A year ago, I covered the trial of abortionist and convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell. The testimony was grisly. Over the course of 30-plus years, hundreds or maybe thousands of babies born alive in his Philadelphia clinic had their necks snipped with scissors and were left to die.
What I heard was sickening. What I saw in the courtroom was startling: Rows of seats reserved for the media were empty. The mainstream media was MIA.
In 26 years as a full-time professional, I have never been ashamed to be a journalist. But that day, Thursday, April 11, 2013, I was ashamed for journalism.
Courtroom 304 at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center was nearly vacant of people. I took my iPhone and snapped a picture of the empty seats. I posted it to Twitter and Facebook, and almost immediately it went viral.
The picture, along with a column by Kirsten Powers at USA Today and a social media campaign organized by pro-lifers, resulted in an unprecedented event: The national press was shamed into covering a national news story.
Had I been a pro-choice journalist, I would not have been there. There would be no photograph proving the dereliction of our elite journalists.
But I was there because I am pro-life and a practicing Catholic whose faith informs my work.
I write four opinion columns a week for Calkins Media, based in Levittown, Pa. The columns are general interest and are published in three of Calkins’ suburban Philadelphia daily newspapers: the Bucks County Courier Times, The Intelligencer of Doylestown, and the Burlington County (N.J.) Times.
I had read the grand jury report presented by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. The stunning details portrayed Gosnell as an unflinching murderer, perhaps the most prolific baby killer in America.
Pro-lifers saw Gosnell as a watershed for the movement. The story unfolding in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the spring of 2013 would not be confined to a Sunday op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, or a he-said/she-said abortion debate argued to an unsatisfying draw on a cable news program.
This was an American courtroom in a northeastern city, a trial prosecuted by a pro-choice district attorney, and the charges were seven counts of first-degree murder of babies — infanticide.
Pro-lifers knew if the stomach-turning facts were simply reported, it would validate what they had been telling the country for 40 years: Abortion clinics are houses of horror.
The Gosnell murder trial would be a landmark legal case, as significant as Scopes in its power to change hearts and minds, to make America search its soul.
At least, it could change the loose laws governing abortion clinics in Pennsylvania, which enabled Kermit Gosnell. Then journalists coast to coast, curious to see what was going on at their local clinics, would report and expose Gosnells all over the country.
As a news columnist, I wanted to be there. It was history. But the trial was in Philadelphia. We are in Bucks County — 20 miles north. That was a problem. I needed a local angle, but didn’t have one.
Encouraged by a (quietly) pro-life colleague, I went anyway and found the major media outlets taking a pass on the trial.
When I arrived late that morning, it was so quiet outside the Gosnell courtroom I could hear the fluorescent lights buzzing overhead.
The empty seats photo showed what pro-life activists had known for decades: When it comes to abortion scandal, it is ignored or gets cursory treatment.
The nonfeasance is partially ideological. Most people in my line of work are to the left-of-center on social issues; a woman’s right to an abortion is settled law. Protesting this right is considered fringe.
But ignorance plays a role, too. Most working reporters could probably tell you from memory where President Barack Obama falls in line of the office (he is No. 44), but they cannot tell you the number of abortions that have been performed in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade (56 million). They are unaware that one-third of Americans have been aborted since 1973.
A typical general assignment reporter can probably find in a newspaper’s morgue many stories detailing health violations at local restaurants, and that’s good public-service journalism.
But the reporter and the reporter’s editor have probably never considered checking health violations at local abortion clinics (easily found at abortionsafety.com).
They probably have never considered investigating who owns the clinics, the staff’s qualifications or if post-abortive women have been injured. This, too, would also be excellent public-service journalism.
A year ago in our newsroom, the picture of the empty media seats at Gosnell flashed across one of the flat screen TVs — part of some network’s report on the trial.
A colleague said, “You make us look like a bunch of (jerks).” Aren’t you sorry about that?”
I was doing my job. It was the other guys — the major metro newspapers and network TV news desks — who weren’t doing theirs. I’m an opinion columnist with strong opinions.
No apology from me.
J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.