Irrational Anger vs. Courage: Tiller Documentary Showed Faces of “Culture Wars”

Sarah Seltzer

Maddow's documentary showed us the thoughts and faces of the two groups facing off over the life and legacy of Dr. Tiller. On the one side were brave, stoic providers. On the other, frenzied, angry demagogues motivated by hatred.

Rachel Maddow’s documentary, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller,” was a very rare hour of prime-time coverage which was sympathetic to the pro-choice position in “the culture wars.” It accomplished this by attempting to clearly show how extremists on the anti-choice fringe choose to make those culture wars, as Maddow herself put it, into an actual war by turning their rhetoric into violence–or more perniciously by allowing more deranged members of their movement to do their violence for them.

In some ways the documentary was a letdown for an eager women’s activist community which wanted new information and new revelations. But in the end, it served a different purpose. As Jodi wrote earlier this week, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” wasn’t a film whose goal was to further edify us stalwarts of the pro-choice side who have immersed ourselves in this story for months, reading every news report and watching all the footage. Instead it was aimed at a broader, liberal-leaning audience, familiar with the basic structure of the horrible story of Dr. Tiller’s murder but maybe not with some of its more poignant and infuriating details.

These viewers might have been struck by Scott Roeder’s “revelation” while watching the 700 Club which turned him from a layabout to a fanatic. They might have felt overwhelmed by the relentless barrage of protest aimed at Dr. Tiller’s Kansas clinic, including repeated legal challenges that never held water in court; crazed, frenzied protests outside the door of the clinic; and most alarmingly, personally targeted messages aimed at making hardworking, dedicated clinic staffers into pariahs in their community. All of this information helps illuminate the fact that Dr. Tiller wasn’t just killed by a man, but by a movement which instilled that man with an evil purpose.

The medium of film–as opposed to writing or even news reporting– was most useful in vividly illustrating the anti-choice movement’s vicious modus operandi . This was quite a contrast with the fortitude and conviction and ultimately the pain of its health-care providing opponents. These two poles were seen on the faces of those interviewed by Maddow and her team, or caught on camera. Perhaps the most foreboding of these pieces of footage was the image of a distraught Roeder sitting in the back of a courtroom when Tiller was acquitted of trumped-up charges.

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When told through pictures and videos, so much we already knew was illustrated again so powerfully. There was the fortitude on the faces of Dr. Tiller and his staff, who over the years looked into the cameras without apology, defending their work. There were the deflated backs of the anonymous (and one courageous woman who showed her face) patients of Dr. Tiller who spoke of trying to get past the protests for an operation they’d prayed would never happen.

Also given physical form was the reckless, wild hatred coming from a group of people who announce that they are all about love of the unborn. Watching footage of the contorted, twisted, frenetic faces of protesters outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic as they were getting dragged away by cops or scaling fences, or getting a glimpse of Scott Roeder’s dead-eyed stare as he calmly announces that he killed Dr. Tiller because fetuses were in “imminent danger,” offers us a picture of just who these people are. They are a group who claim to mourn the dead and protect the living but instead spend their time, energy and emotions making already-living people fear death.

And many of them don’t have much else going for them. Scott Roeder in a lot of ways was a quintessential example of a person ripe for the taking by this kind of right-wing ideology. A failure, a deadbeat dad, Roeder found an outlet for his blanket rage by glomming onto the extreme right wing of the anti-choice movement. He claimed to be motivated by humanistic empathy for the unborn but couldn’t maintain his own personal relationships with his family.

It was particularly tragic and distressing to hear Roeder’s ex-wife talk about the last night Roeder spent with their son just before he killed Tiller, and how he seemed reluctant to part with his child. One has to wonder, why did he make the choice to abandon his family in favor of a pathetic version of martyrdom and heroism? Fueled by venom and spite, Roeder had embraced a bizarre cult-like religion and extreme political zealotry. In fact, he was so out-there that his former buddies in the Montana freemen militia thought he was too violent for their tastes. If his story didn’t have such an utterly tragic and chilling conclusion, Roeder’s life would be subject to pity-tinged mockery. Maddow leaves us to extrapolate that Roeder’s life exemplifies the emptiness beneath the rhetoric and the dogma on the anti-choice side.

Jodi noted that “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” left us to draw many conclusions ourselves–that Roeder was a neglectful dad, for instance, or that Randall Terry, whom her team interviewed, had a bug-eyed fervor, still hopped-up on hatred for Dr. Tiller long after his nemesis had been cruelly gunned down. As though he couldn’t let his favorite bogeyman go.

It’s also true that one of the biggest results of the short documentary was it left viewers wanting more: more on the women who came in desperation and were cared for by Dr. Tiller, more on the link between demagoguery and violence among extreme anti-choicers, more on what women in need will do now, more on the lack of law enforcement intervention before the attack, more on what’s being done now to protect other providers. But it’s my hope that that yearning for more information was felt by all of the documentary’s viewers on Monday night and will encourage Maddow and more journalists to continue probing into the issue not just journalistically, but by giving us that raw honest look at the faces of both sides of the debate which was so affecting.

Commentary Media

David Daleiden Is Not an Investigative Reporter, Says New Legal Filing Confirming What We Knew Already

Sharona Coutts

An amicus brief filed in a federal court case provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden's claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

Last week, 18 of the nation’s preeminent journalists and journalism scholars put their names to a filing in a federal court case between the National Abortion Federation and the Center for Medical Progress, the sham nonprofit set up by anti-choice activist David Daleiden.

From the minute he released his deceptively edited videos, Daleiden has styled himself as a “citizen” or “investigative journalist.” Indeed, upon releasing the footage, Daleiden changed the stated purpose on the website of the Center for Medical Progress to be about investigative reporting instead of tissue brokering, as he had earlier claimed.

The amicus brief provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden’s claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

“By calling himself an ‘investigative journalist,’ Appellant David Daleiden does not make it so,” the journalists and academics wrote. “We believe that accepting Mr. Daleiden’s claim that he merely engaged in ‘standard undercover journalism techniques’ would be both wrong and damaging to the vital role that journalism serves in our society.”

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The signatories included former and current professors and deans from the nation’s top journalism schools, who have collectively trained hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters. They included women and men with storied careers in investigative journalism, whose credentials to speak with authority about what journalism is and how we do it cannot be doubted.

Their message is clear: David Daleiden is not an investigative journalist, and what he did is, in fact, at odds with the fundamentals of our craft.

Daleiden’s motivation for claiming the status of an investigative reporter is clear. In order to avoid financial ruin and potential jail time, he seeks to cloak himself in the protection of the First Amendment, arguing that everything he did was in his capacity as a reporter, and that the Constitution protects him as a member of the free press.

In so doing, Daleiden threatens to inflict yet more damage than his campaigns have already done, this time to the field of journalism. For if the court were to accept Daleiden’s claims, it would be endorsing his message to the public—that journalists routinely lie, break the law, get people drunk in order to elicit information, and distort quotes and video footage so dramatically that people appear to be saying the exact opposite to what they said. What hope would reporters then have of preserving the already tenuous trust that the public places in our word and our work?

This is not the first time some of the nation’s most decorated reporters have carefully reviewed Daleiden’s claims and the techniques he used to gather the footage for his videos, and concluded that he is not a reporter.

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled “Why the undercover Planned Parenthood videos aren’t journalism,” which was based on the results of a collaboration between the Los Angeles Times and the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate program in journalism.

That study was led by Lowell Bergman, a legendary investigative reporter whose career over the past few decades has been symbiotic with the evolution of the field. Bergman’s team and the LA Times concluded that:

Daleiden, head of the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, and his associates contend that they were acting as investigative journalists, seeking to expose illegal conduct. That is one of their defenses in lawsuits brought by Planned Parenthood and other groups, accusing them of fraud and invasion of privacy.

But unpublicized footage and court records show that the activists’ methods were geared more toward political provocation than journalism.

The team found what we already knew: Daleiden and his co-conspirators attempted to plant phrases in their targets’ mouths in the hopes of making them sound bad, hoping to drum up “political pressure,” according to a memo obtained by Bergman’s group that Daleiden wrote to his supporters. The activists’ use of fraud was so extensive and enthusiastic, and their deliberate splicing of videos so manipulative and dishonest, that they in no way reflected the methods or goals of real reporters.

The brief submitted in the NAF lawsuit last week echoes these findings and resoundingly makes the same point: Daleiden is not an investigative reporter. The main arguments in the brief boil down to the following, which can be understood as the pillars of investigative journalism:

  • Reporters do not falsify or distort evidence. Daleiden spliced and manipulated his videos and transcripts to give the false impression that they captured illegal conduct. A reporter’s job is to uncover and convey the truth, not to concoct false claims and peddle them as facts.
  • Reporters must use deception as a last resort, not a first resort, if they use it at all. Any use of deception—even in the service of obtaining the truth—tends to undermine the public’s trust in any of the reporter’s work. For this reason, even investigations that have uncovered serious abuses of power are often criticized, if not condemned, by the profession if they have obtained their information through deceptive means. As the brief noted, in 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times was barred as a finalist from the Pulitzer Prize because the truth it exposed was obtained through elaborate deception—Sun-Times reporters opened a bar called The Mirage for the purposes of documenting very real public graft. No one doubted that the evidence they found was both true and of great public importance. But, led by Ben Bradlee, the journalism establishment rejected the Sun-Times’ use of deception because of the long-term damage it would cause to the profession.
  • Reporters follow the law. Daleiden and his co-conspirators created fake government identification which they used to gain access into private events. No legitimate news organization would permit their reporters to take such steps.
  • Reporters do not deceive subjects into making statements to support a “predetermined theory.” Daleiden used alcohol to try to manipulate subjects into using words and phrases that he believed would sound bad on tape. Real journalists try to report against their own biases, instead of manufacturing evidence to prove their own theories.
  • Reporters seek to highlight or prevent a harm to the public. Daleiden caused great harm but exposed none.

A point that wasn’t mentioned in the legal filings is that Daleiden failed to follow a rule that student journalists learn in their first weeks of school: You must afford the subject of your reporting a full opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them. Daleiden’s videos came as a surprise attack against Planned Parenthood and NAF (but not, apparently, to certain Republican members of Congress). No reputable reporter would conduct herself in such a fashion. That is an ambush, not an article.

To many readers, these arguments may seem academic. But the reality is that real reporters take their obligations more seriously than the public might realize, to the point of risking—and sometimes losing—their lives in the service of this job, which many consider to be a calling.

One of the best investigative reporters of my generation, A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, recently reported on a group of assassins that operated on U.S. soil in the 1980s, who murdered Vietnamese-American journalists for political reasons.

To report that story, Thompson attended events held by members of the groups he believed to be linked to—or were actual parts of—these networks of killers. He did phone interviews with them. He met with them in person. And he did all of that on camera, using his real name.

Make no mistake: Thompson potentially put his life at risk to do this work, but he did it because he believed that these men had been able to murder his fellow reporters with impunity, and with possible—if tacit—support from the U.S. government.

Contrast that to Daleiden’s conduct. As noted in the legal brief:

Daleiden may think Planned Parenthood kills babies, but there was no risk whatsoever that its managers would have killed him, or even slapped him, if he approached them openly.

Daleiden’s arguments are, in some ways, the natural extension to the existential crisis that gripped journalism more than a decade ago, with the rise of blogging. What followed was a years-long debate over who could be labeled a “journalist.” The dawn of smartphones contributed to the confusion, as nearly anyone could snap a photo and publish it via Twitter.

It is therefore a tonic to read these clear defenses of the “what” and “why” of investigative journalism, and to see luminaries of the field explaining that journalism is a discipline with norms and rules. When these norms are articulated clearly, it is easy to show that Daleiden’s work does not fall within journalism’s bounds.

At times like this, the absence of David Carr’s raspy voice makes itself painfully felt. One can only imagine the field day he would have with Daleiden’s pretensions to be committing acts of journalism. Judging by this legendary exchange between Carr and Shane Smith, one of the founders of VICE news, from Page One, the 2011 documentary about the New York Times, Carr would not have minced words.

The exchange came after Smith’s self-aggrandizing assessment of his team’s work covering Liberia—where they uncovered cannibalism and a beach that locals were using as a latrine—and then mocked the New York Times’ coverage of the country.

Here’s Carr:

Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and went and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.

To paraphrase: Just because Daleiden got some hidden cameras and editing software, and called himself a reporter, doesn’t mean he was doing journalism.

It’s important that both the public and the courts recognize that reality.

Disclosures: A.C. Thompson is a former colleague of the author. The author also appeared, extremely briefly, in the Page One documentary. 

Culture & Conversation Media

TRAP Laws and the Abortion ‘Crisis’: A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Tina Vasquez

Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.

Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.

In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countlessand often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.

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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?

Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.

Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.

The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.

Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.

Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that caseEven if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?

DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.

Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?

DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities areI guess the most charitable way to describe itunpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.

We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.

Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?

DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of itcould be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.

To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.

When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?

DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.

Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.

We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?

Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.

Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?

DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?

DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.

Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?

DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.

We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.

Anti-choice people target the children of abortion providers. They target them at home. This is a hard job if you want to have a life. I mean that literally too—if you literally want to have your life.

This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.

The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.

Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?

DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.

These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.