The Oregonian Inserts Anti-Abortion Rhetoric in Omagh Bombing Story

Jon Perr

In a Belfast courtroom Thursday, a judge acquitted electrician Sean Hoey, accused of the 1998 bombing that killed 29 people in Omagh, Northern Ireland.  But while coverage of the story in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK focused on DNA evidence, police incompetence and the legacy of past terror incidents, many American newspapers had a different agenda altogether.  The Oregonian and other news outlets instead chose to turn the Omagh verdict into anti-abortion propaganda.

In Belfast, Dublin and London, coverage detailed the ruling – and the reaction of devastated families - in the case Justice Reg Weir deemed "one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles."  In the LA Times, William K. Graham and Kim Murphy also reported the judge's disgust with the "slapdash approach" of the police, which led to the acquittal of Hoey.  In their story titled "Suspect Acquitted in N. Ireland Bombing," they wrote:

The defendant was charged with 29 counts of murder in the 1998 bombing of the shopping district in Omagh that left 29 dead, including a woman pregnant with twins, and 370 injured. [emphasis mine]

But that's not how the Oregonian, the San Jose Mercury News and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette presented the same Graham-Murphy story from the LA Times and Washington Post.  The print edition of the Oregonian (the online version ran only an AP account) ran the same article under the headline "Defendant Acquitted in Blast That Killed 31."  The Oregonian edited the paragraph above to read:

The defendant was charged with 29 counts of murder in the 1998 bombing of the shopping district in Omagh that left 31 dead, including unborn twins, and 370 injured.  [emphasis mine]

While Reuters, AP and another Washington Post piece only referred the 29 killed in the case (and thus the 29 counts against Hoey), the San Jose Mercury News mentioned only that the bombing "left 31 dead and 370 injured."  The Fort Wayne web site used the same language as the Oregonian (left 31 dead, including unborn twins, and 370 injured).

Clearly, the Oregonian and other news outlets made a conscious decision to inject the rhetoric and tactics of the anti-abortion movement into their reporting of Omagh.  Reprising the debate over the murder of Laci Peterson and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act signed into law by President Bush in April 2004, the Oregonian conferred personhood on the fetus where the law - and media – in Northern Ireland did not.  This slippery slope tactic of the opponents of reproductive rights may now be legally codified in many states in the U.S., but it had no place in the coverage of the Omagh trial.

The Omagh tragedy is a story of terrorism, sectarian schism and the legacy of colonialism in a Northern Ireland now finally enjoying the first glimmers of peace and self-rule.  Instead, the Oregonian turned it into an opportunity for pro-life propaganda.

  • ColorMeLiberal (unverified)


    Great post. And Dave Reinhard and Lars Larson think there's a liberal bias in the news.

    Let's see if the Oregonian's Peter Bhatia or Stephen Engelberg will respond to your criticism and provide an explanation. The paper always claims that their editorial position is not linked to their news division. Now's their time to respond.

  • Steve (unverified)

    Uh, rhetorics of abortion? You really had to dig a deep rock to find this one didn't you? How far below the fold was that sentence?

    Maybe we should have the state reveiw every articale before it gets printed so we have the approved terminology. Sorry, I forgot this isn't North Korea and we do have some freedom of expression.

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    Regardless of the above comment, I commend you for noticing the message-creep of the anti-abortion rhetoric. Great catch. Thanks so much for writing it...

  • Jon (unverified)

    To clarify further:

    1. The Oregonian changed the text of an artice originally produced by the LA Times-Washington Post to include a different casualty count (31) and the "unborn" language.

    2. They inserted a different casualty (31) in the headline of the story.

    3. The 31 figure is at odds with the actual charge in the case (29 counts of murder, plus other charges).

    4. On its web site, the Oregonian has featured not one, but two other stories from AP feeds that use the 29 figure:

    5. "Judge says man not guilty of IRA bombing."
    6. "UK shelves DNA test after Omagh ruling."
  • DJ (unverified)

    What shameless twisted logic. It is Jon in this case who is the opponent of reproductive rights. What Jon conveniently failed to point out is that the pregnant woman who died in the Omagh blast clearly had chosen to carry her twins to term, being just one month from giving birth. Those who took her life stole a woman's choice to give birth, and stole from a husband his wife and two children - children that were likely already named and had a nursery set up and waiting for them at home.

    The math here really isn't all that complex. There are 31 fewer people on the planet today because of the blast that occurred in Omagh.

    Math question for Jon: Had her twins been born premature at seven months, and made victims with their mother at the blast one month later, what would be the body count?

  • A Voice of Sanity (unverified)

    ... the murder of Laci Peterson and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act

    Misnamed if ever a law was. Conner was killed during a failed fetus napping, Laci died many days later also as a result of this.

  • Larry McD (unverified)

    Nice catch, Jon. The fatality numbers alone make the bias clear.

    I've lived in the circulation areas of close to a dozen daily newspapers - some better than the O, some worse - but I've never been exposed to a major circulation paper that does so many religion stories and features in other sections of the paper and does them with such regularity.

    As far as the comment by "A Voice of Sanity" - Bizarre is too conservative a word.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    OK, I understand your complaint that the O reported the casualty number differently than other media sources, and did so to place a subtly different shade on the story.

    But are you claiming that the edits were actually inaccurate?

    The article mentions the 29 counts of murder, which is true.

    The article mentions that unborn twins were among the dead, which is also true (unless you take the rather unscientific view that a fetus is not alive in the first place).

    And the article thus updates the "death toll" of the incident to reflect those facts.

    Biased? Yes. Deliberate? Obviously. Inaccurate? No.

    Notice that they don't say 31 people were murdered. Contrary to your claim, the O did not "confer personhood" on the fetuses. It simply acknowledged explicitly that those fetuses had been alive, and as a direct result of the bombing incident are now dead. One does not need to be a "person" to be a "life". Would the O reporting on the number of animals killed at animal shelters in Portland each year be an attempt to "confer personhood" on dogs and cats?

    For the record, I'm distinctly pro-choice (though admittedly I'm not an absolutist about it like some). Personally, I probably would have gone with the original phrasing of the report, if for no other reason than I'm lazy and changing it would require some effort. :-)

    But really, now. Who doesn't know that the O has a distinctly conservative editorial bias?

    If they report something that is factually inaccurate (which they sometimes do), that would be a legitimate cause for worry.

    If they make editorial decisions that you disagree with (as in this case, or in their choices of what to cover at all), then that is a legitimate cause for you to just stop reading the paper, no?

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    I have to say that I agree with the sentiments expressed by David Wright and to a lesser extent those of DJ above.

    The death toll was 31, and aknowledging that fact doesn't necessarily make a case for legal entityhood beginning prior to birth, let alone prior to fetal viability.

    Furthermore, DJ makes a valid point. The point of reproductive legal rights for women is to allow a choice, not just to grease the skids of terminating a pregnancy. Every indication is that the pregnant woman fully intended to give birth to the twins.

    Another aspect to this which further muddies the rhetorical waters is the fact that the woman's pregnancy was arguably past the point of fetal viability. And as we all know, the legal right to abortion is anything but absolute from the point of fetal viability and beyond.

  • Jon (unverified)

    With all due respect, the issue here is simple. The Oregonian and other outlets chose to change the facts of a story that originally appeared elsewhere.

    Questions raised above regarding fetal viability or the specifics of the mother's circumstances, while interesting topics of debate on their own merits, are not central to the discussion here.

    Kim Murphy and William Graham wrote an article for the LA Times. Their original article referred to 29 dead, which happens to match the charges in the case. (Most European press I quickly checked did the same thing.)

    But the Oregonian and other media outlets syndicating the Murphy/Graham story went out of their way to edit both the facts and the language. 29 dead became 31; "unborn twins" suddenly entered the piece.

    There is no question that this is a tragedy of immense proportions and that the families involved no doubt view the grim math differently than the N. Ireland legal system or most media accounts. And in the wake of the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act signed by President Bush (as well as similar states laws), this case in the U.S. may well have had 31 murder counts. It would have been described that way.

    But the case wasn't in the U.S. The authors of the original LA Times piece wrote one thing about the actual trial as it unfolded in Belfast. Unfortunately, the Oregonian, the San Jose Mercury News and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette instead chose to change the facts of the case, apparently to fit a political agenda. That kind of editorial intervention belongs on the opinion page, not in the news.

  • Rose Wilde (unverified)

    If the Oregonian and other newspapers made this editorial decision to influence the presentation of a story this time, who is to say how else they shift stories to convey subtle political messages?

    I appreciate the catch, Jon, and hope we have more keen eyed media critics who point out these tactics.

    "Who doesn't know that the O has a distinctly conservative editorial bias?"

    Well, there was a time that I didn't know the Oregonian had this bias. Only because of people like Jon did I learn to spot the biases. Why would I read this blog if I didn't learn something from it?

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    I agree that the central issue here is the editorial changes to a syndicated piece. That the motive for those changes was an anti-abortion bias may be a reasonable assumption, but it's far from a self-evident fact. Nor, for that matter, do those editorial changes necessarily constitute a case of "change the facts" as you asserted.

    If the editorial changes reveal political/ideological axe grinding by the Oregonian then it seems to me that by the same token your post reveals comparable axe grinding too.

    Simply noting the changes and openly questioning the purpose of those changes would have been an objective criticism.

  • (Show?)

    And it is also repeating propaganda to repeat the terms favored by those who would like to have Bill Frist and Rick Santorum in the exam room, having the last word, as women and their doctors try to make medical decisions. As you did at the end of your post. These folks aren't pro-life. They are simply anti-abortion. Actually, they are mostly against a woman's autonomy. They are also against medical privacy. They are for politicians practicing medicine without licenses. It's all about control.

    Back in April when the Supreme Court ruled regarding a certain rare abortion procedure, the Oregonian inserted the preferred right wing, non-medical term for it whenever possible. It put it in parentheses, as if in explanation, in letters to the editor so that it would appear even when the letter writer didn't use it. In commentary opposing the ruling, it used the term in the headline. It made sure that the propaganda term appeared every time. There's no way that's accidental.

  • Chuck (unverified)

    The Oregonian is admittedly a Republican newspaper in a Democratic state. Do you really expect to read anything different? Lon Maybon may as well be the publisher at the helm.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Jon, really man, you've got to stop watching for the black helicopters. The story was unbiased and accurate. It did present the facts in a slightly different pattern, but really anti abortion? that is quite a steetch.

    Remember that the abortion/reproductive rights issue is about evenly split. the Lacy Petersen case even charged Scott Petersen w/the death of the unborn child due to the proximity to birth. Regardless, the real story here was 29 people dead, two unborn children never alive and a bomber walking free in the centuries old problem in Northern Ireland.

    That, my friend, is the story.

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    Here's the way I think about defining "pro-life" vs. "anti-abortion."

    Last year a ballot measure in South Dakota would have banned almost all abortions. It failed. Based on the interviews I read with South Dakota voters, those who voted no did so because they felt the ban was too severe. There would have been no exceptions to preserve the mother's health, or for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

    Some people voted yes anyway. Those people are truly principled and pro-life, and although I disagree with their point of view about abortion, I can respect them (rather the same way I respect Ron Paul for the consistency of his principles, even though I think he's a major loon).

    As for those who voted no but still consider themselves "pro-life," those people are poseurs. Their scruples about the ballot measure signal to me that they are more concerned about controlling the sexuality of women than they are about the sanctity of life. Think about it: if you are really "pro-life," it shouldn't matter to you that a pregnancy is the result of rape. But the rape exception is important to the poseurs, because it means that the pregnancy is not the pregnant woman's fault.

    That tells me everything I need to know about those people.

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    As for those who voted no but still consider themselves "pro-life," those people are poseurs.

    I can't agree with that because it's premised on a huge assumption coupled with ignorance of what makes many on the Right tick.

    There has long been a very strong libertarian streak running through the bedrock of conservatism. I personally know one woman who is to the Right of many Republicans, is staunchly "pro-life" and yet she passively supports abortion rights, based largely upon what a conservative Baptist preacher told her years ago about why he passively supports abortion rights. The reasoning is best summed up by the following quote:

    "He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself" - Thomas Paine
  • (Show?)

    Meanwhile, a somewhat inapposite but interesting example from the Baltimore Sun. Today's editions contained the headline


    Yes, technically, two lives were lost in the fire. But only one was a person.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)


    The Oregonian is admittedly a Republican newspaper in a Democratic state. Do you really expect to read anything different?

    Bob T:

    Oh if only things were that simple. Let's see, it's a Republican paper supports every light rail and streetcar project it can think of?

    Face the facts - it's a garbage paper interested in establishment things that are supported by both Repubs and Democrats, give or take a few.

    But ion your coloring book world you need White Hates and Black hats, and nothing in between.

    <h2>Bob T</h2>

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