During her eight years at GetReligion, M.Z. Hemingway probably heard one question more than any other from her critics: Why do you spend so much time on abortion when the purpose of GetReligion is to critique mainstream coverage of religion news? Or words to that effect.
Over and over, M.Z. and I responded with variations on several key points: (1) Almost every key media-bias study on religious news issues has included questions about abortion, as a key moral issue. (2) While there are atheists and agnostics who oppose abortion on demand (various links here), debates about abortion in America almost always involve questions about religion and religious groups almost always play prominent roles. The phrase "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries" comes to mind. (3) There is no question that Roe v. Wade played a major role in inspiring the creation of the Religious Right and that defense of abortion rights remains a major priority of the Religious Left.
I could go on, but here is the bottom line. It's almost impossible to discuss religion-news coverage in the mainstream press without digging into bias, balance, accuracy and fairness issues linked to moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
Anyway, M.Z. has a new post up at The Federalist that digs into this same territory, using an interesting exchange in a Rand Paul press conference as a hook. It's must reading, but I will share one or two chunks of the piece (including a major GetReligion flashback).
The key moment comes roughly eight minutes into the video at the top of this post. The key is that a reporter noted that Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz considered his stance on abortion to be rather extreme. What was his response and, while offering that, would he be specific about the exceptions he would be willing to grant for when unborn lives can be ended. M.Z. quoted the Paul response:
We always seen to have the debate wayyyyyy over here on what are the exact details of exceptions, or when it starts. Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is just not yet born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.
In other words, if you are going to ask me tough questions on this issue, why not turn the mirror around (there is that mirror concept again) and ask similar tough questions to leaders on the pro-abortion-rights side?
It's interesting to note that, in the New York Times report on this exchange, the media-criticism angle in the Paul response is missing. Here's the top of that story:
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky maintained his aggressive approach to fielding tough questions on Wednesday, suggesting that the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee should have to say when it was permissible to kill “a seven-pound baby in the uterus” before he would discuss when abortions should be allowed.
This leads us into classic Hemingway territory, with crucial URLs:
I’m not sure if any reporter did ask Wasserman Schultz about her views but she volunteered that she favors zero restrictions on abortion. A good reporter will follow-up with her to make sure she meant what she said. She probably did, since it’s also the Democratic Party’s platform. But just to be sure, does that mean she thinks it should be legal to kill a child as she’s exiting the birth canal? Just for the crime of being female? Does that sound as inhumane to her as it does to her critics? What about aborting a baby because she has a cleft palate? Could Wasserman Schultz tell us when human life begins -- not when she feels it begins or believes it begins but when we know from scientific discovery that it begins? And after she answers those questions, maybe she can tell us when human life should be protected? And why? Maybe she could tell us the difference between what murderer Kermit Gosnell did and the late-term abortions she supports? And maybe when she’s asked, New York Times political reporter Jeremy W. Peters could avoid laughing. Certainly if political reporters have spent the last 40 years nailing down pro-lifers’ thoughts on rape and incest, we can spare a few questions for pro-choice politicians.
If, contra many reporters’ beliefs about the mainstream nature of their abortion views, as much as 75 percent of the population outside the DNC and America’s newsrooms supports restrictions on abortion in the third trimester, maybe we could interrogate that a bit.
This leads us back to that amazing period of time when so many mainstream journalists did their very best -- since it was, you may recall, merely a local story -- to avoid covering the crimes of abortionist Kermit Gosnell.
This brings us to the stunningly banal -- no, make that dishonest -- Associated Press report on the Kansas legislation that bans abortions that involve unborn children, literally, being taken apart. The key term in this discussion is "dismember." Yet here is the top of that AP story:
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas became the first state Tuesday to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure that critics describe as dismembering a fetus.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a strong abortion opponent, signed a bill imposing the ban, and the new law takes effect July 1. He and the National Right to Life Committee, which drafted the measure, said they hope Kansas' example spurs other states to enact such laws. Already, the measure also has been introduced in Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Later, the AP story notes:
Under the law, the procedure is banned except when necessary to save a woman's life or prevent irreversible damage to her physical health. Doctors cannot use forceps, clamps, scissors or similar instruments on a fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces.
M.Z. slams home the obvious point: "So, in other words, dismemberment?"
Yes, why use that "critics describe as" language? If AP can quote that the bill bans a procedure in which forceps, clamps and scissors are used to remove an unborn child "from the womb in pieces," why does the lede describe this as a "second-trimester abortion procedure that critics describe as dismembering a fetus."
For M.Z., the bottom line is balance and fairness. This is about journalism.
She is not asking reporters to stop asking challenging questions to religious and cultural conservatives. She is asking why those same reporters are not turning the mirror around and asking equally tough questions to leaders on the moral and cultural left. This is especially important since the nation remains quite divided on many key questions linked to abortion -- especially abortions in the second and third trimesters. As I noted in an "On Religion" column in 2009, focusing on polling by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press:
... "Majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%)" favored some form of compromise on abortion, as did more than 60 percent of both white evangelicals and white, non-Hispanic Catholics.
Digging deeper, that Pew survey even found that 37 percent of liberal Democrats and 71 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats supported some compromise, backing abortion restrictions that would not be allowed under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
I'll let Hemingway wrap this up:
The half of the country that is pro-life, despite the lack of daylight between the media and abortion activists, is a bit sick of the double standards. (Seriously, if you can tell the difference between the Associated Press’ twitter account and Planned Parenthood’s, you’re amazing.) ...
The media have a long way to go to make up for the disparity in how they brutally interrogate pro-life views and put the worst construction on them while avoiding any tough coverage of pro-choice views. But there’s no time like the present for the media to stop carrying the abortion lobby’s water. Let’s get to it.
However, as the late, great media reporter David Shaw (who backed abortion rights) demonstrated in his crucial Los Angeles Times series on bias in news coverage of abortion, there is quite a bit of evidence that many mainstream reporters have little interest in doing balanced, accurate, fair coverage on this topic. Is that good journalism?