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Politics

Why Mother Jones' article about a Missouri abortion bill is regionalistic, sensational and worthless

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Editorial from KBIA News Director Ryan Famuliner

Mother Jones published an article Wednesday about Missouri House Bill 131, a bill proposed by Republican Rick Brattin from Harrisonville. It’s mandatory reading for what follows to make much sense.

As Mother Jones’ Molly Redden describes, Brattin’s bill would require a woman to get written, notarized consent from the father of the unborn child before getting an abortion.

I’ve been a statehouse reporter. November to mid-January is a very difficult time to be one of those. The election is over, and the next legislative session has yet to start. So there is little news to cover, but your editors still need stories, especially to help cover the very content-dry holidays. It is easy to fall in to the trap of covering a pre-filed bill. It’s been filed, so there’s a chance it might come up in the legislative session. It could be news later! But that’s about it. To stand up to the test of whether a story is newsworthy or not, there needs to be other information that will support the idea that this will be a story later, or is now because of the political implications.

Redden seems to realize this in her article. So early in her story, she includes a quote from Brattin about how there are exceptions for rape, and he uses the phrase “legitimate rape.” Redden reminds her readers that another guy from Missouri, former US Rep. Todd Akin, made this phrase infamous. Akin was running for the US Senate at the time, and before the statements, projections were that any Republican would resoundingly unseat Democrat Claire McCaskill. Despite appeals from his fellow Republicans at nearly all levels, Akin refused to give up his nomination for the Senate seat, which he won in a primary before the statements. In the wake of the statements, McCaskill resoundingly defeated Akin.

Importantly, if Redden’s story is actually about this bill that has been pre-filed, the rape and incest exception is a small detail. The reason it takes up paragraphs 3-7 of her story is undoubtedly because of the nature of Brattin’s quote (which is also in the sub headline of the story).

Maybe Redden realizes this crutch, so she decides to include this paragraph next:

“Missouri is home to only one abortion clinic, based in St. Louis. Each year, legislators target the clinic with dozens of new restrictions. In 2014, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours between the initial consultation and the procedure. It's the longest abortion waiting period in the county.”

The facts here are true. Planned Parenthood has 14 health centers in Missouri, but only one in St. Louis currently provides abortion services, the rest only provide abortion referrals and the morning after pill. Here locally, Columbia’s Planned Parenthood locations stopped performing abortions in 2011 when the doctor at the clinic went on active duty, and the center hasn’t been able to find a new doctor since.

Missouri's waiting period is the longest in the country, but it's tied with two other states (South Dakota and Utah). Fortunately the link in the story could lead a reader to that information. So while the waiting period is exceptional, it's not the lone exception, which the line above implies.

The legislature approved the 72-hour waiting period last session, and overrode the Democratic Governor’s veto to make it law. Republicans have held a veto-proof majority the last two sessions. This was a very important and interesting story three months ago, and it was covered very well a number of places in and outside of Missouri.

The problem with the way Redden uses these facts is that it is an attempt to widen out the impact of Brattin’s bill. It’s a wink a nod to her audience: ‘This guy has some very extreme ideas. But look at this state! They do this stuff all the time! So weird, right?’ It’s an attempt to put lump Brattin’s bill in with others that actually are debated on the state house floor and possibly passed into law.

This line of thought carries over into the following paragraphs, which mention that Missouri Democrats find this whole thing ridiculous and have tried to make that clear by introducing their own insincere bills to match those on the Republican side: including a ban on vasectomies unless the procedure would save a man’s life. I have few qualms with the following paragraphs which let Brattin respond to this idea, and attempt to answer basic questions about SCOTUS precedence for bills like his. Because, at its core, that is what this story really is. It should be about Rick Brattin, and an attempt to make it about anything else is a stretch.

Finally, in the second to last paragraph of the story, we stop hearing what Brattin has to say and hear about what he has done. Here’s what Redden includes:

“In 2013, Brattin sponsored a bill to give intelligent design and "destiny" the same amount of attention in Missouri textbooks as evolution. Brattin has cosponsored many anti-abortion bills, including several measures restricting medication abortions that passed the Missouri Legislature in recent years. His latest bill, which would allow a man to veto a woman's decision to get an abortion, is identical to a measure Brattin proposed in April that died in committee.”

The penultimate paragraph is the first time that we learn that the story we are reading is actually a year old. Worse than that, we have precedence to believe that there is a low likelihood that this will be an issue that is voted on next year. It was not seen as important enough to even vote on last year.

There is, however, more information that is important to this conversation, especially to a national audience trying to understand how likely it is this becomes law. Brattin is the primary sponsor of this bill. Best I can tell using data from Access Missouri and his State House profile, he has been the primary sponsor on 49 bills since 2011, and only two of them that have become law in Missouri. One is Chloe’s Law, a bill that would require every child born in this state to be screened for critical congenital heart disease with pulse oximetry. It is a bill that was actually first introduced before Brattin was even in the legislature. But he did help carry it to the finish line in 2013.

The other bill became law in 2013, again, only after the Republican-led legislature overrode Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s veto. It is a bill that ensures that “No state or local governmental entity, public building, public park, public school, or public setting or place shall ban or otherwise restrict the practice, mention, celebration, or discussion of any federal holiday.” Brattin has said it was meant to protect attempts to wipe out public references to religion for holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. He had 12 cosponsors on that bill. He has 3 so far on the bill Redden is writing about.

Brattin does not hold a leadership role in the State House. He actually was appointed House Majority Floor Whip as a freshman legislator in 2010, but has not returned to a leadership role after that first session. He's not even a chairman of a house committee (just two vice-chairmanships on redundant committees).

Let’s go back to square one, now. This is a story about a bill that has been pre-filed. But we know that the same bill got virtually no traction the previous legislative session. And we know that this legislator does not have a track record of consistently crafting legislation that will become law. And he has no physical evidence of clout in the current Republican leadership. So why is this a story again?

An acceptable answer is that this is an important issue that deserves dialogue. But I would contend that articles like Redden’s do that at the expense of reinforcing regionalistic stereotypes that actually limit dialogue in the long-run. A dialogue with a Missourian or someone else in the Midwest that starts from a conversation about a bill that will not become law limits the value of a conversation that could possibly have positive ramifications for the issue. I’ve harped on this before, and unfortunately articles like these from national outlets are not uncommon. Let me be clear, I’m not saying no one from other places in the country can cover bad stories about Missouri. There are lots of controversial stories here that are legitimately important to inform a national audience about. But the content and framing of Redden’s story does not meet that muster, in my opinion. 

The stories we decide to write as journalists and the way we frame the information inside those stories can have significant impact on public opinion about the issues, but even more so I believe, impact on opinions about the places where these stories occur. So I believe stories like this one can actually be counterproductive to meaningful dialogue.

Another reason this may seem like a story is that someone with these opinions was elected to office, and the public should be aware of that. I would contend that if you were to spend time in any state legislature in the country, you would quickly realize that not everyone in that is elected is an ideal human specimen. And you definitely won’t find that everyone has sets of opinions that placate the masses. You might also think Brattin’s election says something about the area that he lives in. I also think that idea is not based in reality. Ask ten people on the street, anywhere, who their state legislator is, and about their political platform. Do you know yours? Ignorance about the people representing us at the state level is a huge problem, especially considering the focus that is being put on forcing legislation through at the state level rather than trying to deal with a stalemate in Congress. Here at KBIA we’re trying to help address that problem with Access Missouri (shameless second plug). And oh yeah, also, in 2014, Brattin ran unopposed in both the primary and general election. Which is another local problem.

Of course, if this bill does manage to find its way to a vote in the next legislative session, the whole equation changes. And I'll eat crow.

The thing that Redden may not realize about this story is that she also got played. I was talking to one of my colleagues here at the Missouri School of Journalism about this story, and they summarized it well. When Rick Brattin pre-files a bill like this, he is basically a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum. When bills are pre-filed, they are largely to eithertry to generate attention or to advance the political conversation so there’s less to discuss when the session starts. Brattin is likely not concerned about the latter (or shouldn’t be based on the bill's chances). There’s also no procedural disadvantage to just waiting to file the bill once the session starts in January. Brattin was, simply, asking for attention here. And Mother Jones (and the numerous blogs that shared the story later) gave him exactly what he wanted. Whatever you think about Brattin, he knows the implications of using the phrase “legitimate rape.” Redden didn’t catch him in a slip up, he hooked her. But here’s the thing. When a two year old throws a tantrum, all you have to do is ignore them. And they’ll probably stop.

Ryan Famuliner is the News Director at KBIA-FM, the NPR member station in Columbia, Mo. He is also an Assistant Professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.