The Politico reporter who broke the Roe v. Wade story has some advice for newsrooms



Politico’s story was spot on.

When the court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at 10:10am, “we just kicked into gear,” Gerstein told me, recalling the moment that he realized that the court had overturned Roe, as his May 2 story telegraphed.

Gerstein described Friday as “crazy and chaotic” — words that I’m sure were applicable to most newsrooms as journalists worked to cover the decision and explain exactly it means to audiences across the country.

Will we ever know POLITICO’s source?

Ever since Politico’s scoop, speculation has swirled about the leaker and the possible motive for the leak. The number one question Gerstein said he received on Friday was what he believed the impact of the leak was. “It’s a little tough to say,” he admitted.

When I asked whether Gerstein has spoken to the source of the leaked opinion since the official ruling came out, he declined to answer. However, he did suggest that one day, it is possible we will all know who the source is. When I asked Gerstein whether the person would eventually out themselves, he replied, “I don’t think I can answer that directly. But I do think in most of the situations, that part of the story does get told. In most of these types of stories, Watergate or what have you. But we shall see.” Gerstein added that as a reporter, he tends to believe that “history moves in the direction of more information coming out.”

“Too much credence” or not enough?

Not only is Gerstein one of the two reporters who broke news that the court was set to overturn Roe (the other reporter is Alexander Ward), he is also one of the most respected legal reporters in the industry. So I asked him what the media can improve on as it covers this tectonic moment.

Gerstein said that he believes the news media is putting too much focus on Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in which he invites the court to reconsider other landmark cases. “Just because the liberal justices say that this ruling means that same-sex marriage or contraception — the right to those things is about to be taken away — or advocacy groups say that, that doesn’t tend to mean that is the most immediate fallout,” Gerstein said. “I think the press gives a bit too much credence to that sort of thing, which is somewhat speculative.” Gerstein argued that, instead, “there are many concrete other things” the press can draw attention to “that will flow out of today’s decision without needing to necessarily say the sky is falling about all kinds of other things that may or may not develop years down the road.”

When I asked Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst, about this, he said it’s a “fair point” and that he certainly agrees “there is a lot to say about the implications of Dobbs itself.” But, Toobin said, “Thomas is the senior member of the court’s conservative majority. His explicit endorsement of overturning those precedents is definitely newsworthy. It would be one thing if the liberals alone were saying the sky is falling, but Thomas is the one making the claim.”

“I’ve spent my entire journalistic career covering the legacy of Roe,” Toobin added to me. “It’s always been the biggest issue at the Supreme Court. At one level, the fight over Roe is over, but there will only be more litigation coming out of Dobbs, not less. Same with Bruen and gun control. Every law on the books is going to be challenged.”

Coverage notes

Most major news outlets have a process in place for ingesting and distributing bulletins like the SCOTUS ruling. CNN viewers could see it happen in real time: At 10:10am, Jim Sciutto said the ruling was in, and awaited the DC newsroom’s assessment of what it said. Chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who was already at the anchor desk for a segment about the 1/6 hearings, set the table for the news by saying it would be a “flashbulb memory,” a where-were-you-when moment for the country. Then at 10:12 Jessica Schneider reported the decision and the coverage began.

>> NBC, then ABC, then CBS all broke into regular programming between 10:12 and 10:13am.

>> Fox News cut off a segment with Reince Priebus to break the news, with Shannon Bream reporting from outside the court.

>> MSNBC initially fumbled the news by belatedly cutting into NBC’s special report that was already in progress. But then the network went into breaking news coverage, commercial free, for four straight hours.

Fox’s filter

The prime time coverage from Fox was precisely what you would expect from the right-wing channel. Hosts portrayed anti-abortion activists as the part of the country under attack from “radical” liberals. Here are four banners that aired during the 7pm and 8pm hours that really illustrate the tenor of coverage:

>> “RADICALS SWARM HOME OF CLARENCE THOMAS”

>> “PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT TARGETED BY RADICAL LEFT”

>> “ROE IS DEAD. ACTIVISTS THREATEN A ‘NIGHT OF RAGE'”

>> “ROE IS DEAD: PRO-LIFERS CRY TEARS OF JOY AS ABORTION ACTIVISTS RAGE”

Further reading

— Doris Truing wrote about how news orgs can “ensure diverse viewpoints in abortion coverage.” (Poynter)
— Shefali Luthra: “It’s tempting to focus on the political battles. But at heart, the new reality of abortion access is about medical care and health equity.” (Center for Health Journalism)
— Jenna Sherman: “Perhaps no medical procedure is subject to more misinformation than abortion, and social media and search engine companies have been too stagnant in their efforts to stop the spread.” (Scientific American)
— Kate Zernike wrote about Friday’s “split-screen reaction,” saying it reflects “a polarized nation: jubilation and relief on one side, outrage and grief on the other.” (NYT)
— Religion News Service: Friday’s opinion “is the crowning achievement of a conservative Christian drive to reshape American society to hew more closely to the traditional sexual and gender values they espouse.” (RNS)
— CNN’s Joan Biskupic: “This is America’s new Supreme Court, moving swiftly, rejecting the incrementalism of Chief Justice John Roberts.” (CNN)
— Emily Jordan: “I don’t think that if I were to write an article about abortion I couldn’t cover it objectively. I also worry that we are approaching a journalistic environment in which only those separated from the issues cover them.” (YR)
— Ben Mullin: “Politico’s Roe v. Wade scoop becomes law.” (NYT)
— Kelly Hooper looks at “what changed from Justice Alito’s draft opinion to final ruling on Roe.” (Politico)

How media companies are responding

Media giants are ensuring employees and their family members that access to abortion will still be covered:

>> Disney, which owns ABC News, said that it “communicated directly” with employees and told them the company remains committed to providing access to reproductive care “no matter where they live.”

>> Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns CNN, said it “is committed to offering our employees across the country access to consistent and comprehensive healthcare services” and that the company “immediately expanded our healthcare benefits options to cover transportation expenses for employees and their covered family members who need to travel to access abortion and reproductive care.”

>> Comcast, which owns NBC News and MSNBC, said travel for abortion services is covered under a benefit that allows employees to receive up to $4,000 if they need to travel for a covered health service…

>> Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said the decision “deeply harms the autonomy and health of women and all people who become pregnant.” Bankoff said Vox “will continue to support employees seeking access to critical health care, including abortion.”
>> Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch emailed staffers saying that the company will reimburse travel for those needing an abortion.
>> BuzzFeed said that it will pay for employees who needed to travel for abortions. CEO Jonah Peretti vowed, “The process around this will be completely confidential.”

Newsrooms reiterate social guidelines

>> Axios told employees it is “continuing to seek additional health-care resources” and made the “difficult request that every staff member refrain from taking political stands in public.” The note added, “We know this is a lot to ask when you feel your identity or most sacred values are under assault. But public stands on political topics can undermine trust in our journalism.”
>> The NYT reminded some of its staffers about the company’s social media policy: “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.”
>> Gannett sent a note to staffers saying its “values and dedication to inclusivity ensure that we respect all views to reproductive rights.” The company said it is “actively working with our providers to ensure continued benefits under the new regulations.” The memo added that “journalists must be mindful of what they post on social media” and said that “as journalists, we make sacrifices for our profession.”

Tension inside newsrooms

As news organizations cover this moment, they are also confronting a familiar issue: Should journalists be allowed to take a public stance on abortion? Most major newsrooms prohibit staffers from taking a particular side on political issues, the rationale being that perception of bias can undercut the outlet’s credibility. But, by and large, newsrooms also grant journalists the freedom to speak on certain issues pertaining to human or civil rights. The question some journalists are wondering now is: Does abortion fall into that latter category? It seems that the answer is no, given the guidance some newsrooms sent staffers on Friday.

There is also a larger debate about the concept of objectivity. “I wish we, as an industry were willing to declare: journalists are humans,” Wesley Lowery tweeted. “We have biases and experiences and that humanity enriches our journalism. Like all humans, our journalists will at times express that humanity in private, semi-public and public platforms and venues.” Lowery noted that there is a distinction between the “perception of objectivity” and the “objectivity of work/process.”

Lawmakers want FTC to probe Apple and Google

A group of US lawmakers — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker — wrote FTC Chair Lina Khan on Friday and said that the agency should investigate Apple and Google over the data they collect on consumers. “Data brokers are already selling, licensing, and sharing the location information of people that visit abortion providers to anyone with a credit card. Prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal will soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through shady data brokers,” the lawmakers added. “The FTC should investigate Apple and Google’s role in transforming online advertising into an intense system of surveillance that incentivizes and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans’ personal data.”

When I spoke to Gerstein, he also said that this is “going to stretch into social media” fast. “This is going to be a real mess for tech and social media companies,” Gerstein said. He noted that there will unquestionably be efforts from local prosecutors and police in red states “to use those technologies to go after people circumventing laws” in those states. “It’s going to be a big, big problem,” Gerstein warned. So far, it’s unclear how Big Tech is going to react.





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