When Morning Edition reported last week on a hearing in Kansas to impose stricter regulations over abortion clinics, New York University professor Jay Rosen objected on his popular blog that it was "he said, she said" reporting and "one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence."
The regulations, currently held up by a lawsuit, do things such as control operating room size and temperature and could cause two of the state's three abortion clinics to close. Abortion rights opponents justify the rules for what they say is patient safety. Abortion-rights advocates say the regulations aren't necessary and amount to harassment.
"According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims," Rosen wrote. "It is obvious to me that there's something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. 'He said, she said' does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks."
We forwarded Rosen's criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:
"I've covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.
"It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I'm covering. So, I don't do that, with abortion or other issues."
Rosen is a journalism professor whose provocative positions on media responsibility and new media have often succeeded in shaking up a sometimes hidebound profession. But this time he overstates his case.
Lohr's piece made clear that politics were at least as big a driver here as patient safety. By happenstance, this past weekend I was with a group of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, most of them women who favor abortion rights. Some of them had heard the NPR report and had no complaints with it. They felt it was an everyday story presented in a straightforward way.
Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment. If that was his concern, the public health experts felt it was sufficiently communicated. His criticism, however, does demonstrate that NPR's reporting comes under attack from both the right and the left.
The Atlanta-based Lohr, a go-to reporter for NPR on abortion issues, in NPR, is respected by both sides in the contentious abortion debate as fair.
All this said, while Lohr's report is not an example of the "lowest form of journalism," I would like to see NPR directly tackle the claims of operating room safety, instead of leaving the matter only to the courts. Such claims are apparently hard to measure, even though the Kansas abortion opponents say they have 2,500 pages of documentation supporting their claims. But the proponents of the regulations make no secret that they are pursing a harassment strategy up to the legal limit. As Lohr reported, anti-abortion rights activists in other states are trying to copy the Kansas tactic.
So to some extent I agree with Rosen. Such a report, however, requires a lengthy investigation. Who knows? It might find that there are indeed safety problems in some abortion clinics. A report earlier this year by Lohr found sordid conditions in a Philadelphia clinic, for example. Or the investigation might find that might find that the 2,500 pages of "proof" contain little of substance and that the safety requirements are silly.
Until then, Lohr's everyday news story is enough to hold us.