On abortion coverage: Is the Houston Chronicle capable of listening to both sides?


Early in 2010, I was wandering about my old haunts in Houston’s Eastwood section, which is southeast of downtown. One obvious change was that a new neighbor was moving into a former bank building on I-45, locally known as the Gulf Freeway. It was Planned Parenthood, which was expanding into the six-story building.

Local opponents were claiming that Planned Parenthood would be performing abortions through the 24th week of pregnancy, while PP kept saying it’d only do them through the 19th week. Also, the building was Planned Parenthood’s largest U.S. clinic, a distinction many Texans weren’t wild about. And it was in a majority black and Hispanic area, a fact that opponents frequently note when arguing that Planned Parenthood targets minorities. I think they chose that dodgy area of town because it was close to Hobby Airport and nearly across the street from all the co-eds at the University of Houston.

The day I showed up, the protesters weren’t there, so I drove about the building and snapped some photos. Some of my friends still living in the area had protested against the place, which was walking distance from their homes and my old church. Since it was such a huge facility, it’s no huge surprise that an undercover team of pro-life investigators decided to film what goes on there.

Posts by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., talked about the original coverage of the now infamous Planned Parenthood videos last July, plus the current reaction when a grand jury gathered to investigate PP on organ trafficking charges decided instead to indict the two undercover videographers who brought Planned Parenthood’s activities to light.

The bottom line: I want to highlight a story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle that was so one-sided, I’m guessing that the editorial-page team must have moved its operations into the newsroom. It starts thus:

A Harris County grand jury’s decision Monday to clear Planned Parenthood on organ trafficking charges and instead indict its accusers gave the organization an emphatic victory sweetened by irony and vindication.
To many in Texas and across the country, however, it is hard not to conclude that the people facing jail time already have won the war they launched last summer.
Officials and experts on both sides acknowledged Tuesday the surprise indictments probably will not weaken -- and may even strengthen -- a nationwide wave of momentum against Planned Parenthood and fetal organ donation that has swelled in the months since California anti-abortion activists used heavily edited undercover videos filmed at a dozen clinics to accuse the organization of selling body parts of aborted fetuses.

I must say I despise the chatty, insider tone of articles with phrases like "To many in Texas and across the country" before positing the reporter's point of view. I am curious if the reporter watched any of these videos. In case not, here is a list of what they contain.

The “beating heart” video of an aborted child is especially graphic. I guess the reporter hasn’t spent much time researching these videos, because the “heavily edited” accusation has been debated, and disputed, quite a bit.

The originals were quite long and they were edited to give watchers a quicker glimpse of the wheeling and dealing over aborted baby parts. The bottom line: The videographers quickly released the full (unedited) videos last summer after they were accused of misleading editing.  One firm’s findings that the videos were misleading was done by a firm called Fusion. A lot of media covered that.

When a second firm, Coalfire, found there hadn’t been such deception, former Get Religionista Mollie Hemingway pointed out that almost no one covered those findings. Which is all to say that the Chronicle could have at least thrown in an extra sentence explaining there’s quite a bit of debate about those videos rather than repeating Planned Parenthood’s talking points. Back to the text:

Meanwhile, Republican congressional leaders have renewed efforts to end all government funding for Planned Parenthood, even for vital services that have nothing to do with abortion.
Texas officials have announced they plan to remove the organization from the state Medicaid program and already have kicked it out of an HIV prevention program.
And investigations ordered by the state’s top three elected officials are moving forward.
“It’s like that old saying: A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist, adding that research has shown that people who are told about something and later informed that it was incorrect still harbor much of their initial impression. “It is just difficult to get anybody to reconsider a strong feeling.”

Were there any editors fact-checking and reading this story? After that huge Rottinghaus quote, how about quoting some national-level or local experts who don’t think that the videographers lied? And in what way is it a lie? The Planned Parenthood staffers actually said all those quotes they were taped as saying. The quotes are there in the unedited videos.

The story-editorial goes gets pretty depressing in its one-sidedness. Let me note that I used to write for the Houston Chronicle back in the late 1980s and I had problems with that newsroom's idea of fair, accurate, balanced abortion coverage back then.

It appears that time has not improved things. As I scoured their site, I did get a glimpse of a story that gave the side of the videographers’ lawyers, but it’s behind a paywall. Which is odd, in that stories about Tyra Banks surrogate pregnancy and the sale of a pink Mary Kay mansion are not behind paywalls. So maybe the Chronicle made a stab at objectivity somewhere but they’re going to make it hard for people to read it?

If only the team handling this coverage had picked up on some of the conflicts of interest going on with the district attorney who prosecuted the case. The Associated Press at least pointed this out:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Houston prosecutor handling the only criminal case to date over stealth video of Planned Parenthood clinics around the U.S. has infuriated anti-abortion activists before: In 2013, a grand jury on her watch cleared a doctor accused of ending late-term pregnancies.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican originally appointed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is now watching her party fume after she announced a grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of misusing fetal tissue — and instead indicted the makers of undercover video widely embraced by the GOP. But those who know the former judge say she is no ideologue and won't buckle to politics.
Anderson's announcement this week was surprising. Not only do grand juries rarely turn the tables on those making the criminal accusations, but Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged Anderson to investigate based on footage that accused a Houston clinic of illegally selling fetal tissue for profit.

And a lawyer for that doctor, we find out, was a contributor to Anderson’s political campaign. Hmm. Then we learn, further down, that one of the prosecutors in Anderson’s office is on Planned Parenthood’s board. Then:

Planned Parenthood attorney Josh Schaffer said a prosecutor told him the grand jury never even voted on possible criminal charges against the nation's largest abortion provider.

What? The state’s lieutenant governor had told the DA’s office that was what they were supposed to do. And the investigators just decided to ignore that?

Obviously there’s a ton of things going on in Houston at this point, things the Chronicle could be trying to uncover instead of running editorials in the news section. What mystifies me is how the Chronicle is going against the more typical media reaction, which is to defend whistleblowers. Even CNN believes the grand jury's decision in Houston presents a threat to investigative journalism; something the Chronicle should have considered. Typically, people who do undercover videos of large organizations are lionized in the press, as this Columbia Journalism Review story of Edward Snowden makes clear.  Whistleblowers are cultivated and if they’re jailed, the media works tirelessly to get them freed.

Even people who do illegal things for a good cause are often lionized. I promise this is not a tangent, so stay with me.

I’ve been following the coverage of five people who were arrested for blocking an oil train at a shipyard in Everett, Wash. They are climate activists who are using the necessity defense; an area of law that excuses criminal action if the defendant was doing so to avoid greater harm. They ended up being cleared of the train-blocking charge and only charged $200 each for criminal trespass, which was widely considered as being let off the hook and media such as the Seattle Weekly lauded this ruling as a “victory.” So, why is the necessity defense OK when it comes to climate change but not acceptable when it comes to aborted remains being sold in a insider trade industry that was caught on film? 

Let me stress this final point. I’ve been watching such coverage for 40 years and I doubt that the lengthy 1990 study published by The Los Angeles Times on media bias and abortion (written by a reporter who was as mainstream as you could get) would be written today. Twenty-five years ago, the top journalists in major media cared about objectivity. Today, it appears that they don't.

This photo, taken in March 2010 by the author, is of the almost-finished Planned Parenthood center on the Gulf Freeway.

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