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By Phil Lawler, Catholic Culture, Jan 21, 2019
It’s time for the pro-life movement to grow up.
The disgraceful treatment of students from Covington Catholic—and by that I mean the pell-mell rush of pro-life “leaders” to condemn innocent young men—illustrates a potentially fatal flaw in the movement. For much too long, some of the most visible spokesmen for the pro-life movement have sought desperately to be seen as respectable, to be treated fairly by the mainstream media. It’s never happened. It’s never going to happen. And it’s not a worthy goal.
The media pounced on an opportunity to treat a few teenagers from Kentucky as symbols of bigotry, on the slimmest of evidence. That was unjust, but not unpredictable. (More on that below.) Now that the truth about the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial has come out, the newspapers and network that vilified the Covington Catholic students are issuing perfunctory apologies. But the damage is done, and that damage is considerable.
Still worse, in my view, is the inexcusable haste with which many pro-life spokesmen leapt for the bait, joining the chorus of condemnation. Even before the fuller story came out, with videotape conclusively proving that the Covington Catholic students were victims rather than aggressors, the original footage provided no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. Sensible reporters, and sensible commentators, should have said: “Let’s look into this; let’s get the whole story.” Why did so many people rush to judgment?
As it turns out, the behavior of the Covington Catholic students was blameless. They were intentionally provoked, and reacted with restraint and even courtesy. Nick Sandmann, the teenager who suddenly became the focus of a nationwide hate campaign, has released an extraordinarily charitable statement about the incident. Their school, their diocese, and the March for Life should be proud of these young men.
Instead, the adults who should have protected and even applauded these students turned on them. Now some (and by no means all) of these adults are explaining that when they issued their first statements, they didn’t have all the facts. Of course they didn’t! That’s precisely the point. They were ready to condemn without waiting for the facts. And now they ask us to accept their mistakes as innocent—to give them the benefit of the doubt, which they weren’t willing to give to those teenage boys.
It was, again, a disgrace. But it’s a disgrace that begs for an explanation. Why were pro-life leaders so anxious to join in the general condemnation? Did they really think that they could gain respectability by denouncing (what was described as) intolerance? Did they think the media would treat the matter fairly? If so, then their naivete too is, at this late date, disgraceful.
“Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag,” said the memorable Mr. Dooley. The battle over abortion has been the roughest political fight of our era, and it would be almost criminally foolish to expect that our most militant adversaries, in this life-or-death battle, are motivated by goodwill. Seasoned veterans of this political battle, seeing the first short video clips of the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial, should have wondered whether the event had been staged.
Seasoned reporters, too, should have asked a few pointed questioned before running with the story. But if it is foolish for pro-lifers to expect fair play, it is equally foolish to expect fair treatment from the mainstream media.
Any notion that America’s largest media outlets are impartial on the abortion issue should have been dismissed after David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times—not a pro-life partisan—issued his definitive study in 1990. The mainstream outlets ignore pro-life claims, while acting as megaphones for the claims of the abortion industry. The March for Life provides an annual demonstration of the problem. Each year, without fail, mainstream outlets that routinely provide front-page coverage for leftist demonstrations fail to notice the hundreds of thousands of pro-life marchers. If they do give a brief mention to the March, the media grotesquely understate the scope of the event. This year, for example, we were informed by one major outlet that there were “over 1,000” participants. (Which is true, I suppose; and by the same token there will be “dozens” of people in the stands at the Super Bowl.)
Also, if they did offer a few column-inches to the pro-life marchers, major newspapers regularly gave equal coverage to a handful of pro-abortion counter-demonstrators. As the tenor of our nation’s political debate has become increasingly toxic, the counter-demonstrators have become more aggressive, more ambitious—and now, this year, more successful in conning the “useful idiots” in the media.
What happened at the Lincoln Memorial was a classic demonstration of Alinsky tactics: a staged confrontation, an emotional appeal to the media, and then a scorched-earth campaign to demonize the opposition. For a few days it worked. And to their shame, many prominent pro-lifers succumbed to the propaganda and joined in the group-hate.
So a group of teenage boys who had done nothing wrong, who had been chosen as an opportunistic target, were subjected to public denunciation. Powerful adults said that they should be expelled from school, jailed, barred from future employment. They and their families received death threats. Ideologues did their best to ruin the lives of young men who had, at worst, shown a bit too much school spirit.
And you did get the message, didn’t you? At the March for Life next January, some leftist agitator could choose someone you know, stage another confrontation, and try to ruin another life. Next year it could be you, or your son or your daughter. Let’s just hope—no, let’s do more; let’s demand—that next year the prominent people who claim to be leaders of the pro-life movement won’t join in the lynching.
Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.