The Media and the Gosnell Case: A Case of Insecurity and a Misinformation Campaign

Gosnell is the result of politicizing women’s health care, and his case, in turn, has been used to further politicize women’s health care.

As one of the many journalists who has been covering the Gosnell story since it broke in early 2011, all I can say is: We tried to get the story out there. "ON AIR" via Shutterstock

In recent days, amidst cries of a media “blackout,” a number of journalists have admitted to either missing or dismissing the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell over the past two years. As one of the many journalists who has been covering the Gosnell story since it broke in early 2011, all I can say is: We tried to get the story out there. But more importantly, this politics-of-media framework distracts from the circuitous politics that enabled, and resulted from, Gosnell’s actual crimes and the women who were affected.

What Media Blackout?

After spending much of 2010 interviewing 58 witnesses, in January 2011 the Philadelphia district attorney’s office published a 281-page report accusing Kermit Gosnell of grotesque, depraved crimes.

There was blood on the floor. A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs. Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with bloodstained blankets. All the women had been sedated by unlicensed staff—long before Gosnell arrived at the clinic—and staff members could not accurately state what medications or dosages they had administered to the waiting patients. Many of the medications in inventory were past their expiration dates.

Fetal remains were stored in milk jugs and cat food containers. A janitor admitted he routinely pulled fetal parts out of pipes. Unlicensed, untrained staff, including a high school student, pumped cheap, powerful drugs into the veins of women who were chemically coaxed into zombie-like stupors that sometimes lasted days.

Last week, Kristen Powers published an op-ed in USA Today that sparked a Twitter shame campaign, directly asking prominent national journalists why they hadn’t covered the case. And it worked. Now, more than three years after the raid and more than two years after the grand jury report, some national journalists who ignored the case entirely are suddenly wildly interested.

After years of coverage from outlets in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, outlets focused on women’s health issues, and yes, mainstream media outlets, apparently all it took to catch the attention of writers such as Slate’s Dave WeigelThe Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg was to target their collective egos—specifically, their insecurity about being perceived as having a liberal bias.

Weigel, one of the first writers to develop a sudden interest in Gosnell after Powers’ piece, wrote that when he read about Gosnell back in 2011, he didn’t “see a political story to chase.”

At 3801 Lancaster, the site of Gosnell’s clinic, patients chose their medicine and painkillers a la carte. In other words, the more cash a patient could give Gosnell, the more painkiller she could get. The poorer the patient, the more she would suffer. With all the talk about the Affordable Care Act, you’d think that such starkly stratified access to quality health care would be an interesting political story. The story touches on poverty, abortion, civil rights, state rights, healthcare, increasing inequality and race, to name a few topics of political interest that, if nothing else, came up quite a bit during the presidential election.

What Weigel really meant, of course, is that he didn’t see a story worth chasing. “Bored media,” indeed.

It’s telling that Weigel, whose original post characterized Slate writer William Saletan as something of a brave lone soul breaking the media silence around the case, had to issue a correction clarifying that actually, Slate writer Amanda Marcotte also wrote about the case—almost a month before Saletan. He just didn’t notice.

I would be more convinced of a left-wing media blackout if the story of an alleged drug trafficker who was allowed to maim and murder women for years because of serious oversight failures wasn’t dismissed as a “women’s issue,” written about mostly by female reporters and apparently not well read by male journalists.

In any case, the journalists who missed the story are not victims of a liberal media conspiracy, and neither are the conservatives leading the recent media campaign. From the very beginning, the right viewed the Kermit Gosnell trial as a tremendous media opportunity.

In the spring of 2011, anti-choice group Operation Rescue traveled to Pennsylvania to hold a meeting in a church basement in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a pilgrimage.

“Philadelphia is in many ways similar to the Alamo,” Operation Rescue President Troy Newman told the small crowd of mostly elderly citizens, as reported in the Philadelphia Weekly. “You’re here, this is your moment. … God handed you an opportunity for success. For victory.” (It was apparently lost on the crowd of suburban churchgoers that they were being asked to gather intel on local doctors for an organization linked to the murder of at least one.)

Newman didn’t bother with spin when talking among friends. “[Young reporters] are not the old-school bra-burning feminists,” Newman said. “The majority of them are pro-life. It’s just the old hardened producers now that we’ve got to just wait for them to fall off the apple cart.”

Manipulating the media is made easier by targeting journalists who are more concerned with hiding their own blind spots and biases than pursuing the truth. While I welcome more journalists taking a look at the Gosnell case, it would be helpful if they would begin by reading the grand jury report that’s now been online for 27 months. If they read it, they wouldn’t be pounding the table, asking, How could Kermit Gosnell have happened?

From the report: “[In 1993] the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all.”

Political Causes and Implications

In 1989, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey signed the landmark Abortion Control Act (ACA) into law. The ACA established, for the first time, that states could pass restrictions on access to services, though Roe still ensured that states couldn’t outlaw abortion outright. Pennsylvania’s ACA is the blueprint for state-level restrictions to abortion access across the country. After that, abortion had become so politicized that the next governor, pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge, made the woefully misguided decision to not address abortion altogether.

Fast forward to December 2011, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a bill that, as it was designed to do, shut down some abortion clinics in the state. Over-regulating clinics out of business is an old strategy that advocates say conservative Pennsylvania legislators have been wanting to pass for years, and they finally got it done by lying to the public, claiming the bill was proposed in response to Gosnell. Since the new regulations took effect, Pennsylvania has gone from having 19 clinics that offer surgical abortion—and pap smears, and birth control, and education—down to only 13, as of January.

So this sudden burst of interest in the Gosnell case and shaking of fists comes too late for Pennsylvania women. Meanwhile, Gosnell’s name is still being invoked to help pass similar laws around the country. “There was a widely felt impact,” Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told Rewire. “The Gosnell case was being used in Utah to change their clinic regulations. It was being brought up in Virginia surrounding their clinic regulations.”

Gosnell is the result of politicizing women’s health care, and his case, in turn, has been used to further politicize women’s health care. Real information about the effect of shutting down abortion clinics—preventable injury, illness, and death, not to mention forced births, all of which happened at Gosnell’s clinic—has been squeezed out of the conversation.

It makes awful sense that the Gosnell case happened in Pennsylvania, where state-level restrictions were established by former Gov. Casey. Notice how a post-Casey world is starting to look a lot like a pre-Roe one. When women don’t have access to safe health care and abortion services, enterprising capitalists like Gosnell start to pop up and women live by the rule: The less money you have, the more you will suffer.