresh angles or coverage of things we're used to seeing buried. It is easy to focus on either the good or the bad. The whole picture is more complicated and, I hope, getting better. I hope there's more of a market for good and balanced reporting such as the Washington Post and RNS examples in this paragraph, and less for the unbridled advocacy of an Andrea Mitchell.

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