Over the last two months, we have been doggedly reporting on the newest efforts to destroy reproductive and sexual health care in the United States. We’ve published well over 30 stories on the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), a sham company set up with the express purpose of destroying Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as part of a longer-term effort to eliminate public funding for all sexual and reproductive health care.
Last night, as many know, we published a piece on the background of Holly O’Donnell, the former StemExpress employee featured as a so-called whistle-blower in one of the numerous videos created and edited by CMP. That and other videos have been used to fuel a new wave of attacks on federal and state funding of Planned Parenthood and to create a public panic about fetal tissue donation that has already affected public health—and will continue to do so for years to come.
The O’Donnell piece, which has now been taken down, was controversial and upset a number of our colleagues and allies. Indeed, there was vociferous internal disagreement even on our staff about the piece.
As with everything we publish, I am responsible for the final product and therefore both for explaining the rationale behind what we do when sincere questions are raised as well as admitting when we’ve made errors. I therefore take full responsibility for what was an ill-considered decision to publish this article. I apologize unequivocally for the publication of the article in the first place and the unintentional though understandable assertion that it was meant to shame people for sex.
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Rewire is devoted to evidence-based reporting on sexual and reproductive health and justice. One part of our mandate is to influence other media reporting on these issues for the sake of accuracy and to fight against the false equivalencies around sex, sexuality, and reproduction represented in so much of media today. Another part of our mandate is to fight back against false narratives perpetuated by the anti-choice movement. These and our other goals mean we are making decisions, often quick ones, about how and what to report with integrity.
The far right, of which the anti-choice movement is a central part, focuses on shaming people who engage in sex for pleasure, for managing their fertility, or for loving whom they love. The obsessive focus of the right on eliminating access to birth control and abortion is but one part of this agenda. The movement works assiduously to deny millions of people throughout this country access to critical health care and sexual agency whether through fighting access to birth control under the ACA, denying women access to safe abortion care, denying same-sex couples the right to adopt, or denying health care to transgender persons. Their daily work is based on stigma and shame—of women, sex workers, LGBTQ persons, and youth—or really anyone who exercises sexual agency and seeks sexual pleasure on their own terms.
Our reporting on O’Donnell was intended to focus on the hypocrisy of a person who has and wants to enjoy sexual freedom and autonomy all while seeking to deny this right to others. Full stop.
We believed answers to the question, “Who is Holly O’Donnell,” were germane to the political debate in which she has placed herself front and center, and from which she has never sought to recuse herself in the weeks since the videos including her came out.
That said, our piece clearly crossed a line by providing far too much information about her personal life, which in turn made it seem like we were engaging in the same practice of shaming someone for sex we decry on the right. Targeting O’Donnell’s personal life is, unlike, say, Josh Duggar, unlikely to influence public perceptions of the anti-choice movement as a whole. To target her and open her up to harassment based on her sexual preferences was wrong.
It was also a mistake to include these preferences framed in a similar light as her apparent fascination on public social media accounts with Adolf Hitler, as if all of those behaviors were equal.
During the course of our work following this story, we have found and reported on the actual and false identities of the perpetrators of the sham videos disseminated by CMP and on their allegedly illegal activities now under investigation by the state of California. We’ve reported on the background of David Daleiden, the head of CMP, and on his use of the name of one of his high school acquaintance’s without their knowledge for the purposes of procuring a false driver’s license to infiltrate meetings with medical professionals. We’ve investigated the backgrounds of everyone affiliated with CMP we could find. And we’ve consistently reported these findings as would any other journalistic enterprise. That is our job. Reporting on O’Donnell’s personal dating life was not part of our job.
Again, I take full responsibility for these mistakes and we have recommitted ourselves to and reinforced the editorial processes we normally have in place to ensure these kind of things do not happen.
We understand that at times, as a publication, we may either disappoint or anger people, or we may make mistakes, for which we will take responsibility. We also understand that at times our assessment of what is fair reporting may differ from others. We deeply respect and appreciate the opinions of all of those engaged in assuring that everyone in the world can exercise their basic human rights, including to a healthy, safe, consensual sex life, and do not wish to suggest otherwise.
UPDATE, August 21, 2:29 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify the author’s response to the piece’s publication.