I write a lot of columns, both here at USA TODAY and elsewhere. Like pretty much everyone who writes opinion columns, I hope that people will read what I write and look at things differently as a result. It happens, sometimes. But very few have the impact of Kirsten Powers' column on the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell that ran in these pages last week.
Before Powers' column, the case wasn't on the national radar. Oh, it was getting attention from pro-life writers, conservative media critics, and law bloggers, but in terms of national media, the story didn't exist. It wasn't on the national radar until Powers' column opened with this: "Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations? It's not your fault. Since Gosnell's trial began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page."
Once that column ran, more people started talking. Writing in the Atlantic a couple of days later, Conor Friedersdorf wrote "Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell's Trial Should Be a Front-Page Story." He commented: "The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy. "
Yes. So why wasn't it news? Pro-choice writer Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast notes that it's about fear of where the story would go, and what it would require writers to confront: "Gosnell is accused of grisly crimes that I didn't want to think about. ... I understand why my readers suspect me, and other pro-choice mainstream journalists, of being selective -- of not wanting to cover the story because it showcased the ugliest possibilities of abortion rights. The truth is that most of us tend to be less interested in sick-making stories -- if the sick-making was done by 'our side.' "
It was fine to dwell at length on the Newtown, Conn., shootings, because those could be blamed on the evil NRA. But writing about these dead innocents might be a political liability instead of a political asset. It might have been awkward for President Obama.
It's also true that in our polarized -- and moralistic -- political culture, shouts of Have you no decency? are so common that it's easy to assume that pretty much any such story is probably exaggerated and politicized. And the reports in the Gosnell case were ghoulish enough that it was probably especially easy to believe that they were exaggerated. Alas, that turned out not to be the case. It was no doubt Powers' status as a liberal, and as a woman, that let her break through the wall of denial in a way that others might not have been able to.
Now the story has gotten some coverage on CNN (Jake Tapper broke the silence first) and other networks, and while it'll never get the attention that national media lavished on politically convenient stories like Newtown, or the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is at least on the national radar.
But the difficulty that this story had in reaching that stage tells you a lot about the news media's preferences and priorities --and blind spots. As Slate's David Weigel comments in discussing the matter: "Let's just state the obvious: National political reporters are, by and large, socially liberal. We are more likely to know a gay couple than to know someone who owns an 'assault weapon.' We are, generally, pro-choice. Twice, in D.C., I've caused a friend to literally leave a conversation and freeze me out for a day or so because I suggested that the Stupak Amendment and the Hyde Amendment made sense. There is a bubble."
In response some are noting that conservative media outlets like the Weekly Standard weren't exactly providing page-one coverage, and there's some truth to that. The abortion issue, I suspect, is upsetting enough to most everyone that there's a strong tendency to shy away, even when the subjects are, in fact, front-page-worthy. But this case should be a reminder that shying away from big stories isn't what journalism is supposed to be about.
And it's also reminder that media bias exists not only in how the press covers stories, but in the choice of stories to cover and, in particular, the choice of stories not to cover. Bear that in mind, in the future. And hope that, at a crucial moment, another column from the right person will break the silence.