Can The AP Be Trusted To Cover The Abortion Issue Fairly?
Mollie Hemingway
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Yesterday, abortion opponents were alerted to the latest example of media advocacy in favor of abortion when they read a dispatch from a pro-life event in D.C. by Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott, who “writes about politics and trends from Washington.”

WASHINGTON (AP) — Calling their opponents Satan worshippers and savages, anti-abortion lawmakers on Wednesday insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

No, I did not just make that up. He really wrote that. Now, if you read the rest of his story and knew something about the pro-life movement, you could decipher that what had actually happened was that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had discussed a real thing that happened — and there are videos of it should you have more curiosity than an AP reporter — in Texas last year during debate over abortion legislation. Pro-choice activists countered pro-life prayers and singing with chants of “Hail Satan!”

There are five dozen references to these Satan chants in Nexis from the week it happened. Almost all of them — save mentions by the Independent (UK) and Telegraph (UK) — are from conservative, pro-life or religious media. You can read all about the failure of media to note this angle of an otherwise-obsessively-covered event in “Could it be … Satan? Not in the news coverage.”

One of the very few American reporters to even note the Satan issue was Elspeth Reeve of TheWire.com. She attempted to debunk pro-life reports of the event but ended up beclowning herself. First she downplayed the idea that pro-lifers were skeeved out by the Satan chants:

A few protesters against a Texas bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks appear to have chanted “Hail Satan” to mock anti-abortion protesters singing “Amazing Grace” in Austin on Wednesday.

She said she “can’t make out the word ‘Satan,’” but acknowledges that a CNN producer had confirmed it on Twitter. Either way, she’s pretty sure she caught the pro-lifers lying about whether a little girl was holding a sign that read: “If I wanted the government in my womb, I would f*** a senator!” Except, well, whoopsie!

But other than these issues, Reeve’s attempt to fact-check the Satan-chants-and-disgusting-signs-held-by-children meme could not have gone better.

The AP has “updated” its article to be still wrong but not quite as wrong. It now reads:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Invoking fiery references to Satan, “savagery” and a “culture of death” to criticize their opponents, anti-abortion lawmakers on Wednesday insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

Uh, no and no and also no. And “fiery”? Really? Dramatic much? Major props to the brave Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post for writing a piece about the event that subtly but effectively took the AP reporter to town:

And multiple complaints about news media bias seemed pretty accurately reflected in the initial Associated Press report on the dinner, which began this way: “Calling their opponents Satan worshipers and savages, antiabortion lawmakers on Wednesday insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.’’

Only, no one did call their opponents Satan-worshipers or savages; Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) described an abortion rights protest last year in Austin at which demonstrators shouted “Hail, Satan,’’ to drown out antiabortion protesters singing “Amazing Grace.”

Cruz described them as “arm-in-arm, chanting, ‘Hail, Satan,’ embracing the right to take the life of a late-term child.’’ Which certainly isn’t how those demonstrators would see it, but also isn’t the same as calling them Satan-worshipers.

The Associated Press reference to “savages” came from a comment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that he refuses to call abortion rights supporters “pro-choice” because in his view “that’s a euphemism for the savagery they advocate.”

Isn’t the political rhetoric about this divide rancorous enough without exaggerating?

Other media outlets that should have known to be more skeptical didn’t exhibit such smarts or courage. Religion News Service–not recently faring so well with shoddy handling of religious liberty and, well, comparisons of Christian kids to Nazis (since retracted)–got in on the action (since deleted, but the screencap follows). (Which was funny because they never got around to mentioning the Hail Satan crowd when it was actually, well, religion news.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 12.12.31 PM

And National Journal’s Emma Roller packed more falsehoods into a few sentences than most reporters achieve in, well, twice that many sentences.

Just by way of example, let’s take her first sentence: “At a speech to an antiabortion crowd in Dallas on Wednesday night, Republican lawmakers outdid each other to denounce abortion.”

She adopted Elliott’s take hook, line and sinker but forgot to also steal his dateline or details. Nobody spoke in Dallas and Lee and Cruz spoke during the day. Our not-so-diligent reporter had a few more mistakes before before asking, “How does an actual Satanist feel about that comparison?” And Lucia Graves, another National Journal reporter, wrote, “Ted Cruz compared abortion supporters to Satanists and Satantists responded with this…” So Ted Cruz gets accused of doing something he didn’t and one Satanist becomes Satanists! I love it! Except for how it’s not, you know, journalism and how the “actual” Satanist used by supposedly objective journalists to bash Ted Cruz turns out to be a tad more complicated. (See this Vice interview here or a more critical take here, or this sample of work here.)

Worse Than One Bad Story

Anyway, we were talking about the AP. And I worry that our problem with the AP is not just one very bad story. Remember the complete media melt-down over Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s attempt to get away from funding Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider? For background, Planned Parenthood has a $1 billion budget and has ended the lives of 1 million unborn children in the last three years alone. Komen had a problem with what it used to call “crappy” grants — poor quality grants with minimal results — and redrafted a policy. This affected the 19 grants to Planned Parenthood in 16 communities. Planned Parenthood doesn’t actually perform mammograms and the affiliation with a large abortion business was seriously harming donations. The total amount Planned Parenthood received — $680,000, was less than one percent of Komen’s total $93 million community grant portfolio.

The coordinated public relations campaign against Komen, joined by most media outlets, began with David Crary’s report for the Associated Press. (You can review media coverage of that debacle via my analyses from that time: February 2, 2012: Media discover Planned Parenthood is controversial , February 3: Media genuflect before Church of Planned Parenthood,  February 6: Planned Parenthood and media thank each other and February 7: Kurtz: Of course Komen stories were biased.)

In former Komen executive Karen Handel’s book about what happened, she noted that Crary was a national reporter who wrote frequently about women and social issues. The Komen team described him as a “Planned Parenthood ally,” who had “gushed” over Planned Parenthood in a February 2011 article featuring Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. “The article was essentially a rehashed Planned Parenthood press release,” Handel writes. He’s described as “sympathetic” to Richards and “deeply biased” in favor of Planned Parenthood. Komen’s media person says, “she had never spoken to a national reporter who was so openly biased.” Crary ended up penning nine stories that mentioned the matter. The first five were doozies: “Cancer charity halts grants to Planned Parenthood,” “Reactions heated on Planned Parenthood-Komen rift,” “Komen drops plans to cut Planned Parenthood grants,” “Cancer charity confronts backlash over grant cuts, ” and “Komen exec quits after Planned Parenthood flap.” He worked mentions of Komen into another three stories, all of which advance a particular political narrative: “Limbaugh slur of law student draws Obama into fray,” “Obama joins in assailing Limbaugh slur of student,” and “Ridicule helped doom Va. ultrasound bill.”

Finally, he later wrote a story about the very book that trashes him as deeply biased … without mentioning that he actually plays a significant role in the book. This can’t be the most ethical journalistic move ever.

So How Did He Do With Gosnell Coverage?

Crary’s twitter profile describes himself as a “New York-based reporter with The Associated Press, covering national social issues.” But guess how many stories he wrote on abortionist and serial murderer Kermit Gosnell, one of the biggest national social issues stories of the last decade. If Komen attempting a minor budget cut to the wealthy, powerful and taxpayer-funded Planned Parenthood got tons of stories, you have to figure you could get some out of an abortion doctor running a practice for decades until it was shut down with the completely accidental discovery of late-term babies being born alive into a cat urine-soaked clinic and murdered by snipping their spinal cords. The story had angles usually of interest to national social issues reporters, such as health and safety regulation of medical clinics, immigration, drug policy, exploitation of the poor, murder of a woman seeking an abortion, late-term abortion, infanticide, do I need to go on? So I’m thinking that must have kept David Crary extremely busy for several years. Let’s go to Nexis.

Oh, hunh. That’s really weird. He only wrote two stories about Kermit Gosnell. “Philly abortion murder case fuels national debate,” written January 20, 2011, begins and ends with quotes from abortion rights activists and pro-choice framing overwhelms the piece. His next piece came more than two years later on May 4, 2013. That piece was headlined “Philly abortion murder trial has national impact.” It has the same preponderance of pro-choice arguments and framing.

How weird to claim “national debate” is coming and “national impact” was had without any coverage by the “national social issues” reporter. Call me crazy but in order to fuel a national debate or have a national impact, usually you need the media to actually, you know, cover it at the national level. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff told me that she considered Gosnell to be a local crime story. The AP in fact covered it just like that, having a local reporter cover it and letting its national social issues reporter ignore it for years. Just by way of comparison, if you want to talk about “fueling” a national debate, I notice that the AP has tweeted out more than 350 times about George Zimmerman, the local man who shot and killed the local Trayvon Martin, since March 2012. On Gosnell, convicted serial murderer? Two. Both from the last days of the trial.

Looking At Pro-Life Legislation

I still remember that the first article I read about the Texas’ legislature’s effort to tighten health and safety standards at abortion clinics and enact mild protections for unborn children who had reached five months’ gestation was framed this way by the Associated Press:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans armed with Bible verses have given preliminary approval to some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country as time runs out on the Texas special legislative session.

What in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks does this mean? I have no idea. I have no idea what being “armed” with Bible verses means. The remaining five sentences don’t tell us. They also don’t tell us what the Bible verses are. Neither do we learn why in the world Bible verses were mentioned in this “news” report. Or what Democrats were armed with.

That was just one of the problems, repeated during the weeks surrounding the filibuster by media darling Wendy Davis. Quick quiz: Planned Parenthood press release or AP lede:

Republicans pass new restrictions expected to close almost every abortion clinic in Texas.

No matter which one you answered, you’re right!

At some point, the AP Twitter feed actually sent out a tweet with the pro-choice hashtag #StandWithWendy. Higher-ups suggested such a move was not-so-smart.

But then the AP was sending out still more alarmed, if completely unsubstantiated, notes about the Texas legislation that made the Planned Parenthood press releases seem tame by comparison.

The stories out of Texas routinely failed to mention how U.S. late-term abortion laws compare to other countries (we’re one of only seven countries in the world that permit abortions after 20 weeks) as well as the recent context of abortion doctors such as Kermit Gosnell and Texas’ own Douglas Karpen or details about clinic conditions.

This is not a new problem (The Los Angeles Times published an absolutely devastating expose of the abortion coverage problem in 1990!). It does seem to be getting worse, though. The Associated Press is a good journalism brand that is being tarnished by shoddy coverage of the pro-life movement even as coverage of pro-choice activists and their arguments could not be more favorable. Let’s hope some higher-ups recognize the need to fix this problem. If there aren’t reporters who can cover both the pro-choice and pro-life movements fairly, perhaps the AP can hire some reporters who can balance out reporters David Crary and Philip Elliott, who seem to be struggling in their efforts to fairly cover pro-life activists and the larger movement. Without better journalism at the national level, it may be difficult to encourage the same in the local bureaus.

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