The movement of the Roe story

On Monday, January 22, 1973, former President Lyndon B. Johnson died. The news, Susan Matthews noted in a recent episode of Slate’s Slow Burn history podcast, overshadowed another story that day: the Supreme Court arriving at a verdict in the case of Roe v. Wade and introducing a constitutional right to an abortion. The decision “virtually got no attention at all in the paper,” Harold Koh, a law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe, told Matthews. “It wasn’t until the letters started coming in that it started to dawn on Blackmun what it meant.” The crowded news cycle, perhaps, wasn’t the only impediment to wall-to-wall coverage of the decision. When the ruling came down, “it’s not like it was not controversial,” Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC, “but it wasn’t as controversial in 1973 as today’s politics might make you think… Contrary to popular belief, Roe v. Wade, in 1973, did not spark some kind of immediate big backlash among conservatives and evangelicals and Republicans.”

On Friday, June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the news was treated not only as the top story but as a generationally seismic one across (almost) the entire breadth of the media landscape. The decision was hardly a surprise—last month, Politico published a leaked draft opinion that strongly foreshadowed it; on Friday, major news organizations quickly deployed coverage and commentary that had clearly been prepared in advance—but that didn’t blunt the impact of the confirmation. News sites splashed banner headlines, while the major broadcast networks cut into regular programming within minutes of the decision; MSNBC got there a little later, but then broadcast without taking an ad break for at least three hours. On CNN, Joan Biskupic, a veteran Court reporter, said that it was “startling,” despite the prior warning of the leak, to see a legal right “suddenly evaporate.” On the right, Glenn Beck, broadcasting live on TheBlaze, rocked back in his chair as the news came in, then said a prayer as his eyes misted over. Later, on her Fox show, a beaming Laura Ingraham hailed “answered prayers.”

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The coverage continued through the weekend, as protesters took to the streets, pundits weighed the electoral ramifications of the decision, and politicians gave their reaction. Stories in national and local outlets took news consumers inside abortion clinics in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere—early Friday morning, “only a few women at the front desk seemed to register that their access to abortion was in jeopardy,” The New Yorker’s Stephania Taladrid reported from a Houston facility that stopped offering the procedure as soon as the ruling came down—and spelled out the disproportionate impact of the ruling on communities of color. Various outlets marshaled interactives to illustrate America’s changing abortion map, with strict anti-abortion trigger laws snapping immediately into place in South Dakota, Louisiana, and Kentucky and moving closer to implementation elsewhere. A New York Times graphic using shades of purple to show how far people across the country have had and will have to travel to reach their nearest clinic grew gradually darker as the page scrolled past. New York magazine updated a database of verified abortion providers and other resources that it first published in print after the draft opinion leaked, under the headline “This Magazine Can Help You Get an Abortion”—mirroring a guide that it produced in 1972, before Roe was decided. The same magazine also published a guide to your nearest protest.

As their journalists were covering the decision, their bosses, in many cases, were talking to them about what it would mean for their work. At least seven top news organizations vowed to preserve their employees’ access to reproductive care regardless of where they live, with at least five of those outlets—from CNN’s parent company to Condé Nast—promising to reimburse staffers and eligible dependents who now need to travel for abortion services. Meanwhile, bosses at several other outlets warned their journalists not to express public opinions about the decision for fear that audiences might perceive their work as biased. In an internal email headlined “1 big thing: Trust,” management at Axios acknowledged that this is “a trying time for many Axions” and offered up a list of physical- and mental-health resources, but also made the “difficult request” that staffers “refrain from taking political stands in public” and instead “pour our passion into the most powerful weapon we possess: our journalistic platform.” Gannett told its journalists that they make “sacrifices for our profession,” and asked anyone who sees a colleague “posting inappropriate comments” to “immediately alert your supervisor.”

As when similar newsroom reminders were issued in the wake of the leaked draft opinion, various media watchers were harshly critical, arguing that policing journalists’ speech at this moment is the wrong focus—“Everything is literally on fire and legacy newsrooms are telling reporters to watch out with their little tweets,” Sam Sanders tweeted—and futile: journalists, as Wesley Lowery put it, are human beings and therefore do have biases, and hiding them is neither sufficient nor necessary to produce fair and trusted work. The debate over journalistic “objectivity” and what types of personal expression it should allow is not new, either generally or in the context of reproductive rights, though certain bosses’ response to the Roe decision, to my mind, betrays a new level of incoherence. At least some newsrooms issued the speech warnings in the same breath as commitments to maintain staffers’ health cover—suggesting that they see abortion access both as a healthcare right to be protected for their staff and a political controversy to be avoided for their readers. This might not necessarily be contradictory, but it is, or at least should be, a false dichotomy; ultimately, speaking out about your rights is not a “sacrifice” any employee of any organization should have to make. Would a newsroom ban a reporter with cancer from tweeting about the difficulties of accessing and paying for their cancer care?

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This debate doesn’t just affect journalists’ rights as workers, but also speaks to the ways in which major news organizations might think about telling the Roe story. Rights are a crucial matter of political controversy, of course, but they should not be reduced to that. The weekend’s best coverage was that which framed the Roe verdict not as the static culmination of an epochal battle between two “sides”—as some crudely reductivist headlines did—but as a crucial moment along a much more fluid, complicated continuum of rights realization and retrenchment. It emphasized, as The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino put it, that in practice, “poor and minority women in conservative states lost access to abortion long before this Supreme Court decision.” And it asked, too, where America might be going next.

A lot of coverage and punditry over the weekend focused on a concurring opinion in which Justice Clarence Thomas called for the Court to reconsider other precedents decided similarly to Roe, including still-existing rights to contraception, same-sex relations, and same-sex marriage. Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh explicitly denied that these rights are at risk, and numerous figures in right-wing media pointed to their words as a means of taking aim at liberal hyperbole. Some serious journalists were also among those to warn against overemphasizing Thomas’s position. “I think the press gives a bit too much credence to that sort of thing, which is somewhat speculative,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein, who broke the news of the leaked draft opinion last month, told CNN’s Oliver Darcy. “There are many other concrete things… that will flow out of today’s decision without needing to necessarily say the sky is falling about all kinds of other things that may or may not develop years down the road.”

There certainly is much concrete impact to cover. But the gap between the concrete and the speculative is not as wide as we might like to think. It would, at the very least, be unforgivably naïve for reporters to simply take Alito and Kavanaugh at their word here, especially when Alito’s majority opinion appeared to tear down the legal framework on which the rights referenced by Thomas rest. And the story of abortion rights—and the Court’s role in defining their scope—is far from over; in many ways, as Linda Greenhouse pointed out in a Times op-ed, it’s only just beginning, given the can of worms opened by the Roe verdict. Top Republicans have already spoken since the ruling about pushing for some kind of national abortion ban, and the wider anti-abortion movement explicilty is not done yet. Caroline Kitchener, who covers abortion for the Washington Post, said Saturday that when she started on the beat, an anti-abortion lawmaker told her that “we can’t stop until there’s no more murder.” Kitchener’s story on next steps that the movement might take was on the front of Sunday’s Post.

Ultimately, if the Roe story can teach the press anything, it’s that events that seem hypothetical and distant can come to pass. The immediate impacts of a huge decision should, of course, be a top coverage priority, but it’s not an indulgence to take a step and explain the mechanisms that led to them and could now lead to further radical change—it’s a necessity. Maddow explained this on Friday, opening her show by laying out how a dedicated movement built the political salience of abortion over time. “I know there’s a lot to say about the Court, and the reasoning of today’s ruling, and the individual justices who did this, and indeed the individual states and what their new laws are and how fast the curtain is coming down,” she said, promising to get into all that. “But I think to know where we are and to know what’s coming next here, we have to get real about who did this and how they did it… This is a movement that they have been building for forty years that is just now hitting its stride.”

Below, more on the decision:

  • Draft v. final: Gerstein also spoke with Darcy about the leaked draft opinion that he broke with his colleague Alexander Ward, suggesting that while it’s “a little tough to say” what impact the leak may have had on the final decision, the leaker might well explain their motivations in the future. (“I do think in most of situations, that part of the story does get told,” Gerstein said, citing Watergate. “But we shall see.”) Various observers noted, meanwhile, that Alito’s final opinion was remarkably similar to the leaked draft—though Quartz’s Sarah Todd noticed a “tiny revision” in language around the status of abortion in American legal history that “is worth parsing because it reveals the problems with the interpretation of history proffered by the court’s conservative faction.”
  • “Undead constitutionalism”: The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer made the case, following the Roe verdict and a ruling in a consequential New York guns case the day prior, that the constitution is whatever the Court’s right-wing justices say it is. Alito’s concurring opinion in the latter case was “not in any sense a legal one, just a paraphrase of culture-war blather one hears in right-wing media—which are a much more significant influence on the majority than the law or the Constitution is,” Serwer wrote. The right-wing justices “present discrepancies in their choice of which rights to uphold as inherent to the Constitution rather than as the product of their own undead constitutionalism.”
  • Police brutality: According to Kevin Rector, of the LA Times, police in LA mistreated reporters covering abortion-rights protests that followed Friday’s ruling. “According to Times reporters, witnesses’ videos and interviews with other media members on the ground, journalists were pushed, struck with batons, forced out of areas where they had a right to observe police activity and blocked from entering other areas where police and protesters were clashing and arrests were being made,” Rector writes. “LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the department will be investigating the complaints.”
  • In brief: An abortion-rights protester in DC went viral after telling an interviewer from MSNBC that she’d received a text from Biden’s presidential campaign soliciting a donation and was “outraged” by it because “my rights should not be a fundraising point for them.” Elsewhere, the wine writer Joe Roberts said that he will no longer review wines from states that “ban abortion or otherwise significantly impedes a woman’s right to choose.” And the BBC omitted a festival performance of the Olivia Rodrigo song “Fuck You,” which Rodrigo dedicated to the justices who overturned Roe, from the streaming version of its festival coverage on the grounds that it contained an obscenity.

Other notable stories:

  • After the House committee investigating January 6 wrapped its first round of televised sessions, the Times explored how the committee “utterly, if perhaps temporarily” redefined the Congressional hearing, producing, in essence, “a tightly scripted television series” with clear heroes and villains. “In some sense,” Jamie Raskin, a member of the committee, told the Times, “this is the first congressional hearing of the 21st century.”
  • According to Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan, Trump has directed the National Archives to allow the former Hill journalist John Solomon, who you may remember from such impeachments as Trump’s first one, to access declassified but non-public records related to the Trump-Russia probe. A Trump spokesperson said that Solomon plans to expose an anti-Trump conspiracy. Solomon denied that he is acting on Trump’s behalf.
  • Three outlets in Florida collaborated to report that a consulting firm working on behalf of Florida Power & Light surveilled Nate Monroe, a journalist at the Florida Times-Union who reported aggressively on FPL’s failed bid to buy a smaller Jacksonville utility. The consultants compiled sensitive personal information about Monroe and obtained a photo of him outside his home, concluding that “he is a Democrat and completely boring.”
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer asks why people aren’t more excited about the growth of streaming news, arguing that it constitutes the biggest change in media since cable and is already well under way. “The streaming revolution will likely be marked by its ability to capture the ever-fracturing mass audience into smaller, more niche segments that cable precipitated”—and thus may be more obvious to network accountants than audiences.
  • After a school district in Rapid City, South Dakota, banned a book by Dave Eggers on the grounds that it includes sexual material, Eggers traveled to the area and wrote about his findings for the Post. It’s unlikely that officials are “genuinely trying to restrict what high school students see,” Eggers concludes. “More important is the symbolism. More important is bullying the district’s teachers away from assigning challenging books.”
  • Last month, the American organizers of a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Hungary denied accreditation to a range of local and international journalists. The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz was one of them, but he managed to get in anyway. His dispatch from the conference, focused on the growing intellectual ties between US conservatives and Hungary’s illiberal government, went online this morning.
  • Authorities in France detained the journalist Alex Jordanov for two days then released him under judicial supervision on the grounds that he may have revealed “defense secrets” and other sensitive information in a 2019 book about a domestic intelligence agency. Two officers with the agency were also detained. The agency has summoned journalists before, but Jordanov’s lawyer called his treatment “unprecedented.”
  • In other press-freedom news, Le Monde investigated allegations that the son of Mali’s former president was involved in the disappearance of a journalist in 2016. Elsewhere, a tweet by the journalist Rana Ayyub was blocked within India. And United Nations human rights officials said that “seemingly well-aimed” shots by Israeli soldiers likely killed the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last month, and called for a criminal probe.
  • And L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official daily newspaper, is launching a monthly edition that will tell the stories of poor and marginalized people as well as involving them in production and distribution. “The Osservatore di Strada won’t be just a newspaper of the poor and for the poor,” the Vatican said. “It wants to be above all a newspaper with the poor.” Nicole Winfield has more details for the Associated Press.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: Protesters rally outside of United States Supreme Court after Roe V Wade Ruling on June 25th, 2022. (Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via AP)