Commentary Magazine


Which Lives Matter to the Media

Last month, the American media had a brief moment of accountability when many in the press and broadcast networks acknowledged that they had largely ignored the case of Kermit Gosnell. The trial of the murderous Philadelphia abortionist flew below the radar for weeks. But some journalists were willing to fess up to the fact that their lack of interest in a sensational crime had something to do with their lack of comfort in discussing a case that might throw a shadow on an issue most in the media see as pitting an enlightened advocacy of “choice” against an unreasoned support of “life,” even when it comes to late-term procedures. But after a brief spurt of interest in Gosnell, the broadcast networks and the newspapers have reverted to form, and with the wait for the verdict in Philadelphia have once again lost their interest.

Perhaps that is understandable. But anyone who watches a lot of cable news, as I do, can’t help but contrast the Gosnell blackout with the enormous coverage accorded to other criminal trials. The Jodi Arias murder case has pretty much taken over CNN’s Headline News channel and has gotten the lion’s share of attention on most of the other networks as well. The publication of a new book by Amanda Knox, who was convicted and then exonerated in an Italian murder case, has also garnered for her efforts to fight a retrial and potential extradition the sort of attention Gosnell never received.

Why should that be? The answer is obvious. Both of these murder trials involve sex and young white women. Gosnell’s crimes were committed against African-American women—the one he is accused of killing was an African immigrant—and defenseless babies just plucked from the womb, not unfaithful lovers. The networks understand that the Arias and Knox cases will attract viewers while they fear too much about Gosnell will turn them off. But before we let the media off the hook for bias and merely indict it for profiteering, it’s important to think about what this preference says about both them and their audience.

It should be conceded that the focus on Arias rather than Gosnell stems in no small measure from the fact that her trial is being captured on camera in Arizona while his is not being filmed. As for Knox, her tale is the sort of saga that resonates with the vast majority of Americans who know little of the world and fear being subjected to foreign jurisdictions.

But as both the Arias and Gosnell trials wind up, with Knox waiting to see if she is re-tried, let’s understand that the obsession with the plight of young white women and the disdain that is accorded the fate of black women and babies tells us a lot about our national culture as well as the mindset of our media.

It may be that more TV viewers or even readers care about Jodi Arias or Amanda Knox than about Gosnell and his victims. If so, it says something about our attitudes about race as well as about our national appetite for titillating stories, and perhaps would lead some to say condemnations of the Gosnell near-blackout is simply a function of broadcast economics. But let’s be honest. If the media had invested a fraction of the energy it has invested in telling the story of Arias or similar stories into Gosnell, they might well have generated a surge of interest in the case and related issues.

Fear of going outside the audience’s comfort zone has not prevented many network shows from focusing on obesity or global warming or any other issue that isn’t about white women and sex. What the Gosnell case lacked was a commitment on the part of journalists to telling the story of his victims that has not been absent elsewhere. That’s why the claim that the decisions of producers, reporters and news readers on many stations are solely motivated by their audience’s preferences aren’t entirely credible. Maybe a lot of Americans don’t care much about the Gosnell victims because of their race and would prefer to fixate on accounts of crimes of passion. But don’t let anyone in the media who has ignored Gosnell, as most have, tell you that they don’t have the same mindset.