The Media and Abortion

Author: Steve Dunham

THE MEDIA AND ABORTION by Steve Dunham Copyright 1992 A.L.L.; revised 1995 (This article appeared in slightly different form in ALL About Issues Sep. -Oct. 1992)

Are the media biased in favor of abortion? Most people in the pro-life move ment would answer with an unhesitating, unqualified yes. But let's take a closer look at the problem, and perhaps find our way toward a solution.

Who Are "The Media"?

First, to speak broadly of "the media" is misleading. Several hundred TV stations carried A.L.L.'s Celebrate Life! TV program before it was discon tinued. Nearly 300 radio stations carried the erstwhile Celebrate Life! radio program.

Numerous other programs have routinely defended the right to life: The 700 Club, Focus on the Family, and Pro-Life Perspective, to name a few.

The pro-life message is not limited to the broadcast media, either: many publications, especially religious ones, have a pro-life editorial view point. Celebrate Life magazine, for example, has a circulation over 100, 000.

Nor are religious or specifically pro-life media the only ones that tell the truth. The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981 was one of the first secular journals to publicize late-term abortions. They reported "the dreaded comp lication"-babies born alive who were supposed to die in the abortion-and have given major, if not totally objective, coverage to other aspects of abortion.

The New York Times has covered Operation Rescue, crisis pregnancy centers and human embryo research. In the spring of 1992, Newsweek published a re markably balanced article on the abortion controversy. Syndicated column ists Cal Thomas, Nat Hentoff and Pat Buchanan frequently bring pro-life commentary to newspaper readers across America, while Wayne Stayskal of the Tampa Tribune and Chuck Asay of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph are nationally known for their pro-life political cartoons.

Yet most Americans still seem woefully unaware that abortion kills a mill ion and a half babies a year; that abortion is legal through all nine months of pregnancy; that almost 400 abortions a day are done on women four months or more pregnant.

The Problem

Why is there such ignorance?

The answer is in their source of information, especially news and enter tainment. For most Americans, television news is the primary source of news on abortion, and the primary source of entertainment. Their secondary source of information is newspapers. In these media there is definitely a problem with objectivity.

David Shaw, in a Los Angeles Times special report July 1, 1990, stated: "Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and . . . 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American News-paper Guild . . . has official ly endorsed 'freedom of choice in abortion decisions.'"

This perspective is reflected in news reporting. The Roe v. Wade decision is usually reported as allowing abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, when it really removed virtually all restrictions through all nine months. Shaw quoted Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon: "The media's repeated mischaracterizations of" Roe v. Wade "have helped undermine efforts" to re verse the decision. The news media have protected Roe v. Wade by making it sound less extreme than it really is.

Shaw also pointed out that the news media have largely failed to cover the maltreatment of Operation Rescue participants, yet such brutality to anyone else would probably have been front-page news.

"Nor did the Times-or most of the other major media-" Shaw asserted, "pay much attention to the discovery by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post last year [1989] that two justices who had played a major role in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion had conceded, in private memos, that they knew they were 'legislating policy and exceeding [the court's] authority as the interpreter, not the maker of law,' as Woodward wrote."

Shaw quoted Woodward: "There are more people in the news media than not who agree with the [Roe] abortion decision and don't want to look at how the sausage was made."

News vs. Publicity

Coverage of the 1990 Rally for Life in Washington is another bone of con tention between the pro-life movement and the news media, with The Washin gton Post being the major culprit. "The rally was the lead story on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs that day," wrote Shaw, "and it was at the top of Page 1 in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and several other major papers. . . .

"But the Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story . . .

"When abortion-rights forces rallied in Washington a year earlier, the Post gave it extraordinary coverage, beginning with five stories in the five days leading up to the event" and five more the day after, plus a cover story in the Post magazine on the day of the march. Although the abortion march was more newsworthy because it was the first of its kind, said Shaw, "the fury of the anti-abortion movement was understandable."

Similar coverage occurred with an abortion-rights march in Washington, DC, in April 1992. Beforehand, The Washington Post printed a map and dir ections, showing the times, the route of the march, the rally area, near by subway stations, even a so-called "interfaith worship service" at the Sylvan Theater.

USA Today carried a column headlined: "Protect the Right to Choose Abor tion; Sunday's march in Washington is a march for women's lives." Just how women's lives would be saved by hazardous, surgery was never discussed. The National Organization for Women and the National Abortion and Repro ductive Rights Action League have their own gospel, and it was repeated as gospel truth.

After the march, many papers reported that 500,000 people had been there (a few weeks later, after reviewing bus counts, subway ridership and aerial photos, the Park Police decided that only half as many people had been there).

On balance, it should be noted that, afterward, The Washington Post and The New York Times reflected on the makeup of the crowd they had helped draw and concluded that, in the words of Post staff writer Richard Morin, the marchers "were mostly twenty something, mostly liberal, mostly Democrats and mostly veterans of previous abortion-rights rallies"; the story was subtitled, "Poll Suggests Abortion-Rights March Failed to Attract Diverse Crowd." The Post also followed up with a column by Carol Emert, a reporter with States News Service, titled "Abortion-Rights Dilemma: Why I Didn't March." She was forced, she said, to decide between two "heartfelt convictions: that as a reporter I have a duty to be objective, and that as a woman I must stick up for what I consider a woman's fundamental rights." She made it clear where her sympathies lay, but felt that she had done a professional job, and written an objective story.

The Slant and the Slippery Slope

Shaw's Los Angeles Times report on abortion bias indicated that many pro-abortion reporters seem to have trouble keeping their opinions out of their reporting. William Cheshire, an editor with The Arizona Republic, commented, "Mr. Shaw's findings suggest that smart, tough reporters of childbearing age who have trouble performing in a professional manner are being pampered and deferred to and allowed to louse up the product."

Others echo Cheshire's doubts that professionalism and objectivity have been maintained. Any media-watcher can point to numerous examples of slanted coverage of the abortion controversy-such that "Between the Lines" has said, "The major media are becoming virtually an adjunct of the abor tion movement."

For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer-the same paper that nine years earlier had reported "the dreaded complication"-in 1990 published a cartoon and an editorial suggesting that the Catholic Church is un-Amer ican for forcing their supposedly religious view of abortion on the rest of the nation.

Joseph P. Stanton of the Pro-Life Coalition of S.E. Pennsylvania surveyed The Inquirer's coverage of the abortion issue that year and found numerous objectionable aspects to their reporting: referring to abortion laws as restrictive of women's rights rather than protective of the baby; reporting the size of pro-abortion gatherings according to the organizers' estimates, while reporting the size of pro-life gatherings according to official estimates or lower; always writing of abortion as a woman's issue, never a life issue.

Ladies' Home Journal in April 1992 cast the issue in the same way in a purportedly objective report ("Abortion: Notes From the War Zone") that concluded, "Whatever our views, we must . . . vote on this issue as if our lives depended on it, because they do." In other words, abortion is a life issue only so far as it affects women's lives. No one else's life was mentioned.

Someone is left out of the abortion controversy as presented in most news media. "The media have generally, if implicitly, accepted the abortion- rights view that there is no human life to be 'helped' before birth," stated Shaw. Therefore the life in question is not shown in pictures. TV, newspapers and magazines very rarely show the bodies of the babies killed by abortion. The news media show dead bodies often enough, so there seems no excuse for concealing the subject of the "choice." Showing the bodies would end the debate for many people.

As Seen on TV

While print journalism is filled with examples of slanted coverage, David Shaw suggested that the biggest problems are in TV news, where the coverage is more superficial and the opportunity for consumer response smaller. Two examples of network reporting of rescues illustrate the problem.

In an interview in Direct Action News, March 1992, Father Norman Weslin, founder of the Lambs of Christ rescue organization, described how 60 Minutes slanted its coverage:

"QUESTION: . . . this program . . . said that the Lambs were following children to school-children, in this case, being teenagers-and basically harassing those children.

"ANSWER: Oh, we don't do that, and we didn't do that there. We didn't follow any children to school. I think on the Sixty Minutes program the Lamb in the interview said if it did happen and it helped to stop the kill ing then maybe there was some good that came out of it. But still in all it's an aversion to our stomach. We can't stomach doing this thing to children . . ."

The reporting was sloppy at best or maliciously twisted at worst, yet Father Weslin feels that the truth is obvious. "The contrast was set in sharp relief . . . The pro-life person has life and love vibrating through him . . . and the pro-death person [a woman doctor] ends up . . . using four-letter words on television-and then firing a rifle shot, looking for pro-lifers, and then blowing smoke out of her rifle, as though she is a very experienced rifle shot. Well, she has been killing the unborn child ren and now she is looking for born children to kill. Anyone looking at that program that has any maturity at all will see through the shallow ness . . ."

TV reporting on the Spring of Life rescues in Buffalo, NY, also was design ed to make the pro-life side look bad, according to Operation Rescue National's executive director, Rev. Keith Tucci: "Night Line aired a pro gram on the Spring of Life. They showed a gentleman, dressed in a suit, telling the pro-aborts they were going to hell and then took a swing at them. The folks at Night Line neglected to tell their viewers that this man was not with Operation Rescue. He lived in a neighborhood where the killing center is and was apparently passing by on his way to work. The pro-aborts spit on him and he reacted."

Other broadcasters have gone beyond slanted coverage into outright hostil ity to Christianity and the pro-life movement. Ted Turner, chairman of Turner Broadcasting, has called pro-life demonstrators "bozos" and "idiots."

Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist, had an appearance on Good Morning Amer ica canceled because they expected him to quote the Bible. And before an appearance on Nightline, he was warned not to quote the Bible.

Not only the big three networks and CNN have come under fire for their abortion reporting. The Public Broadcasting Service has been assailed for, as Laurence Jarvik wrote in the May 17, 1992, Washington Times, violating "both the spirit and the letter of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act" by failing to provide balanced coverage and by "use of a public trust for partisan purposes" (giving time to liberal Democrats but not to conserva tives).

HBO's special production "Abortion: Desperate Choices" was touted as an objective look at the controversy. Yet it opened by stating that in 1776 abortion was legal and accepted through quickening (when the mother can feel the baby move)-a slanted and revisionist version of American history. It was, in the words of Dorothy Rabinowitz, in the Wall Street Journal April 4, 1992, a "deep and effective . . . argument for the pro-choice position. . . . portraits of women terrorized and nearly killed by back alley abortions . . . [stand] in sharp contrast to the uneasy bustling of the gantlet of picketers outside the clinic."

Bias or Prejudice-and Does It Matter?

What causes this slanted reporting?

"Journalists and editors," wrote columnist Nat Hentoff, ". . . are con vinced that much of the pro-life movement is led by males who think and sometimes look like Jesse Helms and are almost as passionately dedicated to speeding up executions as they are to closing abortion clinics."

"Most reporters don't identify with abortion opponents," wrote David Shaw. "It's not that there's a conscious bias on abortion. "Most journalists try to be evenhanded. Most reporters-and most editors and television anchors and news directors-are conscientious professionals who struggle diligently (and usually successfully) to prevent their personal views from unfairly influencing their coverage." What are their personal views?

In The Media Elite (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986), S. Robert Lichter, Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman exhaustively studied those who report the news. They decided that news reporting is indeed slanted, and not just on abortion. But "it is unfortunate that such issues are usually raised as questions of bias, which suggest calculated unfairness." It is not a matter of bias, they contended, but of background. Reporters and editors approach the news with certain viewpoints that influence their coverage. There is no "conspiracy to exclude conservative voices, but merely . . . the human tendency to turn more often to those you trust, and to trust most those who think like you do." The problem, they said, is what the news media think: 90% said a woman has a right to decide on abortion; only 25% said homosexuality is wrong; only 47% said adultery is wrong.

"They are professionals," wrote Rothman and the Lichters, "but there is bound to be slippage. The problem is that the slippage may be mostly in one direction." That direction seems to be away from what most Americans believe. What do Americans believe? It depends on whom you ask.

Patricia Zapor of Catholic News Service quoted Frank Newport of the Gallup organization as saying that the "very fuzzy middle group," which doesn't believe in abortion themselves but want it to remain available, is where advocates use carefully phrased questions to draw conclusions supportive of their positions.

Zapor reported that one Hickman-Brown poll (conducted for the National Abortion Rights Action League) asked, ". . . do you generally oppose keeping it legal for women to be able to choose to have abortions when they decide they need to have one?" A 1989 poll by The Boston Globe is probably close to the truth. The headline stated, "Most in US favor ban on majority of abortions, poll finds." The news media, by and large, hold a very different opinion.

Abortion, Hollywood Style

The same problem exists in Hollywood, but to an even greater degree. The Media Research Center in Alexandria, VA, surveyed film and TV producers and writers and found that 97 percent support abortion. The New York Times reported that over 300 marchers at the April 1992 abortion-rights rally in Washington, DC, came from Holly-wood, including Jane Fonda, Morgan Fair child, Joanne Woodward and Jill Clayburgh. Film critic Michael Medved main tains that Hollywood has a deep and open hostility to Christianity. Yet filmmakers, he says, would deny they are biased. They claim to be only giving the public what it wants. So why, he asks, do they keep producing money-losing anti-Christian films?

The same attitude of hostility to Christianity comes across on TV. Network series and made-for-TV movies are rife with portrayals of Christians as hypocrites, fools, drunks, adulterers and thieves. Rev. Don Wildmon's Amer ican Family Association has done extensive research and documented the prob lem; on TV, Christians take it on the chin. Joseph Farah, editor of "Between the Lines," quoted columnist Don Feder: "No other group is so con sistently maligned on prime-time television."

What Can I Do About It?

Are there solutions to the problem of slanted coverage? The "entertainment" coming out of Hollywood not only misrepresents pro-lifers, it openly rid icules them. The news media may be another story. Most journalists, al though predisposed to supporting the abortion rights argument, say they sincerely want to provide honest coverage, and would be open to taking a closer look at the pro-life side. Paul Brown commented in the book Choices: "Most members of the press who are pro-abortion take that position because pro-life people have not educated them. . . . Take the person from the newspaper or television station to lunch. . . . Don't attack them. . . . Even when they have totally opposing viewpoints to yours, you can accomp lish a great deal by befriending them. . . . Most of them have their own opinions about us, based on their perception of us as fanatical crusaders, but they are also sometimes quite open to objective things. Most papers will print letters representing opposing points of view.

"Make it a point to provide good, but brief, educational material . . . you will build credibility and provide knowledge and understanding. . . .

"The press is news-oriented. They expect you to provide them with the who, what, when, where and why of the story you wish them to cover. When you provide this information, document your statements, and make the message brief, you will have done the media's work for them, and you will get cover age."

Another way to balance the reporting is to start providing more of it our selves. Too few of us bring our skills and principles to secular journal ism.

"One of the reasons I stopped cursing the darkness and began to light some candles is that I think we can be very effective," said syndicated column ist Cal Thomas. "To have somebody like me on the opinion page along with all of the junk that's on there drives them wild."

Often the news has degenerated into telling people what they want to hear. "The networks have already gotten into the habit of screening news programs for 'focus groups' in order to find out which stories are the most popular. Not which stories are the most important-which are the most popular. And focus groups have long been used by many newspapers as well," wrote Dan Rather in "Journalism and the Public Trust" in The Humanist, November/ December 1990.

So are Americans really being deluded by the media? Maybe we just don't want to know the truth anyway. Are we expressing our desire for the truth? Are we tuning in to what we know to be lies? Many people complain about media bias, yet form their opinions of groups such as Operation Rescue by what they see on TV. There are pro-life sources of news and opinion. Are we giving them our business? Are we watching TV sitcoms that ridicule our faith, and then buying the products pushed by the sponsors? Do we watch the good shows that are on, and support the religious broadcasters who air pro-life programming?

Joseph Farah, editor of "Between the Lines," says there are "many committed believers" in Hollywood "in key positions in the [entertainment] industry. But they need our support and prayers."

"Pray for the big stars," says Cal Thomas. "Pray for them, not just for a week, or a month, but regularly. There are people who are able to reach them, by the grace of God, and who do know them and want them to know something of the love of Christ. They have seen the garbage. Now, let them see the real thing. . . . reach out in your own community to some of these [media] people who are really only messed up because they had a negative Sunday School experience. You know, somebody grabbed their coloring book in primary class and they haven't been back since.

"Pray for some of these people, will you?"

Steve Dunham is managing editor of Celebrate Life Magazine, formerly ALL About Issues.

Celebrate Life P.O. Box 1350 Stafford, Va. 22555