The Media’s Fear of Pro-Life: The Boston Globe and WGBH Public Television

John C. Rankin

[excerpted and adapted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]

The Boston Globe

In the 1980s, the media covered Operation Rescue (OR) in depth, I believe, partly because it made good sound bites for the abortion-rights activists in their condemnation of the blockade and other violative tactics. But even in so doing, and in focusing the issue away from the nature of human abortion itself, they still biased their coverage highly.

For example, I say no to blockade and its cognate tactics. Nonetheless, the OR participants, almost without exception in their nearly 100,000 arrests, only engaged in passive resistance. And they deserve respect for this restraint. But the television news would show clips of people pressing against a police blockade trying to forcibly break through it, and yelling vulgarities. It would run these clips in a context where the casual observer would identify these people with Operation Rescue. Yet in reality it was the abortion-rights activists behaving this way. The sad reality is that this bias is part of the fruit invariably reaped by blockade tactics – it brings out the worst in others as they react and become more self-justified.

But the media ignored us as much as possible, in the Sacred Assemblies for the Unborn (SAU). I believe because they could not make a negative caricature out of what we were doing, and because we were going for their minds too. We defined the terms and language of the event, and they could not stomach it. At our first assembly, it was the only time, with one minor exception, that I noticed any media present – a Boston Globe reporter spent much of her time just looking at our questions. But in her brief article, as I recall, there was no focus on the substance of the issues they raised. The only focus was on our non-blockade presence as being distinct from that of OR.

I remember the night before the June 3, 1989 event, realizing that the media’s likely strategy was to try portray a division among pro-lifers – to try to get us to do some finger-pointing against OR, and to use such accusations to profile an intramural squabble. I could imagine their story line: “Pro-life leader Condemns Operation Rescue,” or “Anti-Abortion Movement Splits,” etc. And since I disagreed deeply with the tactic of blockade, and was trying to present an alternative – which I would have been delighted to have accomplished before OR came on the scene – I did not know how I would answer such a question.

My agenda was positive, yet due to OR’s prominence, and due to the fact that I wanted to honor the pro-life commitment of most of its recruits while not endorsing their tactics, I faced a quandary. Not being able to come up with a simple sound-bite answer ahead of time, I took Mark 13:11 seriously (understanding the different exact context), and trusted that if such a question were posed, then the Holy Spirit would give me the right words:

“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

The next morning, in the brief interview the Globe reporter had with me, she cut to the chase: “What is the difference between your group and Operation Rescue?”

And indeed, the Holy Spirit gave me words in simplicity and power I had not composed beforehand: “The difference is simple: Operation Rescue believes the time has arrived for civil disobedience, and we do not believe it has yet arrived.”

A parallel passage to Mark 13 is in Luke 21, which adds the following words of Jesus:

“For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict (v. 15).

This happened here and it happens elsewhere. But only by depending wholly on the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  She had no further questions on this subject, and nothing on it in the article the next day. I did not have to get into the nature of civil obedience and civil disobedience, and the criteria for a justifiable political revolution. A simple answer answered a simple question.

For me to embrace civil disobedience, it would not be in vigilante protest (biblically defined civil prophetic protest is far more powerful as it is), but only if a lawless state sought to have me disobey the love of God and love of neighbor in tangible action.

WGBH Public Television and Network Television in Boston

In the spring of 1990, there were two simultaneous pro-abortion events close to my downtown Boston office. First, the Boston chapter of the National Organization (NOW) for Women encouraged college students to skip classes and attend a rally for “abortion rights” on the Boston Common. And second, Planned Parenthood was having a rally for “abortion rights” in front of the State Capitol.

So, in the middle of the week, and on short notice, I was  able to pull together eleven people to take our slogan and question signs, first to the NOW rally, then to the Planned Parenthood rally. With the NOW activists and college students we had some good conversations. With the Planned parenthood demonstrators it was a different story.

There were two hundred of them at Beacon and Park, in the conclave to the steps to the Capitol. We stood in their midst with our signs, and everyone was looking at them, or trying not to look at them, and all the media focused on them – the four commercial television stations plus WGBH Public Television, and a host of radio stations. And many of our people got elbows in the ribs or other unfriendly bodily contact at this, a heavily advertised public rally where “all are welcome.”

I was interviewed on camera for 45-50 minutes by a senior reporter for WGBH, who went from professional distance to intellectual curiosity and respect, to genuine warmth. I was not her stereotype of a pro-life activist, being an ex-Unitarian and post-grad student at Harvard. She told me that I was going to be the “Newsmaker” interview for the 10:00 p.m. news. At 9:45, she called our home, and was emotionally stressed, and said that the segment could not air because there were “problems in the taping room.”

She had been overruled I am sure, for they had a boatload of tape, and the phone call did not come in until very shortly before airtime. What happened is this, I surmise – her boss could not splice the tapes to make me say something I was not saying (I do not use stereotypical language or cliches, and I always spoke of women and their unborn equally.), or make me appear as an angry or clueless chauvinist in some capacity. And too, the signs spoke for themselves.

At 11:00 p.m. we looked for coverage on the other four television stations, and were able to cross with two reports. In the one which we saw in full, it said that there were 200 people on each side of the debate (we were only eleven plus several other pro-lifers who happened to be there). But the funny part was this – the television angle shot, designed to show the size of the crowd, was taken from ground level, aiming through the people to the speaker with the Capitol in the background. We could see all the poles of the signs, but not the signs themselves. The pro-abortion media is deathly afraid of the power to love hard questions.