The media spotlight on a horrific crime in Ohio, in which a 10-year-old girl was raped, became pregnant, and then had to travel to Indiana in order to receive an abortion, also reveals the crucial role that local newspapers must continue to play in reporting facts on the ground, in contrast to national media that approached the story framed around right-wing, anti-abortion talking points and politically dishonest smear campaigns.
The actual work done in reporting on facts will be especially crucial in the wake of the action by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overrule Roe v. Wade, as media outlets will have to come face-to-face with the consequences of the extreme positions being pushed into law by abortion rights opponents. The times now require a clear-eyed perspective on exactly what these positions mean in practice, and not just more of the usual both-sides political coverage.
The Ohio case was first reported on July 1 by The Indianapolis Star, speaking with an obstetrician-gynecologist who works in the area and who came forward as a named source, Dr. Caitlin Bernard. The story was repeated by President Joe Biden during a speech on July 8, asking whether people believed “a 10-year-old girl should be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child? … I can’t think of anything as much more extreme.” Afterward, a constellation of right-wing media voices mounted a vitriolic campaign to deny that the girl existed. (And even after the suspected rapist’s arrest, some of them were still doing so.)
The Columbus Dispatch reported on July 13 that a suspect had been arrested for rape in the case, and a detective had testified in court that the girl’s mother had made a report to Franklin County Children Services on June 22.
How local media did its job
At the nexus of local and national reporting, USA Today Editor-in-Chief Nicole Carroll published a piece Friday on the work to verify the story by local newspapers in Columbus and Indianapolis, which are corporate cousins with USA Today as part of the Gannett newspaper empire.
“Columbus Dispatch public safety reporter Bethany Bruner knows how the system works,” Carroll wrote. “Each day, the Franklin County Municipal Court Clerk website posts a list of arraignments. On Wednesday it showed ‘rape of a child under 13.’ She pulled the file. The victim was 10.”
The local reporter then attended the arraignment, and was “the only reporter there” when a detective confirmed all the relevant facts. Carroll continued: “It was the case in which Yost — the state's top prosecutor — could not find ‘a damn scintilla of evidence.’ Yet Bruner was right there in the courtroom when Fuentes was arraigned. The truth was right there on the county clerk's website.”
In addition, The Indianapolis Star reported Thursday that the doctor involved in the case, Dr. Bernard, had reported the abortion to the relevant state authorities within the legally required period of time. The Star obtained this information through a public records request, contradicting a smear campaign against her on Fox News in concert with Republican Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. (Bernard’s attorney has now sent Rokita a cease-and-desist letter.)
How national media failed
Perhaps the single worst offender in the right-wing media campaign has been Fox News host Jesse Watters, who hosted Republican state attorneys general from Ohio and Indiana to deny the story and then falsely attack the doctor in the case.
Fox’s corporate cousin The Wall Street Journal also attempted to deny the story, relying on claims made by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost on Watters’ program. At every step, these right-wing voices seemed to disregard any notion of trying to find out for themselves whether the story was true, instead simply assuming it wasn’t and then expounding from there.
National mainstream outlets did scarcely better, instead bending over backwards to dignify the conservative response:
- The Washington Post Fact Checker columnist Glenn Kessler wrote a column last weekend, writing that with the “presidential imprimatur” of Biden’s speech, “the story has acquired the status of a ‘fact’ no matter its provenance.” An analysis by Media Matters found that Fox News cited Kessler’s column six times in segments that attempted to debunk the actually true story. Kessler’s work has also previously shown unequal levels of scrutiny between abortion rights activists and abortion opponents, clearly going easier on opponents while finding ways to penalize reproductive rights advocates.
- The New York Times published a piece Thursday titled “Facts Were Sparse on an Abortion Case. But That Didn’t Stop the Attacks.” The wording of “attacks” in the headline apparently referred not to the right-wing disinformation campaign targeting the doctor, the victim, local reporters, and the Biden administration, but instead to the criticism of Kessler and other skeptics: “People on the left were quick to jump on and criticize any media report that noted how little was known about the girl and the circumstances of the crime.” The focus should have instead been on the fact that every single right-wing claim against the case had been disproven as more facts came out.
- The Associated Press ran a piece Friday from media reporter David Bauder, titled “Ohio rape shows how a story can spread faster than facts.” The phrasing of the headline, as well as the use of a passive voice to describe how “there were already questions raised about the Star’s story,” all failed to put the main scrutiny on right-wing media and to underscore the reality that the original “story” had been confirmed at every step as more facts were reported.
The Times piece also contained a crucial insight from Amalie Nash, USA Today’s senior vice president of local news, on the distinct advantages that local papers have in comparison to national media. “Our reporter was the only one who was in the courtroom during the arraignment, and that’s someone who is in the community, who has sourcing, who is able to get there much quicker than somebody would be able to on a national scale,” Nash said.
Unfortunately, the Times buried that quote down in the 22nd paragraph, far below all the regular navel-gazing to justify national media’s failure to confirm or refute the basic facts of the story on its own, instead continuing to show deference to right-wing narratives that are cooked up while being devoid of any obligation to be truthful.
Fact checking for accuracy is important. But there is a substantial difference between verification to uphold news standards versus dignifying the right-wing denialism that the case even existed — or creating a frenzy that could lead to doxing a victim of abuse. Local media handled this appropriately, and national reporters should follow their example going forward.