News test: Try to figure out what The New York Times thinks about abortion vote in Ireland

Innuendo, bias and half-truths make a mess of a report in the New York Times on next month’s abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland. Though over 1200 words-long, the March 27, 2018 story entitled “As Irish Abortion Vote Nears, Fears of Foreign Influence Rise” is nearly incoherent. A great many words are used to say rather little rather badly.

What exactly is the Times trying to say in what is supposed to be a hard-news feature?

That it is wrong that money from foreign anti-abortion activists is being spent to influence the vote? That religious sentiment, thank goodness, is now a minor factor in the debate? That fell consultancy groups are manipulating the simple-minded to vote against relaxing the republic’s abortion laws? That there is a vast right-wing conspiracy™ at work seeking to deprive women of control over their bodies?

These assertions all appear, but are either unsubstantiated, or knocked down by facts cited elsewhere in the article. The way this reads indicates that there must have been an editor with an agenda at work.

Bits that would give a logical flow are missing, while buzzwords are pushed to the forefront of the story that plays to the Times’ core readership. The National Rifle Association, the Trump Administration, the Republican National Committee, Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign in Britain (gasp!) appear as villains. An ur-reader of the New York Times will be expected to clutch their pearls and faint with shock at the goings on in Ireland, or explode with righteous indignation.

The lede opens magazine style -- offering a vignette that illustrates the arguments that will be raised further into the story.

DUBLIN -- As Ireland prepares to vote in May on a referendum on whether to repeal its ban on abortion, anti-abortion campaigners can be seen rallying most weekdays on the streets of Dublin, outside Parliament, and at universities, news media buildings and the offices of human rights groups.
They arrive wearing body cameras and bearing placards with graphic images of aborted fetuses.
But not all of them are Irish.
Of the eight members of the anti-abortion Irish Center for Bio-Ethical Reform who protested outside the offices of The Irish Times on a recent weekday, only three -- including the group’s leader, Jean Engela -- are Irish. The others include Americans and a Hungarian.

A quote from the leader of the protest group follows, claiming the anti-abortion groups are playing the same game as pro-abortion-rights activists, followed by an explanation that in May the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of its constitution, which “bans abortion in nearly all circumstances.”

Having framed the discussion -- that anti-abortion groups admit to using foreigners and foreign funds -- the article moves to argument.

To the age-old debates around abortion -- including questions of when life begins and of women’s control over their reproductive rights -- the referendum has added a new dimension of concern about potential outside interference in the vote.

Given what has come so far, what would you expect to read next?

That would be evidence presented of foreign walking around money being spent to keep the ban on abortion? Not quite. The next paragraph tells the reader:

An ethics regulator recently ordered two abortion-rights groups, Amnesty International Ireland and the Abortion Rights Campaign, to return grants of $150,000 and $25,000 to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. It said the money was a foreign political donation intended to affect the outcome of a referendum or election, and therefore banned.

Rather than explain why its premise has been contradicted, the article engages in special pleading, claiming this action is unfair, it states:

But so far it does not appear that any anti-abortion groups have been asked to return overseas donations, despite reports that money is being openly raised on their behalf, particularly in the United States.

To support this charge that the anti-abortion groups are doing what the pro-abortion groups have been caught doing, the Times cites a six-year old story.

One American group, the Pro-Life Action League, told an Irish newspaper in 2012 that anti-abortion groups were raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Irish anti-abortion groups like Youth Defence, which has been linked to far-right movements in Europe.

Though the Times team offers tantalizing hints of links to “far-right movements in Europe,” it fails to follow through with names, dates or events. Instead it reports that a spokesman for the US group said they have supported pro-life groups in Ireland for “several decades” but had “not raised money for the current campaign” while the protestors discussed in the lede state they are an “educational body” and are engaged in full-time anti-abortion activism unrelated to the referendum.

To knock down these claims, the Times turns to commentators for their opinions, framing the next section with the line:

Some commentators argue that anti-abortion groups are not being held to the same stringent standard as abortion-rights groups.

Yet the two quotes from the commentators does not justify the editorial assertions made in the preceding paragraph. Neither says anything about holding the pro- and anti- camps to the same standards. They speak in stead of the general growth of foreign influence in Irish referendums.

The article then introduces the topic of religion.

The Roman Catholic Church, long a major power in Ireland, was the main driver in the 1983 referendum. The church also opposed, successfully, a referendum in 1986 that would have legalized divorce. In the decades since, however, its social and moral authority has been gravely weakened by a number of scandals, most notably clerical child sex abuse.

Yes, the word “graveley” is rather loaded. It continues:

The church could not prevent the legalization of contraception and was on the losing side in referendums that legalized divorce in 1995 and same-sex marriage in 2015.

From this history of church state relations comes this conclusion:

As a result, today’s anti-abortion activists are less overtly religious in their arguments. Instead, they are turning to arguments that abortion harms women’s health. They are also turning to social media tools.

Is there any evidence for this statement? Did the Times ask faith questions of the protestors cited in the opening paragraphs? Are they secularists, Catholics, Protestants? Where is the question to the Catholic Church of comment? Why was the statement of the Church of Ireland (Protestant) archbishops of Armagh and Dublin on the ban not included (they are against lifting the ban). Why are there no examples of this “women’s health” arguments that seemingly have replaced ethical or moral concerns? There are a great many assumptions but no evidence is presented to sustain the claims.

The article continues its speculations noting one anti-abortion group has hired a London consultancy firm who employs a man who worked on the Vote Leave campaign and for Cambridge Analytica, which the Times states is a: “data-mining organization that exploited Facebook data on behalf of the 2016 Trump campaign.”

Well now. That may be the conventional wisdom among the chattering classes, but has it been proven to be true?

The article does have the good sense to concede that this scaremongering is silly. Citing a spokesman for the anti-abortion group whom it tagged as an unindicted co-conspirator with Cambridge Analytica, it notes that Ireland does not have online voter rolls.

“In terms of targeting advertising at individual voters, we couldn’t do that even if we wanted to, which we don’t,” [the spokesman] said.

Further guilt by association charges are leveled, with a who’s who litany of conservative villains.

The Times of London reported that the Pro Life Campaign, Ireland’s largest umbrella anti-abortion group, has retained uCampaign, a Washington firm that has developed apps for the Trump campaign, the National Rifle Association, the Republican National Committee and Vote Leave.

While this may be thrilling to those already persuaded that the world is controlled by secretive small groups, there is no journalistic reason to include these characters. The article changes direction once more, citing an obscure group who through a “crowdsourcing monitoring tool” has detected “anonymous or vaguely sourced paid advertising on Facebook.” Who is this group? Who funds them? Where do they stand on the referendum? Why should I care what they have to say? Would the New York Times source a serious news article in this fashion?

To use a technical term -- this story is garbage. It doesn’t know where it is going. It doesn’t have a coherent argument. It is over-long, badly written, unsourced, and unserious. It does not engage with the other press reports out of Ireland on this general topic such as this February story in the Irish Times entitled: “Overseas influence in abortion referendum will be ‘hard to stop’.”

In its story, the Irish Times reports:

Overseas backers funding social media adverts on the referendum on the Eighth Amendment will be “very hard to stop”, Save the 8th spokesman John McGuirk has said.
“We’re going to be upfront and honest about everything,” he said, adding that any social media advert run by the anti-abortion group would carry its branding and would not be paid for by foreign donations.

McGuirk is also cited in the New York Times article. Now if the Gray Lady had evidence that McGuirk was being untruthful, then its story might work. But it offers nothing to knock down McGuirk other than innuendo, hyperbole, and assertion.

Simply put, this article does not meet the high standards readers continue to expect from The New York Times.

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