April 15, 2013
Kermit Gosnell
Dr. Kermit Gosnell (Yong Kim/Associated Press)

USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers gets credit for kicking off last week’s round of media-on-media criticism stemming from undercoverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia. Though the trial of the 72-year-old abortion provider began March 18, Powers argued that there was “precious little” media attention on the case. No. 1 on her bill of particulars are three outlets:

A Lexis-Nexis search shows none of the news shows on the three major national television networks has mentioned the Gosnell trial in the last three months.

Days after the trial began, NewsBusters, an outfit that polices the media for examples of liberal bias, published a post titled, “Big Three Networks Punt on Covering Pennsylvania Abortionist’s Murder Trial“:

ABC, CBS, and NBC’s morning and evening newscasts have yet to cover the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, which began on Monday. Gosnell is charged with murdering seven babies who were born after viability in his rundown abortion facility. The Big Three also gave the story minimal coverage back in January 2011, after the Philadelphia physician was arrested. ABC completely ignored it, CBS Evening News aired one full story, and NBC gave just 50 words on Today.

Though critics noted that various other outlets also generated little or no coverage of the trial, it’s the three-network blackout that formed the core of the Gosnell media critique. That is, after years and years and years of hearing how the big three network news outlets have seen their grip on the U.S. public slip and slip and slip, they remain the linchpin of any argument that the national media has ignored some big story.

“One good joke that we have is that we’re still focused in the dinosaur media,” says Tim Graham, a NewsBusters senior editor. “It’s so fashionable to try to want to dismiss them.” Perhaps that notion comes from the chart below:


However pathetic that trend line is, the networks, together, marshaled about 22.1 million folks per night in 2012, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Measured against the audiences of other outlets, that’s enormous — and if you’re trying to make the case that the media has corruptly neglected a story, a big whiff by the Big Three is a great place to start.

Says a longtime CBS News journalist: “I do think it’s hilarious in the sense that no one talks about the networks as the future of journalism, but ultimately, it’s still the biggest collective audience for news in the business. … When it comes to contextualizing big stories, if the networks aren’t doing it, that’s a big void.”

Says NewsBusters’ Graham about the network news: “They’ve always been a No. 1 focus.”

And change is coming. This morning, for instance, CBS News took the sort of serious look at the trial that critics like NewsBusters have been urging for weeks. Said the CBS source: “I don’t think there’s anything more to this than oversight. … When nobody’s talking about it, it doesn’t get covered. When everybody’s talking about it, you have to act to stay competitive.”

The networks’ official reps didn’t respond well to inquiries. Wrote CBS News spokesperson Sonya McNair via e-mail, “We have nothing to add.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.