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The trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor accused of performing illegal and particularly grisly late-term abortions, has garnered copious media coverage in the last week, mostly about the perception there is little national media coverage of his alleged crimes.
Following an op-ed by Fox News political analyst and Daily Beast contributor Kristen Powers in USA Today, a firestorm of controversy has erupted between media outlets saying the story deserves more attention and those arguing otherwise (the trial began March 18). Powers wrote that the gruesome details of the case — scissors used to sever the spinal cords of late-term babies born alive, patient deaths, an unskilled staff barely maintaining a filthy office — are only some of the reasons outlets like the New York Times, the AP and the Washington Post should be providing more (and more explicit) coverage.
Let me state the obvious. This should be front page news. When Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, there was non-stop media hysteria. The venerable NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams intoned, “A firestorm of outrage from women after a crude tirade from Rush Limbaugh,” as he teased a segment on the brouhaha. Yet, accusations of babies having their heads severed — a major human rights story if there ever was one — doesn’t make the cut.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf agreed, writing in a lengthy piece that the grand jury report is so appalling, he can’t believe the national media hasn’t picked it up already, despite the fact he hadn’t heard of it himself. He states the multiple angles of Gosnell’s house of horrors, a lack of regulatory oversight, the abortion debate and the apparent disparity in treatment between white and minority patients screams for follow-ups.
If I were a city editor for any Philadelphia newspaper the grand jury report would suggest a dozen major investigative projects I could undertake if I had the staff to support them. And I probably wouldn’t have the staff. But there is so much fodder for additional reporting.
Slate’s Dave Weigel says “People are conflating liberals, many of whom wrote about Gosnell when the case was fresh, and the ‘MSM,’ which fancies itself unbiased and in-it-for-the-story, but hasn’t piled onto this.” Get Religion writer Mollie Hemingway‘s tweets challenging reporters at mainstream outlets to pay attention to the case prompted him to read the grand jury report. Weigel notes Slate published stories about the grand jury’s findings and filings of the charges in 2011, but says “There is a bubble” that partly explains the media’s lack of follow-up.
So the question, raised by pro-lifers, is this: Explain to us why Gosnell isn’t a national story. Somebody else can try. I can’t explain it. It’s never made sense to me, how a local crime story becomes a national story. Two words: “Poop cruise.” CNN ran hours of coverage and grainy video of a stranded Carnival cruise ship, a situation that inconvenienced many and killed none. How does a missing college student or an angry man in a TSA line become part of Our National Conversation? I don’t know. I do know that a reporter in the bubble is less likely to be compelled by the news of an arrested abortionist.
Philadelphia media outlets have been reporting on the trial regularly. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Joe Slobodizan has been covering the case steadily, and Salon’s Irin Carmon specifically notes the work of Philadelphia Weekly’s Tara Murtha in an essay Friday in which Carmon fires back against the cry for national coverage, and the conservative call that there is a cover-up by the liberal, pro-choice media.
I can’t speak for big news organizations like CNN and the networks, but let’s think about this question another way: How often do such places devote their energies to covering the massive health disparities and poor outcomes that are wrought by our current system? How often are the travails of the women whose vulnerabilities Gosnell exploited — the poor, immigrants and otherwise marginalized people — given wall-to-wall, trial-level coverage? If you’re surprised that in the face of politicized stigma, lack of public funding or good information, and a morass of restrictive laws allegedly meant to protect women, the vacuum was filled by a monster — well, the most generous thing I can say is that you haven’t been paying attention.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally referred to Mollie Hemingway as a Christianity Today columnist. Her column there ended in 2011.