Conservatives are outraged today that two “pro-life” activists have now been charged in California with 15 felonies in connection with their sting operation on Planned Parenthood. There is good reason to be incensed at the arbitrary/dubious enforcement of the law and the overtly politically-motivated over-charging of two people who seem to be, at least morally, on the “good” side here (recording private conversations vs. apparently trying to sell human body parts).
After all, California is obviously an extremely “pro-choice” state and the attorney general is a very liberal Democrat. Similar charges in Texas (not so liberal) didn’t stick, so it certainly appears as if pure politics has played a significant role in how this case has been handled by the legal system.
But there is another very important element of why California felt comfortable pursuing this case with such extreme vigor. That is their total confidence that the mainstream news media will support, or at least not push back against, them on this story.
In situations like this, the news media acts very much like a referee — or the weather. If a prosecutor knows that the refs will look the other way when they do something highly questionable, or that the wind will be at their back if they do so, they will obviously be far more likely to pull the trigger on such a tactic. Conversely, if they think that the media might rush to the defense of a potential target, they will be far more hesitant to push the envelope — or even pursue a case at all.
It is hard to imagine another situation where this is more clearly the case. Forgetting the rather clear-cut moral disparity between the two sides of this story, in situations like these the law in California, as I read it, seems to allow for extremely wide discretion when it comes to the prosecution of secret recording. There is so much subjectivity inherent in the exceptions to the law that it basically begs a prosecutor to pursue cases in their perceived self-interest and ignore those that are not.
Obviously, the fact that those being charged were on the “wrong” side of a highly-charged political issue played a huge role in the decision to charge them in such a draconian fashion. Does anyone believe that if the exact same sting had been done by animal activists who were trying to expose abuse at a zoo or a circus that there wouldn’t have been charges like these? Do you remember there being any outrage in the media when, in the same state, the highly unpopular Donald Sterling got “stung” out his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers because of supposedly racist recordings made by a person of extremely questionable character?
Of course not, because those making the decisions at both the legal and media levels do so based on an equation which has nothing really to do with justice or consistency, but rather on what is good (or least bad) for them in that particular situation.
Similarly, had the Planned Parenthood “stingers” been working for a mainstream news outlet — as if that would ever happen against Planned Parenthood! — the media herd would immediate race to condemn such a prosecution as being a dangerous violation of the freedom of the press. But since this was done by two lowly “civilians” — who have probably never even been on television and aren’t famous at all! — who are also “conservatives,” the California Attorney General need not worry about such media blowback.
In this situation, no one in the mainstream media is going to hurry to the defendant’s defense because the media no longer does such things unless it is in their personal self-interest to do so. Maybe I am being naive, but I do think there was a time when the media (at least occasionally) took on causes that they weren’t personally sympathetic with simply because an important principle was at stake (just like the ACLU used to do!). What’s weird about this one is that the media is so dumb that they don’t even realize that their own ability to do their job is effectively being curtailed here.
I am particularly attuned to this issue because I’m not only a conservative, but I am also someone who has been known to fight for extremely unpopular causes (occasionally with “gorilla” tactics). Specifically with regard to my fight for truth in the Penn State Scandal, I have been acutely aware that the rules of engagement and what I can get away with when it comes to my reporting is completely different from any other circumstance simply because, according to the media, I am on the “wrong” side of the issue and that therefore no one important is likely to come to my aid.
This became dramatically evident last year when I was arrested and charged with serious crimes for literally sitting quietly in my seat at a public event for which I had a ticket in my name. (I am NOT kidding!) Had I been a celebrity, or on the “right” side of the story, this would have easily made national news and been instantly corrected. Instead, I had to spend thousands of dollars and make a trip across the country to make sure all the charges were eventually dropped. In the end, I was forced to accept a ludicrous $100 fine.
I am quite positive that everyone involved in targeting me, knowing that the news media would NOT come to my defense (there was actually a news crew that got most of the outrage on tape and barely reported it), played a major role in them feeling comfortable in doing what they did. This same insidious phenomenon has greatly influenced other situations, as in cases where the options I normally would use to come to the truth are off the table simply because of my lack of popularity within the media makes me vulnerable to unjust punishment.
The realm of prosecutorial discretion is by far the area where the news media’s power, generally diminished in this era of fragmentation and Donald Trump’s phony war on “fake news,” is vastly underrated. That influence is now being used by the state of California to facilitate a potentially grave injustice.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.