Last week I was startled by one reader’s question:
“What I’m really interested in your take on is the current treatment of the Philadelphia mass murder trial. The blackout is nearly total,” including in The Blade, he said.
Mass murder trial? Within minutes, as I began plowing through email, I realized what this was about.
Kermit Gosnell is a physician in Philadelphia who is accused of running an abortion clinic that was an unspeakable house of horrors.
Reading about this is not for the faint-hearted. According to prosecutors, Dr. Gosnell would frequently and illegally deliver babies that were virtually full-term, then kill them by cutting their spinal cords with scissors. He is on trial for seven counts of murder, along with other offenses, including the illegal prescribing of drugs.
The case began to get major national attention a few days ago after a major story in USA Today and after an online article in the Atlantic faulted the media for not paying more attention to the case.
This drew the wrath of some anti-abortion Blade readers. “I have not seen any coverage in The Blade of the murder trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell,” another man wrote.
“I conclude that The Blade’s pro-abortion stance is the reason for ignoring this dreadful, but newsworthy story,” he added.
Well, the fact is that there has been coverage of the Gosnell case in The Blade, both print and online, going back to the time he was arrested more than two years ago. Jordie Henry, The Blade’s librarian, found at least half a dozen stories.
Most of them were not very prominent. That makes sense to me for a number of reasons. The Blade is not a sensationalist tabloid, for one thing; for another, it is a regional newspaper, and the trial and the alleged crimes all happened in the Philadelphia area.
There is also the fact that Dr. Gosnell is entitled to the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty.
However, several other employees at his clinic have pleaded guilty to murder and other charges, including his wife, and there seems no doubt that his so-called clinic was a squalid and unsanitary chamber of horrors.
There is a vigorous debate now going on nationally as to whether the national media has insufficiently covered this story, and if so, why? Some do, in fact, think a mostly pro-choice media have been reluctant to focus on an abortionist run amok.
Others say you can no more argue that Kermit Gosnell represents the face of legal abortion any more than Adam Lanza, the man who murdered 20 tiny children in Connecticut in December, is a typical gun owner.
My guess is that The Blade, and other media, will likely pay a fair amount of attention to the verdict in this horrifying case — depending on what other news happens that day.
But I see no evidence The Blade, which depends on its wire services for most national news, has been covering it up.
Vicki Sherman of Temperance, Mich., had another beef about The Blade. She was reading a story in the April 8 paper about a clash between Mayor Mike Bell and Councilman D. Michael Collins over improvements to a gym used by PAL, the Police Athletic League.
What bothered her was this line:
“‘Oh, they’re pissed at me,’ Mr. Collins smirked at the conclusion of Tuesday’s council meeting. ‘It‘s all politics.”
“I don’t have enough information to support either side of this issue,” Ms. Sherman said but added, “I was surprised to see the verb smirked used to describe Mr. Collins’ reaction … the word smirk has a very negative connotation that does not, I think, display an objective or professional manner of journalistic reporting.”
Your ombudsman went back and read the story, and I think Ms. Sherman is absolutely right. I have no idea whether Mr. Collins “smirked” or not.
However, the word stops the reader short, and distracts from the issue, which was whether city recreation money should be used to support a police-sponsored program.
According to the dictionary, a smirk is a kind of a smile. It would have been better had “smiled” been used here and conveyed perfectly where the councilman was coming from.
Sometimes horrifying things happen. People murder and torture animals, and children. And last week, a 48-year-old woman and her son were found hanging in a Point Place garage.
One Toledo woman was offended by the headline, “Mother, 11-year-old son found hanged to death.“
“That is very upsetting to me, to see that in the morning,“ she said. She believes the newspaper should have written something like “Two people die,” so readers aren’t unnecessarily shocked.
Your ombudsman understands how upsetting news can sometimes be; I can barely read the details coming out of the Gosnell trial and keep from throwing up. Anybody in the newspaper business ends up appalled by how terrible man’s inhumanity to man can be.
But I would be disappointed in The Blade or any newspaper if it tried to hide the truth with soft words. That, after all, is what history’s dictators have done to try to soften the impact of their crimes.
That’s why they used terms like “liquidate” instead of murder or “final solution,” instead of mass murder and genocide.
Hangings or bombs that shred flesh are terrible things.
But history indicates that prettying them up and hiding them from the public never makes anything better. But sometimes, exposure to the light of day has proven to be a powerful disinfectant.
Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610; or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.
Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.