Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story


You do have to wonder at the tone deafness of folks at major newspapers.

Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reintroduced its Column One feature, a “showcase for medium-form journalism,” and the piece is on a valiant doctor who flies to Texas to do 50 abortions in 60 hours.

If you had to pick a piece that seemed to have been created in order to anger a respectable share of the population, this was it. Why not a puff piece on Louis Farrakhan? A feel-good piece about workers at the Diablo Canyon (nuclear) Power Plant? Oh, no, that would offend people.

It’s not unusual for the MSM to glamorize abortionists and this feature is a gripping story. But it goes out of its way to portray Texas as some kind of theocratic Republic of Gilead out of The Handmaid’s Tale being serviced by the enlightened medics from the Golden State.

I’ll get to the actual piece in a moment but I had to first point out the LAT’s unusual history in abortion coverage. Please look at this May 23, 2003, memo by then Editor John Carroll that excoriates his staff for allowing in a biased piece about Texas abortionists being mandated to warn their patients about a possible link of abortion to breast cancer.

(One does wonder why the Times has this fixation with Texas being this medieval place with back-alley abortion laws, but I digress). The Carroll memo says, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The memo got wide distribution among media critics who felt that the LAT was finally taking its critics’ concerns seriously. Carroll concluded by saying he expected writers and editors to present both sides fairly. The key was showing respect for voices on both sides and taking this issue seriously.

There’s more. On June 1, 1990, LAT media columnist David Shaw published a major series on pro-abortion bias in the media. Everything he wrote was similar to what I’d experienced as a reporter who –- while on the religion beat -- was often assigned to cover abortion.

I’ve never seen any major newspaper -- before or since -- be so honest about the animosity most journalists feel towards pro-lifers. This was a truly landmark piece of journalism.

Well, that was then.

Sixteen years later, it certainly appears that the Times has lost its institutional memory, along with remembering that memo and the Shaw report. And so here we have a Column One story cheerleading a doctor who flies to Dallas (from the San Francisco Bay area, I’m guessing) once a month do abortions. It begins as follows:

The protesters are already positioned when she pulls up in her rental car. One lurches at women approaching the clinic, rosary beads dangling from her outstretched palm. Another hands patients tiny fetus dolls that match their skin color.

The doctor tries to ignore them. There are demonstrators at every abortion clinic and they’re all the same, she thinks: a nuisance. In Northern California, where she lives, a man yells, “Don’t take the blood money,” as she arrives at work.

At least here, in Dallas, the protesters mostly stay on the sidewalk. The doctor slips inside the mirrored glass doors of the clinic — one of the busiest abortion facilities in the United States.

She comes here once a month, part of an unofficial network of physicians who travel across state lines to perform abortions in places where few doctors are willing. … The young doctor will spend 60 hours in Dallas this trip and perform 50 abortions. She will have to run in the hallways to keep up with her packed schedule.

We learn the Times interviewed more than a dozen commuting California doctors who do this.

Well, I wish — if the goal was serious coverage of a serious issue — that they had interviewed some religious figures on what they think of California’s exporting of its abortion talent, but I wish in vain.

This is a story with only one side — precisely what Carroll and Shaw described, years ago.

The doctor acknowledged that when she began traveling out of state to perform abortions, she was nervous, recalling stories of abortion providers who have been attacked or harassed while far from home. But she said that abortion doctors living in states where access has been restricted face heightened danger and deserve her help.

“I can’t have people scare me away,” she said.

So here we have this beleaguered woman being pursued by crazed abortion protesters bravely doing her job. Does she ever have any qualms? Does she have a faith background that does or does not inform her choice to do this? All we know about her is she is young (in her 20s?) and single.

The article next tells of her decision to receive medical training in abortion to become one of an estimated 1,700 abortionists in the country.

But the doctors who do them are spread unevenly across the country. Some states have very few physicians willing to provide abortions. In California’s Bay Area, by contrast, there are so many physicians who want to do abortions that many can’t find work in the region.

In an attempt to address that imbalance, abortion rights activists created a program in 2016 to match clinics needing doctors with those who could travel to work. Estimates by abortion providers put the number of doctors commuting across state lines at around 100, three dozen of whom were matched by the program. …

The states most in need of abortion doctors include Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan and Texas, Frank said. Most of the traveling physicians come from Maryland, New York, Oregon, Washington and California.

Well, it is interesting, I must admit, and many folks might also find it ghoulish that there’s this underground railroad of these doctors at work. One wonders how much these doctors are getting paid to do this work, and the article has this:

In many cases, the traveling doctors donate their time and are not reimbursed for their travel or lodging. The doctor who flies from California to Texas has her expenses covered by the clinic, but she takes a vacation day and gives up a weekend to come here every month.

It doesn’t come out and say she’s not being paid, so I’ll assume she gets no money from this but it’d be nice if the piece would state so in plainer terms. This sidebar by the reporter on how she researched this story does mention a California doctor being paid for the abortions she performs in Arizona.

With a flooded market in California and untapped resources back in flyover country, it sounds like a savvy decision to me to go where the business is.

Next, we come to a portion of the article that is so blatantly biased, it’s hard to find words to characterize it.

The doctor then recites information required by Texas law, rattling it off like the end of a TV commercial for a prescription drug. “The other thing the state of Texas does is make me read this crazy piece of paper to you,” she says.

Many states have passed laws dictating what doctors say to patients before an abortion, often emphasizing possible risks. Texas laws are a contradictory mix.

The doctor must offer Tara pamphlets that suggest abortion causes infertility and breast cancer, though she knows those are falsehoods often propagated by antiabortion activists. In person, she tells patients the opposite — that abortion does not cause infertility or breast cancer.

Is that even legal? And how does the reporter know these are falsehoods? Is she a medical expert? Has this reporter read the Carroll memo from 2003 about the exact same (abortion causing breast cancer) issue? Guess, not as, she allows her text to repeat this doctor’s talking points.

The article goes on and on sounding exactly like a Planned Parenthood brochure.

Finally we get an opposing point of view near the bottom of the story from a Baptist pastor who is in front of the clinic protesting. But it’s only three paragraphs. What is missing? How about the voices of activists who oppose abortion — after working in abortion facilities?

The piece ends with an all-in-a-day’s-work summation of the doctor’s job, concentrating on how exhausted she is. I’d be less upset about this were there a similar piece about an opposing point of view, such as David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the folks behind the undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood officials boasting about their baby parts sales.

Based in Irvine, these are California folks who would make an interesting story too, yet there’s nil chance of the LAT sympathetically profiling them in Column One or doing a story that honestly debated the results of their work.

This is an issue with only one side that needs to be heard. How did Carroll end his famous memo?

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Read that again. He’s defending solid journalism.

Last week was a really bad week in journalism because of layoffs at Buzzfeed and within the Gannett chain. There are many reasons for this, but one is that folks can smell out this bias and they’re voting with their feet.

The editors who published this piece at The Los Angeles Times are ushering them out the door.

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