Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

Before “Game of Thrones”-style infighting rocked Virginia Democrats, before the Michael Jackson moonwalk press conference, before a KKK and blackface photo surfaced from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, Gov. Ralph Northam made some candid remarks about abortion on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” radio show.

The now-embattled governor’s words raised many religious, scientific and philosophical questions, and he all but guaranteed that what his critics are calling “fourth-trimester abortion” will remain a hot-button issue in American public life.

A proposed Virginia bill on late-term abortions, he said, would allow termination in cases where an unborn child is “not viable” outside the womb.

“In this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” said Northam, a former pediatric neurologist. “The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Does anyone remember that stage of this nearly obscene political drama?

Well, we know one thing — that the people who nailed Northam to the political wall with that blackface-meets-KKK page of his medical school yearbook remembered his words about late-term abortions. Someone remembered those words and got very, very mad. Then they took matters into their own hands.

That was the subject of a GetReligion post that I wrote this week with this headline: “About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

You can see this Virginia equation keeps getting more and more complex. Right?

To dig into the religion questions looming over this Virginia story, you have to talk about two subjects that the mainstream press struggles to cover in an accurate, fair, balanced manner — treating believers on both sides with respect.

You have to talk about religion. You have to talk about abortion. You have to talk about awkward subjects linked to late-term abortions. Do Democrats want to talk about these issues? Do journalists want to write about these issues? Right now, it does appear that Republicans — on both sides of the #NeverTrump divide — are fired up about this subject.

Will reporters be willing to circle back to the start of this equation?

I doubt it. It’s so much easier just to write about politics and race. Those are awkward subjects, too. I get that. But why not cover the whole equation in Virginia?

Just asking. And those questions, and more, are at the heart of this week’s Crossroads.

Please give it a listen, and pass the URL on to others.

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