Kermit Gosnell is on trial in Pennsylvania for performing grisly, illegal late-term abortions in a filthy clinical setting that regularly put women’s lives and health in danger. Conor Friedersdorf relates some of the details. As he and Rod Dreher, among others, have asked, why wasn’t this story getting national attention before now?
I don’t find comparisons of the Gosnell story to that of Sandra Fluke very persuasive. The better comparison is to last year’s Trayvon Martin story. My take is the opposite of Kirsten Powers’s: of course the Gosnell story is about abortion, not just “human rights,” and the ideological charge that abortion carries is what’s making this a national story. That’s entirely proper.
If you’re an opponent of abortion, it’s obvious that Gosnell should be an A1 national story because it’s the best prima facie argument for greater regulation or outright bans on abortion to come along in a while. Abortion is a national issue, and this story powerfully illustrates the contentions of one side of the abortion debate, so it should get maximum attention.
That the impetus to cover this story nationally arises most readily from ideological advocacy, rather than a disinterested sense of what’s news (to the extent that such a thing is even possible—there are certainly degrees), doesn’t make the story illegitimate. After all, it was advocacy that lay behind the push to make Trayvon Martin a national story. His killing looked like a local story to me: terrible, tragic, but something for the local authorities to sort out, which I trusted them to do, absent any ideological reason for thinking justice would not be done. People who had a stronger ideological predisposition, however, and saw the killing as emblematic of a racism and law enforcement’s indifference to the violent deaths of young black men dug deeper, and the story broke nationally—as Gosnell is now doing.
The immediate implications of the Gosnell case, like those of Trayvon Martin’s, are localized, whereas Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress involved what was already a national HHS decision. To point this out isn’t to minimize the gravity of the Gosnell or Martin cases; it’s simply to make a distinction about what puts one story on a fast track to national coverage (excessive coverage, in the case of Fluke, if not the HHS ruling itself) as opposed to being at first blush a strictly local story.
Ideologically charged advocacy journalism has a place in highlighting some stories seemingly of only local significance as chapters of much larger narratives. Those larger narratives may or may not be valid in themselves—and they may well be invisible to people who aren’t ideologically attuned—but it’s quite right that they give a spotlight to powerful local stories that would otherwise be overlooked.
It’s worth considering what other stories might be of underlying national significance yet get no attention because ideological interests haven’t accentuated them. America’s existing ideological framework, hackneyed and bare bones as it is, certainly doesn’t capture all truth. What’s needed is some perceptive filter other than political ideology that could attune reporters’ sense of newsworthiness to deeper ideas beyond conventional bureau divisions.