PBS "MEDIA MATTERS"
Broadcast January, 1997
Hello. I'm Alex Jones, the executive editor of Media Matters. Media
Matters probes that controversial, feared, even sometimes hated group
known as the news media. We look at how journalists work, and how WELL
they do their critically important job.
Tonight Media Matters presents reports by three journalists who - this
time - are taking a hard look at their FELLOW journalists. Nancy Hicks
Maynard, formerly of The New York Times and The Oakland Tribune, will
look at the debate within the media prompted by new technology that
makes it EASY to alter photographs without ANYONE being the wiser. Are
news photographs NEWS . . . or are they art?
Author and journalist David Remnick of The New Yorker examines the
powerful editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, whose fierce
conservative voice has made it the scourge of the Clinton
But first, we take a look at how the news media covered the effort to
ban intact dilation and extraction, a procedure better known as partial
birth abortions. There is no more divisive or passionately argued issue
than that of abortion, and reporters are not immune to those passionate
convictions. According to various surveys, most journalists - like most
Americans - favor abortion rights. But a journalist's job is to put
personal beliefs aside when covering a story.
We're going to explore how reporters' BELIEFS concerning abortion rights
may have affected coverage of this VERY sensitive issue. The effort in
Congress to outlaw this abortion procedure became a battleground off
opposing views. But what are the facts? Terry Eastland, editor of
Forbes' Media Critic Online, is our reporter.
SOUND MONTAGE OF CONGRESSIONAL DEBATES
Never in my career have I heard a physician refer to any technique as a
partial birth abortion. (Overlap)
On Capitol Hill, abortion is re-emerging as a national election issue.
(Overlap) victory for anti-abortion forces ...
This is one of the most devastating (Overlap) and your child can really
It's a very rare procedure, but it is the first time ... (Overlap)
And yet this bill would outlaw an emergency medical procedure.
Why are we doing this ... to our children?
This legislation forces us for the first time to acknowledge (Overlap)
Terry Eastland, Media Matters Reporter
In June of 1995, a bill was introduced in the Congress banning a medical
procedure that its sponsors called partial birth abortion ... in which
the doctors who performed it refer to as intact dilation and extraction.
The bill was passed by Congress and vetoed by President Clinton in
... so that we don't put these women in a position, and these families
in a position, where they lose all possibility of future child bearing.
By October, Congress had failed to override the veto and the bill was
dead. Over those 15 months, the press tracked the bill's political
journey and yet failed to report the substance of the story.
Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine
I think that the coverage of the partial birth abortion debate has been
abysmal. Uh, primarily because there are facts and figures being thrown
around out there where basically facts and figures do not exist.
John Leo, U.S. News And World Report
I can't think of a major story in the last ten years that has been
distorted as fully as abortion. And the partial birth abortion was so
egregiously handled that I think someone should do a great book on how
the press mangled this issue.
A little known abortion procedure pioneered by a Los Angeles doctor that
is usually performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The physician dilates
a woman's cervix in order to pull the often living fetus feet first
through the birth canal before collapsing the skull in order to fully
Diane Gianelli of the American Medical News became one of the first
reporters to write about this procedure when anti-abortion groups began
targeting it in 1993.
Diane Gianelli, American Medical News
The abortion debate over the years has successfully been framed as a
woman's rights issue. And ... the pro-life community for years has been
trying to refocus the debate to get people to look at the fetus, or the
baby. And they have not been very successful at that. So, when they
found Dr. Haskell's(?) printed paper describing the procedure, and they
came up with line drawings ... that was their ace in the hole.
Anti-abortion groups created an ad featuring a graphic illustration of
the abortion procedure using a description from an Ohio abortion doctor.
Douglas Johnson, National Right To Life Committee
We felt that this was one particular type of abortion on which there was
really impeccable documentation. The baby, while still alive, is pulled
out feet first ... everything except the head ... and then the head is
punctured ... all of this while the baby is still alive. And so we
thought this is something, perhaps, we can get enough support to do
something about and save thousands of lives a year.
Kate Michelman, NARAL
The nature of this debate really gave them, the opponents of choice, an
opportunity to sensationalize, inflame and ... and really draw attention
away from what I consider and most people consider to be the central
question in the abortion debate which is who should decide.
Abortion opponents claim that the procedure was used thousands of times
a year ... mainly in the second trimester of pregnancy ... and mostly on
the healthy fetuses of healthy mothers. Countering their campaign,
abortion rights groups said that the procedure was used only several
hundred times a year ... mainly in the third trimester and almost always
in cases of severe fetal deformity and to protect the health or the life
of the mother.
Rep. Henry Hyde, (R.) IL
You wouldn't take a coyote, a mangy raccoon and treat that animal that
way because it's too cruel.
There are emergency medical procedures done in the most tragic and
painful circumstances ... and yet this bill would outlaw an emergency
Sen. Robert Smith, (R.) NH
Why are we doing this?
Advocates on both sides made exaggerated claims. Many opponents of the
ban said that the procedure was used only in dire circumstances, while
supporters asserted that healthy babies were being aborted in the final
weeks of pregnancy.
Sorting through this rhetoric, reporters faced two key questions. How
many of these abortions are actually performed, and under what
conditions. The absence of accurate statistics added to the difficulties
in reporting this story.
Andrew Rosenthal, The New York Times
With abortion, all you have are various people who gather reported
abortions. There's the Guttmacher(?) Institute of people like this who
collect statistics on reported abortions. Well, that could be 90 percent
of them, it could be 100 percent of them, or it could be 20 percent of
them. We have no idea.
The only people who really know how often this procedure is performed
and for what reasons are the people who do it. And in trying to collect
that information, you are first, you know, at the mercy of the anecdote.
Uh, somebody can tell you what they do in their clinic, but that is far
from an overall picture. And also you are going to have to rely on the
word of people who don't want to talk about it ... and who have very
good reasons not to talk about it. Doctors are harassed and stalked.
Given the difficulties in getting reliable statistics, journalists
tended to reduce the story to one of conflicting claims.
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek
The journalist will go to one side, and then go to the other side and
think that by doing that they are reporting the story, uh, when in fact
what they are doing is they are reporting on the politics of a story and
the advocacy involved in a story, but not necessarily about the nub of
the story itself.
In reporting these claims, journalists tended to accept as fact
assertions provided by abortion rights groups.
By and large most news organizations have been far more willing to
accept what facts, figures and examples are offered by the ... the
abortions rights side and to discount the other side's argument.
The Washington Post reported that the procedure is believed to be used
rarely, and mostly in cases when the woman's life is at risk or the
fetus is seriously deformed. Citing unnamed national research groups the
Los Angeles Times said that about 13,000 abortions are performed after
20 weeks gestation, and only about 500 involved the disputed procedure.
John Leo, U.S. News & World Report
David Shaw(?) did this wonderful series, as you know, years ago in the
Los Angeles Times ... a huge four part series for which he was nominated
for a Pulitzer on how the press routinely gets the abortion story wrong.
And the reason that he concluded was that the newsroom is so
pro-abortion that it can't get the story straight.
Shaw's series based on his own examination of abortion coverage and
interviews with more than 100 journalists did in fact come to the
conclusion that a pro-abortion rights bias exists within the press.
Journalists are disproportionately liberal on this issue. So they're
more likely to rely on either consciously or unconsciously, the
information that they get from the pro-choice side.
We had one hope ... and that was that we would be able to hold our
Abortion rights advocates brought forth five women who had undergone the
procedure for reasons of severe fetal deformity, and all in the third
I went in for a routine seven month ultrasound.
Their cases immediately became the core of stories in print and on
television programs such as NBC's Dateline and CBS's 60 Minutes.
Mickey Wilson(?) is a pediatric nurse and the mother of two children. In
April of '94 she was eight months pregnant with her third child when she
discovered her baby's brain was growing outside its head.
The piece that 60 Minutes did really fell into all the traps that this
whole debate presented. They used these incredibly tragic examples, but
examples that only portrayed basically one side of the debate.
Echoing the position of abortion rights advocates, 60 Minutes focused on
those abortions done by this procedure in the third trimester of
pregnancy. The program made little effort to convey the view of abortion
proponents that the procedure is most often used on healthy fetuses in
the second trimester.
These women had these unspeakable tragedies. And because those were the
cases that we were able to get to immediately, and get those people on
camera or into print ... those are the cases we relied on.
Ruth Padawer, The Record
Most of the stories that I read said that intact D&E(?) occurred only
for fetal anomalies or tragic circumstances and that's not at all what I
Ruth Padawer, a reporter for the Record, a New Jersey paper was asked to
research the abortion procedure. In September of 1996, some 14 months
after the bill was introduced in Congress, her work led to the first
independently researched article on the issue in the mainstream press.
I was perplexed that the facts were in dispute. Uh, I had asked both
sides to send me material and they both sent quite a bit of material.
And ... uh, I was surprised at how far apart they were. Once I collected
everything that I thought I needed from each side ... where they laid
out their best cases, I decided to call physicians that I knew in New
Jersey assuming that they would direct me to people in New York City or
Pennsylvania. My understanding was that there were no intact D&Es in New
Jersey. And in the course of our conversation the physician said, "I do
them." And I was quite startled. I didn't realize that. And then he very
frankly began telling me how he did them and how often he did them and
what were the circumstances that brought women there.
Through her conversations with two doctors and a clinic administrator,
Patower discovered that in New Jersey alone roughly 1500 of the
procedures were performed each year ... close to three times the number
that abortion rights advocates had claimed for the entire country. And
the procedure was mainly done in the second trimester on healthy
Once the story was out they were immediately attacked and their figures
were denied by the clinic involved. And they ... basically had no
recourse to defend it other than to say, "We stand behind our story."
I don't know how many abortions occur in that clinic. I am not there
watching. What I do know is that two staff physicians independently told
me those figures.
Is it possible to verify Patower's reporting? In its coverage the
Washington Post repeated mistakes made by many other newspapers. After
complaints from anti-abortion groups, David Brown, a Post reporter and
medical doctor, set out to discover the facts for himself.
David Brown, The Washington Post
I was not looking for anecdotes, I was trying to get some sense of
getting the totality of these procedures ... what fraction of them
involve pregnancies in which the woman's health is at risk, what
fraction of them involved pregnancies in which the fetus is clearly not
going to survive even if he or she is born at term ... and the only
source of that information was the doctors.
Brown's reporting resulted in two articles ... a co-authored front page
story and a second, more detailed piece in the paper's health section.
He drew his profile of the procedure from extensive interviews with five
abortion doctors in different parts of the country.
Can you describe for us what your reporting found?
My reporting showed that a large number, possibly even a majority of
these procedures were done on normal fetuses ... most of them were done
before the period of viability. Cases in which the mother's life was
truly at risk were extremely rare. Most people who got this procedure
were really not very different from, uh, most people who got abortions.
The Washington Post and the Record were able to move beyond the rhetoric
and the press releases to uncover key facts about this abortion
procedure. Yet it took more than 14 months for those facts to emerge.
For news organizations to allow months to pass before they try to go out
and do their own, independent assessment of the facts ... was a real
problem. And they ... they let themselves substitute political reporting
... what was going on on the Hill, which is just a lot of unreliable,
uh, advocates shouting at each other ... to drive out the real
reporting, uh, of how many of these abortions were taking place and
where, and at what time in women's pregnancies.
And in the case of this particular story, reporters tended to accept as
true the assertions of the abortion rights side ... despite evidence
calling into question their claims.
One of the unsettling things of what I found in the reporting, uh, was
... the discovery that the pro-choice side was playing fast and loose
with the facts. And that that ... uh, that there's a credibility gap
there that there wasn't before ... for me.
It's a very difficult issue to cover, uh, as a reporter because you have
to ... you have to be not pro-life, not pro-choice, but pro-truth when
you're writing these stories. Otherwise your stories will spin. You have
to go to both sides, the primary sources, and then sit down and write it
straight. And I think that's a very difficult thing to do.
It was very unfortunate. I think that the media, both TV and the print
media, uh, used the arguments and often the language of the pro-choice
side. They did not examine the ca... the weaknesses in their case, and I
think the, uh, general coverage was ... varied from weak to openly
distorted. I don't think the message was clearly brought to the American
people what was at stake here.
If a new bill banning the procedure is introduced in Congress, the press
will be called upon once again. The question remains whether uncovering
the divisive subject of abortion, the press can rise above the politics,
and its own predilections ... to report the facts.
partial-birth abortion information |