Unskewed polls. “Friends of Hamas.” Benghazi. Fast and Furious. The cases where conservatives have argued that the mainstream media’s liberal bias obscured the truth, but the conservative spin turned out to be irrelevant, misleading, or flat-out false, are legion. They’re symptomatic of a well-known information disadvantage among conservatives, one that’s fueled in part by the deep sense of victimhood that shapes the conservative press’ view of its mainstream peers.
In the most recent spate of media-blaming, conservatives have at least latched on to a real issue — the crimes of murderous abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, who’s on trial now for allegedly cutting off babies’ heads after birth and keeping severed infant feet in jars, among other horrors. However, the central conservative critique hasn’t been about Gosnell himself. It’s been about the media, who’s purportedly refusing to report on Gosnell because of — you guessed it — liberal bias. But the notion that coverage of Gosnell is marred by bias is far from proven, and there’s lots of reason for doubt. The conservative freakout about Gosnell and the media is better understood as a case study in the spirit of victimhood that’s permeated the movement conservative outlook than it is a media bias smoking gun. The same victim mentality that’s currently pushing the conservative Gosnell coverage birthed failures like “Unskewed Polls” and the alleged Benghazi cover-up. This conservative relationship with the mainstream media isn’t just leading to bad reporting — it’s also poisoning our national political discourse.
If you’re not familiar with the Gosnell firestorm that’s raged for the past several days, here’s a brief history. In 2011, Dr. Gosnell — who provided illegal, late-term abortion services for mainly low-income, minority women in Philadelphia — was arrested for eight counts of murder. The case, which went to trial March 18th, became the national topic of conversation last Thursday, when USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers wrote a piece condemning the media’s inattentiveness to the trial.
Though Powers didn’t speculate as to why papers and networks failed to sufficiently cover Gosnell, the furor that emerged in conservative publications after her column left little to the imagination. “All pro-lifers have received is yet another example of the media’s circling the wagons for their allies in the abortion industry,” wrote Michael J. New in a representative blog post for National Review. The massive conservative shaming campaign has already led some outlets to backtrack.
But the “media blackout” conservatives allege was a fiction. The New York Times ran five pieces on the Gosnell trial before the controversy erupted. The Washington Post ran eight related items before or roughly concurrent to Powers’ column. Dan Amira at New York Magazine finds a similar level of Gosnell coverage on major television news networks.
The more nuanced conservative argument locates bias not in a so-called blackout, but in space and resource allocation — “why isn’t this front-page news?” Hence why many were mollified by the Post’s decision to dispatch a member of its own staff to cover the trial on the ground.
But if the mainstream media did cover Gosnell, but just not to the extent that conservatives prefer, the case for media bias evaporates. Major media outlets didn’t “bury” the story any more than they buried other undercovered issues like the campaign of civilian slaughter in South Kordofan or the rapid spread of state laws criminalizing animal cruelty exposes; they simply allocated scarce resources and prime real estate to the tiny number of stories they could afford to focus on. It’s why, for example, the steep decline in original climate change coverage isn’t evidence of anti-environmentalist prejudice among journalists. Conservatives alleging bias need to explain why Gosnell, of all the stories the media doesn’t cover well enough, was so uniquely deserving of a full court press that its absence could be explained by nothing other than bias.
The fact that there was more extensive coverage of other abortion-related news, like Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment or the explicitly political murder of famous abortion provider George Tiller, isn’t good enough, as those stories involved already-significant politicians and activists. Conservative critics need to show that choice-friendly stories absent an obvious national hook were given more national attention than the ones pro-lifers find more amenable to show an abortion-specific bias. This task is complicated by the fact that pro-choice folk originally highlighted the Gosnell case to make the argument that restrictions on late term abortions, like Pennsylvania’s 24 week limit, merely causes women (espcially poor, minority women) to seek out terrible, unregulated abortion providers rather than decide against getting an abortion. If that’s their view, then why would a “pro-choice media” want to bury the Gosnell story?
Add that to the fact that there’s absolutely no documentary evidence of an ideological conspiracy to not cover Gosnell and the evidence of media bias in this case is astonishingly weak. So why are the accusations of it so common?
In short: the entrenched conservative victim mentality. Movement conservatives, long ensconced in the “liberal media” narrative, have created an entire alternative media ecosystem that’s flourished even despite the conservative movement’s extraordinary political success since Reagan. This siege mentality is particularly acute among religious conservatives, who can be found arguing that mainstream liberal institutions are “at war” with Christianity or that Christians are becoming second-class citizens with depressing frequency.
And when you have a liberal media hammer, every story seems like nail. Matt Lewis, a reasonably measured conservative writer, suggested with no evidence that the lack of conservative Christians in news rooms was to blame for the lack of Gosnell coverage. Less tempered voices straight-up accused reporters of hating pro-lifers with only one anonymous anecdote for evidence. Though the second example is more vitriolic than the first, both betray a baseline assumption that Gosnell coverage was a symptom of the broader “anti-Christian media” problem.
And then there’s Mollie Z. Hemingway. A writer for the religious media criticism outfit Get Religion, Hemingway has played a larger role than anyone other than Powers in raising hell over Gosnell. Her campaign included a hefty blog post and upwards of 30 breathless tweets directed solely at Washington Post health reporter Sarah Kliff, in addition to a series of attacks on other reporters for not covering Gosnell to the extent she would like (admittedly, Kliff didn’t do herself any favors with this weak-sauce response). Heterodox conservative Josh Barro described her various harangues (his word) as “hugely unprofessional;” she suggested that reporters were either “either partisan ideologues or racist [sic] or both?” for not covering Gosnell more. Hemingway’s stated motivation is “egregious bias” on the part of “our abortion-drenched media,” a media bias theory she expanded on in an older post on marriage equality:
[A]greeing with Jesus gets you banned from polite society. The media are on a campaign to say that this understanding of marriage is bigoted and intolerable in society. You can’t go to a shopping mall if you hold these views.
That Hemingway’s crusade was widely applauded in conservative circles says volumes about the degree to which victimhood has conquered the conservative media psyche.
The dominance of this media bias narrative has poisoned the Gosnell story well. Vicious, personal debates over the biases of one reporter or publication produce the journalistic equivalent of campaign attack ads, distracting from the real issues at hand. Pro-choice advocates and progressives have been arguing since Gosnell’s arrest that case exemplifies the unintended consequences of late-term abortion bans (“if you criminalize late-term abortion providers, only criminals will provide late-term abortions”) and the brutal nexus of class, race, and immigration in medicine more broadly. With a few exceptions, the conservative Gosnell furor has overlooked these arguments in favor of media bias polemics.
Moreover, the conservative tendency to blame the media is part-and-parcel of its broader disconnect with reality. When the mainstream media dismissed or debunked the conservative spin on non-scandals like Solyndra or Shirley Sherrod, and the public generally yawned, the immediate reaction in the conservative press was to blame the “in the tank” media. This knee-jerk “media criticism first” response inoculates conservatives against having to check their own premises, thus erecting new walls around their prison of epistemic closure.
Now, plenty of writers of who live outside the bubble, including some pretty sharp critics of conservative media, have argued that Gosnell deserves more attention. That’s a perfectly fair position to take, and my point isn’t Gosnell’s horror show itself is a fake scandal. Rather, it’s that the impulse to blame ideological media bias, rather than more plausible and mundane explanations like limited resources or generalized difficulties surrounding reporting on poverty, for coverage decisions that conservatives don’t like is one of the reasons the movement is having so much trouble developing a reality-based worldview. And until this knee stops jerking, conservatives will have difficulty having an real conversation with anyone but themselves.