The Media's Pro-Abortion Bias
(Updated and Revised)
July 22, 1998
By Tim Graham, and Clay
The January 21, 1998 version of this Special Report has been updated with additional research and analysis. The MRC re-released the revised copy on July 22, 1998
Gina Kolata doesn't feel that media spin is accidental. When questioned by William Powers in the January 10
National Journal about her slant in favor of cloning, the New York Times health reporter replied: "If you read their pieces, you can usually figure out what they [reporters] think...Anybody who reads
The New York Times who doesn't think The New York Times is pro-choice, they are out of their minds...we send messages all the time about what we think."
The media's bias in favor of "choice" is not reflected in recent polling data. Days after Kolata's candid admission,
The New York Times front page trumpeted a new poll showing "a notable shift from general acceptance" of abortion.
The New York Times/CBS News poll broke down support for abortion rights into trimesters: while 61 percent favored the choice of abortion in the first trimester to 28 percent opposed, 66 percent of those polled opposed permitting second-trimester abortions to only 15 percent who supported it. Fully 79 percent of the people opposed permitting third-trimester abortion, while only seven percent supported it.
But media coverage suggests that any restriction of abortion is unpopular and unwise. Even forced abortions in China have drawn a measure of sympathy from network anchors. After a hard-hitting Brian Ross story on forced abortions and sterilizations in China on the June 9
World News Tonight, ABC's Peter Jennings argued: "The Chinese point out their economic miracle, they have had the fastest growing economy in the world, could not have been accomplished without population control. The United Nations estimates that China's population will grow by 24 percent in the next half a century. By comparison, the Indian population, more than 900 million people today, will grow by 65 percent. And Pakistan, 135 million people today, is expected to grow by about 162 percent. In this regard family planning makes a difference."
To document media treatment of the abortion divide, employing a broad overview of five years of studies, MRC analysts have documented five ways in which the national media continue to tilt the abortion debate in favor of abortion advocates:
1. One side is presented as ideological, the other is not.
A new survey of 1,050 news stories in The New York
Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today in 1995 and 1996 mentioning at least one of four pro-life groups or four abortion advocacy groups found the pro-life groups were labeled "conservative" in 47 percent of the news stories in which they appeared, while abortion advocacy groups were identified as "liberal" in less than three percent of the stories mentioning them.
The pro-life groups' labeling percentage was lowered by the National Right to Life Committee, whose self-explanatory name might have contributed to its comparative lack of ideological warnings, with only seven ideological labels in 119 news stories (6 percent). With the NRLC sample removed, the three pro-life groups remaining were called "conservative" or "religious right" in 171 of 259 news stories, of 66 percent. The Family Research Council attracted 115 conservative labels in 183 stories (63 percent). The June 17, 1996
USA Today carried a story by Richard Benedetto said Bob Dole might create "a nasty confrontation with those on the right who see no room for compromise [on abortion] - Pat Buchanan and the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer among them." Benedetto added: "Many moderate and independent voters already believe the GOP is caught in the grips of extremist elements hard to the right."
Subtract the sample of the National Right to Life Committee, and the three pro-life groups remaining were labeled conservative an average of 66 percent of the time.
Concerned Women for America was tagged with an ideological label in 17 of 24 news stories about them (71 percent), while Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum drew the most ideological warnings, in 39 of 52 news stories (75 percent).
USA Today labeled Eagle Forum in all ten news stories on the group. The
Washington Post noted Schlafly was part of the "conservative alliance that challenged Dole's tolerance language, the group that became better known as the 'fearsome foursome.'"
By contrast, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) drew the highest percentage of "liberal" labeling, with seven tags in 131 news stories (5 percent). Only one
New York Times story kept the Feminist Majority Foundation from going unlabeled in 38 stories (2.6 percent). Despite being the nation's largest provider of abortions, Planned Parenthood was described as liberal in only seven stories out of 315 (2.2 percent).
USA Today never applied in a liberal label in 64 stories, even as the newspaper noted Planned Parenthood's New York affiliate bought an ad charging conservative evangelist Pat Robertson "broadcast the words which have caused a rampage of anti-choice terrorism." The National Organization for Women drew the lowest percentage with four labels in 198 news stories (2 percent). The lack of labeling came despite millions of dollars in election-year activity on behalf of the political action committees run by NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood. The lack of newspaper labeling came despite millions of dollars in the last election cycle on behalf of liberal Democratic candidates by the political action committees run by NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood.
News coverage also presents the debate in the argot preferred by abortion advocates. In none of the 387 stories on pro-life groups were they ever described by reporters as "pro-life." Reporters employed the term "anti-abortion," or referred to activists as "abortion opponents" or "abortion foes." Similarly, in 682 stories on the abortion advocacy groups, none of them used the terms "pro-abortion," "abortion supporters," or "abortion advocates." Reporters referred to "abortion rights supporters."
This newest survey corresponds with earlier Media Research Center labeling studies, beginning in 1989, when a study of stories on CWA and NOW in three newspapers
(Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post) and three magazines
(Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report) in 1986, 1987, and 1988 found NOW drew only ten labels in 421 stories (2.4 percent). The
Los Angeles Times offered the lion's share with six labels in 166 stories, while the
New York Times never gave a label in 124 stories. (Neither did Time magazine in ten mentions.) By contrast, CWA got labeled 25 times in 61 news accounts (41 percent), including six times in 16 stories by
The New York Times.
In 1991, a labeling study of groups in three newspapers
(Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post) in 1988, 1989, and 1990 found reporters tacked conservative labels on the Family Research Council in 14 of 39 stories (36 percent) and Eagle Forum drew labels in 34 of 60 stories (57 percent). In 1993, analysts revisited labeling of the FRC, adding coverage in the same three newspapers from 1991 and 1992. The FRC's percentage of ideological labeling grew to 47 percent (43 of 92 news stories). Since these earlier studies, the frequency of conservative labels for the FRC (from 36 to 63 percent) and Eagle Forum (from 57 to 75 percent) has increased dramatically.
In 1994, MRC media analysts studied the pro-life Christian Coalition, which attracted a conservative label in 157 of 328 stories (48 percent). Some labels were stronger: The
Washington Post used "far right" once, "hard right" once; the Los Angeles Times called them "right-wing extremists";
The New York Times termed them "hardliners"; and USA Today used the adjectives "zealous" and "vociferous" once each.
Political "Moderates" and Extremes. One way to study the use of ideological labeling by reporters is to search news stories on the interest groups involved. Another methodology is simply to look for the labels themselves. Since the media often focused on the rift over abortion in the Republican Party, it seemed strange that the pro-life side was identified using "extreme" terms, while the other extreme, favoring abortion on demand, seemed to be often identified as "moderate."
In 1996, using the Nexis news data retrieval system, we searched three national newspapers
(The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post) from July 1994 through June 1995, and the three weekly national news magazines
(Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report) from January 1992 to June 1995. To develop a sense of the print media's approach in describing the debate, we searched for the word "abortion" within 25 words of "moderate," "extreme," ""radical," "militant," "liberal," "far right," "far left," "hard right," and "hard left." In addition, we viewed all network morning, evening, and magazine show coverage from July 1, 1994 to June 30, 1995.
These major media outlets all followed a similar pattern in assigning categories in the abortion debate. In 486 newspaper and news magazine stories and more than 400 television stories (of which only 60 focused primarily on the political angle), pro-abortion Republicans were described as "moderate" in 116 stories. Pro-life Republicans were undoubtedly described most of the time as "conservative," but this limited study aimed just to identify the occurrence of imbalanced identification. Pro-life Republicans were identified with extreme terms -- "hard right," "far right," "hard-line," and "extreme right" - in 37 stories. Reporters did use the word "liberal" to describe activists in favor of abortion on 86 occasions, but not one reporter in any story used extreme labels for the liberal side. No story used the terms "far left"or "hard left" to describe abortion advocates.
As the news magazines rely more on analysis than reporting, biases were more dramatic:
"Sununu ran interference when Bush needed to shuffle to the right on such issues as judicial appointments or abortion, absorbing some of the blame of Bush's latest pander to his party's extremist wing." -
Time White House reporters Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, August 24, 1992.
"Quayle had become the captive of and the mouthpiece for the party's farther right. Among friends, Bush put some of the blame on Marilyn Quayle for her husband's surrender. Marilyn was too shrill, too hard-core, he said. On hot-button issues like abortion, the President thought, Dan had let her push him too far right." -
Newsweek's Peter Goldman and Thomas DeFrank, October 24, 1994.
"Even the velociraptors of the far right found little to lament, besides her apparent support for at least limited abortion rights." -
Newsweek's David Kaplan and Bob Cohn on Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg, June 28, 1993.
"Specter hopes his pro-abortion-rights stand and other moderate positions will make him an attractive alternative to the party's increasingly dominant far-right wing." -
U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers," November 7, 1994.
On the rare occasion when reporters would quote anti-abortion sources characterizing abortion advocates as extreme, they often put the anti-abortion source in a negative light. On June 6, 1994, U.S. News reporter Lynn Rosellini wrote of Oliver North: "Expressions like 'radical homosexuals,' 'militant feminists,' 'pro-abortion fanatics,' and 'cultural elites' roll from his tongue like caustic kisses from the Lord." When
Newsweek's Lucy Howard and Carla Koehl quoted "conservative activists" distributing fliers that warned of Republican Rep. Susan Molinari's "extreme pro-abortion agenda," they immediately noted: "House sources say that the strident attack angered members, who thought it was unfair."
2. The abortion issue is a divisive matter in only one political party.
Reporters do occasionally acknowledge a pro-abortion bias. In a March 2, 1996 appearance on the CNBC program Cal Thomas,
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz responded to a question about bias: "I think the larger problem is not so much what I would call ideological bias - the notion that somehow reporters are trying to get more Democrats elected to office...I think there is, however, a problem with what I call cultural bias on these subjects that you mentioned - religion, abortion, homosexuality. I think a lot of it is unconscious, but I think on those kinds of subjects, most reporters are probably to the left of the American public and probably don't realize that they're not always giving a full weight of views of people who have very different takes on these matters."
In prime-time network coverage of the 1996 party conventions, anchors and reporters brought up the Republican abortion platform controversy on 55 occasions - but not once did they address the abortion platform debate of the Democrats in prime time.
But the Media Research Center's studies of abortion and the political parties suggest that by favoring abortion-rights advocates in both parties, reporters may be assisting the Democrats by creating the image of a damaging rift in the Republican Party, while the efforts of pro-life Democrats to diversify their party's stance are mostly ignored.
For example, in the three months before the 1996 party conventions, the Big Three television networks offered 60 morning and evening news stories on the struggle over abortion language in the Republican platform, but only one (on ABC's
World News Tonight) on the efforts of pro-life Democrats. In the same study period, CNN's
Inside Politics, the mid-afternoon program for political junkies, offered the same imbalance in microcosm, offering 38 segments on the GOP struggle over abortion platform language compared to just two on the Democrats.
That bias continued once the conventions began. During the four Sunday morning interview programs on August 11, 1996, the Sunday before the Republican convention, the networks asked 27 questions about the possible exclusion of pro-abortion Republican speakers from the convention podium. In San Diego, reporters brought up the abortion controversy or Republican "rigidity" on abortion on 55 occasions during live coverage in prime time. In Chicago, despite a Democratic platform hardened to include support for partial-birth abortions, the presence of pro-life speaker Rep. Tony Hall and the second straight exclusion of pro-life speaker Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the networks never mentioned Democratic abortion controversies in prime time.
In an earlier MRC study of network coverage from July 1, 1994 to June 30, 1995, analysts found that despite the fact that not a single pro-life incumbent lost in the 1994 elections, on 48 occasions, TV network reporters predicted that pro-life advocacy would hurt the Republicans politically. Only one story - on the victory of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating - noted it as a positive factor. Nine stories did suggest that a pro-abortion position would cost Pete Wilson or Arlen Specter in running for the Republican presidential nomination. But three stories touted their stand as a political plus.
Pro-life Democrats were almost totally invisible in these reports. On television, not one pro-life Democrat was featured as a talking head in an abortion story. ABC once noted in 1994 that Georgia Democrat Buddy Darden's pro-life stand might help him win re-election.
3. Reporters have shown little interest in the facts behind partial-birth abortion.
The debate over the partial-birth abortion procedure began in 1995, when the National Right to Life Committee began to publicize the procedure and the new Republican majorities in Congress first passed legislation to ban it. Reporters made no real effort to investigate how many partial-birth abortions occur in America each year. The numbers have ranged from "100 to 400" in a November 13, 1995
U.S. News & World Report article to "13,000" in an ABC World News Now segment by Dick
In a Media Research Center study of network stories from November 1, 1995 through the end of 1996, the networks ran 97 stories (22 full stories and 75 anchor briefs) on the partial-birth debate, usually in relation to its rotation from congressional passage to presidential veto and back to Congress. Almost one-third of these network stories (28) contained disinformation, including the abortion advocates' claims that the procedure was "rare" and only done in medical emergencies.
The deceit started the morning before the first partial-birth abortion ban passed the House. Matt Lauer said on the November 1, 1995 Today it would ban one "rare abortion procedure." That night, Tom Brokaw claimed it would make the "little-used late term procedure" a felony. Lauer claimed the procedure was "rare" or "little-used" five times in thirteen stories between November 1 and December 8, 1995.
"In an article for the March 3 edition of American Medical
News, Fitzsimmons says in the vast majority of cases, the partial-birth procedure is performed with a healthy fetus that is 20 or more weeks along. 'The abortion-rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else.'" -
The New York Times, February 26, 1997.
Dan Rather first touched on the issue on November 1, 1995: "On Capitol Hill, abortion is re-emerging as a national election issue. The House voted overwhelmingly today to make a rarely used type of late-term abortion a felony." On CBS
This Morning, reporter Sharyl Attkisson filed an entire report without explaining the procedure. When Bill Clinton vetoed the ban, Rather still described it as "rarely used, so-called partial-birth abortions."
On March 28, 1996 the day after House passage, CBS
This Morning anchor Troy Roberts stated "about 500" were done annually, twice claiming it was "often chosen by mothers who discover serious birth defects in the fetus." On the September 26, 1996 CBS
This Morning, Family Research Council leader Gary Bauer cited a Bergen Record report on how 1,500 such abortions were performed annually in New Jersey alone, host Jane Robelot retorted: "The statistics we hear from both sides of the issue is more like 600 a year, nationwide. Where are your statistics coming from?"
Dr. Martin Haskell told the American Medical News in 1993 that 80 percent of partial birth abortions he performed were "purely elective." But only Ed Bradley (on the June 2, 1996
60 Minutes) mentioned Haskell's comment, and only ABC's Dr. Tim Johnson (on the September 19, 1996
World News Tonight) pointed out "no one knows how many...are done each year...Nor does anyone know how many are done on healthy fetuses versus those with severe birth defects."
That led to network embarrassment on February 26, 1997, when
The New York Times reported on Page A11 that Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, "recalled the night in November 1995 when he appeared on
Nightline on ABC and 'lied through my teeth' when he said the procedure was used rarely and only on women whose lives were in danger or whose fetuses were damaged." (Those remarks in a taped interview were not aired on
Nightline). The Times noted Fitzsimmons also estimated up to 5,000 partial-birth procedures a year are done, many when baby and mother are healthy. That night, NBC's Tom Brokaw still claimed: "What anti-abortionists call partial-birth abortions - that's a provocative and mostly inaccurate statement." On CBS, Dan Rather noted the "deceitful twist" and said in politics, "truth can be the first casualty." The same could be said for TV reports.
4. Pro-life protests and activities are not news.
Sixty thousand people came to Washington in January 1996 to join the annual March for Life protesting on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. Network coverage? CBS and NBC gave it 19 seconds, ABC gave it nothing. In 1996, ABC demonstrated that only left-wing protests are news, no matter how small:
On January 31, 1996, Peter Jennings announced "a major demonstration on behalf of the environment." Strangely, the story that followed told of a press conference opposing Republican reform of the Endangered Species Act by liberal evangelicals. When asked where the "demonstration" was, the liberal Environmental Information Center, which organized the press conference, said there wasn't one.
On June 1, the left-wing Children's Defense Fund organized a "Stand for Children" to oppose welfare reform. ABC didn't do one story - they filed six on
World News Tonight, and five on Good Morning America, including two separate interviews with CDF chief Marian Wright Edelman, one before the event and one after.
On June 23, ABC's World News Tonight aired a full report by Deborah Weiner on an animal rights march in Washington, DC, and the clash with AIDS protesters over animal research.
On June 30, ABC reporter Anderson Cooper provided a long, sympathetic portrait of two elderly gay males marching in New York City's annual Gay Pride parade.
On August 16, ABC reporter Bill Blakemore filed a full story on a small Greenpeace protest over fishing by factory trawler, including 27 seconds of Greenpeace promotional video.
On September 30, Peter Jennings mentioned a anti-gun group laying out 40,000 pairs of shoes in Washington as a "silent march" against guns.
On October 12, the AIDS quilt got its annual placement on the Washington Mall.
Good Morning America aired three full segments on the AIDS quilt, one leading off the show on the 13th. Minutes later, ABC also mentioned "another demonstration," a Latino march on Washington.
World News Tonight also aired a full AIDS quilt report on the 13th.
ABC even saw protests in foreign lands as more newsworthy than the March for Life in 1996, producing full
World News Tonight reports on another "Silent March" for gun control, with small crowds gathering in front of gun manufacturers (The
Washington Post counted 109 people in Alexandria, Virginia), drew stories on all the networks.
5. Pro-abortion violence is not news.
In the last five years, the national media have dramatically promoted the liberal storyline of threats and violence directed at the men and women with the courage to provide abortions to women who want them. Our three-and-a-half year network survey of the boom in abortion-and-violence stories covered the four evening news shows (ABC's
World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's
World News); the three network morning shows (ABC's Good Morning
America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today); and magazine programs (ABC's
Day One, Prime Time Live, and 20/20, CBS's 60
Minutes, 48 Hours, Street Stories, and Eye to Eye with Connie
Chung, and NBC's Dateline and Now). Stories were placed in the abortion violence category if they covered a physical altercation (pushing, assault, murder) or threats of violence or injuries resulting from an altercation near a clinic.
"Still ahead, the latest round of violence and bloodshed at abortion clinics. The anti-abortion movement has been creeping to the edge of bloody fanaticism for a decade." -
Dateline NBC host Jane Pauley, January 3, 1995.
In 1992, the networks did only 18 stories on anti-abortion violence. In 1993, the total exploded to 126, growing further to 228 in 1994 and 129 in the first six months of 1995. The violence angle also grew as a percentage of the networks' total abortion coverage: in 1993, it became 126 violence stories out of 331 abortion stories (38 percent). In 1994, it rose to 229 of 374 (61 percent). In the first six months of 1995, it declined slightly, to 129 stories out of 267 (48 percent). Violence committed against abortionists or clinic personnel inspired more than 500 network television stories from January 1992 to mid-1995. In the same four-year span there were only five stories devoted to violence by abortion advocates or abortionists themselves.
In print, three anti-abortion shooting incidents drew more than 1,100 stories in seven national print and network outlets in the same time period. By contrast, 13 documented cases of pro-abortion violence attracted only 59 stories in the same outlets. Of those, seven cases of violence or threats from abortion advocates drew only six print media stories. Six examples of abortionists responsible for the death or disfigurement of women from botched abortions drew only 53 print stories.
Using the same sample of three national newspapers and the three national news weeklies used for studying political moderates and extremes, and adding Associated Press dispatches, a Nexis search on the largest stories on abortion and violence demonstrated an unremitting focus on violence against abortion providers. A search for abortionist "David Gunn" drew 549 stories; clinic killer "Paul Hill" pulled up 349 stories; and the last major assailant, "John Salvi," drew 206, for a total of 1,154 news stories through June 30, 1995. (Some of these stories may have included more than one of these names, but the number of mentions does serve to suggest the quantity of reporting).
By contrast, the same sources have little or nothing on incidents of violence or harassment attributed to abortion activists:
Daniel Adam Mahoney was the first pro-abortion activist indicted under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act on April 11, 1995. Prosecutors alleged Mathison called the crisis pregnancy center First Way in Wenatchee, Washington on January 2, 1995 and threatened to kill workers at the office. They also alleged he called the National Life Center hotline in Woodbury, New Jersey and told an operator he was going to shoot protesters outside abortion clinics. This was reported on Associated Press on April 11, 1995 and in a
New York Times article on April 12, 1995 by reporter David Johnston. AP then followed up with an April 12 dispatch in which abortion advocates supported the Mathison indictment under FACE. AP also reported on June 7, 1995 that Mathison pled guilty. But none of the other outlets in the print sample reported the story, and neither did the networks.
Patricia Baird Windle founded and owned the Aware Clinic for Women in Melbourne, Florida, one of the workplaces of Dr. David Gunn. Windle was mentioned in 30 news stories in our print sample, often testifying to the extremist tactics of the other side. But none of the newspapers or news magazines covered Windle's arrest for improper exhibition of a dangerous weapon on March 30, 1995. In January 1995, three Brevard County public works employees were driving slowly to inspect recent road work in front of Windle's home when Windle waved a gun at them from her driveway. In July 1995, she pled no contest and was sentenced to six months probation and a gun safety course - without any media attention.
Ernest Robertson Jr. was picking up his wife at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana abortion clinic on October 6, 1994. After arguing with a protester, Robertson took out a 9-mm pistol and shot at him once before his gun jammed. He was charged with attempted second-degree murder. The Robertson story did surface in the sample in
The New York Times, and briefly on CNN.
Alice Hand was arrested in January 1995 for making at least three phone calls threatening to blow up a Catholic church and school in Suffern, New York. Hand said she believed the Catholic church was partly to blame for anti-abortion violence.
The New York Times ran a 288-word story on page B5 on January 17, 1995. But AP, as well as the other newspapers and magazines, ran nothing.
Gainesville (Florida) Right to Life's offices were firebombed with a Molotov cocktail on February 13, 1993, less than a month before the David Gunn murder, reported the
Orlando Sentinel. The incident was never mentioned in AP or the other media outlets.
While three abortionist shootings drew more than 1,100 stories in three major newspapers and Associated Press, seven cases of abortion-advocate violence or harassment got only six stories, and six examples of abortionists responsible for the death or disfigurement of women drew only 53 stories.
The same approach occurred with the violence done to women by malpracticing abortionists who killed women in their care. Three editorials, two in
The New York Times and one in the Los Angeles Times, bemoaned botched abortions. But all three focused not on the abortions, but on the failure of state medical authorities to appropriately remove and discipline incompetent physicians. None of these stories drew even a small fraction of the attention given to the anti-abortion shootings:
David Benjamin became the first physician in New York state to be convicted of murder because of a botched abortion. Guadalupe Negron bled to death from a perforated uterus in July 1993. Benjamin's license had been revoked for five previous cases of uterine damage in June, but was allowed to practice an additional three weeks until the revocation was final. Paramedics found Negron with a breathing tube inserted into her stomach instead of her lungs.
The New York Times published 16 stories, followed by six AP dispatches, four mentions in
USA Today, two in the Los Angeles Times, and one in The Washington
Post. But none of the networks or news magazines mentioned the story.
Steven Brigham performed abortions in Pensacola, Florida, after the 1993 killing of abortionist David Gunn, but none of the national media outlets in our survey reported that he had lost his license in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Georgia. The New York state medical board found Dr. Brigham guilty of "inexcusably bad judgment" and life-threatening negligence that caused serious injury to two patients. The only national distribution of this story came in a December 20, 1994 Gannett News Service story, just before Brigham's license was revoked in Florida.
Allen Kline arrived in Pensacola after the shooting of abortionist John Britton and was mentioned in
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and AP. But no media outlet recalled Kline's role in the 1985 death of 13-year-old Dawn Ravenell, which later led to a $1.2 million civil verdict against the clinic where Kline took part in the failed abortion.
Angela Ruiz Hanna had no professional medical training, but performed abortions anyway. In January of 1993, Angela Nieto Sanchez died in her clinic after arriving with two of her children. The Sanchez family later found Hanna trying to load the body of Mrs. Sanchez into her car. The
Los Angeles Times filed 11 stories on the case, and AP filed three. But the rest of the media never grasped the story's inherent drama.
Thomas Tucker had his license revoked in Alabama and Mississippi after a patient died after removal of a Norplant contraceptive device. The Mississippi state medical board found him guilty of 32 of 34 counts of unprofessional conduct. Tucker's problems were mentioned in just six AP dispatches and one
USA Today story. In 1992 and 1993, before his license was re-voked, Tucker was sympathetically portrayed as the last hope for abortion in Mississippi in 11 national print stories, including
The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Washington
Suresh Gandotra lost his license in California after Magdalena Ortega-Rodriguez bled to death from a perforated uterus in December 1994. Gandotra had been allowed to practice despite an earlier conviction on billing fraud and allegations of a botched abortion in 1991, which required emergency surgery. Gandotra's case drew only two
Los Angeles Times stories, including a long front-page story on March 21, 1995.
Recommendations for Future Fairness:
Bringing a sense of political balance to coverage of the abortion debate is not a complicated mission. The methods of bias identified in this report could be corrected with these steps:
1. Portray the abortion debate as something with two equally ideological, passionate, or "extreme" sides. If one side opposes abortion at any time for any reason, and the other supports abortion at any time for any reason, it's unfair to describe one side as "extreme" and the other as "moderate." If the media assume that the pro-abortion extreme is more mainstream by virtue of its public support, they might consult that
New York Times/CBS News poll to show that abortion advocates are in a small minority on late-term abortion. They're also vastly outnumbered on the issue of teen abortions without parental notification. Presenting the pro-life movement as "conservative" (or "ultra-right") and the advocates of abortion on demand as moderate or nonpartisan demonstrates a dramatic media-induced leftward shift in the political spectrum.
2. Report on the abortion debates going on within both political parties. Rediscover the pro-life Democrat. Reporters have often presented the truth that the pro-life movement is so powerful in the Republican Party that it's nearly impossible to be nominated for President and be pro-abortion. But they've not presented the equally true opposite: it's also difficult to be nominated for President in the Democratic Party if you're pro-life. (Witness the jettisoned pro-life stands of Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton.) If reporters are eager to break down the constituency groups in the Republican Party, why haven't they investigated the importance of abortion advocates in the Democratic nominating and platform-writing process? And why do the pro-abortion Republicans get all the contrarian spotlight? Almost 40 Democrats in the House and Senate are reliable pro-life votes. Not only would focusing on pro-life Democrats offer some balance to the bursts of coverage of pro-abortion Republicans, but it might correct the notion that all pro-lifers can be identified as "conservative."
3. Apply investigative journalism to the abortion debate and the abortion industry. More media outlets need to follow the recent lead of
U.S. News & World Report. In their January 19 issue, reporters presented the results of dozens of interviews with women who had abortions. But Marianne Lavelle's article went even further, concentrating on the 79 clinics who perform late-term abortions. Among her findings: that while late-term abortions were a small percentage of the procedures purchased, only 9.4 percent of abortions at clinics that responded to the U.S. News survey were done for medical reasons. Lavelle also reported that far more widely used in late-term clinics than the partial-birth abortion is the "dilation and evacuation" abortion, where the "fetus is cut into pieces with serrated forceps before being removed bit by bit from the uterus." If the media spent even a fraction of the time they've spent on the tobacco industry investigating the abortion industry, the public would have a fuller picture of abortion in America today.
4. Try to cover pro-life storylines as well as pro-abortion storylines. For example, the national media have reported almost nothing on the more than 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers nationwide supporting women with unplanned pregnancies to carry their babies to term. In the last five years, the networks have aired only two stories on this phenomenon: a September 27, 1992 CBS
This Morning segment about San Diego Planned Parenthood suing "bogus" abortion clinics for fraud, and a positive August 11, 1993 segment on CBS 's
48 Hours about the Nurturing Network run by former Bendix executive Mary Cunningham Agee. Normally, these sorts of compassionate efforts to assist women in need would be an attractive angle for a news media eager to focus on soccer-mom-friendly issues. Here's one storyline where overcoming personal biases could lead to a ratings triumph.
Tim Graham is the Media Research Center's Director of Media Analysis and the author of Pattern of Deception: The Media's Role in the Clinton Presidency. Clay Waters is the MRC news division's senior media analyst. Research assistance provided by Steve Kaminski.
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