The Media Today

Eight days, and many years, of Roe coverage

May 11, 2022
Demonstrators dressed as handmaids from The Handmaid's Tale, stand in front of the Capitol during a protest by the Handmaids Army DC of the Supreme Court's leaked preliminary decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Photo by Allison Bailey/NurPhoto)

Last night, Jim Pillen, a regent at the University of Nebraska, won the Republican primary for the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election. In their lead stories on the result, major outlets cast it as a victory for Pete Ricketts, the outgoing governor, who had backed Pillen, and as a defeat for Donald Trump, who had endorsed Charles Herbster, an agribusiness executive. These stories all noted that, as the campaign entered its final stretch, eight women, one of them a Republican state senator, told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster had groped them, though the referendum-on-Trump framing—an obsession of the political press across this year’s midterm primary landscape—was more dominant. “The power of Trump’s endorsement takes a blow,” NPR’s headline said. “Trump gets knocked down in Nebraska,” Politico blared.

What none of these stories centered was Pillen’s rhetoric on abortion, which is perhaps surprising given its centrality to the present news cycle, with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the fact that Pillen made it a key plank of his campaign, perhaps more so than his opponents: he pledged to outright ban abortion, which he sees as “murder,” and called on state lawmakers to pass a “trigger law” that would automatically outlaw the practice once Roe is overturned; last month, after such a bill failed to pass, he said that he would “work with pro-life voters” to kick out two female state senators who blocked it. Indeed, leading stories about Pillen’s victory often didn’t mention abortion at all. NPR and CBS did mention the issue, but only in passing, and it received similarly scant treatment in top localnews reports on his win, though these outlets did cover Pillen’s stances during the campaign. On its Election Day live blog, the New York Times ran a brief interview with a voter who described overturning Roe as her top issue. She said she voted for Herbster, not Pillen.

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My brief search of the right-wing mediasphere this morning didn’t offer up any substantive coverage of Pillen’s abortion platform either; at least one outlet ran a wire story while others directed attention to a Trump-endorsed candidate winning a congressional primary in West Virginia or didn’t cover the Nebraska race at all. This, perhaps, should not be a surprise: ever since Politico obtained and published Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe last Monday, many conservative media personalities have focused less on what the consequences of such a decision would be, and more on the noise surrounding it. In the aftermath of Politico’s story, they expressed outrage that the sanctity of the court had been breached, with some describing the fact that Alito’s opinion leaked to the press as an “insurrection” (and not of the kind they downplay). This discourse often relied on the assumption that a disaffected liberal leaked the opinion in a desperate bid to pressure anti-Roe justices into a course correction—a host on Newsmax said he suspected Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was recently confirmed to the court but hasn’t taken her seat yet and has no access to its servers—though others have theorized, at least as plausibly, that a conservative leaked it to pressure anti-Roe justices into doubling down. In any case, we don’t know.

A right-wing media narrative has also crystallized around those protesting the overturning of Roe, and their supposedly violent tactics. (One high-profile attack—involving arson at an anti-abortion group in Wisconsin—has come to light, though nationally protests have largely been peaceful.) On Fox, Laura Ingraham suggested that whoever leaked the draft did so with the goal of inciting violence against conservative justices in order “to force a change in the court’s makeup” ahead of the midterms. (“I know it sounds like a totally horrifying prospect,” she said, “but those who believe that dismembering third-trimester babies is somehow a sacred right protected in the Constitution, could those people very well be capable of rationalizing other insidious acts?”) On Saturday, Ilya Shapiro, a conservative writer, said, also on Fox, that he’d heard that Alito and his family had gone into hiding. Later, when Politico pressed for details, Shapiro called this a “rumor” and said he couldn’t recall where he’d seen it.

Right-wing media have not been alone in harping on about the leak and justices’ safety; mainstream outlets have given ample space to these topics, too, especially, in the latter case, after pro-choice protesters showed up outside the homes of Alito and two other justices. Such demonstrations have reportedly been peaceful, but the fact of them has led to no little hand-wringing among the political and media classes; the editorial board of the Washington Post described them as “problematic” because they “bring direct public pressure to bear on a decision-making process that must be controlled, evidence-based and rational if there is to be any hope of an independent judiciary,” while Marc A. Thiessen, writing in the same paper, characterized them as illegal obstruction of justice and demanded that the Biden administration crack down. (The law here is somewhat open to interpretation.) At a briefing yesterday, Jen Psaki, the outgoing White House press secretary, fielded multiple questions about protesters’ tactics. One reporter asked whether Psaki considers “sidewalk chalk” to be “vandalism” after Senator Susan Collins called 911 over a (polite) message left outside her home.

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This strain of coverage has elicited criticism, with various observers decrying it as civility-policing. Since the draft opinion came to light, media critics have similarly pushed back on other trends in mainstream reporting and commentary that they see as distracting or ill-judged, from naive pearl-clutching over the court’s institutional integrity to an excessive focus on political process or the midterm horse race. In the hours after Politico published its story—by which point some of these trends and their attendant critiques had already come to light—I wrote that the impact that overturning Roe would have on people seeking abortions, and the fact that Roe remains the law of the land for now, should be the focus of our coverage, even if some aspects of the discussion around the leak are interesting and consequential. Since then, the abortion story has attracted so much coverage across the mediasphere that it’s been hard to see it as having a single clear focus—but many journalists have already worked hard to center those who would be affected by abortion bans, and their work should be applauded.

The Politico story has also opened a new chapter in the debate over journalistic objectivity—a principle that has been at issue in criticism of the day-to-day coverage of the draft opinion, but also goes far beyond that. Over the past week, bosses at various media companies—including Scripps and, reportedly, NPR and the Associated Press—have messaged staffers to remind them not to share their personal opinions about Roe; yesterday, the Post’s Elahe Izadi shared a portion of a memo sent to employees at Axios, who were told that, while abortion is “a human-rights issue,” sharing opinions on it would unavoidably be perceived as picking a “political side in public.” The same memo acknowledged that Axios allowed staff to join racial-justice protests in 2020, but described that moment as different from now since it was a “fleeting moment of unity” during which “specific policy solutions” were not being debated. This is factually questionable. Either way, the media industry as a whole emerged from 2020 without having resolved fundamental internal tensions over journalists’ rights to talk about their rights. The Roe debate is exposing that failure again.

At the same time, various critics have looked beyond the current moment to the media’s longer-term history of covering abortion, outlining where they see it as having fallen short. Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, argued that mainstream outlets have allowed the anti-abortion lobby to weaponize language. “When journalists agreed to accept terms such as ‘pro-life’ to describe those who oppose abortion, they implicitly agreed to help stigmatize those who support it,” she wrote. “After all, what’s the rhetorical opposite of ‘pro-life’?” Tina Vasquez, an immigration reporter, made a similar point, describing the language around so-called “heartbeat bills” as “pure propaganda” whose usage hardly squares with any true commitment to objectivity. At a broader level, Sharon Kann, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, argued that the impending demise of Roe “is not merely the culmination of years of right-wing machinations,” but also of “just as many years of mainstream media persistently ignoring or downplaying the likelihood that this moment would come.”

Politico’s story was earth-shaking in itself, and the overturning of Roe, if and when confirmed, will be greatly more seismic still. But it will be a moment of culmination, as well as one of rupture. The media’s role in America getting to this point is open to debate, and that debate should continue. For now, it’s striking that, allowing for its broad sweep, the mainstream coverage of the draft opinion has often treated it as a radical turning point while simultaneously filtering it through predictable, habitual lenses. The horse race, of course, is one of those. Too often, it’s a lens that doesn’t make room for much discussion of policy at all.

Below, more on Roe and abortion:

  • A career change: On his CNN show on Sunday, Brian Stelter spoke with Kate Smith, who covered reproductive rights for CBS News before leaving the network to become the senior director of news content for Planned Parenthood, which was one of her main sources as a journalist. “My editor was no longer interested in covering abortion policy and sexual reproductive health as a dedicated beat,” Smith said, so “I was more willing to consider other options.” Smith is now helping Planned Parenthood build out its own news division. “If you want to understand what your rights are right now, come to Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re the experts.”
  • Oops: Over the weekend, a segment on ABC News featured a brief interview with a man named Owen Shroyer, whom the network identified as an anti-abortion “protester” as he held up an image of a fetus for the camera. But Shroyer is a bit more than that: as Insider’s Connor Perrett writes, he “hosts the The War Room with Owen Shroyer on the far-right website InfoWars,” and “was arrested and charged last year with four misdemeanors relating to his participation in the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol.”
  • Pillen and the press: According to Reid J. Epstein, of the Times, Pillen, the anti-abortion gubernatorial nominee in Nebraska, ran a media-shy campaign. Pillen “skipped all of the televised debates during the primary campaign, opting instead to hold hundreds of small meetings with voters across the state,” Epstein notes. His “opponents argued that he lacked charisma and was not prepared to discuss the state’s issues; Mr. Pillen said he was building coalitions away from the prying eyes of the news media.”

Other notable stories:

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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.