That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry? Here is the overture to this must-read Matt Lewis essay:

Early last month, John Sullivan, executive producer of the new film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (in theaters Oct. 12), reached out to National Public Radio to purchase a sponsorship for the Peabody Award-winning interview show, Fresh Air.

Sullivan, who was prepared to spend as much as six figures, crafted his ad copy to answer the question you’re probably asking: Who is Gosnell? The proposed ad was as follows, “Support for this NPR program comes from the film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. The film is the true story of abortionist Kermit Gosnell. A story the mainstream media tried to cover up because it reveals the truth about abortion.”

No dice. According to e-mails provided to The Daily Beast, NPR’s representative ran it up the legal flagpole and came back with a disappointing answer. In addition to other minor tweaks to the wording, their response stated, “The word ‘abortionist’ will also need to be changed to the neutral word ‘doctor.’”

Seeking to find an acceptable compromise, Sullivan (who co-directed Dinesh D’Souza’s first two documentaries) next proposed simply using the term “abortion doctor.” This is a descriptive term that is morally neutral, he reasoned. Still, NPR refused to approve Sullivan’s compromise language. It was “Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell” or bust.


For journalists, here is the key passage:

… NPR’s Senior Director of Media Relations Isabel Lara explained, “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”

So journalistic neutrality requires stripping Gosnell of any connection to the his career providing abortions — early, late-term, you name it — under the worst possible conditions imaginable.

NPR provided this acceptable language:

“Hat Tip Distribution, with the film ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,’ based on the true story of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell. Out Friday.”

The irony, in terms of journalism, is that NPR was using the term “abortion doctor” in its own limited news coverage of the Gosnell story.

But here is the must-read passage in this essay, which harkens back to the classic 1990 Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw, focusing on media bias in mainstream coverage of abortion issues.

As liberal commentator Kirsten Powers wrote at USA Today back in 2013, “Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations? It's not your fault.” Powers continued, “Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page.”

That’s not to say the story hasn’t been covered. It has. As noted above, NPR covered it back in 2013. Everything gets covered. The real issue is about story placement, emphasis, and repetition. The Gosnell story was covered. It was not, however, on the front page every day for weeks on end—nor did the topic become the prompt for many cable news panel discussions. It should have been. So we are left asking ourselves, why wasn’t it?

Read the whole Daily Beast piece. I fear that this media-bias issue will always be with us, especially as the Internet pulls many newsrooms — on left and right — back into an era of advocacy, niche-market journalism.

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