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Abortion, The Mainstream Media, And The Limits Of Shaming by Pete Spiliakos.

We seem to be in a moment when the national mainstream media either has, or is about to prominently cover the Gosnell horrors. The week-long prolife campaign to increase coverage seems to have finally broken down resistance to covering the Gosnell trial in the most prominent forums of the most popular outlets. The New York Times hasn’t put the trial on its front page yet, but that might well be coming. CNN led off with the story yesterday. Conor Friedersdorf (in a wonderful essay) is correct to wonder how the Gosnell story hasn’t become a prominent national story earlier given all the story’s many horrible news hooks. Megan McArdle admits that her own pro-choice sympathies might have inclined her to shy away from the story. I would like to think that most journalists at mainstream outlets are similarly rethinking their coverage of abortion, but I doubt it. Friedersdorf and McArdle are pro-choice on abortion, but they are also libertarians rather than liberals. While most mainstream media outlets will surrender to the pressure and cover this story more, I think that most of their liberal staff members will consider this a defeat at the hands of their enemies rather than a lesson on how to do their jobs better.

First let’s be clear what I mean by “mainstream” media. It isn’t MSNBC. Like many (but not all) programs on Fox News, MSNBC exists to make money by making its viewers feel better about being on either the conservative or liberal ideological team. MSNBC has a mutually beneficial relationship with Fox News and conservative talk radio in which each side trolls the other. Most people don’t get their news from either MSNBC, or Fox News or talk radio. The mainstream media like ABC, NBC, CBS, and the New York Times might be called culturally biased news. The vast majority of the journalistic and editorial staff for these outlets have left-of-center staffs, but they don’t think of themselves as partisans. They think of themselves as journalists first and think of advancing their policy preferences second or third or almost never.

The personal and collective biases that come from working in an overwhelmingly left-of-center environment blends into the work, but their self-understanding as journalists places some limits on the impact of those biases. They will write stories about the promised benefits of Obamacare, but if some unflattering information comes out, they will report that too. Bias still shapes the coverage. Positive stories will have a coherence that make the case for Obamacare in a the negative stories won’t make the case for Republican opposition. You can see the reverse on Fox News’s excellent Special Report With Bret Baier (which is an example of conservative culturally biased news.) On Special Report, the benefits of Obamacare are mentioned but not emphasized while the drawbacks of the law are spotlighted. The “mainstream” media won’t connect the anti-Obamacare dots for the reader or viewer, but they will eventually get around to reporting those dots – if only in a scattered and confusing way.

The mainstream media’s coverage of Obamacare is based on the norm that the journalists need to satisfy themselves that they made a good faith effort to present both sides of a public controversy. Their shared left-of-center culture influences what “good faith” means, but just the existence of the norm shapes reporting in a healthy way.

On abortion, this norm goes out the window. We are going to hear excuses for why mainstream outlets were so slow and so spare with their coverage of Gosnell. We have seen this before. As Los Angeles Times reporter David Shaw wrote a generation ago “Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.” Reading Shaw’s epic four-part story on the mainstream media’s abortion bias is chilling because of how little has changed.

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