Bush Dupes Media with Abortion Disinformation
George W. Bush celebrated his first working day in office -- and the 28th anniversary of Roe. V. Wade (1/22/01) -- by reinstating the Mexico City Policy, a Reagan-era rule that bans U.S. family planning aid to overseas groups that provide abortions or referrals -- even if they do so with private, non-U.S. funds. Under the rule (lifted in 1993 by Bill Clinton), U.S. aid recipients cannot use their own money to discuss abortion as a medical option, lobby their own governments for legal reforms, or conduct "public information campaigns" about the procedure.
Long condemned in family-planning circles as the "global gag rule," the ban has wide-ranging implications for the health and free speech of women from Albania to Zimbabwe, 78,000 of whom die annually from unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization. In countries where abortion is legal, organizations that receive U.S. aid must refuse to advise women about their reproductive rights or relinquish the U.S. population funds they rely on to provide contraceptive programs, maternal care, AIDS prevention and other crucial services. Where abortion is illegal, recipients must give up the right to encourage democratic reforms that would save thousands of women's lives.
Since this speech-squelching policy isn't exactly soundbite-friendly, the White House employed a careful misinformation strategy when discussing the gag rule with the press. In a memo to the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID), Bush justified his move by saying, "It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion." That is a concept for which "there's, frankly, widespread bipartisan support," press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted. These quotes dominated news coverage on the first two days after the administration announced the ban.
But the White House rationale hasn't been relevant since 1973, when Sen. Jesse Helms (R.=N.C.) passed an amendment preventing U.S. aid from directly financing foreign abortion-related services. Though not one U.S. dollar has been spent on such purposes for 28 years, outlets across the country uncritically repeated Bush and Fleischer's mischaracterizations in front-page stories, with headlines such as "Bush Halts Funding Used for Abortions" (Houston Chronicle, 1/23/01).
Many initial reports either failed to correct Bush's error or repeated it in their own words (e.g., CNN, 1/22/01; Washington Post, 1/23/01). What corrective information there was often appeared in passing near the end of the story or came in the form of quotes or paraphrases from reproductive rights activists: Three paragraphs from the end of its front-page story, the Boston Herald (1/23/01) reported that "U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D.=Lowell) asserted that U.S. funds are not directly used for abortions," presenting the fact as an assertion of opinion rather than a matter of public record.
Not every outlet made those mistakes. Some, like the Los Angeles Times (1/23/01), got the facts right from day one, reporting in two front-page stories that the gag rule restricts how foreign groups spend their own money.
But few news reporters made the effort to substantively examine the gag rule's international implications, preferring to focus on how imposing ban might affect Bush's image as a "uniter, not a divider" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1/23/01). This tendency to view abortion from the standpoint of Washington politics was typified in the Washington Post (1/23/01), where three prominent stories examined reactions of American abortion rights supporters and opponents, but gave no insights into the rule's impact abroad.
More News in Editorials
While the gag rule was reported primarily as a political football, editorials and opinion pieces dissected Bush's spin, cited UN and World Health Organization maternal mortality statistics and checked the historical record, providing a depth of information missing from most news sections. Many newspapers noted that the U.S. has not funded abortions abroad since 1973; several branded Bush "disingenuous" for implying otherwise (e.g., New York Times, 1/24/01).
And where reporters didn't spill much ink on the gag rule's anti-democratic underpinnings, the Washington Post (1/25/01) editorialized that it "would be unconstitutional on free-speech grounds in this country." The Baltimore Sun (1/24/01) called it "an attempt to legislate for other sovereign countries."
Some editorials drew connections with other administrative priorities, questioning how Bush reconciled the gag rule with his initiative to give taxpayer funds to American religious charities. Perhaps, the Wisconsin State Journal (1/24/01) pondered, Bush should "demand that they never mention God, even on their own dime." (In fact, as the Washington Post reported on February 1, Bush privately linked "the executive order I signed about Mexico City" -- i.e., the gag rule -- to his Office of Faith-Based Social Services, referring to both as part of "a larger calling...about changing the culture of the country" against abortion rights.)
Despite the corrective editorials, subsequent news coverage of the gag rule was only sporadically more accurate -- and in-depth, analytical follow-up continued to be hard to find.
There were exceptions. The Washington Post made a particular effort to set the record straight, running a correction (1/24/01) and a detailed page-2 story (1/26/01) that noted, "the rhetoric accompanying the latest round of debate has added to confusion over what U.S. policy actually has been, and what it is now." Finally, Post ombudsman Michael Getler acknowledged (1/28/01) that the paper "fell short...on providing the background, meaning and alternative view of what was taking place, and in critiquing the White House statement."
Commendably, a handful of outlets filed excellent stories from Mexico (Christian Science Monitor, 1/25/01), South Africa (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/25/01), Guyana and Cambodia (Chicago Tribune, 2/7/01; 3/14/01), exploring how the gag rule will practically affect family planning efforts and social, economic and health issues in those countries.
As strong as these pieces were, none was carried on page one, and none carried the weight of those initial news reports. Well after editorials cleaned up reporters' shallow and misleading stories, papers like the Seattle Times (1/26/01), the Baltimore Sun (1/28/01) and the Christian Science Monitor (1/29/01) were still publishing letters from readers on whom the administration's inaccurate spin left a lasting impression. "No matter what your position on abortion, it is simply wrong to use taxpayer money to fund abortion clinics or operations. A woman's right to choose is not affected by the denial of taxpayer funding," one Los Angeles Times reader wrote (1/25/01).
The White House knows how important first impressions are; "You only get one start," Ari Fleischer told the San Diego Union-Tribune (1/29/01), "and the tone you set sends a strong message to the American people." By sticking to the White House line on the gag rule, media helped Bush "set the tone" during a crucial period. No wonder Bush told reporters (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1/28/01) that he found the press "very hospitable" as he settled into the White House.
Jennifer L. Pozner is Women's Desk Director for the media watchdog group FAIR - Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting www.fair.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SIDEBAR: Misleading the Public Is "Not a Correctable Error"
When a New York Times front-page story (1/23/01) misleadingly repeated Bush's "conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions" overseas, Center for Reproductive Law and Policy's Julia Ernst asked co-author Frank Bruni for a correction. She didn't get one.
"If you're accurately reporting what a public official is saying, and the public official is, to some ears, misspeaking, that is not a correctable error," Bruni told Extra!. Besides, he added, "Bush said it was his 'conviction' that our taxes shouldn't pay for abortions. He wasn't necessarily referring only to the rule itself. He could have been speaking more broadly."
But since Bush offered that "conviction" to justify a specific foreign policy shift, doesn't a failure to clarify that the explanation doesn't match the policy risk confusing the public?
Bruni thinks not: "Where's the error? The error you and [Ernst] divine is in the president's words. It wasn't in our words. We never said that tax dollars pay for abortions. Perhaps it would have been best if we'd made that clear given what his quote was, but we never said he was correct."
"Now, we could have a conversation about whether there should have been more paragraphs of context about the history of the rule, what the rule embraces, what it doesn't. And if we had all the space and all the time in the world," Bruni told Extra!, "in a perfect world it might have been good to include more information.... I did tell [Ernst] that she brought up some interesting points that would certainly inform anything I would write about it in the future."
But, Bruni acknowledged, "I never wrote about the gag rule again," except briefly in a Week in Review piece (1/28/01) that was "just about the political maneuverings Bush was making, not what the ins and outs were."
In fact, Bruni's original gag rule story was also less about policy than about Bush's political maneuverings, as when he and co-author Marc Lacey wrote, "The change in abortion policy quickly diverted attention from the new administration's theme of the week, education, which had been chosen in part for its promise of creating the kind of bipartisan coalitions Mr. Bush may need to push legislation through a Congress narrowly divided along party lines." The policy's impact on women's physical, mental and economic health was evidently of less interest.
Bruni didn't need "all the space and time in the world" to make sure his gag rule story was not misleading. While other newspapers corrected Bush's quote with just one sentence (Los Angeles Times, 1/23/01), Bruni and Lacey devoted 17 paragraphs to Bush's tax cuts, education plans and Beltway dealings.
It doesn't take a "perfect world" to cover abortion accurately and comprehensively -- it just takes a priority shift. As Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote (1/28/01) in his apology for his paper's initial reports, abortion is a volatile, emotional issue that "requires explanations, context and questioning understandable to the general reader and not just to activists and politicians." -- Jennifer L. Pozner