It was a classic exercise in raw media power.
In just 72 hours, the pressure of the press forced the Susan G. Komen Foundation to abandon its plans to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, apologize for its conduct and seek forgiveness.
The conventional narrative is that Komen’s supporters rose up in unison, but it was the big news organizations that turned up the heat until the breast cancer organization had no choice but to melt. The original eruption occurred on Facebook and Twitter, but it was the mainstream media that provided the megaphone.
Komen executives handled the situation horribly, with shifting explanations to cover for the agenda of the woman who led the effort to defund Planned Parenthood, a former pro-life candidate for Georgia governor named Karen Handel. It was a PR debacle, badly handled.
But still: Regardless of one’s views on abortion, there is no getting around the fact that the media approached the controversy from a liberal perspective. Yanking money from Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions as well as mammograms, was deemed the “political” decision; funding the organization was not.
By Thursday, the controversy had made the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, and would lead some network newscasts that night. But the turning point came in the afternoon when Andrea Mitchell interviewed Komen founder Nancy Brinker on her MSNBC show. Mitchell did not pretend to take a neutral stance: “Let me just put out clear, first of all, that I have been very identified and an outspoken supporter and participant in the races over the years, long before I myself ended up being diagnosed with breast cancer…I come to you today, you know, expressing the anger of a lot of people channeling through them.”
Brinker stuck to her talking points, saying things like “we are not defunding Planned Parenthood” and “the issue is grant excellence” and “the responses we’re getting are very, very favorable.” (Komen’s donations did spike; there is a chunk of the country that doesn’t like abortion or Planned Parenthood.)
But Brinker’s position was untenable in the face of the media onslaught, and a day later she reversed the decision.
The battle sparked a heated debate Sunday on my CNN program, Reliable Sources. “Andrea Mitchell, I thought was supposed to be a journalist…Clearly, that was taking a position,” said Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller.
Michelle Cottle of Newsweek/Daily Beast shot back: “Would you rather her have kept it a secret that she personally has been involved in this group? Everybody has an opinion. This wasn’t a political issue for Andrea. This was a personal issue. You can’t confuse the two.”
Mitchell herself told Politico: “I’ve always believed and still believe that men, women, people of any color can cover any issue, regardless of what their personal connection [to a story] might be, and sometimes we bring a sensibility to it because we have more information based on personal experience. An African-American man or woman who’s had a different response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than I did … that was a case where a black person would have brought more. In this case, I probably do bring more passion.”
I like passion in journalism, and not hiding the fact that you have strong feelings. Which is why members of the media should admit that—at least in the tone and framing of the controversy--they put on their pink ribbons and took sides.