12 April 2013

It's the serial-murder trial you've probably never heard of

This week, a wealthy Philadelphia doctor has been on trial for the murder of eight people. The case has numerous elements that each by itself could make the trial a big news story: infanticide, the apparent gross incompetence of government oversight officials, a clear tie-in to a hot-button political issue, unlicensed medical practices, body parts found in a refrigerator, incredible amounts of cash found in a raid on the defendant's home, accusations of prosecutorial lynching, even an undeniable gross-out factor. Yet chances are — unless you happen to pay attention to Philadelphia-area news media or read certain niche online journals such LifeNews — that you haven't heard of the trial. It's as if there were a media blackout against it.

The trial: Dr. Kermit Gosnell, operator of a women's clinic, is accused of third-degree murder for the death of a 41-year-old patient as well as murders for seven instances of infanticide, all (according to the grand jury) related to live births after induced delivery in what were supposed to be late-term abortions.

It's as sensational of a case as can be; if you want nightmares while in bed tonight, try reading the grand jury report. It is certainly more interesting than the Jodi Arias trial going on in Arizona and countless other criminal cases that are covered ad nauseam by the national media until the next one comes along. Yet a study a few days ago found that the trial hadn't even been mentioned on NBC, ABC or CBS, and that it had barely been mentioned on Fox and CNN. Coverage of major newspapers has been almost nonexistent; only in the last few days have the major news purveyors been saying much of anything — and those have been opinion pieces questioning where the coverage is rather than news coverage itself.

Partly because they see the trial has highlighting the lack of a clear moral line that separates infanticide from at least some abortions, some anti-abortion activists have been pressuring media in recent days to give the trial the coverage it deserves. But I'm not convinced that the reason for the news "blackout" has much to do with undeniable sympathy among journalism's elite for legalized abortion. After all, the politics of the trial cuts both ways: If anything, the existence of clinics such as the one Gosnell ran could be used to argue the case that he could do his dirty business only because these women didn't have ready access to earlier, safer procedures.

I'm not saying that the media aren't gun-shy about covering the trial because of the abortion connection. What I am saying is that I believe a much bigger reason for the lack of coverage is simple racism and classism: Dr. Gosnell's patients, and therefore the his purported victims, were primarily nonwhite (usually black or Asian) and/or drawn from Philly's struggling immigrant community.

I can't help but think of the woman Gosnell (through his staff) allegedly murdered: 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar, a Nepalese immigrant. To be blunt about it, pictures of Mongar show her as being not only nonwhite, but also not meeting our cultural standards of beauty. Imagine, instead, that a doctor had been accused of murdering an attractive, young white woman — say, someone who looked like Natalee Holloway or Chandra Levy or Elizabeth Smart. Would the major news media stay silent? I doubt it. It's easy to imagine seeing the woman's family and friends on TV talking about how great of a person she was. But who has there been to speak for Karnamaya Mongar?

No, Mongar was just one of those all-but-nameless immigrants that we, and the major news media, tend to look down on. And Gosnell's other alleged victims were literally nameless, and were conceived to women who were every bit as unimportant to society as Mongar was.

According to the grand jury, Gosnell provided his white patients with better facilities than those in which Mongar and the seven babies (or fetuses if you prefer the term Gosnell's attorney uses) died. By all indications, Gosnell lavished attention on his white patients but didn't give the lowly nonwhite and immigrant women who came to see him the dignity that they deserved. By ignoring this case, neither are the major news media.