GetReligion’s Mollie has been leading the charge (most recently, here) that the mainstream media has provided insufficient coverage of the murder trial of the Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and as tempests in teapots go, this one has reached Category 4.
Commonweal’s redoubtable Grant Gallicho provides the first-rate overview of the swirl. What needs to be recognized is that the issue of media coverage is central to the story of abortion in America. As Marvin Olasky makes clear in The Press and Abortion, 1838-1988, daily newspapers at first ignored abortion in their news columns but were happy to accept a considerable amount of euphemistically expressed advertising by abortionists.
By the late 19th century, crusading against abortion was on the agenda of moral reform, and several anti-abortion topoi, or themes, came to be established: the profiteering abortionist (protected by corrupt politicians); the danger to the woman’s health; the death of the unborn child; the violation of law. In the 20th century, the unborn child tended to drop out of abortion stories. Gradually, the focus of evil shifted from abortion itself to the unscrupulous abortionist. Legal abortion, not vigorous enforcement of anti-abortion laws, becaume the guarantor of the health of the mother.
Olasky. ant-abortion advocate that he is, is at pains to point out the inadequacy of the pro-abortion topoi, and assails the press for failing to pursue stories about alleged unsanitary conditions in abortion clinics. He thus seeks to trump the (debated) topos that access to safe abortions should be a woman’s right with an indisputable one: that unsanitary health facilities are bad. (For a discussion of how topoi govern news coverage, see my book Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America, from which the forgoing has been paraphrased.)
The Gosnell controversy recapitulates this history. The unscrupulous abortionist has reappeared, and the debate is between those who see him — and his dismembered fetuses — as emblematic of all that’s wrong with abortion, and those who see the solution to the problem he presents in sanitary, legal, and inexpensive abortion services. The difficulty for the mainstream media is not, in my view, that they are biased in favor of abortion, since the pro-choice community has a ready way to tell the story. Rather, it’s that when the context of meaning — the appropriate topos — is contested in society at large, the MSW tend to shy away.