The Media Today

Connecting the dots on the Alabama abortion story

May 20, 2019

“It’s time to hear Alabama’s women.” That was the headline on identical front pages published yesterday by The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and the Mobile Press-Register, three titles within the Alabama Media Group. Last week, after lawmakers in the state pushed through a near-total ban on abortion, the three papers invited readers to weigh in on what it’s like to be a woman in Alabama; within 24 hours, more than 200 had responded. Yesterday, the papers published many of the essays they received. “Alabama was the talk of the nation last week as the most restrictive abortion ban in the country became law,” Kelly Ann Scott, who edits the three titles, wrote in an introduction to the package. “But, missing from many of those conversations were the voices of women from this state.”

The Alabama bill has, indeed, consumed national media attention since the state Senate passed it on Tuesday. (On Wednesday, Kay Ivey, Alabama’s Republican governor, ratified it.) Since Donald Trump entered the White House, abortion rights have been an important part of the political conversation—particularly during the Supreme Court confirmation battles of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. In general, however, the abortion story has felt diluted and fragmented. It has played out, for the most part, at the local level, with Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, and, most recently, Missouri all passing highly restrictive bills. Clearly, this all adds up to an important national story. Some major outlets have contributed excellent coverage: last month, for example, The New York Times devoted two special episodes of its Daily podcast to the contrasting abortion climates of Missouri and Illinois. The fallout from the Alabama law, however, marks the first time the issue has held a sustained national spotlight in the Trump era. The intense, unified nature of the present discussion feels new, belated, and, ultimately, reactive.

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Why now? On Friday’s episode of The Daily, Sabrina Tavernise, the Times reporter who guest-hosted the Missouri–Illinois double-header, summed it up. “This Alabama bill goes farther than any other bill that is passed toward confronting Roe v. Wade,” she said, referring to the 1973 ruling that set a national precedent on abortion rights. The Alabama law is “a declaration of war. It says, our state is not going to live by the laws of the land.” For some time now, pro-life groups have been spoiling to put Roe back before the Supreme Court. The Alabama law, to the glancing eye, looks a clear escalation of that fight.

In some ways, however, it is regrettable that it took such an extreme example to spark the central national conversation this issue has long merited. If Alabama is the loudest shot yet in the right’s “war” on abortion, it isn’t the opening shot: the Republican Party and independent anti-abortion groups have been positioning their troops for a long time now. (As the Times notes, this push has not been centrally coordinated, as such, but “activists across the country are tapping into the same energy and feeding on one another’s momentum.”) Nor is Alabama best representative of this broader trend—many within the anti-abortion movement worry that the bill’s provisions are so extreme that they will hinder, not help, anti-Roe efforts. There’s a good chance that the current Supreme Court—whose key justices would seem to favor only the incremental erosion of precedent—will choose not to take up the Alabama bill at all.

As Scott, of the Alabama Media Group, noted, the national coverage of Alabama also has not been centered enough on local voices. Much of it has hit predictable themes: reading the Supreme Court tea leaves; the reactions of leading politicians, including Trump, on both sides of the aisle; the possible electoral ramifications for the national GOP of hardline anti-abortion policies. It’s not that this national context isn’t important; much of it clearly is. But the local context has gotten a bit lost. And some attempts to right the imbalance have backfired. Over the weekend, for example, a Times article referring to the “Brooklynization” of parts of “the New South” got significant pushback from other journalists on social media.

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Attempts by Republicans, in particular, to pilot aggressive national-level change through statehouses aren’t new or limited to abortion. Such campaigns pose a challenge for the press: in many places, the local outlets that act as first responders on stories like this have been decimated, making it even harder for national media—clustered in blue-state urban hubs—to connect the dots. The abortion story, in particular, demands timely, joined-up national coverage that’s nonetheless rooted in local nuances and lived experience. That’s no easy task. Regardless, we need to do better.

Below, more on Alabama and abortion:

  • “Not a monolith”: Writing for the Times, Abbey Crain, a reporter with the Alabama Media Group, encouraged national observers to come to Alabama and make a difference. “For all that the national coverage has focused on the male legislators who passed the bill, it’s worth noting that the state Republican Party is led by a woman; the abortion ban bill was sponsored by a woman—one who I believe thinks in her heart of hearts that she is doing the right thing by her faith—and it was signed into law by a woman,” Crain writes. “The women of Alabama are not a monolith, but there are forces at work determining which ones get to shape policy and which don’t.”
  • Beware misinformation: Abortion is still legal in Alabama—but some coverage of the issue has given the impression that it is not. For BuzzFeed, Jane Lytvynenko busts that myth and other pieces of misinformation circulating around the new law. On CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, Irin Carmon issued an important reminder for reporters covering state abortion legislation. “A lot of these laws have misinformation embedded within them,” she said.
  • Beware propaganda: For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino looks at the anti-abortion “propaganda” bolstering the push to tighten abortion laws. “In the minds of their creators, these movies are counterprogramming to mainstream liberal culture”—but they lack a counterpart on the left, Tolentino argues. “It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood would touch a dramatic screenplay about a woman who died carrying a non-viable fetus to term. And it would be difficult even to make a galvanizing narrative out of the loss that seeps in slowly, in the course of years and even decades, when your choices are nonconsensually foreclosed.”

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, Pete Buttigieg became the third Democratic presidential candidate to do a town hall on Fox News. Ahead of time, Buttigieg put out a long justification for his appearance—“If we ignore the viewers of Fox News and every news platform that doesn’t share our worldview, we will surrender our ability to speak directly to millions of American voters”—on stage, he criticized Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. As with Bernie Sanders’s April appearance on the network, the Buttigieg booking clearly riled Trump: “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems,” he tweeted, “they forgot the people who got them there.” (Trump was also on Fox News last night, for an interview with Steve Hilton.) Last week, I assessed the “should Democrats go on Fox?” debate for CJR.
  • On Friday, Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung, two newspapers in Germany, co-published a secret video, from 2017, in which Heinz-Christian Strache, the far-right deputy leader of Austria’s government, appears to offer a woman claiming to be a Russian oligarch government contracts in exchange for political support. The woman offered to buy a stake in Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest newspaper, and turn it into a mouthpiece for Strache’s party; Strache said he wanted “to build a media landscape” like that of Hungary, where independent journalism has mostly been neutered. Over the weekend, Strache resigned, effectively collapsing the Austrian government.
  • Game of Thrones is over. Ahead of last night’s final episode, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo wrote that the end of the series will also end a profitable stream of content for news outlets. “The Thrones bump has been similar to the Trump bump in terms of helping to supercharge digital media during an era of intense pressure,” Pompeo writes. “After the last recaps and reviews and cast Q&As and think pieces hit the Web in the next week or so, the fire hose will sputter to a trickle, and it may turn out to be a cruel summer for publications that had been riding the tidal wave of Thrones traffic.”
  • With the Trump administration cranking up tensions with Iran, Andrew Lee Butters writes, for CJR, that the media has the relationship between the countries all wrong. “In the absence of empathetic coverage, a dynamic has developed in Iran reporting, a kind of paranoid feeding frenzy, that helps anti-Iran Trump administration hardliners like John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, build momentum for confrontation,” Butters argues.
  • Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw finds that Hollywood studios are optioning more and more magazine articles for TV—and paying writers ever-higher sums for rights to their work. “The figures may escalate as new streaming services from AT&T, Walt Disney, and Apple enter the market,” Shaw writes. Writers, however, don’t always see all the cash. “How derivative entertainment revenue gets split up is now a common source of friction during contract negotiations between writers and news organizations.”
  • The Guardian changed its style guide in a bid to sharpen its climate coverage: the paper is now advising writers to use “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown” instead of “climate change”; “global heating” instead of “global warming”; and “climate science denier” instead of “climate skeptic.” The Guardian is partnering with CJR on #CoveringClimateNow, a broader project aimed at improving media treatment of the issue. You can read more, and watch our kickoff town-hall event, here.
  • And Steve Kroft retired from 60 Minutes last night after 30 years—and nearly 500 stories—as a correspondent on the show.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.