The Media Today

A year since Dobbs

June 23, 2023
Art by Darrel Frost

When the news broke, it wasn’t exactly news. For one thing, there had already been a leak—a month earlier, Politico reported, based on a draft opinion, that the Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. For another, America’s abortion-rights activists, who had been painfully aware of the limits to access for years, had seen this coming—a crisis already in motion. Nevertheless, when a ruling arrived in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a year ago tomorrow, it was a major story, one that set off a flurry of action in state legislatures and at health clinics across the country. Abortion has since been banned outright in thirteen states, not counting Wisconsin, where providers have stopped offering the procedure based on a law predating Roe. In other states—including Georgia, which implemented a six-week ban—restrictions make terminating a pregnancy all but impossible. To visualize the landscape, “I always start with a map,” Amy Littlefield, who covers abortion for The Nation and other outlets, told me the other day. “Because it’s so stark. You hear, Oh, thirteen states banned abortion, and it doesn’t sound like that many. But then you look at where they are. There’s a wall of at least ten of them all rammed together in the South, starting with Texas and moving east.”

Littlefield has observed that abortion coverage post-Dobbs often falls into one of two categories: an election story (How will this impact Ron DeSantis?) or an emergency-room story, typically about a woman who lost a wanted pregnancy because of a horrific medical misfortune. “As a journalist, I understand the appeal,” she said. For a while, her focus was on Catholic-run hospitals, which only performed abortions if a patient was severely ill or a fetal heartbeat had stopped. Those emergency-room stories are worth telling, she noted. And yet “we’re hearing fewer stories of people who got pregnant when they didn’t want to be, and didn’t get an abortion,” she said. “It’s a very common experience, especially among low-income people of color who are directly impacted by these bans, who are unable to travel or overcome the obstacles in their way.” Plus: “Most women who have abortions are mothers. Most of the time they are making decisions based on what’s best for the family they already have. And there’s an egregious lack of support for families with kids. I wish more reporting would focus on that, too.”

Abortion is still a political struggle. Last year, Littlefield wrote for CJR’s abortion issue about her experience trying to cover the news breaking across the country at a time when local media has withered. Since then, every day, she’s read the newsletters of States Newsroom and Jessica Valenti, who take on “the impossibly difficult task of rounding up abortion news from every state.” Littlefield has followed six abortion-related state ballot initiatives, all of which went in favor of protecting care. That outcome wasn’t a sure thing in some places—notably Kansas and Kentucky—but nationally, threats to abortion rights are deeply unpopular: according to polling by PBS NewsHour, NPR, and Marist, a majority of adults in the United States oppose the Dobbs ruling, and support for abortion has recently grown. Elected officials, it seems, are still playing catch-up. In March, Rebecca Traister wrote for New York magazine about the fight to make reproductive rights the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s 2024 platform. She described the scene in Washington as “chaos” and noted that President Biden “doesn’t really care to talk a lot about abortion, let alone hold it up as a central value.” 

“There is a wider political context that I wish reporters were focused on in states like Mississippi, where people are dealing with poverty, racism, and how to handle childcare for the kids they already do have,” Littlefield told me. She was heartened to see that, in a recent story for In These Times about a mother named Lationna Halbert, Bryce Covert did just that. Caroline Kitchener, of the Washington Post, profiled a teenager named Brooke Alexander, who discovered that she was pregnant hours before a ban on abortions took effect in Texas; for her collected coverage of how heavily abortion bans have weighed on people’s lives, Kitchener is being awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In CJR’s abortion issue, Anna Altman spotlighted the work of Shefali Luthra, a health reporter at The 19th for whom reproductive rights and care flew into urgent focus. “The most important thing to me,” Luthra told Altman, “is trying to capture what it means for people who had rights and lost them.”

The abortion issue also featured a piece by Becca Andrews about a woman working for an abortion fund in the South. The woman was bombarded suddenly by media requests and, around the same time, had her home broken into, her car window smashed. Andrews did not identify her by name. “Most of us are not feeling comfortable putting our faces or names on anything,” the woman said, referring to conversations she’d been having with colleagues. “Granting anonymity—and making clear the stakes for the source—may be the only option for reporters seeking to include those voices,” Andrews concluded. Mary Retta examined the role of Google Docs as a vital source of information after the Dobbs ruling: “What happens during a moment of crisis is, people decide, ‘This is the moment for me to get involved,’” an activist named Alison Turkos said. Turkos created a widely circulated Doc called “How to Show Up for Abortion Access.” And Haley Mlotek spoke with Mia Sato, a reporter for The Verge, on reactions to the Dobbs news online. “What struck me,” Sato said, was how many people presented “a profoundly individualistic way to try to meet the moment of this need.”

You can read the issue in full here. We published it in December to see where journalism stood six months after Dobbs; six months more down the line, its insights into what makes abortion coverage so complicated and crucial still resonate. I’d also recommend this interview, from February, between CJR’s Emily Russell and editors of Rewire News Group, a nonprofit dedicated to covering reproductive health and justice. “What I hope can happen in media spaces is an understanding that abortion is a health issue and that, because we are criminalizing access to healthcare, we are creating a new class of suspected criminals,” Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s executive editor, said. “There is a crime beat to covering pregnancy now.” There are innumerable angles. As Littlefield told me: “It’s hard to summarize the state of abortion access right now. In some places it’s better than it’s ever been, like in New York. In other places, it’s an unfurling human rights crisis.”

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This week, Samuel Alito, the author of the Dobbs opinion, made media news for placing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal refuting the premise of a soon-to-be-published article by reporters at ProPublica, who found that he once went on a “luxury fishing trip” with Paul Singer, a billionaire Republican donor who became involved in cases before the Supreme Court. The story appeared online just before midnight on Tuesday. The grimness of the whole episode—Alito failed to mention the trip on a disclosure form, possibly in violation of federal law; his defense was that he followed “what I understood to be standard practice”; he placed his rebuttal to the ProPublica piece before he or anyone else had a chance to read it—seemed quintessentially Beltway, and a reflection of how out of touch the Supreme Court is with the rest of the country. (If polls didn’t already tell it so.) As with so many matters, Alito is uniquely empowered to decide what’s right—more empowered, certainly, than people who are pregnant in the United States. A year after Dobbs, the press has an obligation to keep telling stories about the fallibility of the justice system, and the injustice for those whose lives are at risk.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, visited Washington. Several progressive Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, boycotted an address that he gave to Congress, citing his poor record on human rights—not least freedom of the press. At the White House, Modi appeared at a press conference with Biden and took questions from reporters, breaking with his habit of stonewalling the press at home; an Indian reporter asked about climate change, while Sabrina Siddiqui, of the Wall Street Journal, pressed Modi on human rights. Modi’s engagement with the press was limited, however, and critics suggested that he shouldn’t get much credit, with his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay telling the AP that taking a few questions in the US allowed Modi to project reasonableness abroad while continuing to shun reporters domestically. 
  • In other international press-freedom news, The Intercept’s Alice Speri reports on the Ukrainian government’s “escalating censorship” at the front lines of Russia’s war in the country. Elsewhere, Deadline’s Max Goldbart reports that Warners Bros. Discovery is concerned for the future of TVN24, a news channel that it owns in Poland, fearing that the Polish government is criticizing its coverage of the Ukraine war as a pretext for a clampdown. The International Federation of Journalists criticized the Israeli authorities after Israeli fire injured at least three reporters covering recent violence in the occupied West Bank. And Tunisia, once a relative Arab Spring success story, continued a recent crackdown on independent journalism, arresting Zied el-Heni, a prominent radio host.
  • Chris Gloninger, the chief meteorologist at KCCI, a TV station in Des Moines, Iowa, announced that he is stepping down, citing both family health issues and “a death threat stemming from my climate coverage last year and resulting PTSD.” Gloninger said that he now plans to embark on “a new journey dedicated to helping solve the climate crisis.” Last year, an Iowa man was fined after harassing Gloninger in a series of threatening emails, calling him “a worthless Biden puppet, a liar, a conspiracy theorist, and an idiot!!!” Gloninger tweeted at the time that the situation was “mentally exhausting and at times I have NOT been ok.” The Des Moines Register’s Jay Stahl has more.
  • The Nation’s Joan Walsh reckoned with her decision, while serving as the editor of Salon in 2005, to publish a piece by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is now running for president as a Democrat, that was riddled with false claims linking vaccines to autism—a decision that Walsh now calls “the worst mistake of my career.” Rolling Stone copublished the piece; both outlets later took it down. As he runs for president, Kennedy is claiming that the magazines caved to Big Pharma. “That’s just another lie,” Walsh writes. “We caved to pressure from the incontrovertible truth and our journalistic consciences.”
  • And Bookforum, a magazine of literary criticism that was shuttered late last year, is making a comeback, in partnership with The Nation. “I always knew that it was a fairly unique outlet, and one that paid attention to a lot of contemporary trends and competing publications in a way that older literary publications didn’t,” Bhaskar Sunkara, The Nation’s president, told Kate Dwyer, of the Times. “The economics of a relaunch seemed feasible, especially if it was supported by the infrastructure of an existing publication.”

ICYMI: The Abortion Issue

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.