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

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.

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About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

About that 'concerned citizen' who nailed Northam: Was there a religion ghost in this big story?

As the political soap opera in Virginia rolls on and on and on, I think it’s important to pause and remind journalists where all of this started — with an argument about religion, science and philosophy.

I am referring, of course, to Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about the proposed Virginia legislation that included controversial language about late-term abortions.

In this firestorm about race — a totally valid story, of course — it has been easy to forget the role that abortion played in this equation.

I say this because of a story that ran the other day at The Washington Post that, in my opinion, should have received more attention. Here’s the bland headline from that: “A tip from a ‘concerned citizen’ helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime about Northam.” Let’s walk through this, starting with the overture:

The reporter who exposed the racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page said a “concerned citizen” led him to the story that has prompted widespread outrage and calls for the Democrat’s resignation.

Patrick Howley, editor in chief of the website Big League Politics, first reported … the existence of a photo on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook depicting a figure in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

“It’s very easy to explain,” Howley, 29, said in an interview. …. “A concerned citizen, not a political opponent, came to us and pointed this out. I was very offended [by the photo] because I don’t like racism.”

Ah, but why was the “concerned citizen” acting? Isn’t that the big idea here, perhaps worthy of mentioning in the lede and the headline?

The Big League Politics editor, naturally, wanted to talk about politics. However, to its credit, the Post team dug deeper and hit this:

The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The revelations about Ralph Northam’s racist past were absolutely driven by his medical school classmate’s anger over his recent very public support for infanticide,” one of the two said.

Now, why was the “concerned citizen” so angry about the abortion debate, going so far as to use the “infanticide” language of Northam’s critics?

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