Deceptive editorializing: looking at the coverage of the Planned Parenthood videos

The New York Times today issued a correction—16 days after the story—to one of its first articles about the Planned Parenthood undercover video story. The correction said that the original article, which was published six days after the initial release of the videos,

referred incorrectly to the timing of the release of what was described as the full-length, unedited version of the video showing a Planned Parenthood employee talking about how much clinics charge for specimens. The full video was posted at the same time as the edited version. It is not the case that the full video was not released until “after Planned Parenthood complained of selective, misleading editing.”

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Unpacking this shows exactly how badly the Times got this wrong, and continues to do so. First, how do we know that the full video was posted at the same time as the edited version? YouTube, which timestamps the release of videos; this didn’t require advanced fact-checking to get right the first time. In fact, it only required watching both videos. Second, “what was described as the full-length, unedited version” (my emphasis)? Are there allegations somewhere that the full-length video isn’t really full-length? Third, while I suppose the Times isn’t under any obligation to tell us this in their correction, what initially led anyone to believe that the release of the unedited video was in response to Planned Parenthood’s complaints? Fourth, why did it take the Times so long to issue a correction? 

Even worse than all that: the erroneous claim corrected here still stands unacknowledged at the heart of the Times’s July 22 editorial on the videos, where they say “The full video of the lunch meeting, over two hours long and released by the Center for Medical Progress after complaints by Planned Parenthood, shows something very different from what these critics claim.” [Updated: at almost exactly the same time as this was being posted, the editorial was corrected, removing the phrase "after complaints by Planned Parenthood"; other references in this post have been updated to reflect the correction.]

It’s true that there are important differences in emphasis between the short video and the full footage. I complained myself, one day after both videos were released, that C.M.P.’s editing had made it seem like the physician in the first video was comfortable with selling tissue when in fact the full footage showed that she repeatedly brought up the distinction between sales and compensation for cost.

However, by first publishing their editorial with an obvious and avoidable error, the Times helped build up a narrative about C.M.P. very similar to the one they critique C.M.P. for building about Planned Parenthood. They suggested that C.M.P. was never concerned about justifying their allegations until they were revealed as “deceptive,” just as C.M.P.’s short version of the video suggested that the Planned Parenthood physician was never concerned about the distinction between sales and compensation.

The difference is that C.M.P.—whether or not the edit of the short video can be justified—gave us the full footage and the transcript upfront, allowing us to argue about it. The New York Times gave us corrections 16 days later, and seemingly wants to shut this story down, with the charge of “deceptive editing” serving to close the case.

In my initial review of the unedited footage, I argued that C.M.P.’s editing for shock value and maximum impact obscured the fact that “virtually no one on either side of the abortion debate has motives as demonic as their opponents would like,” and that it tended to reinforce the pro-choice narrative about pro-life activists as unscrupulous and dishonest.

The Times’s coverage and editorializing on this story—stingy and slow at first, and then aggressively skeptical about C.M.P.’s allegations while deferential to Planned Parenthood’s denials and explanations—has reinforced the narrative about major media being biased in favor of Planned Parenthood and against pro-life activism.

With some important exceptions, the mainstream coverage of this story has been disappointing. Mollie Hemingway at the Federalist has been covering the coverage and also has been calling for the Times to correct their story and their editorial.

Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times op-ed pages, argued that the reason it is so tempting to look away from this story—and why many in the press have done so—is because looking at it clearly pushes us closer to “that moment when you start pondering the possibility that an institution at the heart of respectable liberal society is dedicated to a practice that deserves to be called barbarism.”

No doubt the Times’s editorial board could mount an argument as to why that’s not the case. But in order for that argument to be even putatively credible, in order for it to be an argument that actually deserves to be discussed, we need some confidence that they’re actually willing to demand real answers from Planned Parenthood, and not deceptively dismiss any questions brought to bear against them.

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