A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Two newspapers owned by Gannett, one in Indiana and one in Ohio, have humanized the new American reality about abortion now that Roe v. Wade has been reversed. And in doing so, they have highlighted the inhumanity of some partisan punditry.
On July 1, the Indianapolis Star reported that a 10-year-old girl in Ohio was pregnant, and because “the Buckeye state had outlawed any abortion after six weeks,” the girl was brought to Indiana for an abortion. The source was Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Indianapolis, who said she had conferred with a child abuse doctor in Ohio.
No further details about the girl or the alleged rapist were obtainable, even though some news outlets tried. In recent days, after President Biden cited the news report and denounced Ohio’s abortion ban, many conservative media outlets and Republican office-holders poured skepticism on the case, and some personalities flatly said they did not believe the 10-year-old existed. Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted: “Another lie. Anyone surprised?”
You know what’s coming next. On Wednesday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that a man has been charged in the case. Police say Gerson Fuentes, 27, “confessed to raping the child on at least two occasions.”
None of the media outlets that sowed doubt about the case were in court for the arraignment. Hardly any of them were even in the state. The Dispatch’s Bethany Bruner said she was the “only reporter in the courtroom” when it happened. “This confirms that the case exists,” she wrote on Twitter, sharing the link to her story.
Bruner said the Dispatch relied on public records to track down Fuentes. It’s “fitting,” Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple said, “that perhaps the biggest abortion story since the SCOTUS overturning of Roe v. Wade stems from regional/local newspapers, because that’s where the reporting on this issue will be playing out for months and years. A brand-new test for a hollowed-out American media sector.”
The doubters and deniers
Right-wing skepticism about the case bubbled up on social media last week and boiled over after Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote about the difficulty in confirming Bernard’s account. On Monday Fox’s Jesse Watters hosted Ohio’s Republican A.G. Dave Yost, who said there was “not a whisper” of any evidence that such a crime occurred. Up until Wednesday morning, “Yost was on a media tour casting doubt on the veracity of the story,” and criticizing the Indianapolis Star, Vice’s Paul Blest wrote. Segments on Fox also heaped suspicion on the Star’s story. The WSJ’s editorial board called it an “unlikely story from a biased source that neatly fits the progressive narrative but can’t be confirmed,” adding, “PJ Media’s Megan Fox was first to point this out.”
Once the Dispatch reported on the suspect’s arrest, Fox came up with other reasons to blast the media, and Watters credited his show with putting on “the pressure” to find the suspect, adding, “we are glad that justice is being served.” He plastered Bernard’s photo on screen and accused her of participating in a coverup. Then his guest attacked the Indy Star and its “abortionist movement.” One hour later, Tucker Carlson strongly implied that the identity of the suspect was shrouded in secrecy because, in Carlson’s words, “apparently the rapist was an illegal alien.” The suspect’s immigration status is now the focus of right-wing media coverage.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board attached an “editor’s note” to its unfortunate piece and filed a new editorial “correcting the record” Wednesday evening. And as for Jordan’s “another lie” tweet, well, he just deleted it.
There are so many untold stories
For more on this awful episode, check out NPR’s new report by David Folkenflik and Sarah McCammon. They wrote that it “illustrates the high stakes of both the new legal landscape on abortion and of reporting in an age of deep political polarization and mistrust of major news outlets.”
NiemanLab’s Laura Hazard Owen also wrote about the reporting dynamics on Wednesday. Her headline: “Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?”
The Dispatch is ready. Wednesday’s story by Bruner and her colleagues Monroe Trombly and Tony Cook not only contains critical details from the courtroom, it includes the broader context that everyone on every side of the reproductive rights debate needs to face. Like this: “An analysis of Columbus police reports filed since May 9 found 50 reports of rape or sexual abuse involving girls 15 years or younger.”
That’s a report almost every single day, in just one metro area, and certainly a partial count – underscoring a vast number of untold stories. The Dispatch story also notes that “the ability of Ohio residents to seek abortion services in Indiana could soon be curtailed,” since Republican lawmakers in the state are expected to enact new restrictions later this summer.
A 10 year old is being treated “as a political chess piece”
Editorial writers and TV talking heads will move on tomorrow, but the people at the center of this case will be changed forever.
Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg made a really important point here: “Even if the girl in Ohio remains anonymous — and the national media attention, the arrest of her alleged rapist and his naming in the press make that seem unlikely — she will someday know that her 10-year-old self was treated not as a person the whole nation had an interest in protecting, but as a political chess piece.” Shame on the nation, she says, “that put a 10-year-old in the worst possible circumstances through an unnecessary ordeal, and then argued about whether she was a hoax.”
Correction: Sarah McCammon's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.