The Media vs. the Pro-Life Movement

Yesterday, an estimated 200,000 people marched on the Mall in Washington in protest on the 36th anniversary of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling. The ruling has provided legal cover for the termination of more than 50,000,000 pregnancies in the United States over the past thirty-six years.

Today my e-mail in-box is filled with bitter complaints that go something like this: why has the liberal mainstream media once again refused to cover this event? After all, every year this march draws a huge crowd. And besides, aren't the more than a million abortions every year a disgrace for our nation, by anyone's standards?

As much as I would love to uncover an ideological conspiracy by the media to block coverage of the March for Life, I can't do that. Frankly, because I don't think it exists. What? No liberal bias in the MSM?

Of course there is, and in most newsrooms the bias is particularly fierce against the pro-life cause. The media's dogged mischaracterization of pro-life arguments as nothing more than religious dogma is so stale and superficial it would be laughable, if its consequences weren't so tragic.

Precisely because news bias is such a serious affront to truth, we should be cautious and precise when we make the charge. Based on my experience of working with various secular media outlets, the mighty dollar almost always trumps ideology. Have you ever wondered why MSNBC executives allowed their channel to go so far to the left at the end of the Bush years? They found an angry and adoring niche market.

In the United States, most of our news sources are private, commercial ventures. This serves the good purpose of promoting journalistic independence, but it risks the dumbing-down, sexing-up, and selective weeding-out of reporting what's happening in the world. Editorial choices are subject to each event's relative power to attract and keep our valuable attention. I remember I used to pitch stories to television producers and executives, with the well intentioned tag line of "I'm sure this topic will be of great importance to our viewers". I don't make that mistake anymore; importance does not always equal good television. Most news channels receive daily rating reports on every fifteen minute block of their production. It doesn't take long for executives to figure out what news, what anchor, what guest, what images, what graphics and design bring in the bucks. Would you believe me if I told you I'm confident MSNBC would happily air the entire March for Life in primetime, even minus the Keith Olberman play-by-play, crass commentary, if this were a sure formula to break Bill O'Reilly's enviable glass ceiling of ratings gold?

My point in explaining how economic pressures influence editorial choices is to challenge fellow pro-life proponents to spend less time complaining about media blackouts and to retool their media strategy. The following are my reflections and suggestions in this regard:

1) We must keep in mind the media doesn't like anniversaries because anniversaries, by definition, are not news (whatever is being remembered, already happened).

2) Annual events, like the March for Life, have a similar obstacle to overcome. In television, "annual" is synonymous with "nothing new".

3) Getting bigger numbers each year to an annual event is not enough to change this fact. First time events, if they are big enough, and events that change the gamemay be considered newsworthy.

4) Even if abortion is a "hot" topic, the debate is not media friendly for two reasons:

a) most viewers think they already know the arguments of both sides

b) the issue is profoundly personal and painful for every adult involved in those 50,000,000 abortions.

5) If we are going to advance a serious conversation about how to limit abortions (something even President Obama says he favors), there is a need for a smarter media strategy. -- Don't you think the Roe v. Wade anniversary would have made news if every pro-life congressman and senator would have walked out of his or her offices and marked the moment with a giant press conference in front of the Supreme Court? Would it not have made news if hundreds of pro-life black pastors were to have issued a request to meet with President Obama to talk about the genocide of the black population in the United States through abortion? Or how about a publicity campaign on the New York City subways by "atheists against abortion" -- yes, there are many. Oh, and the list could go on. All of this would make better television than the typical images of protesters from both sides angling for the best camera angle to show off their bigger, brighter, and more abrasive signs.

6) This media strategy should highlight scientific dialogue about the biological status of the human embryo. From a purely scientific perspective, what do we know about when human life begins? President Obama's infamous answer to this question, "it's above my pay grade" is proof enough there's more work to be done in teaching even the most basic facts about human embryology.

I want to be clear: the March for Life is of great value, independently of the amount of news coverage it receives. For the 200,000 people who walked the Mall and the other hundreds of thousands who accompanied them through the blogosphere and small news outlets, the dynamic remembrance of the 36thanniversary of Roe v. Wade was an opportunity to renew the worthy struggle for our ultimate goal of protecting by law and welcoming into life every human being.

But wouldn't this anniversary be even better if we were to break the barrier of media indifference by showing them the money, making news? Or we could just keep pointing fingers at the big, bad MSM. It feels good, I know, but it gets us nowhere.

God bless,

Father Jonathan

P.S. The argument could be made that if 200,000 people (or 5,000!) had marched on Washington in support of illegal immigrants or homosexual marriage, the media would be all over it. I would agree in part, but my hunch is that the reason for the heavy coverage would be more than just ideological. Either 1) the participants would have created a scandalous scene (going naked or defacing churches, for example) 2) or the event were a first, and therefore provided novelty. Or am I thinking too well of the media? I look forward to hearing your comments.