Homicide Takes Toll of Great Newspapers

“Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths.” With this front-page headline atop a three-page spread in its Sunday edition, the Washington Post initiates a three-part series describing not so much a serious social problem as the further decline of liberal journalism, as a once-great newspaper descends to the ranks of the gutter press.

The credibility of news organizations like the Post is already in tatters by revelations of either gullibility or mendacity. Now the Post seems to think it can salvage its reputation by posing as the champion of (what else?) pregnant mothers and children. The ploy is brilliant in its way: clothing an ideologically driven hate campaign in the cloak of compassion for motherhood. Perhaps they are acting on the advice of Adolph Hitler, who suggested that if you are going to tell a lie, you are less likely to get caught telling a big one. At least one conservative news organization swallowed it: took the Post’s left spin and re-spun it right: “The men who fathered the unborn children killed with their mothers are often the perpetrators of the homicides, after they have insisted on abortions but their partners have refused.”

Anyone who sees this as a defense of motherhood is as gullible as Dan Rather. It is an appeal to emotion and fear, an effort to terrify women away from motherhood by suggesting a “convergence of pregnancy and homicide” that does not exist. Already the series is creating hysteria on Internet forums.

The Post acknowledges it has not a shred of evidence that pregnant women are in any more danger of murder than anyone else. Its material is entirely anecdotal. Each installment consists of three pages of lurid, gruesome stories, with the names of alleged victims displayed in BOLD CAPITALS, like a war memorial. “Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings,” it announces. This is Jerry Springer journalism.

As Jack Shafer points out in Slate, the first word in the headline is a suspect journalistic crutch for creating the appearance of news where none exists: How many is “many”? The Post concedes that “the cases are not commonplace compared with other homicides, but are more frequent than most people know.” Arguing against what “most people know” (as if a Post reporter can be privy to the thoughts of millions) is another trick for sensationalizing the mundane into the illusion of news.

Though nameless researchers are invoked to lend the cachet of social science, the story is based on the Post’s own compilation of 1,367 maternal homicides over 14 years, less than a hundred a year throughout the United States, of which it estimates seventy are pregnancy-related.

The Census Bureau reports that 3.8 million women gave birth during 2002. If seventy were murdered during this year, a pregnant woman in America has about a one in 54,000 chance of being murdered. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, during 2002 there were 6 murder victims per 100,000 population, so the average American had a one in 17,000 chance of being a victim. It would appear that pregnant women are more than three times as safe as the average American. To deal with this, the Post suggests tripling the documented cases; even so, pregnant women are still safer than average.

Moreover, despite what the paper insinuates, the victims are not spread evenly among the population. As Richard Davis of Family Nonviolence Inc. points out, most victims live with heightened risk factors such as disadvantaged neighborhoods, financial stress, or partners with a history of violence, criminality, or psychological problems.

Even more questionable, the reader must wade through this massive article to discover that half the “pregnant” women were not, in fact, pregnant. This supposed slaughter of innocents is based on “an expanded definition of what qualifies as deaths associated with pregnancy – up to 12 months postpartum.”

This is cooking the books on a grand scale. First, it doubles the population from which the cases were drawn, so a woman’s risk factor in this expanded group is actually between one in 38,000 and one in 108,000, less than one-half to one-sixth the national average.

But more seriously, it suggests we are seeing something completely different from what the Post fervently wants us to see. Apparently able to read to people’s thoughts, the Post often reiterates that expectant fathers are perpetrating this mayhem to evade the responsibilities of fatherhood. “When husbands or boyfriends attack pregnant partners, it usually has to do with an unwillingness to deal with fatherhood, marriage, child support, or public scandal,” we are told. “If she goes away, the problem goes away.” But this makes no sense. Most perpetrators are arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to decades in prison. As Davis remarks, “The problem does not go away.”

What the “expanded definition” indicates is that most are already fathers who are more likely trying to exercise, not evade, the responsibilities of fatherhood. What the Post is clothing in sympathy for pregnant women is much more likely to be violence over custody and children forcibly separated from their fathers. A significant moral difference separates a man who kills to avoid fatherhood from a father who kills because someone has taken away or otherwise interfered with his children. Justified or not, a completely different dynamic is at work.

It is fairly clear that what we are really seeing here is part of a much larger phenomenon of truly serious dimensions that the Post both ignores and distorts: divorce-related violence. Drexel University researchers, seeking a correlation between homicide and unemployment, found instead that “the most powerful predictor of homicide rates in the United States are the divorce rates.” Most of this is directly connected with custody of children. “Judges and lawyers nationwide agree,” reports the California Law Week, “that family law is the most dangerous area in which to practice.” Dakota County Minnesota District Attorney James Backstrom attests that family court produces far more violence than criminal court. “We’re most concerned about the people in family court – the child support and divorce cases,” he says. “They pose a greater risk than the criminal defendants.”

While fathers are demonized in this series, they are far from the only ones becoming violent. Only days earlier, the Post itself reported on a mother convicted of trying to murder her husband “to gain custody of two young boys.” Of course, the Laci Peterson case is presented as typical. Yet the day before the series ran, headlines were dominated by a pregnant woman killed by another woman. Such cases are not mentioned in the series. The killers are apparently all (in capital letters with ungrammatical but dramatic stops) “Husbands. Boyfriends. Lovers.”

Further complicating the violence, as Davis points out, “Data document that one in four domestic violence homicides is actually a homicide/suicide. When the homicide involves both the children and spouse, approximately half of those homicides result in a homicide/suicide.” This too suggests a strong connection with custody disputes. The sharp increase in male suicide is largely custody-related, as psychologist Augustine Kposowa has documented in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This kind of distortion has become a pattern at the Post. In April 2003, the paper reported that “one out of every three women” experiences domestic violence. But the Post’s definition of “violence” is curious. The victims were “abused verbally, mentally, emotionally, and-or physically by their partners.” So most of this domestic “violence,” it turns out, is not actually violent. It is verbal, mental, and emotional (“or” physical). In other words, it is a violation of no law and not criminal but whatever the “victim” says it is. In fact, no evidence indicates that women are the only or even the primary victims of domestic violence, and a quarter century of academic research attests they are not. It is well established that most domestic violence arises during divorce and child custody. An intact family is the safest place for women and children. In another meaningless statistic, the Post claimed, “Child abuse occurs in 70% of families that experience domestic violence.” It is firmly established that child abuse takes place overwhelmingly in the homes of single mothers; in other words, a father is the natural protector of his children. The Post also claimed that “More than 503,400 women in the United States are stalked by an intimate partner each year.” But the US Justice Department defines stalking as any “nonconsensual communication.” Legally, according to DOJ, a father trying to phone his children is “stalking.”

Even more scurrilous, just before Fathers’ Day 2001 the Post launched a gratuitous attack on separated fathers with a similar front-page spread on some that allegedly became violent. By ranging through twelve states the Post managed to find twelve violent fathers, most of whom had their children taken away before they became violent. The Post falsely tried to create the appearance of an epidemic of violence by fathers where none existed. The fact that the Post must manufacture its case with lurid anecdotes and misleading statistics is itself a strong indication that it has none.

The Post is far from unique among once-reputable news organizations. In April 2003, PBS broadcast a tedious seven-hour documentary, which faithfully parroted one government cliché after another but never questioned the government’s official line on domestic violence, which is that it is perpetrated only by men against women. “Whatever the woman says is what we believe,” the film approvingly shows one police officer saying as a man is led away in handcuffs. At about the same time, the BBC broadcast an astounding ten-day blitz on domestic violence that Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail called “a propaganda onslaught…with men targeted for attack here by what might be described as gender fascism.”

A few years ago, bumper stickers were common in the Washington area reading, “I don’t believe the Post.” Recall that it was the Post that initiated the current wave of journalistic hoaxes with “Jimmy’s World,” Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but fabricated tale of an 8-year-old heroine addict. Post reporter Donna St. George is more subtle but no less mendacious and probably far more destructive.

For the consequences are not harmless. Similar selective use of evidence is used not only by journalists but by courts in custody proceedings throughout the United States, where fathers are accused of “violence” that everyone in the courtroom knows did not take place. These men lose their children, homes, savings, and future earnings, and they are incarcerated – all without trial and with little semblance of due process. Now they are even ordered to sign confessions on pain of incarceration. No one even denies this is taking place. Domestic violence hysterics only insist that, as always, the end justifies the means. No news organization exposes these miscarriages of justice in nine-page spreads or seven-hour documentaries.

Expect to see more reporting like this. The aim is to renew funding for the Violence Against Women Act, a massive expansion of federal police power that not only permits officials to trample federalist principles and Bill of Rights protections but provides generous financial incentives for them to do so.

This reporting fulfills the worst stereotype of hysterical women, and illustrates the damage they can do in positions of public trust. By publishing this pretentious spectacle, the Post declares itself to be a newspaper for such women. It is a well-known principle that when any institution becomes associated primarily with women, men will abandon it in droves. Myriad news sources are now available for men and women who prefer the truth. The Post is already said to be losing 4,000 subscribers a month. I suggest it is time men and honest women simply refuse to buy, read, or pay further credence to any reports of the Washington Post.

January 7, 2005