I've been in New York City the past day or so taking part in a conference focusing on Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli and Obergefell. Sort of.
I haven't really had time to dig into the whole Planned Parenthood video media storm, but have followed some of the debates (hello @MZHemingway, hello @spulliam). In a way, the entire affair has followed a very familiar pattern.
Stage 1: Activist group on the cultural right releases advocacy journalism piece making strong claims that clash with the views of most mainstream journalists and focus on charges that are almost impossible to verify in a matter of Internet minutes.
State 2: Mainstream press either (a) ignores the story or (b) says that the heart of the story is something like "right-wing group's video goes viral in conservative media, leading to outrage among sane people who support the abused liberal group." How many headlines did you see with that tone?
Stage 3 is where we are now. Many, but not all, elite publications are covering the story, in part because the offended group -- Planned Parenthood in this case -- has put out a press release and started returning calls from journalists. The story is now legit.
This leads to another formula that has been seen many times in the past: Short restatement of right-wing accusations, followed by lengthy coverage of the response from liberal group, followed by -- here is the key -- lots and lots of reactions from Republican lawmakers courting the religious- and values-voter base, which means this whole affair is simply a matter of politics.
Business. As. Usual. #MovingOn.
In a way, these stories represent calm, competent, normal news coverage from the point of view of many journalists. The conservative activists are crazy. Give them one or two sentences from their press release. Planned Parenthood is part of the sane establishment, so they get interviews and lots of space to stretch out making their case. In the end, this really has be be about politics because (all together now) politics is what is real and what ultimately matters.
To see this at work, read the following second-day coverage from The Washington Post. Let's walk through some of this, right up top. The headline: "Congressional, state investigations into Planned Parenthood underway after undercover video goes viral."
A House committee and at least two states have opened investigations into Planned Parenthood following the release of an undercover video that shows a Planned Parenthood executive graphically discussing the process of aborting a fetus in a way that preserves its organs — and the costs associated with donating those organs to medical researchers.
Does everyone in this debate agree with the Planned Parenthood talking point that the money involved covers the "costs associated with donating those organs to medical researchers." Of course not. But the lede is the lede.
Now what is this all about?
“This video is abhorrent and rips at the heart,” the Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement Wednesday. “The committee will get to the bottom of this appalling situation.”
The congressional investigation was announced as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called on the Obama administration “to denounce, and stop, these gruesome practices.” ...
The video has also prompted the governors of Texas and Louisiana to launch investigations into the organization for any wrongdoing.
Oh those GOP politicians. There they go again. And one can assume that, if asked, the Democrat leaders would say their lines supporting their base.
Next? Time for one press-release quote from the activists on the right. Why interview them or focus on details of their claims?
The antiabortion group behind the video, Center for Medical Progress, said in a press statement that the newly released footage proves that Planned Parenthood “sells the body parts of aborted fetuses,” an action that is prohibited by federal law, and that its doctors use “partial-birth abortions to supply intact body parts.”
Next? A short word from Planned Parenthood and then we are back to GOP politicians.
To the Post team's credit, there is material quoted from the actual video and it's strong stuff. As I said, this story is better than silence. Eventually, a voice for Planned Parenthood receives lots of space -- as he should -- to mount a defense. Yes, it's talking-points time, but he gets to have a voice, as opposed to a slice of PR release material.
The key, for me, is two-fold: Planned Parenthood is allowed to offer detailed responses offering its view of crucial facts. And the other side? Look for a voice there and you won't find one.
And the politicians on the right just keep talking and talking and talking. Are there no experts, scholars even, on the cultural and moral right who have done actual research into Planned Parenthood and can respond to its fact claims? Are there no experts on the subject of who would want to buy these tissues and body parts and why they would want them?
In other words, might there be a journalistic debate about the actual substance of these accusations before this story is turned into a matter of politics and politics alone?
Alas, that would mean actually talking to scientists, scholars and philosophers on the other side of the issue, which would mean admitting that they exist. It would mean admitting that there are truth claims to debate, rather than quoting Planned Parenthood and that is that.
Once again, this affair left me thinking of a key passage of two in that famous 2003 letter by the late John C. Carroll, when he was editor of The Los Angeles Times, about media bias in abortion coverage. That debate, you may recall, was about alleged links between abortion and breast cancer. Once again, there were no scientists or experts to quote on the conservative side (even though there were academic papers out there with authors).
Then Carroll writes this:
It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.
Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.
Precisely. So it's all about politics, you see. Sane people vs. crazy people, who scare politicians into taking their side.
Does this approach to journalism show respect for people on both sides of the debate? Carroll again, in brilliant form:
The reason I'm sending this note ... is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. ...
I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.
BONUS: If you are interested in some of the material offered by activists at the Center for Medical Progress, you can read some of their views -- along with Planned Parenthood material -- in this story from Baptist Press. I thought this reference was interesting, since it points toward new potential research angles for, yes, journalists:
CMP posted on its website a link to an advertisement from StemExpress, LLC, that promotes doing business with the California-based biomedical company as financially profitable. StemExpress supplies human cells, fluids, blood and tissue parts to research laboratories.
"[StemExpress] advertises four different times the financial benefit that Planned Parenthood clinics can receive from supplying fetal tissue, with the words: 'financially profitable,' 'financial profits,' 'financial benefit to your clinic,' [and] 'fiscal growth of your own clinic,'" CMP said. "The advertisement carries an endorsement from [Mar Monte] Planned Parenthood Medical Director Dr. Dorothy Furgerson."
Yes, might there be voices and links to seek out, other than PR spokespersons and politicians? We will see. Maybe journalists will cover the hearings on The Hill.