The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in a decision that will transform American life.
More pings followed in a blitz from the many news organizations I follow. As predictable as the decision was, the timing wasn’t certain. Lack of surprise doesn’t protect against shock. Journalists around the country — and much of the rest of the world — went into scramble mode, gathering reactions, throwing out planned pages and programming, subbing out enterprise stories with deep backgrounders, profiles and analyses on the gutting of a 50-year right in the United States. Any personal plans for the first weekend of summer, were no longer relevant.
I am no longer in the center of the news scrum. But as I scanned the other bits I had gathered for the newsletter, they felt as irrelevant, or at least ill-timed, as those weekend plans. What I planned to reflect on last week was the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the federal law that guaranteed equal rights in education, including access to sports. I have history with that, as a wannabe athlete who found part of my way in journalism through sports reporting.
But now my fingers froze over the keyboard. I lost my usual ability to tune radio news into a background hum as I write, a multi-tasking talent developed through 40 years of working in frenetic newsrooms. I could tune nothing out.
Language of foreboding
In the 213-page ruling, Justice Samuel Alito called the 1973 Roe ruling “egregiously wrong” — not just once, but at least 13 times. A U.S. senator from Washington state, where I live, said the decision will create “the first generation of women with fewer rights than their mothers.” National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg referred to the ruling as “the legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb.”
That last especially caught my attention as I wondered how the press, these polarized days, walks the wavery line that guards against sensationalism. But Totenberg’s analysis went on to echo a conversation I recently had with a friend. We were talking about the decision of some Gay Pride parade organizers, including those in Seattle, to disallow police in uniform to join the marches. I reverted, as I usually do, to questions: How does that square with the LGBTQ+ movement for inclusion and acceptance? My friend countered with his reality: As a gay man, he has never had a positive encounter with police, and many were threatening.
This friend and I are contemporaries in age. We came into adulthood and careers — mine in journalism, his in various forms of activism and service — in the 1970s. The list of social justice changes we witnessed is long: civil rights, gay rights, abortion rights, rights for the disabled, environmental protections. Now we ticked off the list of rights at risk. My friend fears that his marriage will be erased. We both question the security of the Environmental Protection Agency, equal access to education and separation of church and state. After five public hearings from the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol, we both marveled at the power of the testimony, but my friend declared, “It won’t make a damn bit of difference.”
That last prompted me to push back. Even if the work that is done in public, on the public’s behalf, doesn’t prompt change in the moment, I am unwavering in my belief that it needs to be presented and archived. A separate conversation with civilian friends earlier in the week turned to their weariness over following the news. I told them about my allegiance to the Reader’s Bill of Rights, which starts with the humbling knowledge that the reader has the right to stop reading whenever they want. That has long reminded me to consider whether what I write is clear and matters. Now I found myself noting that I wish the doctrine was really a Reader’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which would remind the public of its own role in the triad of government-press-public that has formed the supports of this experiment in democracy.
Is this an overreaction? That is for the individual, and history, to judge. I am a creature of my time and place and, deeply, of my profession. I cannot help but watch this moment as portentous of other news sure to come. Members of the working press have every right to be exhausted and dream of sweet weekend plans. But news of our times — the war in Ukraine, immigrants huddled at borders, economic turmoil, a predicted summer of devastating heat — is a clarion call for the need of an independent, vigilant and ever-present press.