Cables covered Operation Rescue protests without noting group's controversial past

As part of their coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News devoted substantial airtime to a March 23 demonstration organized by anti-abortion group Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, which was protesting the court-sanctioned removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. But none of the three news outlets provided background on the group, which was founded by anti-abortion extremist and Schindler family spokesman Randall Terry.

Under Terry's leadership, Operation Rescue staged aggressive protests of abortion clinics, including “screaming and pleading with pregnant women to turn away,” “toss[ing] their bodies against car doors to keep abortion patients from getting out” and “wav[ing] crucifixes and scream[ing] 'Mommy, Mommy' at the women,” according to The Washington Post. The Post further noted that Terry “described Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger, as a 'whore' and an 'adulteress' and arranged to have a dead fetus presented to Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.” The New York Times reported on August 14, 1993, that "[i]n his radio appearances, Mr. Terry said of [abortion provider] Dr. [Warren] Hern: 'I hope someday he is tried for crimes against humanity, and I hope he is executed.' " The Times added that “Coming just five months after an anti-abortion protester [Michael Griffin] shot and killed the doctor [David Gunn] in Florida, Mr. Terry's words were construed by many abortion rights groups as a call to violence." According to an August 7, 1994, report on CBS' 60 Minutes, Terry entreated his followers “to pray for either the salvation or the death” of Hern. The New York Times also noted on November 8, 1998, that Terry “filed for bankruptcy ... in an effort to avoid paying massive debts owed to women's groups and abortion clinics that have sued him.”

Currently, Operation Rescue is part of a dual organization, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America. According to a June 22, 2003, article in the Charlotte Observer, the Rev. Phillip “Flip” Benham took over the organization from Terry in 1994 and changed the name to Operation Save America in 1999, though the group “uses the names Operation Rescue and Operation Save America interchangeably in literature.” Benham spoke at the March 23 demonstration, and both CNN and Fox News showed his comments live. The article also noted that "[p]hotos showing Benham being arrested at clinic demonstrations hang on his office walls, and he's been jailed for months at a time," adding that under Benham's leadership, “Members' activities range from stroller parades outside abortion clinics to a man who was arrested after he sneaked into a clinic.” It also described a T-shirt available for purchase on the group's website:

They are black, with the word “Intolerant” branded across the front in big, white letters. In smaller print is a John 14:6 passage: “I am the way, the truth, the life ...” On the back: “Homosexuality is a sin. Islam is a lie. Abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white.”

None of the networks discussed the group's history or that of either Terry or Benham, and only CNN, which devoted about 20 minutes to covering the protest, identified Benham by name. As Benham spoke loudly to the assembled protesters and media organizations, CNN national correspondent Bob Franken reported live and identified Benham as “a representative of Operation Rescue.” Apart from CNN's on-screen digital display, which also noted that Benham was from Operation Rescue, CNN did not mention the group's name again.

MSNBC and Fox News both identified the group only as “Operation Save America.” On MSNBC, correspondent Mark Potter reported that “Six members of a group called Operation Save America” were arrested for trespassing when they stepped onto the grounds of the Schiavo's hospice. Potter's report lasted about two minutes and provided no additional detail on the group's history. Fox News hosts consistently referred to the group as “Operation Save America” during more than 20 minutes of live protest coverage. Fox News' on-screen text displays noted that " 'Operation Save America' will try to bring water to Schiavo" and "'Operation Save America' attempts to bring Terri water" but offered no further detail on the group.