The trial of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell would seem to have all the elements of a spectacular news story: shocking allegations, horrifying visuals, sympathetic victims.
Yet until late last week, much of the national media was silent as testimony about Gosnell’s alleged “house of horrors” abortion clinic rolled out. Much of the media attention outside Philadelphia, in fact, centered on how little media attention the story was receiving outside Philadelphia.
Could it be, as conservative bloggers have charged since shortly after the trial began March 18, that the media had taken a pass because Gosnell — who stands accused of killing seven newborn infants and one mother — is an abortion doctor whose alleged crimes run counter to the mainstream media’s supposed support for abortion rights?
That’s the way the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group based in Alexandria, has framed it. In multiple commentaries published since last month, the group has hammered the lack of coverage, citing it as evidence of liberal media bias. “The media elite are passionate about abortion and passionate about defending it,” says Tim Graham, the MRC’s director of media analysis, in an interview. “This is a story that threatens the abortion rights agenda. . . . It’s bias by omission.” Neither Graham nor any of the other critics have offered evidence for their suspicions.
Media representatives offer several rationales for their inaction: that other stories were commanding their attention and resources, that the lack of cameras in the courtroom diminished TV interest in the story, that the Gosnell trial was simply overlooked.
Moreover, some commentators have pointed out, greater media attention to the trial might help, rather than hurt, abortion rights advocates. They say the graphic testimony about illegal late-term abortions, unlicensed staff and shockingly unsanitary procedures and conditions at Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society clinic strengthens the case for keeping abortion safe, legal and affordable, particularly for the poor women who sought Gosnell’s services.
The charge of liberal media bias is perhaps undercut by the fact that a number of conservative media outlets — and conservative leaders — overlooked the story, too, until a flood of tweets and commentaries about it began late last week.
The Weekly Standard and the National Review, two leading conservative magazines, for example, hadn’t published anything on the trial, according to a search of the Nexis database. The New York Post’s conservative editorial board has written one commentary — an editorial lamenting the lack of coverage, which, although it doesn’t mention it, includes its own paper. The Washington Times has published five staff-written articles and guest commentaries on the matter, all focusing on the absence of press coverage.
Fox News has been the only consistent national TV source on the story, having run 11 news reports or commentaries on it over the past month. Among national print outlets, the Associated Press has covered the trial extensively. The story has been prominently featured in the Huffington Post and discussed on its Huffington Post Live webcast. The Huffington Post is generally considered a liberal news organization.
It’s not as if outlets weren’t aware of Gosnell’s case, since his arrest in 2011 was widely covered. But the trial received no mentions on NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC and PBS programming until last week. NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported one piece on it at the end of last month, as did the New York Times on March 19. Until Friday, CNN had aired only 76 words on the trial when host Jake Tapper mentioned it March 28. The Washington Post hadn’t reported a word on the trial until Friday.
Despite this, several network representatives defended their absence on the story.
“The story is on our radar,” said Liz Fischer, a spokeswoman for NBC News. “We understand the importance of the issue and we’ll continue to cover the broader questions as news warrants.” She declined to comment further.
“CBS has been working the story,” said a spokeswoman, Sonya McNair. She declined to explain why CBS hadn’t reported on it until Sunday’s “CBS Evening News.”
“We feel our coverage, both online and on television, has been thorough and appropriate,” said Allison Gollust, a CNN spokeswoman.
An ABC News representative, Julie Townsend, declined comment.
Lauren Skowronski, an MSNBC spokeswoman, said her network was paying attention to the story, but added, “We don’t cover criminal trials to the extent of others in cable news.”
Indeed, the big trial for cable news last week wasn’t Gosnell’s but that of Jodi Arias, the young Arizona woman accused of killing her boyfriend. The Arias story has been a tabloid favorite, with numerous sexual and romantic angles.
A spokeswoman for HLN, the cable network that has covered Arias extensively, said it had no current plans to cover Gosnell. “We’ve been carrying the Arias trial live and wall-to-wall since the trial started shortly after the new year, and will continue to do so until it concludes,” said the spokeswoman, Alison Rudnick. “And, as you know, viewers have been gripped, and we want to continue to respond [and] deliver to viewer interest.”
One key difference between the Arias and Gosnell trials is that courtroom cameras are permitted in the former but not in the latter. That makes it “a lot easier [for TV] to cover [Arias] extensively,” said CNN’s Gollust.
Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, offers a more mundane rationale for the newspaper’s lack of coverage: He wasn’t aware of the story until Thursday night, when readers began e-mailing him about it. “I wish I could be conscious of all stories everywhere, but I can’t be,” he said. “Nor can any of us.”
The media appears to be responding to the criticism. CNN devoted multiple segments to the story Friday. CBS said it plans two segments and MSNBC will discuss the trial on its “Morning Joe” program Monday. The Post ran a full AP report on it in Saturday’s editions; the paper has also assigned its own reporter to cover the trial in Philadelphia this week.
“We talked about the story during the day on Friday and decided that, in fact, the story warranted our staff attention because of the seriousness and scope of the alleged crimes and because this was a case that resonated in policy arguments and national politics,” said Baron. “In retrospect, we regret not having staffed the trial sooner. But, as you know, we don’t have unlimited resources, and . . . there is a lot of competition for our staff’s attention.”
Added Baron, “We never decide what to cover for ideological reasons, no matter what critics might claim. Accusations of ideological motives are easy to make, even if they’re not supported by the facts.”
Eva Rodriguez contributed to this report.