Over twenty years ago, before Fox News, social media, or the widespread use of the Internet, I was a college intern attending a Senate hearing on new legislation to ban a procedure called partial-birth abortion. It had been brought to Congress’ attention after an abortionist named Martin Haskell bragged about the procedure in a speech to his colleagues at the National Abortion Federation.
One of the witnesses at the hearing was the president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). He was a man who personally believed in Roe v. Wade, yet found himself in the odd position of testifying for the pro-life side. Planned Parenthood, with the cooperation of the national media, was publicizing the talking point lie that the baby coming out of the birth canal in partial-birth abortion was already dead from the anesthesia given to the mother. As a result, pregnant women across the country were afraid to take “anesthesia that might kill the baby.” Of course, as the president of the ASA stated, the only way anesthesia could kill the baby is if the doctor gave the mother enough to kill her too.
The Medical Director of Planned Parenthood for Metropolitan Washington, speaking on behalf of the national organization, defended this false assertion under oath. When pressed on this point, she finally broke and admitted it was a deception. The moment felt shocking in the hearing room. The representative of the largest abortion provider in the U.S got caught in a lie and caved before the cameras.
Across from me, the abortion rights side of the aisle put their heads in their hands and groaned. The hearing had turned into a train wreck for their side. But unless you were watching C-Span in the afternoon on a workday, you would never know about it. Only three major networks, plus CNN, existed at the time. The nightly networks heavily edited the hearings for their evening newscasts to present a false alternative reality to viewers.
They showed none of the anesthesiologist’s testimony whatsoever, still leaving pregnant woman throughout the country to wonder what mysterious anesthesia it was that could kill their baby. And Planned Parenthood? The networks showed the medical director’s boilerplate talking point testimony, but cut out the part where she acknowledged deliberately misleading the Congress.
I watched the news and read national articles afterwards and wondered: what hope would there ever be for the pro-life side as long as only four ideologically identical networks and a few establishment press institutions controlled the cultural narrative?
The answer to my question arrived rapidly in the following decade. Fox News launched a year after that hearing. Then the internet exploded and muckrakers like Matt Drudge suddenly one-upped the establishment press.
By 2004, “a guy in his pajamas” brought down a major network news anchor’s attempt to scam the public. New forces would be unleashed with YouTube and social media, sparking famous scenes such as Andrew Breitbart confronting Anthony Weiner at the congressman’s press conference.
In the pro-life world, undercover activists including Lila Rose and David Daleiden would explode the Planned Parenthood myths that had been so carefully constructed by mainstream media for decades. “Those tapes were edited! Those tapes were edited!” one fifty-something diehard once yelled at me about Daleiden’s investigative videos watched millions of times on YouTube. The woman could not recognize that the entire narrative she chose to believe about the abortion industry was in fact the media “editing” of reality for her consumption.
Now imagine if the same hearing I attended in 1995 had occurred in 2017. It would have been posted on YouTube and its most damning moments replayed on conservative websites and passed around social media. The more darkly comic clips (of which there were some) would have been turned into memes.
In 1995, outside of a narrow talk radio audience, a few major networks controlled the cultural narrative from the moment the hearing ended. In 2017, they would have lost control of the narrative the moment the hearing began.
And that is a significant reason for contemporary leftist rage. It is not political, but cultural. Politically, partial-birth abortion was a loser for the Democrats then, contributing to the exodus from the party of critical voting blocs like white Catholics. But culturally—when you turned on your television or opened your newspaper—the narrative belonged to them.
As John Zmirak and Jason Jones point out at The Stream, national news media also manipulated public perception of the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s. News cameras deliberately ignored police brutality against the non-violent, pro-life civil disobedience that emerged in that era. As long as nobody knew that pro-life activists, some as young as 14, endured dislocated wrists and cruel “pain-compliance” holds, such protesters could not receive national sympathy.
Today, many people simply opt out of left-wing news sources for their own alternatives online; old establishment presses no longer hold the same weight. The dog no longer fetches a morning city paper from the front stoop and most people cannot even name an evening news anchors anymore. The early television decades—when one anchor, Walter Cronkite, could command public perception of a story—are long gone. The fact that some liberals still talk wistfully of such a totalitarian idea is in and of itself disturbing.
As cultural control of national narratives continues to fracture, the left-wing psyche is fracturing right along with it. That is a big reason why at the extremes we are seeing violence against Republican legislators and conservative speakers on campus. Leftist delusions of control shattered in the past year and this has led to rage among some. And now Twitter and other social media platforms are increasingly trying to censor pro-life content.
This rage will likely only grow as establishment figures within media and other cultural institutions continue to watch their credibility crumble. Nobody controls the story anymore. That is good for the pro-life movement, bad for institutions like Planned Parenthood, and a guarantee of a wild ride for our country in the years to come.