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BY Joseph Esposito
WASHINGTON—In the wake of the sniper murder of abortion docter Barnett Slepian at his suburban Buffalo, N.Y., home Oct. 23, abortion advocates and many outlets of the national media have used the shooting to discredit the pro-life movement and condemn peaceful protests.
One abortion leader, Polly Rothstein, president of the Westchester (N.Y.) Coalition for Legal Abortion, has blamed John Cardinal O'Connor of New York and Dr. James Dobson, the evangelical leader, for Dr. Slepian's death. Deborah Mathis of USA Today hurled accusations at conservative leaders such as Gary Bauer and Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for Shepard's murder.
Prominent pro-lifers, however, reject the idea that high-profile anti-abortion advocates are responsible for the killing.
William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, blames these media attacks on “full-time, dedicated activists whose work is the defining element in their identity, their status, and their lifestyle.”
The media have come to reflect their views because of an ideological bias and because “this well-organized minority captures the media's attention,” he said.
The most respected monitor of media bias on conservative social issues is the Media Research Center of Alexandria, Va. Its chairman, Brent Bozell, discussed the reporting of the Slepian shooting and the prevailing media bias against the pro-life movement in an interview with the Register.
“It is unquestionable that the media are shameless in using it [the shooting] to discredit the mainstream pro-life movement,” he said. “It really points to the deep, deep, deep disdain for the right-to-life movement in the establishment press.”
Bozell's organization focuses on monitoring broadcast news and talk shows as well as Hollywood entertainment programs. Experts tape and transcribe programs and enter them into computers to be analyzed. It has the largest video archival and data base in the world, having documented 200,000 hours of television air time since 1987.
Although many pro-life, Catholic, and Christian leaders strongly denounced the Slepian murder and other abortion-related violence, network newscasters tarred all life advocates. In a Nov. 2 statement, the Media Research Center reported that “ABC and CBS didn't wither from blaming the pro-life movement for inciting the violence with its rhetoric.”
CBS anchor Dan Rather said the Buffalo doctor “was just the latest abortion provider to be targeted by a violent, sometimes murderous, section of the pro-life movement.” Even worse was the statement by that network's reporter Richard Schlesinger: “Abortion rights activists now believe some leaders of the mainstream anti-abortion movement are inciting supporters on the fringe to violence.”
At ABC, reporter John Miller said, “Activists on the most radical end of the pro-life camp make no apologies for the sniper.” His colleague Bill Redeker added, “Today a Catholic priest defended the provocative mock cemetery marking hundreds of abortions performed in New York state this year.”
Another media observer is Steven Ertelt, who reports on pro-life activities on the Internet. Ertelt commented on the slanted wire service reporting from the Associated Press (AP).
“The AP continues to run the most overtly biased stories I have ever seen the AP run on abortion in the many years I've followed their reporting efforts,” he noted. “They refuse to alter their stories in any way to encompass legitimate pro-life spokespersons.”
In a report issued earlier this year, the Media Research Center suggested how this bias manifests itself. There are five ways:
• Pro-lifers are presented as ideologues, abortionists are not;
• The abortion issue is portrayed as dividing the Republican party, but showing Democrats as solidly pro-abortion;
• Partial-birth abortion coverage is confusing and misleading;
• Pro-life protests and activities go unnoticed; and
• The violence of abortion and the harassment of pro-life supporters is ignored.
Looking at 1,050 news stories in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today in 1995-96, 47% of pro-life organizations were labeled “conservative,” while only about 3% of pro-abortion groups were identified as “liberal.” Thus, this survey emphasizes that abortion supporters, rather than being dismissed as ideologues, are presented as simply mainstream Americans.
By focusing their attention on the split over abortion in the Republican party, the media suggest that party is not generally pro-life. By minimizing disagreements over abortion in the Democratic party, there is an impression created that there are no pro-life Democrats. Pro-life supporters are depicted as a minority who are out of touch.
Coverage of the partial-birth abortion debate showed lack of understanding of the issue or, perhaps, an outright effort to distort the truth.
One third of the stories, for example, stressed that such examples of infanticide are “rare.” Among those who have reported this way are NBC's Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer, and CBS” Dan Rather and Sharyl Attkisson.
While the unusual instances of violence against abortion providers is given wide attention, the harassment and attacks on pro-life supporters outside clinics are often ignored. So, too, is the violence of abortion itself. Bozell said that the only recent network news story he knew of which dealt with this latter topic was related to Bosnia.
While many pro-lifers have expressed concern about the media coverage related to the Slepian murder, such biased reporting has been seen each time an abortionist has been attacked. Consider, for example, the 1993 shooting of Dr. David Gunn in Florida.
The communications director of the National Right to Life Committee at that time, Nancy Myers, reported, that “for two days after the shooting, no national television program quoted a mainstream pro-life spokesperson — not once.”
“In fact,” she wrote in National Right to Life News, “in conversations with me, many alluded to or flat-out acknowledged the fact that they didn't want the real reaction of the Pro-Life Movement.”
Carrie Gordon, a bioethics analyst for the Focus on the Family, understands the bias. “It's scapegoat time,” she said. “Part of this is the persecution we're going to have as Christians, as people of faith.”
Laurel MacLeod of the Concerned Women for America sees the exploitation of the Slepian shooting by abortionists and the media as an act of desperation. She said, “Faced with a loss of credibility, they turn the focus off of themselves and find a ploy to vilify those who make them look bad. This is a perfect example.”
Similar comments were made by Joseph Scheidler, head of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago. Scheidler, who has been found guilty of racketeering violations for his peaceful protests, told the Register, “They can't tolerate the truth. They have to put a big basket over it.”
Pro-life organizations have said they will not be intimidated by the abortionists’ attacks and the media's bias. The Catholic League's Donohue said, “Now is not a time for us to go into retreat simply because the other side is slinging mud.”
Bozell, who is a Catholic, added, “The pro-life movement ought to target the news media with its hundreds of thousands of active supporters. Make a very major demonstration of anger at the media.”
Another useful perspective was provided by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. In a commentary he wrote, “While the murder of Slepian must be deplored, his family gets sympathy because they can be seen.
“But the unborn are part of the same human family and deserve better than being reclassified into something they are not so that ‘abortion snipers’ can pick them off one at a time, while exercising their supposed ‘constitutional right.’”
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.