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What Do You Have to Do to Make Page 1?

What Do You Have to Do to Make Page 1?

By Jeremy Lott - April 14, 2013

"Gosh, who do you have to decapitate to make Page 1 around here?" That was Michael Kinsley's question his first day on the job as opinion editor of the famously stuffy Los Angeles Times in 2004.

The story went: a bum had broken into the house of an elderly Hollywood screenwriter, hacked off his head, carried the head over the back fence, stabbed a startled neighbor to death, and made a run for it. He was finally tackled by a couple of Keystone security guards at Paramount Studios. The Page 1 query wasn't a rhetorical question, as Kinsley later explained: "[I]t didn't make the front page. It ran in the Metro section."

Tens of thousands of pro-life critics (if we count social media, and we should) have been asking a version of Kinsley's question about the Philadelphia murder trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. They've made such a stink of it not being national headline news that it is now well on the way to becoming national news.

On Friday, press criticism website Get Religion's Mollie Hemingway reported on the reporters, so to speak. She asked several journalists whose beats ought to include the Gosnell trial why they weren't covering it and publicized the answers.

Health policy reporter Sarah Kliff took a drubbing for her insistence that she only covers "policy for the Washington Post, not local crime." Hemingway pointed out that Kliff had written something on the order of 80 stories on Todd Akin, Sandra Fluke, and the row over the Komen Foundation's decision (and then reversal) to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Those pro-choice friendly missives were deemed policy pieces, but this case, which has definite policy implications regarding the government oversight of abortion clinics, was simply a local crime story that she was free to ignore.

It didn't fly. Responding to the torrent of tweets and other criticism, the Post's executive editor Martin Baron released a statement that amounted to an apology: "We believe the story is deserving of coverage by our own staff, and we intend to send a reporter for the resumption of the trial next week. In retrospect, we should have sent a reporter sooner."

What is this case about? According to the grand jurors who determined there should be a trial, the case is "about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women." They explained: "What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy -- and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors."

The jurors called Gosnell's medical practice a "filthy fraud" which regularly "overdosed...patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths." They complained, "Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it."

That's overstating the matter, but only slightly. Gosnell operated abortion clinics from the early 1970s to 2011. His offices were raided by the FBI and DEA in 2010 and he now faces eight counts of murder and plenty of other charges. If Gosnell beats the rap, he will likely never be allowed to perform any medical procedure ever again -- including using a tongue depressor to look at your tonsils.

But even if Gosnell is finished professionally and headed to prison for the rest of his life (or even, in theory, to the death chamber), he was allegedly allowed to do some pretty horrible things for almost four decades. He was abetted in this by the politics of abortion. No other medical business could stay in business with the sort of abuses and gross violations described in the grand jury report.

Until pro-lifers raised an ungodly stink about it this last week, the trial received very little national coverage. There are three theories for why that didn't happen: 1) journalists are a bunch of pro-choice ideologues; 2) the subject matter is just too gross; or 3) it simply failed to blip on most journalistic radar screens.

The last argument is the most intriguing. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in Bloomberg View, admitted of the trial that "I first heard of it this week." On the Atlantic's website, Conor Friedersdorf, in making the case that this should be a Kinsleyan Page 1 story, wrote, "Until Thursday, I wasn't aware of this story."

Friedersdorf elaborated, "[The case] has generated sparse coverage in the national media, and while it's been mentioned in RSS feeds to which I subscribe, I skip past most news items. I still consume a tremendous amount of journalism. Yet had I been asked at a trivia night about the identity of Kermit Gosnell, I would've been stumped and helplessly guessed a green Muppet."

Well, full marks for honesty. Still, it is an astounding admission by serious journalists -- journalists who are paid a premium to have their finger on the pulse of the American body politic -- that this story had not even registered until the register of the pro-life complaints became almost deafening.

It had registered with me. When the hoopla over media coverage started up this last week, my mind returned an entry for name Kermit Gosnell that read, roughly, "Creepy abortion doctor from Philly. Freckles in mug shot. Arrested for botching abortions and butchering women. Charged with horrible atrocities including infanticide."

Note that I hadn't ever paid great attention to the case. For too long, most mainstream press coverage of life issues has been either absent or abysmal. Those of us interested in such fundamental problems have learned to rely on niche publications such as Lifenews.com or on the few oddballs in the press, such as Slate's William Saletan and National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, who believe matters of life and death are of grave importance.

My sense is that, with the outpouring over the Gosnell case, the reportorial dynamic on life issues is due for a sea change. Abortion on the pro-life side of the ledger is no longer a niche concern and journalists would do well to acknowledge this and adjust their coverage accordingly. Either that or get ready for thousands upon thousands of angry tweets. 

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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