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A horrific story, uncovered

By Eric Deggans
Tampa Bay Times

One of my pet peeves as a media critic is when people say a significant issue gets “no coverage” by the news media.

That’s because, most of the time, those who make such allegations have no idea if they’re right.

About two weeks ago, I sat on a panel at the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver with several journalists who insisted the news media hadn’t critically covered President Barack Obama’s controversial use of drones to kill terrorists (and, occasionally, kill civilians in the process) before the 2012 elections.

I said then I “didn’t buy” that argument, only to be assured the news media held back. But a quick Google search reveals stories on CNN, NPR, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times and Slate before the 2012 election on Obama’s use of drones to strike at terrorists.

What people often mean when they say something got “no” coverage is that it hasn’t become one of the select few subjects given saturation coverage and blasted across every news outlet at the same time, like the lurid murder trial of Jodi Arias, accused in the 2008 killing of an ex-boyfriend.

What they’re really asking: Why hasn’t this become a big TV story?

Which leads to the current handwringing over the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician accused of operating a house of horrors abortion clinic where babies were delivered alive and then killed under awful conditions. According to the charges, women were kept sedated by unlicensed staff; babies were delivered alive and then killed; the place smelled of urine with cat feces on the stairs. It was horrific.

According to the charges, Gosnell induced labor in women seeking late-term abortions so they would deliver babies. He would then kill them by a process he called “snipping” - sticking scissors in the back of baby’s neck and severing the spinal cord.

Gosnell is on trial now, and conservatives say the mainstream media have ignored the case because they are supportive of abortion rights. Look around online, and you’ll see that Gosnell got coverage in 2010 when he was arrested and in 2011 when a 281-page grand jury report was released detailing the gruesome charges. Good Morning America, Pro Publica, ABC News, liberal magazine The Nation and many other news outlets told the horrific story.

But Gosnell’s trial hasn’t gotten much attention until now.

Still, it’s not a given that reporting on this case reveals a black eye for abortion rights advocates. If the allegations against Gosnell are true, such procedures were already outlawed by the state and considered murder (terminating pregnancies after 24 weeks is a crime there).

Many of the patients at Gosnell’s clinic were poor women who presumably couldn’t afford such procedures at better facilities; so his operation could also be considered an argument for what happens when abortion is made less accessible, ether by price or by law.

As a cynical media observer, I think there are plenty of nonpolitical reasons why this case hasn’t become a big national firestorm.

There are no cameras in the courtroom. Stories become firestorms mostly due to TV coverage, but Gosnell’s trial is closed to cameras. And television outlets hate covering stories with no dramatic pictures.

The perpetrator and most of his victims are black. One of the other elements which sparks TV coverage is a sense that the victim or the accused criminal resonates with a mostly white news audience.

It’s an old story. The grisly details of the charges against Gosnell were revealed two years ago, an eternity for hyperactive online and TV news operations. It’s a grisly story. The details are so disgusting, the story is less attractive to the TV outlets which turn these events into mega-stories.

Given the other strikes against the story, Gosnell trial coverage could seem like risking criticism to highlight a trial which mostly has purient interest.

And that’s the issue for me. It seems as if some people decrying the lack of Gosnell trial coverage want the same sort of lazy nonsense we’ve gotten on the Jodi Arias trial and so many proceedings of limited impact to most of the world. Lots of trial footage and bloviating.

There are issues here which deserve coverage. So I hope we do see more solid journalism from national news outlets on the Gosnell trial.

I’m just not sure that’s what some critics of the media reaction so far really want.

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