This post will be shorter than usual because it focuses on the religion content in one of the major stories of the day. I am referring to the large Washington Post news feature that ran under this headline: "Meet the millennial who infiltrated the guarded world of abortion providers."
The "millennial" in question is, of course, David Daleiden, the young Catholic activist behind all of the hidden-camera Planned Parenthood videos released by his front organization, the Center for Medical Progress (click here for its homepage).
The word "meet" in the headline made me think that this would be an in-depth profile of this man. Thus, as I read it, I kept waiting for fresh material about this life, faith and motives that I didn't already know from reading -- naturally -- religious-press coverage of this work. This is, after all, a "conservative news" subject.
But one of America's most important mainstream newspapers landed an interview with this man. Surely there would be fresh insights and information, right? Hold that thought.
The key to the story is that is framed primarily in terms of, you got it, political activism. The assumption is that Daleiden's motives for taking on Planned Parenthood are primarily political, Thus, readers are given this summary of why he is important:
Daleiden, 26, is the antiabortion activist who masterminded the recent undercover campaign aimed at proving that Planned Parenthood illegally sells what he calls aborted “baby body parts.” He captured intimate details of the famously guarded organization, hobnobbing at conferences so secretive that they require background checks and talking his way into a back laboratory at a Colorado clinic where he picked through the remains of aborted fetuses and displayed them luridly for the camera.
Daleiden’s videos landed like a bomb in Washington this summer, providing fodder for a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders and energizing social conservatives on Capitol Hill. They also shed harsh new light on the venerable women’s health organization, capturing officials sipping wine while joking about abortion and appearing to haggle over the price of fetal tissue.
The primary impact of his work, of course, is on life among sophisticated Republicans in Washington, D.C., who once again have to put up with pressure from the the party's base among cultural conservatives. The Post article describes the actual contents of the videos -- other than, maybe, the word "luridly" -- in precisely the terms that would be used in the talking points of a Planned Parenthood press release, using as many "scare quotes" and "appearing to" references as possible.
But if the goal is to "meet" Daleiden, then it would help to know why he did what he did. Correct?
Here is the key information, from the point of view of the "social change" desk at the Post.
A Catholic and Southern California native who drives a Honda hybrid, Daleiden calls himself an investigative journalist and credits his California public school education with fomenting in him a passion for human rights.
At the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington late last month, Daleiden wore his signature dark blazer and skinny black tie and a pair of “Nightmare Before Christmas” socks. During a break, he described himself as the result of a “crisis pregnancy,” born while his parents were in their junior year of college.
“I always grew up with the understanding that some people have kids in less than fully intended situations and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
So, basically, the impact of his Catholic faith (which has quite a bit to say, doctrinally speaking, on the sanctity of human life) on his work received the same amount of space -- in terms of word count -- as his hybrid car (shocking, one must assume, since he is a social conservative) and less attention than his socks.
Perhaps Daleiden is the wrong kind of Catholic?
But the key: When a reporter asks Daleiden why he does what he does, how does he answer that question? Is the Post accurate in its assumption that his primary motives are political?
Perhaps his motives are personal, the kinds of motives that would be explored in-depth in this kind of profile? That would have meant taking the contents of this phrase -- "he described himself as the result of a 'crisis pregnancy' " -- MUCH more seriously.
I promised that this post would be shorter than the norm, so I will end with two journalistic questions:
(1) Is the purpose of this profile to help readers understand Daleiden and his work and how it is viewed by his critics and supporters?
(2) Would this feature have been different if editors had allowed the religion desk to be involved in the reporting?