The nation had little choicepun intendedwhen it came to the abortion controversy. I say this after 40 years as a reporter who entered the business with pride and left it feeling ashamed. I underwent this transformation largely because of the way so many of my colleagues handled the wording and shading of stories dealing with abortion.
I worked for United Press International from 1961 to 1984, when I switched to the Associated Press. I retired this year. Few people know much about wire services, those omnipotent newsgathers referred to in so many movies as simply "the wires." Perhaps that’s best. If they learned too much, there might be more jokes about journalists and fewer about lawyers.
I don’t intend this article as a lesson on wire service reporting, but it is necessary to explain that reporters for the A.P., which bills itself as the nation’s largest news gathering agency, are extremely well read. I don’t mean they devour the classics. Some may, but all consume newspapers by the tree. I read seven a day in my search for news items, and so did the other reporters in the San Francisco bureau where I worked. Most were papers from the Bay area but they also included The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Of course, wire service people also read "the wires," making them very well informed indeed.
It was all this reading over the years that made me realize just how biased the abortion coverage was. The bias may not have been intended, but it was certainly easy to perceive it as such.
As I ride off into the journalistic sunset, I think it’s important that people realize there was a time when the two sides in the battle were simply referred to as "pro-" or "anti"-abortion. In fact, the opposing sides in most disputes were referred to in that way.
How did we get to the point where the juxtaposition is almost always "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion?" Oh, I know that today one might see "abortion rights" instead of "pro-choice" or perhaps even "pro-life" lined up with "pro-choice" once in a while, which only shows that the victor in a culture war can afford to be magnanimous. But don’t kid yourself: It is over. Who but abortion foes face RICO in addition to laws insuring that their opponents will have access to a picketed building?
If the first casualty of a shooting war is that great abstract Truth, then the first Killed in Action in a cultural war is objectivity. The battle over abortion made that quite clear. Any semblance of fairness or balance was tagged K.I.A. early on when Gloria Steinem wrote The New York Times in 1977 to complain that people who supported legalized abortion should be referred to as "pro-choice," not "pro-abortion." No one in his or her right mind, she complained, wanted abortion any more than they wanted their ruptured appendix taken out, ignoring the fact that the latter was not a matter of choice.
This was quickly followed by public statements from other abortion backers who insisted the issue was merely one of choice. In addition, letters to the editor admonished reporters not to use the term "pro-life" so easily. After all, they insisted, some of these same people favored the death penalty and, besides, they ignored the plight of children after they were born. I can’t recall a similar national debate on the use of "pro-choice."
As late as 1998, The Times wrote as though Ms. Steinem was still standing over its staff with a ruler. In an editorial in June of that year, it blasted the House of Representatives for voting against testing of drugs that induce abortion, lashing "anti-abortion forces" for "focusing their rhetoric on later-term abortion." All this criticism of rhetoric came under a headline reading "A Devious Attack on Choice."
Steinem was still a leader in the "choice" movement in 1996 when she spoke at the College of St. Catherine, a Catholic school in St. Paul, Minn. Notice that I put the word choice in quotation marks to indicate it is someone else’s word, not mine.
The A.P. report on the speech by Steinem, who would later head a group called Voters for Choice, described her as a "pro-choice activist." The speech at St. Paul, a non-state school, would have been the perfect spot to seek her views on "choice" in education. No chance. By 1996, it would have been risky for a newsperson to question what issues other than abortion were important enough to warrant an individual making a choice.
Ms. Steinem’s visit to St. Catherine brings to mind Catholics for Free Choice, which pops up in just about every article that deals with the Catholic Church’s stand on abortion. Needless to saybut I’ll say it anywaythis organization’s idea of choice is limited to non-reproduction. Yes, "non-reproduction." Its press releases say "reproduction," a term relayed by a dutiful or sleepy media, but how can abortion or homosexuality, the only causes trumpeted by Catholics For Free Choice, reproduce anything?
The first time I saw Catholics for Free Choice I thought it was a Unitarian front. I looked it up in the Reporter’s Source Book, a very practical tool put out by Project Vote Smart. Under the heading of abortion, this handbook gives a brief description of the group and its address, but not the number of members. The handbook also had similar information on an anti-abortion group called American Life League. The league claims 300,000 members, yet I hardly see it mentioned in news stories that freely flaunt Catholics for Free Choice.
But the Reporter’s Source Book is not the bible of journalists. The Associated Press Style Book and Libel Manual is. Soon after I went to A.P. in 1984, I noticed an abortion entry in the stylebook, even though I don’t remember one in the stylebook at U.P.I. (which doesn’t really matter because today that news agency is just a shadow of its once powerful self). I wish I’d saved the A.P. book. The entry said "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion" were acceptable terms; just don’t use "anti-choice." That guideline to the nation’s reporters and editors didn’t last long. I don’t recall the subject again mentioned in any A.P. style book. Perhaps it drew criticism from those who thought journalism was starting to play with loaded dice.
Nevertheless, the terms seemed to stick to reporters’ and editors’ ribs, at least the ones who wrote the stories I read in all those papers I checked every day. Although I didn’t save that stylebook, I would later store examples of news items that helped narrow choice in America.
The ramifications of such usage are enormous for the media’s credibility. What if the controversy over smoking or guns had been framed as "choice" versus "anti-gun" or "anti-tobacco?" The tobacco industry obviously knew the value of using the word choice. Several of its ads against increased regulations pitched choice and adult decision-making. Tobacco wasn’t the only industry that knew the lure of choice. I recently heard a Cellular 1 ad on the radio that lauded "freedom of choice" in selecting a telephone company.
One of my most vivid recollections about Madison Avenue’s sophistication in manipulation is of a day in June 1998, when I picked up a copy of my local newspaper, The San Mateo County Times, as I strolled through a mall. The front page had a New York Times story reporting that the Wisconsin Supreme Court had decided "the city of Milwaukee could spend taxpayer money to send pupils to parochial or other religious schools."
The decision involved the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program; there was also a photo of a group of beer city school children standing under a banner that read "Parents for School Choice." It was evident that the word-war was being waged on a new front. There was an obvious attempt by the backers of vouchers to make freedom of choice the issue. The New York Times was determined to make the issue one of spending taxpayers’ dollars on private schools. No use of the term "pro-choice" and "anti-vouchers" here, and certainly no letters from Steinem. The inadvertent punch line to my mall outing came as I put down the paper and noticed a perfume ad touting a new product as an example of America’s "Freedom of Choice." It was in red, white and blue, no less.
It wasn’t just the slanted use of the word "choice" that made me ashamed of my calling. There were also stories about political conventions where "litmus tests" and "big tents" became so important. In this arena, the Republicans were always depicted as fighting among themselves over the issue while the Democrats were presented as having a united front. Daniel Borenstein’s column in The Contra Costa Times on March 2, 1998, spoke of how the "abortion test splits the G.O.P. in Contra Costa." Mr. Borenstein described State Senator Richard Rainey, a Walnut Creek Republican, as being "moderate and pro-choice" and not happy with the county Republican Central Committee. Mr. Rainey was "fed up with the committee’s anti-abortion litmus test for G.O.P. candidates," Mr. Borenstein wrote. Mr. Rainey said he wanted his party to "be a big-tent party" that would allow "people in with divergent views."
The San Francisco Examiner’s Robert Salladay didn’t limit his horizon to Contra Costa County. In an article earlier that same year about the Republican National Committee, he wrote that "the Republicans are fighting again, this time the limitless debate over abortion is threatening to cannibalize the party and further alienate female voters during an election year."
The Republicans may have needed a "big tent" on abortion, but there was little note in the press that the Democrats didn’t even have a pup tent. The plight of Pennsylvania’s Gov. Robert Casey barely got a nod in the media. Twice the anti-abortion Governor Casey tried to address Democratic national conventions. Twice he was denied. Republicans, drowned by the litmus buzz-word, brought up Governor Casey’s troubles during its own convention. The television evening idol Peter Jennings mentioned this in passing, intoning that the Democrats knew they would have to take a "hit" on Casey. They didn’t suffer long; Casey and other anti-abortion Democrats had a short media shelf-life. Governor Casey, turned down at both the 1992 and 1996 conventions, held his own news conference at the 1996 gathering. He said, "There is a new intolerance which will not abide doubt or dissent, which claims it stands for freedom of choice, but stifles freedom of speech."
A Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, Kiki Moore, finally kissed the matter off, noting that most people knew that the "majority of this party is pro-choice." Perhaps that is because the media helped make Americans feel so at ease with the word "choice"providing that they are talking about pregnant women.
James O. Clifford Sr. worked for over 30 years with United Press International and later with the Associated Press, from which he recently retired. He lives with his family in Redwood City, Calif.