MediaWatch: February 1989
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The January 9 decision by the Supreme Court to rule on a Missouri abortion law and the January 23 March for Life marking the 16th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade provided ample opportunity for national news outlets to weigh in on the divisive issue. A survey of the four networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal at the time of the two developments confirmed the results of last month's MediaWatch Study.
Reporters used the term "anti-abortion" 42 times, but "pro-life" just six times. Identifying the other side, they used "pro-choice" 29 times but never once tagged abortion proponents "pro-abortion." USA Today reporter Judy Keen's labeling mirrored the media's general pattern. She opened her January 24 article this way: "As anti-abortion activists marched on Washington Monday, pro-choice advocates prepared for grass-roots battle."
On PrimeNews the night before, CNN's Candy Crowley referred to "anti-abortion activists" who hope the Supreme Court's Missouri decision "will be the beginning of the end to abortion," but cautioned: "pro-choice advocates fear it will mean a return to back alley abortions." CNN proved to be the most unfair, issuing nine "pro-choice" tags and the same number of "anti-abortion" ones. ABC's Richard Threlkeld stood out as impartial: on two occasions he dubbed each side their label of choice.
Despite the fact pro-life spokesmen were quoted more often (52%) than pro-choice ones (48%) overall, several reports were lop-sided in favor of abortion proponents. On Jan. 22, CNN's Cynthia Tournquist gave the least balanced story, giving pro-choicers two times more airtime as well as calling supporters of abortion "pro-choice" three times and opponents "anti-abortion" twice.
But even if they refrained from the "anti-abortion" label and offered abortion opponents equal time to defend their cause, some reporters did all they could to discredit the pro-life cause. On Jan. 9, CBS' Richard Roth referred to pro-life forces as "a strong and vocal minority [which] has insisted its voice be heard."
After giving time to a former Roe vs. Wade attorney to express her discontent, Roth concluded: "Her point is it wasn't just abortion decided 16 years ago, it was the launching of what amounted to an abortion revolution."