Why the Bias of the Gosnell Trial Goes Beyond the Media
April 17, 2013
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and a contributing writer for Christianity Today.
[Editor's note: The following article contains graphic imagery regarding the conditions of Kermit Gosnell's abortion clinic.]
Sometimes the facts of life are pretty ugly—and sometimes they are worse than ugly. Sometimes the facts are simply unbearable. Take these facts from the ongoing trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell:
- A newborn baby—birthed by botched abortion—lay in a glass pan, “screaming like an alien.”
- Hundreds of such babies were “aborted” by snipping the babies’ spines shortly after their births.
- Some of these babies’ abortions took place with the assistance of a 15-year-old girl.
- The abortion doctor reportedly joked before completing one abortion that the baby was “big enough to walk me to the bus stop.”
- One worker testified that inside the clinic, “It would rain fetuses, fetuses and blood all over the place. I felt like a fireman in Hell. I couldn’t put out all the fires."
- The filthy medical facility is said to have been filled with butchered infants, frozen fetuses, severed baby heads and baby feet in jars.
- One woman in the prime of her life went to the clinic for an abortion but instead lost her own life.
This is a horrific news story, filled with scenes one cannot stomach, let alone process in the mind. It’s not a story most of us really want to follow. But these are facts that must be faced. Even the mainstream media—AWOL from this story until being called out for it—has at last admitted that such events demand national attention, and reporters have begun to occupy the press-reserved seats in the courtroom that sat empty for days on end when they simply didn’t show up.
When the media did break its silence on the case, a sudden flood of theories about the reason behind the media black-out emerged. Some of the theories revolve around the difficulty of covering and reporting such horrifying facts at the center of the case, the race and social class of Gosnell’s clientele, the lack of the case’s connection to any current legislative issues or political campaign, or the pro-choice bias of the mainstream press. Some even speculate that the underlying reason behind the lack of coverage is that the death of infants is generally less newsworthy than the deaths of older children.
Each theory centers on certain aspects of the case, but none offers in itself a satisfactory account for why in an age of ratings-driven, sensation-hungry 24-hour news, the mainstream media opted out of this story for so long.
Yet there is one looming factor that encompasses most of these facts and theories. This one thing accounts for not only the lack of coverage of the story, but also much of the willingness of all of us to simply look away when faced with the unbearable or the merely uncomfortable: tribalism.
Our society is characterized by it—for better or for worse. And sometimes, it is for the worse. As Harvard instructor David Ropeik says in his article “How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous," “It’s everywhere, protecting us by readily overriding reason, and morality, and pretty much anything else that could dim our chances of survival.”
We identify ourselves by certain tribes, Ropeik explains, whether race, gender, family, political party, religion or social class. Of course, community within tribes can be healthy, but there’s also an inherent danger in our loyalty to our tribe. Simply because our convictions, perceptions and moral compass are greatly influenced in community. But what if our community is wrong?
“Dan Kahan, principal researcher into the phenomenon of Cultural Cognition ... has also found that the more challenged our views are, the more we defend them ... the more dogmatic and closed-minded we become.”
The result, Ropeik says, is:
“ ... an intellectual form of ‘circle-the-wagons, we’re under attack’ tribal unity. Talk about tribalism overruling reason ... And it’s hardly surprising that the more unsettled and uncertain we feel and the less we feel we have control over how things are going—feelings that make us feel threatened—the more we circle the wagons and fiercely fight for tribal success, looking to the tribe to keep us safe. It’s a sobering reflection on this inherent but potentially destructive aspect of human nature, in these unsettled and threateningly uncertain times.”
Certainly, the mainstream media is a tribe unto itself. The pro-choice tribalism that largely constitutes the mainstream media has manifested itself in numerous and well-documented ways, and did so long before the trial of Kermit Gosnell. Therefore, the initial lack of media coverage of an abortionist facing murder and malpractice charges is not surprising, nor is it the point here.
Rather, the media blackout of the Gosnell trial offers a valuable warning in the dangers of tribalism for all of us.
It doesn’t take an actual coordinated conspiracy for something like a media blackout to occur, as some have charged the mainstream media of doing in the Gosnell case. All it takes is a human mindset that blocks, filters, skews or sees selectively—long before conscious or collective decision-making even occurs.
Tribalism is a censor unto itself, shielding us from the truths we don’t want to see because doing so might harm “our side.” Wherever it is found and whatever form it takes, tribalism cultivates a loyalty to one’s group that becomes more important than the facts, more important than truth.
How many times do we—do I—say, “I’m not going to consider this point because it’s made by him”? How many times do we—do I—think, “Well, there must be something wrong here because it’s coming from those people”? Every time we dismiss an article, a book, an idea, a person because the source is from an opposing tribe, we place faction over fact, party over principle, and tribe over truth. For the Christian, this can never be. As Augustine says in De Doctrina Christiana, all truth is God’s truth, wherever it might be found. In other words, truth transcends party lines, and it is more important than group loyalty.
But as John Milton argues in Areopagitica, an early argument for freedom of the press, “Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.” This, likewise, is the effect of blind tribalism. Scripture is filled with admonitions to seek the truth, describing in Psalm 45:4, for example, the majesty of riding forth in victory “in the cause of truth, humility and justice” so as to “achieve awesome deeds.” We are admonished in Zechariah 8:16 to “speak the truth to each other.” Jesus himself is described in John 1:14 as “full of grace and truth,” which is why in knowing Him, we know the truth which will make us free (John 8:32).
We need not fear the facts, no matter where they are found. For once wrapped up in the bandages of truth, every harsh, ugly fact—whether it be from the Gosnell case, or from countless other situations of human misery, spiritual abuse, oppression, injustice, violence or simply the many ways we disappoint one another every day—will be healed by grace and made into a beautiful whole. For where truth is, beauty is, too.