Power to hype or downplay: On Gosnell and the NYTimes

Many in the media are indicating that they really want to move on from the Gosnell trial that they've struggled to cover -- or ignored -- from the get-go. You're not seeing much coverage. Earlier this week I came across a small example that demonstrates how media frenzies are fed or squashed. It's instructive. Let's go back to the Winter of 2012. You'll remember that when a private foundation devoted to fighting breast cancer decided to stop subsidizing the country's largest abortion provider, all hell broke loose. The media effectively bullied the Komen foundation into reversing its decision under threat of extinction. It led the newscasts. There were unbelievably hostile interviews -- praised by media critics -- of the breast cancer charity's founder. The major media got many facts of the case wrong, such as that this decision was "sudden" or that the clinics being funded by the foundation offered mammograms.

OK, so this week, six dozen or so members of Congress signed on to a letter demanding that broadcast networks provide coverage of the murder trial of abortion practitioner Kermit Gosnell. Last year, two dozen senators signed a letter urging the Komen foundation to fund Planned Parenthood.

Let's compare the media coverage of those two letters. ABC News' had a story on the Komen letter.

The Senate has added to the pressure on the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Twenty-six Democratic senators today sent a letter to Nancy Brinker, the group’s founder and CEO, urging it to reconsider the decision to cut funding from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for the poor.

The Washington Post covered it:

The pressure on the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation to reverse its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for poor people — a decision which has caused an uproar among women’s groups and on social media — is about to get significantly more intense. Nearly two dozen Senators are set to enter the fray.

The Los Angeles Times had an article. So did the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, CNN, National Journal, The Hill and Reuters.

That's just what I found on the first page of Google results for Komen+letter+Senators.

So two dozen lawmakers signing a letter about Komen yielded news coverage from major outlets.

And what does six dozen lawmakers going after broadcast networks for failure to cover Gosnell get you?

Hmm. Well, let's see. I found two blogs, two pro-life media outlets, and the Washington Times. Further digging brought up an item in the Daily Caller and The Hill. None of these are what you'd call major mainstream media and only one of them qualifies as mainstream media period.

Absolutely fascinating, no?

If you want a story to be big, you can keep feeding it. We know that Gosnell is hot news and that folks have been hungry for updates -- and largely denied those updates by the media that control what is and what isn't a story. This letter-from-members-of-Congress story I'm mentioning is just an update. Just a quick and easy item like the Komen letter was. If it was worth writing breathless reports about the Komen letter, why is this one buried?

I get -- I really get -- that the media want to just move past this story and hope that people forget. For the sake of the media industry's credibility and for the sake of civil society, it would be better to just begin covering it rather than leave this dark mark on the record.

And a quick aside. I asked on Twitter about where the Gosnell story was from the New York Times' excellent media reporter Brian Stelter. A prolific writer, his most recent headlines include "Robin Roberts Update," "At Fox News, Less Attention Paid to Gun Debate Than Elsewhere," "A Pulitzer Prize, but Without a Newsroom to Put It In," and "A Top Producer Leaves ‘Katie’ for CNN." I was hoping we'd see him focus on broadcast news' treatment of Gosnell, since his focus is on broadcast media and that's a big part of the larger story. So, I tweeted:

Where's @brianstelter's look at Gosnell media coverage? He's had days to work on it, no?

I found his reply just fascinating:

huh? Trip Gabriel wrote a story about the trial that included the media angles: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/us/online-furor-draws-press-to-abortion-doctors-trial.html?ref=tripgabriel

I replied:

Interesting. It's a huge media story. That 1 piece, which was officially supposed to be trial coverage, wasn't much, was it.

That Trip Gabriel piece, which combined a shockingly accurate -- if brutally self-indicting -- headline ("Online Furor Draws Press to Abortion Doctor’s Trial") with an egregiously inaccurate lede was brief and ostensibly supposed to fulfill the Times' claim that it would cover the trial. I believe they've since moved on from the trial, missing the vast majority of this week's dramatic testimony.

Brian replied:

fair point. I'm not sure what I could write that hasn't been written. But I'm open to suggestions.

So very interesting. And it really gets to the root of the problem we've seen with this Gosnell situation. So many reporters and editors in newsrooms across the land -- health policy reporters, political reporters, cultural reporters, media reporters, and all their editors, etc. -- seem to suffer from a massive and systemic failure of imagination when it comes to the Gosnell trial. They just can't imagine any stories on it! They had no problem with finding media angles on the Komen story. Or the Fluke story. Just by way of example on how a media angle to a story can be covered, here are some of the headlines Stelter contributed to the Sandra Fluke frenzy our nation endured last year. A sample of the headlines include:

"Attack by Limbaugh Awakens 'Stop Rush' Campaign"

"THE CAUCUS; Obama Backs Student in Birth Control Furor"

"Limbaugh Apologizes for Attack on Student in Birth Control Furor"

"THE CAUCUS; Facing Outcry, Limbaugh Apologizes for Attacking Student Over Birth Control"

"Limbaugh Advertisers Flee Show Amid Storm"

"As Advertisers Recoil, Limbaugh Says 'So Be It'"

"MEDIA DECODER; Limbaugh Says 'So Be It' Over Boycott"

"After Apology, National Advertisers Are Still Shunning Limbaugh"

With the exception of the last item, these ran in a four-day period! See how some stories get obsessed over and create media frenzies and others are studiously downplayed and ignored?

How is it that, say, the Los Angeles Times can get 278 pieces on the Trayvon Martin killing -- something that hasn't even gone to trial -- but nothing on Gosnell? How is it that reporters don't struggle to publicize pressure on the Komen Foundation or Rush Limbaugh but dry up when it comes to pressure on their own industry! I mean, heck! I find that letter from the members of Congress to broadcasters kind of frightening on multiple levels! Or as Deacon Greg Kandra put it in a piece headlined "Gosnell backlash: how a free press becomes less free":

If the press isn’t responsible, the government will start trying to tell it what to do.

And I don't even think this letter calling on broadcast networks to fix their lack of coverage is even anything close to the most interesting TV coverage angle out there.

But in the last week we've heard from some reporters who say their pro-choice biases kept them from looking at the trial. Others claim complete and utter ignorance. Others just say they're struggling to find a fresh angle. (I'll leave out the ones currently writing on the Boston bombing who said they couldn't cover Gosnell because the details were too icky.)

The explanations are all very interesting, but they indicate just a complete and utter breakdown in newsrooms across the country. Don't they?

NYT building image via Erika Cross / Shutterstock.com

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