Roe v Wade

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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Surprise! Yes, it IS possible for mainstream media to produce fair, balanced abortion news

Surprise! Yes, it IS possible for mainstream media to produce fair, balanced abortion news

Just yesterday, I critiqued a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on abortion that — in its headline and lede — favored the pro-choice side.

In that post, I pointed readers toward the classic 1990 Los Angeles Times series — written by the late David Shaw — that exposed rampant news media bias against pro-life advocates. 

I noted that this longstanding and indisputable problem remains painfully relevant for people who run newsrooms today.

So imagine my surprise today when I read a National Public Radio report on abortion that impressed me as extremely fair and balanced. (As always, I invite you, kind GetReligion reader, to read the report yourself and challenge my assessment if you disagree.)

Let's start with NPR's headline:

U.S. Abortion Rate Falls To Lowest Level Since Roe v. Wade

That's pretty straightforward, right? Just the facts, ma'am.

In case you're new to this journalism blog, that's how we like it: We promote a traditional American model of the press, with impartial reporting, fair treatment of all sides and sources of information clearly identified.

Next up, let's check out the lede:

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The Tennessean surveys a deep-red state: Might religion play big role in its political divides?

The Tennessean surveys a deep-red state: Might religion play big role in its political divides?

So here I am in New York City on Election Day, typing away at my desk at The King's College near the corner of Broadway and Wall Street -- which means I'm about two blocks from a Trump tower in Lower Manhattan.

I imagine that things will get pretty wild in some corners of New York City tonight. However, my mind is very much on the past, present and future in the hills of East Tennessee. In other words, I'm thinking about politics and religious folks.

You see, East Tennessee is about as old-school Republican as you can get. Forget Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. East Tennessee's Republican roots go all the way back to the Civil War era (see this New York Times piece on "The Switzerland of America").

But there are at least two other Tennessees, symbolized by the other two stars on the flag. The hills are one thing, while Nashville and Memphis are radically different cultures.

Once upon a time, Tennessee voted for Bill Clinton. Soon after that, it turned its back on native son Al Gore. While the mountains are historically Republican, the political story in the rest of the state centers on the decline of old-guard Southern Democrats and the now dead Democratic Party coalition that included Bible Belt farmers and laborers, as well as urban elites.

Donald Trump will carry Tennessee with ease tonight, I imagine, but I have met very few old-school Republicans in the hills who are happy about that. I have, however, wondered about the deep-red tint of the rest of the state, other than blue patches in the big urban zones.

Thus, I read with great interest the Tennessean piece that ran with this headline: "Tennessee politics: State increasingly split along urban-rural lines." That headline tells you what editors in Nashville think.

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Hillary, abortion and her Methodist beliefs: The Atlantic misses many of the key details

Hillary, abortion and her Methodist beliefs: The Atlantic misses many of the key details

So much has been written about Hillary Clinton’s Methodist beliefs, that it intrigues me when yet another publication takes a shot at them.

The Atlantic has just come out with a piece on “Hillary Clinton’s Moral Conflicts on Abortion,” which is news to those of us who heard the Democratic presidential candidate clearly state in June that her campaign “belongs” to Planned Parenthood and its supporters, donors and providers. Apparently there is some nuance here that is supposed to appeal to voters who are opposed to both abortion and Donald Trump.

During my first few years at the Washington Times in the mid-1990s, I was assigned to cover speeches, usually at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown DC, made by Clinton to abortion supporters on or before Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Clinton stated her support for abortion a multitude of times during and after this time period.

So I was intrigued to hear in The Atlantic saying she has moral conflicts about the procedure. She never sounded conflicted to me, but all the same, read on: 

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly spoken out in support of the right to abortion. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has praised Clinton for treating reproductive issues as “more than just a sound bite” and the pro-choice organizations Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America have endorsed her. However, Clinton’s views on abortion are more nuanced and reflect her religious commitments to a greater degree than partisans on either side of the issue may realize.

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NPR misses the symbolism -- and reality -- of Jane Roe

NPR had a story on the Texas legislature passing what journalists usually call “sweeping abortion restrictions.” Let’s look at a big chunk of the story right at the top:

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AP's abominable (but familiar) abortion approach

So I guess the Associated Press’ reportorial staff in Texas is on vacation this week. Good for them! I hope they’re having a great time. Not good for news consumers, though, as AP coverage of the Texas legislature couldn’t be worse right now.

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We don't have a free press. Discuss.

With the headline “Stupid Press, Stupid People: Non-Reporting the March for Life,” you know Anthony Esolen has something to say:

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Got news? When is a desecrated memorial a big story?

If you have been reading this blog much in the past week (greeting to the thousands of readers who came here through tweets and emails linked to THAT POST by M.Z. Hemingway) then you know that there have been numerous protests — large and small — across the nation marking the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. Some of you may, repeat may, have seen coverage of these events in your local newspapers. On the major broadcast networks? Not so much.

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Time for the "March for Life" media debate (updated)

It’s that time again — time for the annual debate about media bias in mainstream press coverage of the annual March For Life.

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