Michael Hiltzik

Planned Parenthood takes us inside the anti-abortion video editing shop

After reeling for weeks from bad publicity tied to a string of heavily edited videos of meetings with its officials, Planned Parenthood finally has struck back.

The women's reproductive healthcare organization on Thursday released a letter and technical report detailing the deceptions embedded within the videos posted by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group. 

Anyone who has studied the CMP videos and transcripts — and we've watched every minute and read every word of the purportedly complete versions posted by CMP — knows that they don't show what CMP says they do. Planned Parenthood's analysis indicates that the deceptive editing goes further than was evident at first viewing. It involves suspicious cuts in the "full footage" and dialogue mistranscribed, possibly deliberately.

This is embarrassing for CMP and its founder, anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, but even more so for the members of Congress and media types who piled on Planned Parenthood based on videos that can't stand up to scrutiny.

Of the former, Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) exploited the edited videos to harass StemExpress, a Planned Parenthood partner, and other firms over their purported trafficking in fetal tissues. Leave aside that not even the edited videos show any evidence of wrongdoing — who cares, when there are cheap political points to be scored. The uproar was enough to prompt StemExpress to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood, even though the goal of the affiliation had been to provide research materials to scientists working against disease. 

"The sensationalistic atmosphere the doctored videos seek to create," Planned Parenthood says, "is exactly the opposite of the reasoned and deliberate process President Reagan set in motion" when he empaneled a blue-ribbon commission in 1988 to devise rules and regulations for fetal tissue in research, rules that remain in force. "The videos mislead rather than inform the public debate."

From the start, CMP's video campaign against Planned Parenthood depended on its target audience not taking the time to examine the complete videos or transcripts (or supposedly complete versions). That's because its misrepresentations are evident, sometimes even in the short versions.

Consider the video of a Feb. 6, 2015, meeting between Planned Parenthood official Mary Gatter and two CMP representatives masquerading as reps of a company interested in buying fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood clinics. (One is possibly Daleiden himself.) CMP's video is here. Its full transcript is here

CMP's heading on this video is: "Planned Parenthood Senior Executive Haggles Over Baby Parts Prices, Changes Abortion Methods." In fact, viewing the video and reading the transcript shows that all the "haggling" is done by CMP's own people, who keep trying to get Gatter to raise her price for fetal tissue.

Contrary to CMP's assertion that Planned Parenthood is aiming to profit from fetal tissue, which would be illegal, the transcript shows Gatter stating: "We're not in it for the money, and we don't want to be in a position of being accused of selling tissue, and stuff like that. On the other hand, there are costs associated with the use of our space." The law says that providers of fetal tissue can recover their costs.

As for "changing abortion methods," Gatter reminds them that the rules forbid changing abortion procedures to preserve tissue samples if it would alter the treatment of the mother. She doesn't agree to do that, despite the wheedling of the CMP plants but says she would ask the clinic's doctor if one or another technique would be equivalent. It's a CMP plant who calls the distinction "technicalities."

These nuances are lost in the editing of the video, which is overlaid with ominous musical chords and stretches of slow motion (always a good way to make even an innocent walk down the street look sinister). 

Planned Parenthood's analysis documents that even the purportedly full videos have suspicious edits in which material ranging from several minutes to a half-hour are missing. They show that CMP's transcripts are often inaccurate, with some damning dialogue that may not have taken place inserted. (CMP says the edits cover "bathroom breaks and waiting periods between meetings.")

But even the "full" footage and transcripts fail to deliver any evidence that Planned Parenthood or its affiliates or partners are violating the law. On the contrary, they show Planned Parenthood officials repeatedly resisting the incessant wheedling of the CMP plants, constantly reiterating that the group takes its legal responsibilities and professional duties to its patients very seriously. The organization goes to great lengths, it's clear, to ensure that every legal "i" is dotted and that it has fully informed consent from its patients to donate fetal tissues to medical researchers in accordance with the law.

CMP, on the other hand, openly shows itself to be engaged in fraud and dishonesty. It attempts to gin up public opposition to abortion by portraying medical procedures as unpalatable and clinical — which they undoubtedly are, to a layperson. It makes sure that its video of Planned Parenthood Senior Medical Director Deborah Nucatola discussing the donation and processing of fetal tissues with clinical detachment shows glasses of wine on the lunch table where the discussion takes place; you'd have to read the full transcript to know that the wine was there because one of CMP's own people insisted on having "a glass of wine, maybe a bottle, to share, of course." 

That's the short video; even the "full" video of the Nucatola encounter posted by CMP has numerous unexplained cuts and alterations. "The blatant manipulation of this video renders it useless as 'evidence,' " says Planned Parenthood's technical consultant, Fusion GPS.

Low-information viewers and anti-abortion zealots are vulnerable to being swayed by such carnival-barker techniques. One would expect our elected representatives to be rather more discriminating, especially about what they accept as grist for Congressional investigations.

The question for Sen. Grassley, Reps. Upton and Murphy and other political opportunists who have campaigned against Planned Parenthood (Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush — we're looking at you) is whether they're proud about hitching their wagons to the Center for Medical Progress' star.

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