Well, some of us are. Local media in Pennsylvania and Delaware, the Associated Press, and a few other outlets are covering the trial of Gosnell, who’s accused of operating an abortion clinic in Philadelphia that prosecutors say was a house of horrors for poor women and immigrants for nearly two decades. A glance at the grisly details of trial testimony from clinic workers who have pleaded guilty to a variety of lesser charges has prompted some smart observers to wonder why this story is not looming as large as, say, Newtown.
In USA Today, Kirsten Powers notes that, “A Lexis-Nexis search shows none of the news shows on the three major national television networks has mentioned the Gosnell trial in the last three months … The Washington Post has not published original reporting on this during the trial and The New York Times saw fit to run one original story on A-17 on the trial’s first day. They’ve been silent ever since, despite headline-worthy testimony.”
Over at Get Religion, my sometime Twitter sparring partner, the perceptive conservative press critic M.Z. Hemingway, suggests the silence in the prestige media comes from newsroom bias: “I can’t really understand the grounds for saying this trial (and similar situations) isn’t newsworthy, apart from strict devotion to the doctrine of abortion on demand.”
Powers and Hemingway are right to wonder why this trial has been flying so far below the national radar, although, as always when it comes to questions of what the press does and doesn’t cover, there’s no way to know for sure. As Sarah Pulliam Bailey tweeted today, “On the media lack of coverage of the Gosnell trial: I assumed that editors felt it wasn’t breakfast/coffee material for newspapers.” That’s a real possibility that observers of a conservative bent shouldn’t discount: having worked at local papers and the Associated Press, I can vouch for the squeamishness of many editors when it comes to gore or sex. I worked at one paper where, when reporting sex crime stories, every single type of assault, from rape to groping, had to be described as “a sexual act,” to appease the sensibilities of an editor, even when doing so made the stories vague and incoherent.
Another possibility that I haven’t seen anyone mention, but which springs to mind immediately for me, is even more depressing: the victims in this case are overwhelmingly poor non-white women. These are people who are generally invisible to the media except on the police blotter. They are not the affluent, articulate victims of Newtown, families who probably look a lot like the families of journalists at prestige media outlets like the New York Times. They are, instead, what Nietzsche called “the bungled and the botched”: victims of social pathologies that render them unpersons to too many people in positions of influence, which is how these women ended up on the doorstep of this butcher in the first place. They had nowhere else to turn, and they still don’t.
I remember this from when I worked in North Carolina. My editor was incensed by a serial killer in the rural northeastern “Black Belt” of the state, who was killing black women, many of whom were prostitutes, with seeming impunity over a course of years. We wrote story after story about the killings and the lackluster law enforcement response to them, none of which got any traction outside the state, or even really within the state itself. Then, a bright, beautiful little Australian girl named Zahra Baker was murdered by her grotesque stepmother, and the international press camped for days in the little town of Hickory.
I don’t know if that’s what’s happening with the Gosnell trial. It could be, as Hemingway suggests, discomfort in the upper echelons of the press over a man whose alleged crimes are so horrific he might as well have sprung from an antiabortion pulp novel. It could also be, as Pulliam Bailey writes, that the very gruesome nature of the crimes themselves makes editors reluctant to expose their dwindling readerships to such details. Or it could be because the national media has a track record of ignoring the suffering of poor, non-white people.
Probably it’s all three. None of it should make us feel better.