Montgomery Advertiser

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

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Justice Roy Moore: Latest gay marriage ruling draws personal cheap shot from CBS

Justice Roy Moore: Latest gay marriage ruling draws personal cheap shot from CBS

I’ve been following the career of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore for some 18 years, ever since I visited him at the Etowah County courthouse in the summer of 1997. He was a circuit court judge at that point and he had posted copies of the Ten Commandments on the walls of his courtroom plus he opened all court sessions with prayer. One might think that anyone standing trial there would want all the inspirational help they could get, but the American Civil Liberties Union sued him for the prayers and for posting the commandments.

Moore fought them off and in 2000 ran an uphill battle to become the state’s chief justice. His victory didn’t get much publicity because of the Bush vs. Gore battle that dominated the news at the end of the year. However, he was removed from office in 2003 but reelected to the position nine years later.

The story of all that has been told elsewhere but one thing Moore has made clear during his entire career is his opposition to anything having to do with gay marriage. Last February, one day before a federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Alabama, he instructed his probate judges to disregard the ruling. This created quite a bit of confusion, as you can imagine, and we took a look at the mainstream news coverage of that here.

Moore was overruled by the feds, yet this week he again issued an order to probate judges not to conduct homosexual marriages on the grounds that a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court from last March is still in effect.  I spent part of Wednesday scrutinizing several national newspapers’ coverage of this latest move and have been amazed at how all of them quoted Moore’s opponents without even an attempt to balance the story.

Again, as my colleague Jim Davis has already noted, this is nothing new when it comes to reporting on Moore. Apparently this is a story in which there is only one point of view worthy of accurate, informed coverage.

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A tale of three stories: Confusion over same-sex marriage in Alabama

A tale of three stories: Confusion over same-sex marriage in Alabama

Few things, it seems, bring out a newspaper's attitudes like a rebellious state. Three papers produced varying accounts of Alabama's reaction to court orders on same-sex marriage.

And we're not even talking about those bad ol' Eastern liberal rags. We're talking good ol' Sunbelt newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Montgomery Advertiser.

The basic facts are the same: A U.S. District Court judge said Alabama's nine-year-old constitutional amendment for traditional marriage was itself unconstitutional. The state asked for a stay, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused. Then, on the urging of Chief Justice Roy Moore, most probate judges stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether.

Now come the different lenses. First up is the Times, which favored colorful writing over consistency:

Like lightning striking a Southern oak, the conflict over gay marriage split the judges of this state Monday.
Some followed the prodding of their own state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who ordered probate judges not to obey a U.S. District Court order striking down Alabama's same-sex marriage ban.
Others agreed with the federal court; they started marrying people in the morning.
Then, there were those who hired their own lawyers — and tried to stand in the middle as best they could.

Trying to grasp that passage is like trying to picture a lightning bolt splitting a tree three ways.

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