News outlets fall all over themselves to cover horrific crimes because, frankly, there’s a big audience for sensational stories. So naturally, abortion foes have been wondering why the national media -- this newspaper included -- haven’t jumped all over the indictment and trial of Dr. Kermit B. Gosnell in Philadelphia.
Gosnell, 72, is being tried on seven counts of murder for the deaths of seven infants at the abortion clinic he ran in West Philadelphia, along with the death of a pregnant woman awaiting an abortion there. A grand jury’s report on the clinic paints a sickening picture of craven indifference, describing it as a squalid chamber of horrors where patients were given dangerous anesthetics by unqualified technicians, doctors and nurses used rusty and unsanitized equipment, and the staff’s procedures were so crude that some patients left the clinic seriously injured or, in one case, brain dead.
The most serious of the allegations is that Gosnell and his staff -- in the process of performing abortions on women more than 24 weeks pregnant, the legal limit in Pennsylvania -- induced seven women to give birth prematurely to live babies who were then killed by having their spinal cords cut at the neck.
A jury will decide whether Gosnell is guilty of the charges; his lawyers argue that the seven alleged murder victims weren’t viable outside the womb because of the lethal drugs used to induce their delivery. The question raised by readers is whether this story got less attention from the national media than it would have if the setting weren’t an abortion clinic.
Some journalists challenge that premise; writing two years ago for the liberal magazine the Nation, Katha Pollitt contended that “a great deal has been written about Dr. Kermit Gosnell and the shocking conditions and practices at his facility.” That’s particularly true for blogs attuned to abortion rights. But more recently, national political writers and columnists at Salon, the Atlantic and USA Today have suggested that the Gosnell story has been all but ignored by the major news outlets outside Philadelphia.
I read a lot of news on a daily basis, online and in print, and the Gosnell story hadn’t crossed my radar screen until Friday. So I agree with the likes of Salon’s David Weigel and the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that this story has received surprisingly little attention -- from the mass media, that is.
Why? Several readers of The Times say it’s because the liberal media are trying to protect their abortion rights agenda. I don’t like trying to guess what’s on the minds of the editors and reporters who decide what to cover; “the media” are still a collection of individuals who compete with one another. Reporters and editors make news judgments for themselves, not for the group. On the other hand, there’s a herd mentality among the major outlets, which is why some stories become national causes and grounds for societal soul-searching even though they’re not, objectively, all that extraordinary.
So perhaps the main reason the Gosnell allegations didn’t get elevated to that level is because none of the big media powers took the plunge. And you have to wonder why. The testimony at the trial seems to have been pretty dramatic too. Conspiracy theorists on the right argue that the liberal media avoid this story because it might prod the public to demand more limits on abortion. But because Gosnell is accused of operating a site for illegal abortions, he could just as easily illustrate what happens when government makes it hard for women (especially low-income ones) to end their pregnancies early and legally. (Read this piece by Carole Joffe, a professor of reproductive health at UC San Francisco, for a good elaboration on that point.)
Regardless of where you come down in the debate over abortion, you should still be discouraged that at least one aspect of the Gosnell story didn’t get the “60 Minutes” treatment from someone in the national media. Namely, why is it that the state of Pennsylvania -- hardly a bastion of liberalism on the subject of abortions -- ignored so many complaints and warnings about Gosnell’s clinic? Was there no oversight from within the medical profession? And if the grand jury’s report offers an accurate picture, how is it that a facility that harmed so many people could go unnoticed by authorities for so long?
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey