when political (02/05/22) released a draft Supreme Court opinion that, if delivered by the Court, would overturn Roe v. Wade and would undermine the foundation of many privacy rights enjoyed by Americans today, it made headlines in the US. But in the flood of coverage, too many elite media focused on the leak itself and treated the issue as political football, rather than focusing on the real implications the opinion would have for ordinary people. .
On NBC Nightly News (05/03/22), for example, presenter Lester Holt first turned to Justice correspondent pete williams to explain what happened. Williams began by offering viewers her perspective: “While the release of the draft is a shock, the conclusion of the draft shouldn’t be.”
Although most court watchers expected the conservative supermajority to overthrow Roe (CounterSpin, 09/15/21), Alito’s conclusion — that not only was Roe “demonstrably wrong,” but that “unenumerated rights” to privacy or autonomy in general have no constitutional basis — was, in fact, shocking. for many who have analyzed it (e.g. Slate, 05/02/22). And just because something is anticipated doesn’t mean it isn’t shocking yet.
But with this framing, it was no surprise that the first expert Williams turned to for comment, Tom Goldstein of the SCOTUS blog, spoke only about the seriousness of the leak. (“That has never happened in American history. And the Court may never again be the same when it comes to trust between judges and all their court officers.”)
Holt’s one question to Williams had a similar purpose: “Pete, let me ask you.” How does the Court plan to proceed to investigate this leak? »
“Shocking breach of privacy”
This is truly a shocking invasion of privacy, something that didn’t even happen when the presidency was on the line in Bush vs. Gore. It raises questions about how this Court will ever recover and what that final decision will be.
The irony of the Court’s concern about privacy as it considers eliminating a right to privacy for all Americans has not been addressed. Crawford later called the leak “a blow to the Supreme Court”.
Williams and Crawford are legal correspondents, so perhaps it makes sense that they focus on the implications for the Court rather than the general public. But it highlights the problem with reporting from Washington, which prioritizes baseball over real-world impact, allowing the media to tout their professionalism and access with little risk of appearing partisan or giving away. the public the information they need.
The rarefied attention also played into the story’s right-wing framing, which unsurprisingly made the leak itself far more important than the implications of opinion for people seeking to end unwanted pregnancies. . On FoxNews.com (05/03/22), Alito’s majority draft opinion “shocked longtime observers of the Court”, not because of the potential elimination of a fundamental right to bodily autonomy, or the anticipated reversal of a 50-year-old precedent, but because the Court “seldom has information about its deliberations been released to the public.”
Notably, none of these networks sparked similar outrage at revelations about Judge Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni, repeatedly urging the White House chief of staff to illegally nullify the 2020 election results, and Judge Thomas refusal to recuse from business related to January 6. In this case, all three newscasts framed the story as a simple partisan battle, with enraged Democrats and Republicans backing Thomas, rather than a “bodily blow” to the Court itself.
Impact on politics more than life
Beyond examining the impact on the Court, the networks have still often framed the story of Roe’s escape in terms of politics rather than life. In a segment billed as exploring “how this might play out across the country,” NBC reporter Stephanie Gosk (05/03/22) concluded: “This is an issue that has long divided the country. And if Roe v. Wade is canceled, these divisions could deepen.
Anchor David Muir on ABC World News Tonight (5/3/22) described the story in his first segment primarily as political football, saying the leaked draft:
has certainly fueled both sides in this emotional debate, alarming millions of people who have come to trust the 50-year-old right to privacy by making this choice a legal precedent and encouraging millions more who have fought to overthrow Roe v. Wade for 50 years.
All of the prime-time shows also talked about the likely impact on people seeking abortions, which was almost always portrayed as clinics or providers having more difficulty doing their jobs, or women having to travel further to access abortions. Brief nods were sometimes made to the disproportionate impact on low-income and BIPOC communities (e.g., CNB 03/05/22), and the fact that “there is already declining access that could quickly disappear” (CBS, 05/03/22). But what that would mean in practical terms – that more pregnant women will die and more families will fall into poverty – has never been directly stated.
Indeed, while NBC’s Gosk interviewed abortion clinic leaders in Texas and Mississippi, his one question explicitly asking “what will happen to women, many of them low-income, who have abortions each year in states like Mississippi, Texas, places like that?” was addressed to the CEO of an anti-choice group, who assured viewers that they will “provide them with holistic life-affirming options to ensure they have access to the resources and support that they need”. Gosk offered no counterpoint to this rosy vision.
Much of the press was also obsessed with the drama of who leaked the project – a question that interested political insiders far more than people considering a severe restriction of their rights. The right in particular has spent a lot of time gathering clues and figuring out what their motive might be, and, primarily, whether the backer was liberal or conservative. A Fox article, “Draft Supreme Court ruling leaked to energize Democrat base, says ex-Clinton adviser” (05/04/22), featured the right-wing Democrat Mark Penn claiming that the Democrats launched the coup to bring suburban women voters back to the party: “I think it breathed new life into the Democratic hopes for this midterm election.
Grant Stinchfield (05/03/22) accused Kentaji Brown-Jackson—who is not yet at the Supreme Court, and therefore does not have access to their computers or documents—of leaking the draft.
With an ongoing investigation, such baseless speculation and accusations could easily go on for weeks, working to turn a story about a wildly unpopular and undemocratic conservative movement, which denies people a longstanding and extraordinarily consequential right, into a useless pole. The mainstream media has spent too long ceding the framework of the abortion story to the right and failing to show the devastating consequences that the right’s attack on reproductive rights has already produced (FAIR.org, 05/19/21; counter-turn, 05/28/21).
The essential story journalists need to tell now is the story of the additional concrete consequences the decision would have on the lives of millions of people across the country. Otherwise, the real effects of a country without Roe are lost to the theatrical and sensational emphasis on flight.