When I see mainstream media sources try to grapple with maintaining “balance” in their reporting, I frequently circle back to Stephen Colbert’s now-famous joke at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” It’s especially evident in debates where one side is telling the truth and the other side is full to the brim with shameless liars—debates like the one taking place over Texas’ omnibus abortion law.
The problem with reporting on the law—which would require, among other things, that abortion-providing clinics conform to ambulatory surgical center (ASC) standards—is that those on the anti-choice side are lying through their teeth about the purpose of the regulations. There’s just no nicer way to put it. After 40 years of trying to restrict abortion access directly and not getting as far as they wanted, legislators in that state went at it sideways, passing laws that claim to be about women’s health and safety but are actually about making abortion too expensive and cumbersome to provide. It’s not surprising that people who have an unseemly desire to control the private lives of others might also have low moral standards when it comes to being truthful. What is frustrating, though, is that the mainstream media all too often plays along with this fiction.
Case in point: This recent NPR story about the recent Supreme Court decision to allow Texas clinics to stay open while the law is being litigated. The reporter takes great pains to quote both sides of this debate, which is not, in itself, an issue. Reporting should be objective, and part of being objective is giving everyone a fair chance to make their arguments. The pro-choicers quoted, Whole Woman’s Health clinic CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller and Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup, both argue that the regulations are there to shut down safe facilities.
The representative from Texas Right to Life, meanwhile, claims that the law is about women’s safety. “While we hope that she would not be compelled to choose abortion we hope that her life would of course not be at risk should she choose to do that,” Emily Horne says. “Pro-life does not just mean care for the life of the unborn child, it’s care for the life of the woman undergoing the abortion as well.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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In an ideal world, the reporter would ask her why, if she believes abortion is murder, she would want the murdering process to be safer for the murderer. The fact that anti-choicers are never asked this question is frustrating in the extreme. Surely we are all curious about what the answer is. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s a short segment and the quotes from both sides are equally perfunctory, so OK. (Though seriously, reporters: Follow-up questions! Ask them!)
What is more frustrating is that there is not a whiff of an effort to provide actual real-world facts to give the audience context with what’s going on here. Instead, NPR framed the story like it was two parties making value claims, with no way to measure their statements against evidence.
The problem here is that the debate is not about values. Both sides claim to have the same goal—protecting women’s health—and the fight is over who has a better strategy to get there. That puts this debate into the realm of empiricism. In other words, both sides have a claim that can be tested and measured. The audience deserves to hear the evidence both sides can offer.
Of course, as regular readers of Rewire know, only the pro-choice side actually has a shred of evidence to back up their claim. There are two major facts that anyone needs to know in order to understand this debate: 1) Standard regulations that apply to all medical clinics have long been more than sufficient to make abortion safe, rendering it one of the safest outpatient procedures you can get. 2) Most medical experts believe that these regulations will not do anything but make abortion harder to get. These are objective facts, the most important objective facts in this debate, and they are nowhere to be seen in what is supposed to be a journalistic story about this.
These facts are necessary for the listener to evaluate the competing claims offered by the pro- and anti-choice sides in this. It would take only about 45 seconds to a minute of airtime to share them. Without them, the story is a trifle. All you would know as a listener unfamiliar with the subject is that two sides are saying stuff, but you have no information beyond that.
I combed through months of NPR coverage of this story, and while some pieces did a little better—giving experts an opportunity to note how safe abortion already is—it was always in that “he says, she says” format that presents this all as a matter of opinion. There really should be some indicator that one side has actual facts to offer, while the other side is blowing so much hot air.
Of course, sharing the facts does mean you run the risk of being accused of having “liberal bias.” Whether the fear of that accusation informed the choice to run a nearly fact-free piece on this controversy, I can’t say, but that such an accusation would be lobbed is not in doubt. That is, of course, how conservatives do things these days: Tell a bunch of lies, and if they’re fact-checked, scream bloody murder about how the media is out to get them.
It’s a superficially compelling argument. Journalism is, after all, supposed to be objective. And that can lull some into thinking that the best way to achieve that is to avoid any semblance of putting your thumb on the scale. The irony here is that, by not sharing the real-world evidence behind each claim, NPR is putting their thumb on the scale. Or perhaps the more accurate metaphor is that they’re giving the anti-choice side a handicap. That camp can’t bring evidence to the debate, so in the interest of “fairness,” the bringing of evidence will be banned.
But this is journalism, not kid’s league bowling. Just because the anti-choicers perform better with bumpers in the gutters doesn’t mean they should get them. The people that NPR and other media outlets should be most concerned about, with regard to fairness, are the people in the audience. You know, the ones they’re supposed to be working for? This debate is going to affect the level of health care that people in the audience can access. They deserve to know what the facts underlying this debate are. After all, a listener might actually get the impression that there is a trade-off between abortion access and having safe care. That’s simply not true, and voters have a right to know that.
It was one thing when the debate was framed as one of values, with anti-choicers claiming to be for “life” and pro-choicers arguing in favor of bodily autonomy. Sure, there’s ample reason to suspect anti-choicers are full of it, but without peering directly into their brains and reading their thoughts, you can’t really say for sure. But the debate has shifted to an empirical one—a shift, may I remind you, that anti-choicers prompted with this new strategy. Since they chose to have a debate over facts, then they really can’t complain if their claims are fact-tested. They will—as noted, not the most morally upstanding group of people—but who cares? That’s the way the game should be played, and they don’t deserve special dispensation.