The Washington Post is “institutionally ‘pro-choice,’ ” the Post’s ombudsman, Richard Harwood, wrote in March. “Any reader of the paper’s editorials and home-grown columnists is aware of that.”
But “close textual analysis probably would reveal that, all things considered, our news coverage has favored the ‘pro-choice’ side,” too, Harwood conceded.
Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Post, denies this. The Post, he says, has been “unusually conscious of trying to present both sides all the time” on abortion, and it has generally succeeded.
But a month after Harwood’s column was published, the Post provided its many anti-abortion critics with a classic case study of just what Harwood was talking about--a case so striking that no “close textual analysis” was needed, a case that made Downie himself angrily question his staff and wonder aloud “if we have our antennae raised as high” for theanti-abortion side of the argument as for the abortion-rights side.
The event that triggered Downie’s anger was the Post’s coverage of a massive “Rally for Life” April 28 at the Washington Monument. The rally, sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee, was intended as both a demonstration of the strength of the anti-abortion movement and as a response to the enormously successful pro-abortion-rights rally in Washington in April, 1989.
Abortion protesters insisted that the Post (and other media) greatly understated the turnout for the rally, but such charges are common when the media cover virtually any political demonstration. Far more important, critics complained--and the Post conceded--the paper vastly underplayed the rally, “trivialized” it, as Harwood later wrote.
The rally was the lead story on the ABC, CBS and NBC evenings news programs that day, and it was at the top of Page 1 in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and several other major papers. The New York Times published three separate stories on the rally.
But the Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story--less than half the length of the primary New York Times story.
Rally sponsors were outraged. They have long accused the Post of being biased against their cause, and they seized on this coverage as proof they were right. After all, 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, including a 6,550-word cover story in the paper’s magazine on the abortion battle the day of the event. The Post even published a map, showing the march route, road closings, parking, subway, lost and found and first-aid information.
The day after the abortion-rights march, the Post published five more stories covering the march, including one--accompanied by three pictures--that dominated Page 1. The march stories that day alone totaled more than 7,000 words and filled the equivalent of three full pages, including most of the front page of the paper’s Style section.
There is no question that the 1989 abortion-rights march was a more newsworthy event than the 1990 “Rally for Life.” The abortion-rights march was the first sizable demonstration of that movement’s strength after years of dormancy and, more important, it took place less than three weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to begin consideration of the landmark Webster case. The Bush Administration was using that case to try to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 the case in which the court legalized abortion. Against that backdrop, it was no surprise that the Post (and other major media) gave the march extensive coverage. (The court ultimately, one year ago today, narrowed Roe by granting individual states more latitude in regulating abortion.)
But no one gave the abortion-rights march as much coverage as did the Post, and when the Post gave this year’s “Rally for Life” only a tiny fraction of that coverage--and not even a map beforehand--the fury of the anti-abortion movement was understandable.
At least one man at the Post shared the anti-abortionists’ anger: Managing Editor Downie.
“I really took them (the paper’s metropolitan editors) to the woodshed,” he says.
Although political demonstrations in Washington are routinely covered in the Post’s Metro section, the editors should have realized that an event this big deserved more prominent play, Downie said. When he saw the story on the Saturday rally in the Sunday paper, he says, he was so upset he called the paper’s Metro desk from home “to see what we could do to recoup.”
Two reporters put together a story for the next day’s paper on the political implications of the huge rally.
When Downie called in again, later that Sunday, and was told that story was not scheduled for Page 1 either, he insisted the page be redrawn to include it.
“We were embarrassed (by the first story) on Sunday,” Downie says. “If some people see that (the second story) as a correction, so be it.”
The next day, Monday, during a regularly scheduled meeting with 30 top editors at the paper, Downie inquired further about how the Post had erred in its original rally coverage.
“I said that when the abortion-rights people had their rally last April, we all got quite energized,” he says. “We heard about it from our friends and colleagues.”
But Post reporters and editors--like most journalists in other big-city news organizations--don’t seem to have many friends or colleagues who oppose abortion. So they weren’t aware of the magnitude of the “Rally for Life,” even though various low-level people on the Metro desk had been alerted to it three times in the course of the week by Dan Balz, a national political reporter who spent about half his time in the past year writing about abortion and politics before transferring to the White House beat last month.
Downie says the event was never mentioned in any of three planning meetings that week, though, and Fred Barbash, deputy metropolitan editor in charge of coverage the day of the rally, says there were “a lot of other major local stories coming together . . . and I just didn’t devote the appropriate amount of time to the . . . (rally) story.”
Downie “questioned the people on Metro,” and says he’s convinced that personal feelings about abortion didn’t influence their decisions on rally coverage.
“They were just tired of demonstrations,” he says.
But a week earlier, the Post had mustered sufficient energy and resources to provide prodigious coverage of another demonstration--"Earth Day 1990"--starting with a story and photo that filled more than a third of Page 1 and including four more stories, 11 more photos and an “Earth Day” concert review, all of which filled one full page and parts of five others, among them the top of the first page of the widely read Style section.
Six weeks later, the Post devoted 50% more space to an animal-rights march than it had to the “Rally for Life.”
The Post’s treatment of the “Rally for Life” was “embarrassing,” the paper’s ombudsman subsequently wrote, and Downie himself says, “I am concerned about whether we are paying enough attention to the other side of the (abortion) argument.”
Downie includes himself in that criticism.
“People as high as me should have been aware of what was happening,” he says.
The Post wasn’t the only publication to give substantially less prominence to the “Rally for Life” than it had given to the abortion-rights march a year earlier, however.
The Chicago Tribune, which covered the abortion-rights rally on Page 1 (and followed up with a lengthy, well-displayed feature story several days later), published only one short story, on Page 3, about the “Rally for Life.”
“We made a mistake,” says Jack Fuller, editor of the Tribune. “We underplayed the story.”
Several smaller publications that gave prominent display to the 1989 abortion-rights march also played down the “Rally for Life.”
Other newspapers, from Fresno to Bergen County, N.J., have demonstrated a comparable imbalance on other anti-abortion rallies in recent years, but editors at all these papers insist that it was not bias but inattention or poor news judgment under deadline pressure that explains their coverage.
When readers of the Bergen Record complained about inadequate coverage of an earlier “March for Life,” Editor David Hall published an editor’s note conceding, “Your complaints are justified.” He went on to explain how the Record had determined its coverage of the event and insisted, “We strive for fairness and balance.”
Editors say the same thing about their coverage of abortion and the political process, but abortion opponents have been even more critical of this coverage than of coverage of their demonstrations--and some journalists and abortion-rights supporters say their criticism is not without foundation.
“In a political context, the ground has shifted toward pro-choice,” says Dan Balz of the Post, but both he and Hal Bruno, political director for ABC News, say that there is some justification for the complaint that the media have given more credit to abortion-rights victories at the polls than to anti-abortion victories.
Reporters try hard to be fair--and to keep their organization’s overall coverage fair--Balz says, but, “There have been times when I have felt that pro-choice organizations have easier access, that their . . . spin gets somewhat greater credibility than the spin from the pro-life community and that it sometimes does affect the sensibilities of coverage.”
Despite recent improvements in abortion coverage, Douglas Bailey says much the same thing.
“When pro-choice candidates win, it is perhaps more easily accepted than it should be that their pro-choice position was the reason, and when pro-life candidates win, perhaps it is more easily accepted (than it should be) that that was really irrelevant to the race,” says Bailey, an abortion-rights supporter who publishes the nonpartisan “Abortion Report,” a daily compendium of news on abortion and politics.
Bailey says it’s “probably easier for the pro-choice side to get . . . press attention to specific elections . . . where pro-choice candidates have won” than it is for anti-abortion candidates.
The greater sophistication of many pro-choice organizations in their dealings with the press may help explain that, Bailey says. But he and others suggest that a subconscious bias--an unwitting double standard--may also be at play.
When attempts to enact laws regulating abortion failed to get out of committee in the Florida Legislature last October, for example, the media covered the story heavily. ABC and NBC made it the lead story on their evening news programs. The New York Times made it the lead story on Page 1. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post also put the story on Page 1. The Chicago Tribune put it on Page 2. Many other newspapers and the networks’ morning news programs also gave the story big play.
But two weeks later, when the Pennsylvania Legislature enacted the strictest abortion law in the country, media attention was considerably more muted.
Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times put it on Page 1--albeit less prominently than the Florida story--but the Washington Post relegated it to Page 7 (with a story less than half as long as its Florida story), the Chicago Tribune put it on Page 12 (with a story less than half as long as its Florida story), and many other newspapers gave it even less attention.
But the Florida/Pennsylvania disparity was most noticeable on television. NBC didn’t cover it at all until the next day, when it was mentioned in a single sentence during a story on the failure of the U.S. House of Representatives to override President Bush’s veto of Medicaid funding for abortion.
Tom Brokaw, anchor for the “NBC Nightly News,” says Florida received so much attention because it was the first state to try to enact abortion laws after the Webster decision. There was doubt about whether any laws would be passed, and the media--having played up that suspense--"had to deal with the outcome,” Brokaw says.
In Pennsylvania, there was no doubt the law would pass, and the media said so in covering the story a week before the vote. That made the vote itself less newsworthy.
Still, Pennsylvania was a victory in a major urban state for opponents of abortion, and they think the disparity between the coverage they received and that given to their defeat in Florida was unfair.
ABC’s Bruno agrees.
Pennsylvania provided a second political battleground for abortion last month, and abortion opponents thought media coverage of that was unfair too.
Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, who signed the state’s new abortion law, won the Democratic nomination; state Auditor Barbara Hafer, an advocate of abortion rights, won the Republican nomination. Both ran against candidates who opposed their views--Casey against Philip Berg, Hafer against Margeurite (Peg) Lusek.
“Both Berg and Lusek were running underfunded, single-issue, protest campaigns,” says Nancy Myers, director of communications for the National Right to Life Committee. “Berg, the pro-abortion candidate, got only 23% of the vote. Peg, the pro-life candidate, got 46%. But most of the major media basically ignored Peg and how well we did.”
Myers is right.
Casey, as the incumbent, was expected to win easily but not necessarily overwhelmingly. The Chicago Tribune said two days before the election that Casey’s margin of victory “may be narrow,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer said estimates that Berg would receive “only 25%" of the vote “may underestimate the number of Democrats who favor abortion rights.”
But when Casey won his smashing victory, no major paper except the Inquirer, for which it was big local news, put the story on Page 1; it was on Page 14 of the Los Angeles Times and Page 25 of the New York Times. Only the Washington Post noted the “significant embarrassment” Hafer suffered and said abortion-rights advocates “lost badly” in the election.
Nor did the national press pay much attention to the victory of several abortion opponents in the state’s legislative races, not even that of Stephen Freind, author of Pennsylvania’s new abortion law and one of nine politicians in the nation specially targeted for defeat by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).
What infuriates abortion opponents about this coverage is that, since the Webster decision, the national media have covered heavily several elections in which candidates supporting abortion rights won, among them James J. Florio in the gubernatorial race in New Jersey; Don Avenson in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Iowa; Rosemary Mulligan in the House of Representatives in Illinois, and, in California, Lucy Killea in the state Senate and Tricia Hunter in the state Assembly.
All these candidates defeated anti-abortion opponents, and in all cases, the media said abortion played a major role, generally the dominant role in the race.
The media said much the same thing when L. Douglas Wilder won the governorship of Virginia in November, although abortion opponents, who backed loser J. Marshall Coleman, insist that if Coleman, a white, had beaten Wilder, a black, the victory would have been attributed to race, not abortion.
Many journalists scoff at this charge, but that’s exactly what happened 10 weeks earlier in a congressional race in Florida between Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an opponent of abortion, and Democrat Gerald Richman, an abortion-rights supporter.
Nine days before the election, the Miami Herald said in an editorial that the single issue of abortion could “swing the election.” The day before the election, Tom Fiedler, the Herald’s political editor, said the race “provides one of the first tests of the so-called pro-choice electorate.”
But when Ros-Lehtinen won and abortion opponents hailed her victory as proof of the political strength of their movement, Fiedler pronounced the claim “poppycock.” Several other issues determined the race, he wrote, among them “ethnicity.” Other media agreed. Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American running in a district with a heavy Cuban and other Hispanic population, won because of “ethnic rivalry,” not abortion, the Los Angeles Times said.
Abortion opponents say many other anti-abortion candidates have also defeated abortion-rights supporters, and the national media have either ignored or played down the stories or minimized the role of abortion in the race. Among these races were a gubernatorial race in Nebraska, congressional races in Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas and legislative races in 10 states, including California.
Last month, the day after the primaries, the New York Times did publish a story, under the headline “Each Side Cites Primaries as Evidence of Strength on the Abortion Issue,” that gave both sides an opportunity to proclaim victory. But it wasn’t until three weeks later that the Los Angeles Times published a story--under the headline “Backing of Abortion Rights No Guarantee of Victory at Polls"--pointing out that anti-abortion candidates won seven of eight California state legislative races in which abortion was “a prominent issue.” Most other media ignored that story altogether.
As the Christian Science Monitor noted in May, when abortion-rights candidates won at the polls, their “positions on abortion were widely touted. But anti-abortion forces have scored several successes in smaller races where far less money was spent and where, perhaps, the abortion issue was not so widely covered.”
But because there were complicating factors in many of the races, it’s difficult to evaluate the validity of the charge by abortion opponents that media bias is solely responsible for their victories not having been “widely covered.”
Ethnicity probably was the dominant factor in Florida, for example, and abortion rights candidates have generally won the high-profile races--governorships, rather than state legislative seats. Moreover, in several other races, neither candidate really made abortion a major issue, and in virtually every race, the losing side--abortion opponents and abortion-rights advocates alike--immediately announced they hadn’t really campaigned much in that particular campaign, so abortion wasn’t the crucial issue after all.
Even when abortion was a major issue--as in Killea’s upset victory in San Diego--the candidate’s support for abortion-rights itself may not have been the determining factor; when Roman Catholic Bishop Leo T. Maher barred Killea from receiving Communion three weeks before the election because of her pro-abortion-rights campaign stance, he made her a “national cause celebre " and created widespread voter “backlash,” as the Los Angeles Times pointed out.
Nevertheless, there were several races in which the media minimized the success of candidates opposed to abortion. And there were races in which the media said an abortion-rights advocate’s victory showed the political strength of that movement when, in fact, most of the votes in the race actually went to anti-abortion candidates.
That was the case in Republican Tricia Hunter’s narrow victory in a special Assembly primary in San Diego last summer.
Hunter was an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, and the national media tried to makePeter Johnson of The Times’ editorial library assisted with the research for this article.
her race “a referendum on abortion,” as the San Diego Union noted.
USA Today’s headline on Hunter’s victory was: “Californian’s Win May Be Bellwether.”
But Hunter actually received only 30% of the vote; the other 70% was divided among five anti-abortion candidates, one of whom finished fewer than 200 votes behind her, with only 20% of the registered voters going to the polls. The Washington Post was one of the few major news organizations to note all these mitigating factors.
Last month, when Hunter narrowly won renomination over an underfinanced opponent active in the anti-abortion movement, the national media largely ignored the story.
Moreover, in other races over the last year, the media often said candidates won because of their abortion-rights advocacy when, in fact, the losing candidates had waffled, temporized and flip-flopped so much on abortion that their losses may have been attributable more to their inconsistency than to their opposition to abortion.
In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, for example, it can be argued that Rep. Jim Courter lost to James J. Florio not because voters preferred Florio’s abortion-rights position but because Courter backed off his own longstanding opposition to abortion (and because he was “out of touch with the voters on . . . basic state issues,” in the words of David Hall, editor of the Bergen Record).
So many anti-abortion candidates changed or modified their position that the media began ridiculing them.
Newsweek labeled the syndrome “abortion contortions.” The Chicago Tribune, in an editorial, said, “Call it the ‘Candidate’s Copout.’ Or the ‘Strategic Straddle.’ Or the ‘Ambitions Ambiguity.’ Or maybe the ‘Wimp Wriggle.’ ” Newsday columnist B.D. Colen said the “‘moral’ commitment of many politicians to the anti-abortion movement proved to be about as real as their ‘moral’ commitment to most issues. Nonexistent.”
Candidates don’t usually change positions on an issue like abortion unless they’re afraid that if they don’t, they’ll lose. Given the high-profile electoral victories of many abortion-rights advocates and the defeat of proposed new abortion laws in the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, it’s not surprising that fear of failure made abortion flip-flops the new national political sport. And the flip-flops all went one way--abortion opponents switching to abortion rights.
The question is whether the media artificially and unfairly stimulated the flip-flops.
“The abortion-rights movement has gained extraordinary political momentum recently,” the Boston Globe said last October, and--until much more recently--the general impression given by the media has clearly been that candidates who oppose abortion are likely to lose on Election Day.
Peter Johnson of The Times’ editorial library assisted with the research for this article.