Some readers of the Free Press print edition no doubt experienced a jolt Saturday morning when they opened up their newspaper.
There, on page A22 of the first section of the newspaper, where we publish mostly international news, was an advertisement from the Campaign Life Coalition Manitoba, an anti-abortion group.
The ad, which featured a fragment of a photo of a fetus, provided a very brief backstory of Abby Johnson, celebrity activist du jour in the United States anti-abortion movement. Johnson claims to have quit her job as an administrator in an abortion clinic after watching an actual procedure. Afterward, or so the story goes, she immediately began a life committed to opposing abortions.
“She was so horrified over what she saw that she resigned her position and has since become a leading advocate for the life of both the baby and the mother,” the ad trumpets.
On social media, Free Press subscribers expressed their dismay about the ad. “@Winnipeg News you’ve been had,” wrote palliative care physician Ted St. Godard, a past contributor to our op-ed pages. “You’re always at best a second-rate rag, but this makes it clear you’re just a voice for sale, and unworthy of my continued support.” Another reader – Lori Bird – might have said it best for those upset with the ad: “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s deal with newspaper policy first.
Overtly political advertisements have always presented a challenge for newspapers, which must always balance issues like good taste, fairness (of both access and content), bias and legal concerns such as defamation. In short, we are not obligated to run any ad we believe to be misleading, defamatory, or offensive to any individual or group in society.
On the other hand, we also need to be an accessible advertising venue for any group with a reasonable POV. Lamentably, trying to define “somewhat accessible” and “reasonable POV” can be challenging.
Even non-political ads present a challenge. Do we really know that a particular airline is “No.1 with business travellers” or a face cream is “clinically proven” to be effective? Commercial advertising has always stretched the truth.
Political ads are the most challenging, there is no doubt. During elections, when political parties are flooding media platforms with all manner of attack ads, it can be very difficult for news organizations — who still rely heavily on advertising revenue to make ends meet — to make a decision to spike ads from one party but allow ads from another.
Again, we want the Free Press to be accessible to advertisers with different POVs and cannot apply our own politics to determine that access.
In this instance, however, I think the newspaper, ultimately, must acknowledge that in an age of fake news and social media manipulation, our traditional approach might no longer be appropriate. In that context, I will agree with Dr. St. Godard (quoted above): to some extent, I think we’ve been had with the Campaign Life ad.
First, let’s take a deep look at Abby Johnson and her backstory, which has been pretty thoroughly debunked by investigate journalists at several publications.
The seminal work on Johnson was published in Texas Monthly (Media Bias rates Texas Monthly as left-centre in its bias and high on factual accuracy with a totally clean fact-check record.), which conducted a detailed investigation of Johnson’s backstory in 2010.
Nate Blakeslee faithfully retells Johnson’s story — that she left the Planned Parenthood clinic in tears about what she had seen and went down the street to a pro-life campaign office — and declared, “I want out. I don’t want to do this anymore. I know it’s not right.” Thankfully, Blakeslee’s reporting went far beyond Johnson’s claims and attempted to verify all the pertinent events and dates.
First, after accessing records from Planned Parenthood, there was no evidence the procedure Johnson claimed to have witnessed occurred on the day in question. He also found evidence suggesting Johnson left the clinic because she was considered a sub-par employee and latched onto the pro-life/anti-abortion movement as more of a career opportunity than a cause.
Blakeslee reported the director of the anti-abortion campaign office tried unsuccessfully to get her another job but “after her story went nationwide, Johnson didn’t need one. Carney (the director) helped her sign on with Ambassador Speakers Bureau, a Christian publicity agency, and the company began booking paid engagements for her. Her job became, in essence, being Abby Johnson.”
You really need to read Blakeslee’s entire article because it is truly a wonderful piece of investigative journalism. You can also read Blakeslee’s 2019 rebuttal of a piece Johnson wrote for the magazine The Federalist (Media Bias rated the piece as extreme right-wing in bias with a mixed record on factual accuracy based on “extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, poor or no sourcing… a complete lack of transparency and/or is fake news.”) in which she disputes TM’s original account.
As for the allegation that Johnson embraced the anti-abortion movement more as a business opportunity than a political or religious cause, I ask only that you visit her website.
On Johnson's website, you can order any one of her three books, or stream Unplanned, the 2019 feature film biopic based on her life story that was funded and produced by notorious right-wing conspiracy theorist and My Pillow huckster Mike Lindell. The Guardian called the movie “a dim-witted Christian drama” that completely misrepresents many of the issues, and procedures, involved in an abortion. “Abortion is a serious topic. This movie is ridiculous.”
Or, you could visit Johnson’s online shop where you can purchase anti-abortion kits and household products “we use everyday (sic) at the Johnson house.” These include pro-life inspired baby oils, lotions and wipes and a presumptuous St. Joan of Arc 20oz travel tumbler.
What does all this have to do with the Free Press advertisement and the allegation “we were had” by the local anti-abortion campaign?
Free Press editorial department honchos, including Editor Paul Samyn, did in this instance deliberate on the ad in question. Ultimately, it was decided to run it, largely on the basis that we did not have a strong basis on which to stop one side of the abortion debate from advertising in our newspaper.
That having been said, we probably should have dug a little deeper into the content. Johnson is a very high-profile player in a serious debate, but her credibility is seriously in doubt. Although credibility is not, in and of itself, a determining factor in whether someone gets to place an advertisement in the paper, it should be a concern.
We shouldn’t reject ads because we disagree with their political stance; we should reject ads that contain deliberately or dangerously misleading information that has a direct impact on women’s health.
When it’s all said and done, this is an excellent example of how long-standing newspaper policies need to be constantly updated to reflect modern realities. And these days, we may need to expect a bit more intellectual honesty from our advertisers.
One last point. Newspapers cannot be all things to all people and, as a result, we’re going to do things that piss off one side or the other in a debate. We can only be accountable for every decision we make, good or bad.
In this instance, I will argue that the existence of this newsletter is proof that we are not afraid to talk about what we do, and how we do it. And that’s not nothing.