The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell.

But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points out, there have essentially been two phases in the conservative media's attention to this story. In phase 1, they ignored it. In phase 2, they write stories complaining that because of liberal bias, the media are ignoring it. What's missing, of course, actual coverage of the story itself, despite the fact that conservatives have all these media outlets that could be doing what they claim the mainstream media aren't. The Washington Times, for instance, ran one AP story about the start of the trial, followed by seven separate pieces on how the media are ignoring the story. Did it send its own reporters there to cover it? Nah, why bother? They do, however, have an online poll in which you can answer this vital question: "Online outrage is forcing some media outlets to cover the Kermit Gosnell abortion trial. Will MSNBC be able to continue its blackout?"

There are essentially two kinds of media criticism you'll see if you pay attention to these things. The first is an analysis that has some specificity to it, and aims to address some genuine ongoing weakness of press coverage. The second is just about browbeating and getting people you don't like on the defensive. It's the difference between "Let's see if we can get a discussion started about this problem and make some progress toward fixing it," and "Here's our chance to get those bastards on their heels." The left does both. The right only does the latter.

That's partly because while liberals think there are many problems with the media, conservatives think there's only one problem with the media: liberal bias. For instance, ask a liberal what's wrong with the Sunday shows, and she'll reply, "Many things." There's the narrow range of topics being discussed, the unquestioning framing of debate through conventional wisdom, the exclusion of certain kinds of voices, the atrocious lack of diversity among the guests, and so on. Ask a conservative what's wrong with the Sunday shows, and he'll reply, "Liberal bias!" Ask him to provide some evidence, and he'll say, "George Stephanopoulos worked for Clinton! So liberal bias!"

Though the simplicity of the right's media critique has some political benefit when it comes to working the refs, it has also rendered them incapable of producing anything truly persuasive. Sometimes, that's not necessary—you can go a fair way with simple brute force, browbeating the press into changing its coverage. But the longer the discussion goes on, the harder it is to avoid going into detail about what you're actually arguing. And frankly, I can't really tell what conservatives are arguing about the Gosnell case. Are they saying that it's representative of the abortion clinics they're trying to shut down? They'd probably like people to believe it is. Are they saying they want poor women to have access to safe and affordable reproductive care, so nobody ever finds themselves at the mercy of someone like Gosnell again? No, they aren't.

Once some people told them that they should be angry about the Gosnell case not getting more coverage, conservatives jumped right in, probably without thinking too carefully about it. But if because of their complaints there ends up being more coverage of the case than there otherwise would have been, and as a result we get a picture of what women could confront if conservatives succeed in driving legitimate abortion providers out of business, so much the better.

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