MediaWatch: June 1991

Vol. Five No. 6

Reporters Mourn End of Subsidies for Abortion Counseling


The Supreme Court upheld a regulation that federally funded "family planning clinics" cannot provide abortion counseling, ruling that abortion's legality "does not give rise to a constitutional duty to subsidize it." Network reporters disagreed, presenting the May 23 decision as an assault on poor women and free speech.

On NBC Nightly News, reporter Carl Stern concluded: "As of now, affluent women will continue to have full access to abortion services, but poor women who rely on government services will not." In the next report, Lisa Myers echoed: "A cutoff of federal aid would mean less health care for millions of poor women who depend on these clinics." Why? Because Planned Parenthood said it would rather sacrifice its other services than give up advising abortions, a point NBC ignored. The next night's CBS Evening News story focused exclusively on the reaction of "abortion rights activists."

The news magazines also saw the poor as victims. Newsweek's June 3 story began: "In the sad heart of the South Bronx, choices don't seem to be one of the luxuries for pregnant teenagers." Time Associate Editor Jill Smolowe claimed that "The court's ruling in Rust v. Sullivan made little medical or intellectual or moral sense," and warned that "Another result of the decision could be a further exaggeration of a two-tiered health-care system: one that provides affluent women with the full range of options and offered poor women either skewed information or a range of services severely constrained by funding limitations."

Newsweek Washington reporter Eleanor Clift made the most ridiculous analogy on the May 26 McLaughlin Group: "This sets a different standard of health for poor people. To me, it's as egregious as the 'colored-only' signs on water fountains in this country."

Two leading media figures took another tack, denouncing the Court for not creating a constitutional right to subsidized speech. In a May 29 USA Today column, NBC News President Michael Gartner called that aspect of the ruling "outrageous, and scary and wrong." David Brinkley was so upset that instead of ending This Week on May 26 with his usual folksy anecdote, he delivered an angry lecture against the "absurd view that medical personnel paid with government money lose their right to free speech. The Constitution says no law shall abridge freedom of speech, no law. Could it be that the Court hasn't read that part?" Brinkley also directly criticized new justice David Souter: "Was he able and willing to read the Constitution as a member of the Court? Would he be willing to abide by it? Well, now we know the answer. It's no."