When a curious hotel worker pulled the pin on a grenade fuse he found on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, not only did he not expect the ensuing "bang," but he never guessed the incident would become the shot heard round the abortion debate.
The Associated Press, which alerts most press outlets in town on breaking news, immediately circulated a story saying an "explosion" had "shaken" the nearby Planned Parenthood office, a leading voice in the abortion-rights movement.
A media horde assembled outside the group's Washington headquarters. Pro-choice politicians inflamed the airways by denouncing the "explosion," which slightly injured the hotel worker's hand, as another example of pro-life activists resorting to violence.
It was not until lunchtime that the frenzy died down. Police said the fuse, apparently used in the construction industry, had no connection with the abortion debate.
To journalists covering the day's mercurial story, the early reporting was simply a retelling of initial reports.
"An event took place. We were there," says Jonathan Wolman, the AP's Washington bureau chief. "We went out and talked to people, as did other media. The early coverage reflected the confusion in the event. I don't think there is any doubt that as the news cycle continued the story changed, and we reflected that as quickly as we could--very quickly, I might add."
But to pro-life activists, the media overreaction typifies the Establishment's coverage of people and groups who want to place legal restrictions on abortion.
The "bang" came on January 22, a day of infamy for pro-lifers. The date marked the 24th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But that night's television news, and the next day's newspapers, seemed to use the pin pulling as an excuse to gloss over--or ignore--what pro-life marchers had said that day.
"The next day, the Washington Post's front-page picture was cameras outside Planned Parenthood," says Tim Graham, an analyst at the conservative Media Research Center. "Right-to-life got no mention that night on the networks. NBC mentioned the fuse incident. What happened was, it [the March for Life] became a nonstory. [For journalists, the story] never was a case of Planned Parenthood makes a gaffe."
The iceberg underneath
Graham and other media experts argue that the coverage on January 22 was merely a symptom of deep-rooted prejudice.
The press, they say, consistently shuns pro-life press conferences and events yet gives groups like Planned Parenthood ample newsprint. They also complain that most Washington reporters accept pro-choice statistics and contentions as gospel, while giving skeptical lip service to the other side.
"I think you can argue it's proven by the coverage," Graham says. "I don't know of many issues in which the liberal bias is more obvious than on the abortion question, because you have these stark contrasts.
"Pro-choice wants to emphasize the violent side of the pro-life movement. Pro-life wants to document the violence of abortions. [The latter] gets no coverage."
Dan Amundson, director of research for the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, agrees there is disproportionate coverage but puts part of the blame on anti-abortion groups.
"The political Left has been much more savvy over the years in playing to the media and understanding what they needed to do to get on the air," Amundson says. "A lot of right-wing groups convince themselves the media are the enemy, and they don't do a lot to get on the air."
Douglas Johnson, chief lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, contends that reporters won't always listen.
"We put out a lot of heavy documentary material," Johnson says. "Hey, [our materials aren't] going to win any awards. But we try to get through to the members of the press corps who care about facts: Still, sometimes journalists already have the set of facts they want to believe. …