NYT Misleads on Pouillon Murder and Clinic Violence

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Originally posted on RH Reality Check

10.16.2009

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There’s nothing new about the so-called liberal media bending over backwards to prove its impartiality — often at the expense of responsible reporting — but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.  This past Saturday, I woke up to the latest offense in The New York Times coverage of last month’s shooting death of an anti-abortion protester in Michigan.  While the murder of Owosso resident James Pouillon is undoubtedly tragic, coverage in the Times has repeatedly cast this random and senseless incident misleadingly, portraying it, without evidence, as part of a larger abortion battle.

On the one hand, the Times’ coverage obfuscated police reports that abortion did not play a central role in the killing (one of two by the same alleged shooter on the same day).  On the other, the articles unduly romanticized the actions of anti-choice protesters, while completely ignoring the long history of violence, intimidation and harassment perpetrated against abortion providers.  As Randall Terry, founder and former leader of Operation Rescue, admitted to The Washington Post recently, the goal of anti-choice forces has been to “torment[]” providers, including medical residents, to reduce access for women to safe choices.

This weekend’s article “Abortion Foes Tell of Their Journey to the Streets” is probably the worst offender, declaring (in the lede) that Mr. Pouillon’s murder is proof that anti-choice protesters are under the same threat of violence as abortion providers. Really? Let’s just do the reporter’s job by looking, first and foremost, at the facts. Mr. Pouillon’s death is believed to be the first of a person protesting abortion. Meanwhile, anti-abortion violence, including clinic bombings, kidnappings, arson, and shootings, has spanned the last three decades.  The National Abortion Federation documents more than 6,100 violent acts in the U.S. and Canada since 1977.

Laura MacCleery

Laura MacCleery authored this editorial
and is the Director of Communications &, Government Relations at the Center

What’s more, the perpetrators of this violence are quite frequently well-connected to prominent anti-choice organizations and readily acknowledge their anti-abortion motivations. James Kopp, the convicted murderer of New York’s Dr. Barnett Slepian for example, was a well-known militant in the notorious anti-abortion terrorist organization, The Lambs of Christ. Paul Hill, who admitted killing Florida’s Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, expressed no remorse after the shootings and told CBS News’ Connie Chung in 1994 that, “I know for a fact that I\'m going to go to heaven when I die. I am certainly guilty of no crimes... My actions are honorable.”

In contrast, in the Pouillon case, the reported facts strongly indicate that the shooting was part of a random killing spree stemming from individual grudges — none of which were brought on by pro-choice sentiment. As authorities have reported, the suspect Harlan Drake shot a second victim, Mike Fuoss, an owner of a gravel pit, and planned to shoot a third, James Howe, who was a local Owosso realtor. Shiawassee County Sheriff's Detective Lt. David Kirk told The Detroit News that there are no clear ties between the victims, but that Drake had separate interactions with each of his targets and that, “It didn\'t appear to be a case where Pouillon was pro-life and Drake was pro-choice."

Then there’s the Times’ unsubstantiated claims.  Two more articles published in the Times (“Abortion Protester Is Killed in Michigan” (Sept. 12), and “Memorial Held for Slain Anti-Abortion Protester” (Sept.17)) drew deeply spurious connections between Mr. Pouillon’s murder and that of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.  Again, mere reference to the facts shows otherwise.  Scott Roeder, the suspect in Dr. Tiller’s murder, was a well-known anti-abortion activist, openly connected with Operation Rescue, a prominent anti-abortion organization, and has been linked to vandalism at another Kansas clinic. Mr. Roeder also had a noted violent record, including a 1996 conviction for criminal use of explosives. Mr. Drake, on the other hand, has no connections with the pro-choice movement and there have been no reports of a history of harassing members of the anti-choice movement.

Dr. Tiller was the eighth person murdered in attacks on abortion providers, while again, Mr. Pouillon’s shooting is believed to be the first of its kind (reported by The New York Times, incidentally). In addition, Dr. Tiller was the target of anti-abortion activists for years, actions which included an assassination attempt in which he was shot five times, and his clinic being vandalized.

In contrast, Mr. Pouillon has no known history of being harassed nor has even been mentioned by name by any pro-choice organization. He also has a long list of run-ins with the law, according to The Detroit Free Press, including a conviction of stalking a woman he who worked at an Owosso car dealership. As a more responsible paper, the Free Press, reports, Mr. Pouillon regularly protested at the auto dealership for its support of a pro-choice candidate and apparently targeted this female employee mistakenly believing, she says, that she had some connection to this pro-choice activity.

In the first comprehensive investigation of the battles waged against abortion providers, the Center for Reproductive Rights this year found that aggressive harassment as well as discriminatory legal restrictions and serious stigma are reducing the number of abortion providers.  Doctors and clinic staff operate under appalling circumstances, including death threats, dead animals left at their front door, break-ins at their homes, and being physically assaulted by protesters. They live in fear of violence.

Among other precautions, they carry bullet-proof vests, purchase elaborate security systems for their homes and offices, and change their daily routes to work. As one executive director of a Pennsylvania clinic who is regularly picketed by a protester at her home told us, “Every day, I work in a culture of terror. Every day, I worry about being shot or targeted, especially now that Dr. Tiller was murdered. That has increased a hundred fold. I have not felt more vulnerable. I’ve never felt this vulnerable in my job.” A moving video in which she talks about the difficulty of living with this fear and intimidation is here.

Overall, the Times’ recent coverage has been profoundly misleading, irresponsibly suggesting that Mr. Pouillon’s murder is an escalation in violence over abortion. On top of the recent tragedy, it has added an utterly avoidable injury — by equating a random shooting with a sustained and intentional campaign of intimidation, harassment and violence by anti-choice forces, it disregards the dangerous and sometimes, deadly environment in which abortion providers operate daily.  What journalists must remember is that a trumped-up “balance” in their reporting can actually cover up the truth, distort the meaning of violent acts like this one, and do far more harm than good.

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