Some Comments on the Gosnell Story
A mix of media and abortion politics.
Over the last week or so, the story of Kermit Gosnell’s trial has been percolating up to the surface after a USAT editorial by Kirsten Powers raised the question of why the story has not received more media attention.
Let me stipulate that this is a terrible, stomach-churning one, regardless of one’s politics. It is truly horrific, and the kind of thing that one wants to think is impossible in general, and certainly not possible in the United States of America. Conor Friedsdorf has the details, if one is still unfamiliar.
At the moment I have no comments on the trial itself, save that clearly if the charges are true, the man and his accomplices deserve severe punishment, but I would like to think that such proclamations could go with saying. Rather, I am interested in the politics of it all, both in terms of the media issue, as well as what the charges mean to both the pro-life and pro-choice positions.
Some observations on the media angle:
My initial response upon reading about the trial for the first time about a week ago (as a result of a friend’s FB post) was that I was surprised it was not being more widely covered. The reason I had this reaction was not because I suspected some mass media bias in the case. I was surprised because cable new in particular seems to thrive on this type of crime story. After all, it is a gruesome tale in the context of an ongoing trial. As such, it is nearly free programming for the cable channels. I did not have time to blog on the topic (or, really, much of anything) at the time, but have thought about the story and read a bit more about it after that point in time. In so doing, it did occur to me that the truly gruesome nature of crime probably did dissuade some form reporting on it (see, for example, Megan McArdle on this topic)—after all, and we forget this, the news industry’s main job is not providing information, it is selling commercials by entertaining us (we forget this fact far too often). Further, while cable news viewers might be willing to ingest hours and hours about a trial that focused on a kidnapping/murder, would they sit down to lunch and listen to the details of the Gosnell trial over and over? (Back to the infotainment point: while the public consumes a lot of crime shows and movies, when the storylines get too gruesome, the audience shrinks).
Still, it is hard to see how such a dramatic story did not make its way to the cable news rotation, let alone have more coverage nationally via various media outlets. Of course, the fact that the story has now broken and being are now being covered in various locations does underscore that the story was not be actively suppressed (and, by extension, shows how hard it would be to truly suppress a story if that was the goal).
It is worth pointing out that national media had not totally ignored the story, either: CBS and NPR both noted the story back in 2011, and, for that matter, it was covered by that bastion of conservatism,* The Nation: Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Horror Show (h/t: Irin Carmon who has other links as well).
Further, in regards to the notion that the story has been ignored because the mainstream media is pro-choice, and therefore feared to tell the tale, I would note that the story wasn’t exactly part of the daily fare on Fox New Channel, either (nor was it especially prominent in the conservative press in general—see, for example, Alex-Seitz-Wald). As such, it is difficult to make the case that this story was ignored due to liberal bias.
One aspect of this story that I think some on the pro-life side are missing: Gosnell represents the nightmare of both the pro-life and the pro-choice sides. For anti-abortion advocates, Gosnell just represents what they think of the entire enterprise: the slaughter of babies. From the pro-abortion side, Gosnell represents what they argue would happen across the country if abortion were illegal: backroom hacks engaging in horrific practices and specifically preying on desperate poor women.
In short: I agree that it is odd, given our sensationalistic media culture that needs to be fed on a 24/7 basis (and as cheaply as possible) that this story has not gained more traction than it has (and, indeed, I am somewhat at a loss at to why it hasn’t, save the sheer horror of it all). However, I think that subscribing to a pro-choice liberal bias as an explanation is problematic, because a) it would seem that what commentary that existed prior to the last week was mostly in the liberal sphere of things, and b) the pro-choice side sees this story as one that favors, not weakens, their position.
Two parting thoughts: 1) just because one has not heard of story, does not mean it hasn’t been covered (as noted above, mainstream outlets reported on the story in 2011), and 2) if you know about this story now, it is because the MSM brought it to you (in this case, USAT and it has now hit cable news) and so it makes it difficult to maintain the argument there is an MSM cover-up going.
*Yes, I am being sarcastic.