Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

For a brief period of time in 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder made headlines by attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for president.

This is the kind of thing that leads to press conferences, especially in Denver.

Schroeder was, to say the least a freethinker on a host of cultural and political leaders, including gay rights. At one press conference, I asked the congresswoman a question that went something like this (I am paraphrasing): You have said that you believe people are born gay. Do you believe that, at some point, there will be genetic evidence to back this stance and strengthen your case?

She said “yes,” but didn’t elaborate. However, she did allow me to ask a follow-up question. I asked: If that is the case, and this genetic information could be shown in prenatal tests, would you support a ban on parents choosing to abort gay fetuses?

The press aide in charge was not amused and shut that down immediately. However, I was not accosted by other journalists in the room. A few Rocky Mountain News (RIP) colleagues used to refer to this as “that Mattingly question.” They may not have approved, but some thought it was logical and, thus, fair game.

This anecdote popped into my mind when I read a re-posted 2015 think piece by Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway at The Federalist. The headline: “Why Do The Media Keep Helping Nancy Pelosi Avoid Abortion Questions?” While, obviously, she offers commentary about abortion, Hemingway is primarily asking a journalism question about bias linked to mainstream news coverage of an issue that always involves religion, morality and culture.

This media-bias question remains relevant, after all of these years — as readers could see in the comments attached to this recent Bobby Ross post: “Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote.” Thus, let’s look at this older Hemingway work.


Here’s my take: Yes, I have seen some improvement in abortion coverage, if your goal is balanced, accurate reporting that shows respect for people on both sides of the debates. Some religion-beat reporters have worked hard to talk to both sides. However, in my opinion, political-desk coverage of abortion issues has been as bad as ever — or worse.

This brings us back to that Hemingway piece. The setting is a press conference and a tough, but totally logical, question from a journalist with press credentials. Press reporters noted this was a “conservative” journalist (true, but not that relevant) or even a “protester” (totally inaccurate). Here’s the Hemingway thesis:

Asking Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a hardline defender of the practice of killing unborn children even in the latest stages of development in the womb (she calls late-term abortion “sacred ground“), what constitutes a baby being alive is a question any journalist should ask, and not just conservative ones.

Journalists love asking tough questions about abortion … so long as the recipient of those questions is pro-life. When the politician is pro-choice, they just can’t imagine even the first question you might ask. That’s because, it seems more than safe to say given the last two months of deferential coverage of Planned Parenthood, they are pretty big fans of abortion themselves.

There was, in this case, some celebration that ended up in print. Check out the link to The Hill at the top of this post and listen to the laughter and affirmation from reporters, as Pelosi ducks the question.

Mollie also saved this shot of a Washington Post headline.

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 4.08.08 PM.png

Yes, note the word “protester.”

I screencapped it so that if they develop any shame and change it, like they did this piece of pro-Planned Parenthood puffery … we’ll have a record. Oh look at that! The URL tells the story of the original headline, but they did, in fact, change the headline, however many hours later. Now it says “Nancy Pelosi shut down a reporter’s abortion question in a press conference.”

This piece, by Kelsey Snell, seems to view asking reasonable questions of pro-choice politicians as something that journalists should not do.

Snell doesn’t know enough to tell us the name of the journalist asking the question, but she does, somehow, know that he or she is an “abortion protester.” Except, as the correction to her piece now admits, she didn’t know the reporter was an abortion protester. He wasn’t. She just assumed, I guess, since all the journalists in the mainstream outlets are so supportive of abortion and wouldn’t dare ask a question that casts even a moment of skepticism on the practice, that he must be a “protester.” 

Pelosi refused to answer the question, saying — along with the motherhood comment — that there were no “public policy” questions involved in a question about government funds being used to back Planned Parenthood.

It appears that many political reporters involved in that press conference agreed.

Thus, here is Hemingway’s main point, once again:

The question is, though, why do reporters think they need to be so supportive of Pelosi avoiding answering these questions?

I would like to note that the reporters, in this case, were probably helping Republicans, in the long run. That would still be true, today, in similar pressers.

Why? Because there are quite a few pro-life Democrats in America (Marist Poll), believe it or not. Many of them are in crucial swing states. Political reporters who keep defending what millions of Democrats — including many who back Roe — believe are extreme positions on abortion only help, well, efforts by someone like Donald Trump to woo heartland Democrats. Why is it radical to seek compromises similar to laws found in Europe?

So here’s another question: Do many, even most, political-desk news reporters (not editorial-page writers) consider anathema all compromises on abortion issues, even those linked to safety issues and late-term procedures?

Check out Hemingway’s old post and focus on the journalism issues.

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