Abortion: Journalism's Most Sacred Cow

Abortion: Journalism's Most Sacred Cow

By Carl M. Cannon - April 17, 2013

The second in a two-part series

In my early 20s, I played for a company softball team called The Sacred Cows. The company was the San Diego Union-Tribune, so the name was supposed to be self-deprecating. In time, I would learn that the joke was on us.

I don’t recall who led the newsroom revolt, but I certainly remember the issue that got it going. Our publisher, Helen Copley, had refused to run a paid advertisement from Planned Parenthood. Mrs. Copley was a strong Catholic -- she gave a lot of money to the local diocese and to a parochial college on the hill overlooking our newspaper -- and the working assumption in our newsroom was that Helen was obeying the wishes of the local bishop.

A petition was circulated, which reporters and editors signed, and the local television stations were tipped off. The dissidents met to buck each other up -- and to choose a spokesperson to go on camera. They approached me. It seemed an odd choice, and I told them why: Although I’d signed their petition, I wasn’t involved in the protest, and at 24 I was one of the youngest reporters on staff. Also, when it came to the issue of abortion, I harbored pro-life sympathies.

“We know that,” the ringleader told me.

“That’s why we want you,” she added. “This is not really about abortion. It’s about censorship.”

So I went on television and reluctantly criticized my own employer. Looking back, we were not wrong about the need for a newspaper to encourage the free flow of ideas. But on the issue of abortion, we quite wrong about which side really wanted to chill honest and open discussion. That was our real sacred cow.

The Problem With the Press, Part 1: Religion Coverage

No one ever put it quite this way, but the traditional media in this country were about to embark on an extraordinary exercise in self-censorship. It is a social experiment that has lasted up until this week, until our industry’s shame over a refusal to cover the Kermit Gosnell murder trial brought this issue to a crucible.


In newsrooms of the 1970s and 1980s, a general consensus emerged on two fraught political issues. The first, affirmative action, was understandable. Expanding the pool of what had been a white male-dominated profession was not only a laudable social goal, it was a logical business imperative for newspapers seeking to expand their reach. And it was even more than that. If you worked for any major news organization, including the sprawling newspaper chains that dominated the landscape, it was also official corporate policy.

The second issue, in a sense, grew out of the first. That issue was abortion, or in the vernacular adopted by the media, “abortion rights.” To say that big city editors and reporters were “pro-choice” is to understate the case. Mostly, it went without saying: Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, and any reporter or editor who harbored doubts about it -- and those who voiced them aloud -- was considered a sexist, or perhaps a religious nut.

Editorially, most newspapers supported abortion rights. Two studies done in the late 1980s showed an overwhelming majority of U.S. journalists personally supported legalized abortion, numbers that were almost certainly higher among elite news organizations. And after the Newspaper Guild formally endorsed “freedom of choice,” journalists began marching in pro-choice rallies.

James R. Bettinger, city editor of the San Jose Mercury News -- the paper I worked for after San Diego -- remembers having the nagging feeling that our coverage of demonstrations by those opposed to abortion suffered because of the monolithic views of the reporting staff.

I spoke about that subject this week with Bettinger, now the longtime director of the Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford University.

“I was convinced there were stories we were missing and nuances we were trampling on because we weren't hearing [the pro-life] perspective voiced in the newsroom,” he told me. “For all I know, there may have been reporters and editors who felt strongly on the issue, but it wasn't getting voiced. It felt to me like a failing.”

In 1990, influential Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw tackled this issue in a 5,000-word opus that began on Page One. It pulled no punches. Shaw noted that it is certainly possible for reporters and editors to put aside their personal beliefs and follow the obligation of their chosen professional to be fair and impartial. But, he said, that wasn’t happening on this issue.

“A comprehensive Times study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage over the last 18 months, including more than 100 interviews with journalists and with activists on both sides of the abortion debate confirms that this bias often exists,” Shaw wrote. “Careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play.”

In the years between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and the publication of Shaw’s opus, “viability” -- i.e., the amount of time a fetus had to develop before being able to survive outside the womb -- had steadily been shrinking. For journalists who ridiculed conservatives’ supposed hostility to science, this should have been a huge warning flag. Cutting-edge science and traditional religion were in sync. In the press, we were mainly in sync with Democrats.

In 2008, at a joint appearance with John McCain at Saddleback, the sprawling Southern California mega-church founded by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Barack Obama was asked, “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”

“Well,” Obama replied, “I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”

This answer prompted widespread ridicule of Obama among social conservatives -- and of the mainstream press for accepting such a dodge. But the exchange between Warren and Obama succinctly illustrates how the sides in this debate talk past one another. Those opposed to abortion frame the question as being about the rights of the unborn. Those who defend it talk about abortion as being integral to a woman’s right to control her own body, a necessity that trumps theological teaching or scientific advancement.

Because it had long ago chosen sides in this debate, the media collaborated with the pro-choice side to sanitize this debate to the point where the details of the procedure abortion are almost never mentioned and the word “abortion” itself extraneous. Who is so sexist they can oppose “a woman’s right to choose”? How un-American to oppose “choice.”

That was where things stood until the arrest of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and his indictment on multiple counts of murder. This was a case with a set of facts so grisly that it mocked the very concept of “choice.” Here is the opening paragraph of the 2011 grand jury report that heralded the legal proceedings against Gosnell:

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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