Friday, March 3, 2006

Combating Pro-Choice Journalists' Brain-Freeze

Yesterday, I had lunch with an English friend who writes for one of the largest British newspapers. He was eager to ask me my feelings about South Dakota politicians' voting for an abortion ban, as he had just turned in his article about his visit to that state's only abortion clinic, which is operated by Planned Parenthood.

He started by reminding me that he's pro-choice. He didn't have to offer the reminder; I well knew it, and anyway, a newspaper reporter in New York City openly announcing that he's pro-choice is about as surprising as a window dresser openly announcing that he listens to Barbra Streisand.

I asked him to elaborate on his views and he told me that he was uncomfortable with abortion, but thought it should be a woman's choice. He patiently allowed me to probe him on issues like how far into a pregnancy did he believe an abortion should be performed, and he listened to my arguments for life. Then he told me about his South Dakota trip.

He said he wanted to get opinions from the street, which he did, and he also interviewed employees of the abortion clinic. He had notified the clinic ahead of time that he would be coming, and an executive was there to greet him.

"Which one?" I asked.

He took out her card. It was the president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

"Who were some of the pro-life people you talked to?" I asked.

"I talked to a pastor," he said. He added that the pastor "wasn't very intelligent" but gave him some good quotes.

I pressed on. "Who was the highest person you spoke to in the pro-life movement?"

"I didn't want to speak to people from organizations," he said. "I was there to visit the clinic and speak to people on the street."

"Yes, I know that," I said. "But the clinic knew you were coming, and they sent an executive who oversees Planned Parenthood in three states to speak to you."

He looked at me quizzically. I sighed.

"Pro-lifers," I said, "are so sick of supposedly fair and balanced, unbiased reporters going out to cover the abortion issue and getting one quote from an articulate Planned Parenthood executive, and another from some inarticulate, hayseed pro-lifer on the street."

I went on to explain that millions of dollars in taxpayer money are at stake for Planned Parenthood, which receives a quarter-billion a year from the federal government alone, and still more from states and municipalities for its local chapters.

"If you don't seek a response from an executive of a pro-life group," I said, "you're letting yourself be used by an executive whose job is to lobby so that Planned Parenthood can hold onto its tax dollars."

To my friend's credit, he seemed genuinely convicted. The article has yet to appear online, so perhaps it's being held back for another quote to balance it. [UPDATE: Or perhaps it was held back so they could edit out the pro-life pastor.] My friend did tell me that he would seek a more authorative pro-life voice if he wrote a follow-up.

The episode made me think about how otherwise intelligent reporters and editors put blinders on when writing about the abortion issue. It's as though they're so uncomfortable with pro-lifers and so certain of pro-choicers' rightness that they feel no need to do the level of sourcing (that is, opinion-seeking) that they would normally do on any other subject. That this bias may often be subconscious does not make it any less abhorrent from the standpoint of reporters who pride themselves on their lack of bias.

It's important for pro-lifers to call reporters and editors on their biased reporting. One does this not by giving an opinion like "abortion kills babies" (though there's a place for that), but by pointing out that an article on an abortion-related issue lacks the attention to balance that the newspaper would apply to any other topic. The After Abortion bloggers did this with the Associated Press and they received powerful results.