On March 18 the trial of Kermit Gosnell began in a Philadelphia courthouse, and the jury heard some of the most sensational – and graphic – testimony any courtroom has witnessed. Yet despite the numerous storylines – a doctor who preyed on women, killed children, snipping the spines of babies who survived abortion, a racial subtext about the minority women who were his clients – the media largely ignored this story. A local columnist, J.D. Mullane, who writes for the Bucks County Courier Times, took a picture of the reserved media section in the courtroom. There were 40 saved seats for journalists and he was the only one using them.
When the story broke in 2011 with the grand jury’s grim report on conditions in Gosnell’s “House of Horrors” and grisly descriptions of how he allegedly murdered babies who survived his botched abortions by snipping their necks with scissors, several media outlets including CNN had brief stories on the atrocities committed in the name of reproductive rights. But, two years later, there was barely any coverage of the actual trial. For the first two weeks, there was no mention of the trial on the news programs of ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, NPR, or MSNBC. No major national paper carried the story on its cover and few papers picked up the Associated Press articles from their wire service. The New York Times had one story, on page A17, on the trial’s first day. The Washington Post had no original reporter at the trial. Several websites like Breitbart.com, columnists such as Michelle Malkin, and conservative magazines like National Review and the Weekly Standard provided more extensive coverage. And then Kirsten Powers, a liberal Democratic contributor to Fox News, wrote a column in the USA Today on April 10 wondering why such scant coverage in a case of a man accused of killing seven newborns and a patient seeking his care. As she said, the media has been silent “despite headline-worthy testimony.” Normally such a crime would be the subject of sensationalized, 24/7 coverage with live updates outside the court and panels discussing the legal minutiae. But this wasn’t a normal case. This case was about abortion.
The Powers column – which offered to “state the obvious … this should be front page news – got the attention of her colleagues in the media. A few days later, Conor Friedersdort wrote a piece for The Atlantic’s website calling the trial “thoroughly newsworthy” and that it has been “under-covered.” Soon, many media outlets began covering Gosnell. Well, almost. Most the coverage of the Gosnell trial was about the lack of media coverage. In other words, this new coverage wasn’t about the crimes the abortionist was on trial for, but the media. I have always said that nothing interests journalists as much as themselves. Typically, an event occurs, the media provides saturation coverage, and by day four or five the press is looking in the mirror examining itself. This time, the media skipped the actual coverage before its self-examination. Journalistic writing took on the style of confessional story-telling, explaining why each reporter or columnist ignored the story, with most explaining that they are squeamish and didn’t like the details of the trial. An editor at the Washington Post suggested Gosnell was a “local crime story.” Other editors claimed not to be aware of the trial.
But the real reason is obvious and was nicely summarized by PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon: “The trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a potential time bomb exploding in the conventional liberal narrative on abortion itself.” Even if Gosnell is a rare or extreme example of abortion’s dark underbelly, Simon said, “a dead fetus was a dead fetus,” which would lead people to think about the reality of abortion. In other words, this is an example of ideological bias.
The best description of the media’s (non) coverage of Gosnell is cover-up. And the collective shame journalists felt about not doing their job was short-lived. A few weeks after Kirsten Powers’ shaming of the media, before the prosecution completed its case and the defense began to make its arguments, the Media Research Center reported that the media was back to ignoring the story: CNN mentioned the story on its website but not on air, the New York Times pulled its assigned reporter days after sending him to Philadelphia, and the only daily newspaper to have a reporter stay at the trial was the Chicago Tribune. ABC and NBC continued to ignore the story and CBS mentioned it on their morning newscast once, but not during their evening news program; Fox News, however, ran a one-hour special report. In other words, after a moment of navel-gazing that passed as coverage, the media was back to covering up the story of yet more murder at an abortion facility.