Early last month, John Sullivan, executive producer of the new film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (in theaters Oct. 12), reached out to National Public Radio to purchase a sponsorship for the Peabody Award-winning interview show, Fresh Air.
Sullivan, who was prepared to spend as much as six figures, crafted his ad copy to answer the question you’re probably asking: Who is Gosnell? The proposed ad was as follows, “Support for this NPR program comes from the film Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. The film is the true story of abortionist Kermit Gosnell. A story the mainstream media tried to cover up because it reveals the truth about abortion.”
No dice. According to e-mails provided to The Daily Beast, NPR’s representative ran it up the legal flagpole and came back with a disappointing answer. In addition to other minor tweaks to the wording, their response stated, “The word ‘abortionist’ will also need to be changed to the neutral word ‘doctor.’”
Seeking to find an acceptable compromise, Sullivan (who co-directed Dinesh D’Souza’s first two documentaries) next proposed simply using the term “abortion doctor.” This is a descriptive term that is morally neutral, he reasoned. Still, NPR refused to approve Sullivan’s compromise language. It was “Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell” or bust.
For the filmmakers, this was a deal-breaker. “Our movie isn’t about a podiatrist or a cardiologist or a proctologist,” said producer Phelim McAleer. “It’s specifically about a doctor who performs abortions.”
When asked to comment, NPR’s Senior Director of Media Relations Isabel Lara explained, “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”
Lara sent me the modified language that was acceptable to NPR, which reads: “Hat Tip Distribution, with the film ‘Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,’ based on the true story of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell. Out Friday.”
It’s still unclear why the term “abortion doctor” couldn’t be included. A quick search turns up past NPR stories with titles like, “Joyce Carol Oates' New Novel Begins With an Abortion Doctor's Murder” and “Abortion Doctor Killer Appeals to Kansas High Court." NPR even did a special series called “Training the next generation of abortion doctors.” Heck, there was even an NPR news story about Kermit Gosnell himself, and it was headlined, “Convicted Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Gets Life in Prison.”
For those of us who have been following the story, this should come as no surprise. Before trying to market the movie, the filmmakers encountered similar obstacles preventing them from crowdfunding via Kickstarter. Then, they had a hard time finding a distributor. And long before a film existed, the actual crime itself, the event on which the film is based, was largely under-covered.
As liberal commentator Kirsten Powers wrote at USA Today back in 2013, “Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations? It's not your fault.” Powers continued, “Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page.”
That’s not to say the story hasn’t been covered. It has. As noted above, NPR covered it back in 2013. Everything gets covered. The real issue is about story placement, emphasis, and repetition. The Gosnell story was covered. It was not, however, on the front page every day for weeks on end—nor did the topic become the prompt for many cable news panel discussions. It should have been. So we are left asking ourselves, why wasn’t it?
Of course, the makers of Gosnell are currently focused on a more pressing problem: promoting a movie that has been at least four years in the making. Almost everyone concedes that the mainstream media tilts leftward, and almost everyone agrees that nobody has a “right” to free publicity for their movie. The interesting thing here, though, is that the producers of Gosnell can’t even pay to accurately promote theirs.
“NPR receives taxpayer funds,” said Gosnell producer Ann McElhinney. “They have a duty to push aside their own prejudices and opinions and apply fair and consistent standards and allow paid advertising even if the ads are promoting something they would rather remain hidden from their listeners.”
“Perhaps Congress should look into the matter. If they’re so well-funded that they’re turning away advertisers like us, maybe they don't need government subsidies anymore,” continued McAleer.
I’m not sure Congress needs to get involved, but this controversy is merely the latest example of why conservatives have a legitimate gripe about liberal media bias.
Television and news media are vital institutions that can help hold powerful people accountable. Public confidence in these institutions can be shaken when their most revered institutions display examples of bias—and the examples are legion.
Keep in mind that this story comes on the heels of Friday’s botched New York Times piece that incorrectly claimed that Nikki Haley spent $52,701 on curtains for the residence of the ambassador to the United Nations. The New York Times has since added an editor’s note that admits the “headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question.” The curtains were purchased during the Obama administration.
Despite a constant stream of examples of bias, the media has shown zero interest in addressing this problem, and Donald Trump’s presidency has only complicated things. On one hand, you have media outlets complaining that Trump shouldn’t take aim at them because they represent the concept of a free press, and on the other hand, they are talking about "fighting back." Either you are a combatant (equal with the other fighter) or you are an observer (operating with different rules). We in the media cannot control Trump’s behavior, but we can rise to the occasion and try to prove to conservative Americans that they can trust us. That starts with an admission of bias and a promise to do better.
Those of us trying to defend a free press (whether it’s The New York Times or NPR) against Trump’s claims about “fake news” have a simple message for the mainstream media: Please quit proving him right!