Rewire

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4 stars
A good source of pro-choice advocacy journalism with a smattering of updates on other issues of concern to progressives

“Filter bubbles” of news consumption reflect divergent values. If you believe that abortion is murder, the fact that major US media are not continually reporting on the issue, and on the efforts by fellow activists, must seem like a grave injustice. Personally, I don’t believe that abortion is murder, so I can’t agree with that concern.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have given one of the best explanations I’ve ever found, looking at fetal brain activity as the chief characteristic that defines being human. Because, like them, I don’t recognize the claim to personhood in the early trimesters of pregnancy as even based in any kind of scientific reality, the grave consequences of denying women the right to make this decision on their own are the actual injustice deserving attention in my view:

  • the fundamental violation of body autonomy that any state intervention represents;
  • the association of the “pro-life” movement with terrorism against abortion clinics and doctors and intimidation/harassment of women
  • the intended and unintended side effects of anti-abortion efforts on family planning and women’s health services well beyond abortion (e.g., contraceptive services, STD diagnosis and prevention, etc.);
  • the increases in unwanted pregnancies (which in turn may lead to adverse outcomes for children and parents) and unsafe “back alley abortions”.

From that point of view, major media in the United States are not paying sufficient attention to the unholy matrimony between the Republican Party and “pro-life” groups (including associations with religious extremists who have endorsed anti-abortion violence). To the extent that media do report about the issue, it is usually about the work of politicians, not the real-world impact of their policy decisions. This creates a distorted picture.

If you share this perspective, then Rewire may be a welcome addition to your nonprofit news mix. Recently rebranded, it has been around since 2006, originally under the name “RH Reality Check” (archived contents). It reports chiefly on reproductive rights issues. With an ethos of intersectionality, Rewire does give some attention to issues such as LGBT rights, race and immigration, and economic justice.

Transparency and Compensation

RH Reality Check was part of the UN Foundation from 2006 to 2012. This may not be surprising once you realize that the UN Foundation (which is independent of the UN and supports its work) was CNN founder Ted Turner’s billion-dollar gift to the world. Turner is a long-time reproductive rights and population control advocate.

Rewire has since left the UN Foundation mothership and is now an independent nonprofit (tax returns). Like other nonprofit media, it is largely dependent on grants from foundations, which nowadays includes funders like the Packard Foundation, the Compton Foundation and the Ford Foundation [CSV file].

The Rewire website does not mention these sources of funding or provide a breakdown, and Rewire did not respond to repeated inquiries about funding and other matters. The tax returns do show a large increase in revenue from $1.18M (2013) to $5.95M (2014). At $181K, the compensation of President/Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson is not unusual for a nonprofit of this size.

There is no Annual Report or other statement of impact, and as such, it’s difficult to assess to what extent stories broken by Rewire have impacted real-world policy decisions or activist efforts.

Positioning

While stating its pro-choice positioning clearly, Rewire also identifies with the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Commentary and news content are distinguished, though news stories don’t shy away from value judgments. This, for example, is from a news story about Donald Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans in Sessions’ confirmation hearings largely dismissed his abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights, all of which are intertwined. [Emphasis mine]

Politically, Rewire is most closely identified with feminism. In 2016, it published a column expressing concern about harassment of Bernie Sanders’ critics by online trolls (adopting the “Bernie Bro” term and drawing parallels to Gamergate), but far from being a pro-Clinton piece, the article is a pretty nuanced feminist take on the subject. Later in the campaign cycle, editor Jodi Jacobson expressed frustration with the possibility of a Vice President Tim Kaine given his poor track record on abortion.

Content Example: “False Witnesses”

Rewire’s primary focus is in-depth reporting on abortion, contraception, and women’s health. A section called False Witnesses highlights “pro-life” activists who are sometimes cited as experts, but who (according to Rewire) are promoting false information.

To take a closer look at an example chosen at random, Rewire calls Chilean researcher Elard S. Koch a false witness for his efforts to discredit the well-established link between anti-abortion laws and unsafe abortions which put women’s health at risk.

After being rejected without review by The Lancet, Koch published his study in PLoS ONE, a journal known for publishing, then retracting a paper referring to the human hand’s “proper design by the Creator”. (PLoS ONE uses an expedited review process which does not examine a paper’s importance.)

After taking a look at the Koch paper, the Rewire analysis, the Guttmacher Institute assessment, and the Koch reply, I agree that the Koch paper draws unwarranted conclusions from the actual findings.

To make a long story short, the combination of rising incomes / improving education, legal access to family planning (including contraceptives) and illegal access to abortion-inducing drugs have helped bring abortion-related maternal deaths in Chile down, in an environment that has never been very tolerant of abortion. The remaining extent of maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortion procedures is unknown, because they are by definition part of a clandestine crime under Chilean law.

The Koch paper doesn’t refute the well-established fact that countries which experience large numbers of maternal deaths caused by unsafe abortions could reduce those deaths by legalizing abortions. Its findings only suggest that the long process of reducing unwanted pregnancies through family planning/contraceptives, rising incomes, improving education, etc. can also contribute to doing so.

As a “pro-life” researcher, Koch overstates what can be learned from the data, and those who use it for their purposes likely overstate it further. Nonetheless, I did not find the Rewire piece especially helpful in piecing this together. For example, Rewire doesn’t mention legal access to contraception and doesn’t talk about illegal access to abortifacient drugs like misoprostol, both of which are important factors in maternal mortality. Its essay reads like a he-said/she-said that doesn’t quite warrant the classification of Koch as a “false witness”.

Indeed, unlike a fact-check scale like Politifact or Snopes, a classification system that personalizes ratings by labeling individuals “false witnesses” is strongly predisposed towards a one-sided portrayal. This is perhaps understandable given that both sides in the abortion debate are “fighting for human lives” from their respective vantage points, but it’s an example of a slightly sensationalist bent that may not serve the most truthful journalism possible.

Content Example: “Fake Abortion Clinic” Investigation

Rewire also does in-depth investigative journalism in a dedicated section. A recent investigation, “A Window Into Texas’ Publicly Funded Fake Abortion Clinics”, is a good example. It is based on public records requests regarding Texas’ “Alternatives to Abortion” program and makes the case (with input from health experts) that this program leads to women being preyed upon by organizations that promise health services, but that are primarily on a mission to minimize abortions rather than providing care.

Given its pro-choice premise and use of loaded language like “fake clinic” and “anti-choice propaganda”, Rewire’s investigation is unlikely to reach the large number of Americans who support access to contraceptive services but not abortion, and who might be shocked by the taxpayer-funded proliferation of “women’s centers” that don’t provide much more than an ultrasound and a prayer. Leaving this aside, the story is an example of quality investigative work that sheds light on the consequences of Republican health policies.

Design and Licensing

When it relaunched as Rewire, the site shed a dated look in favor of a clean, pleasant and mobile-friendly design. Color and layout are used effectively to meaningfully divide content by topics and content types (e.g., news vs. commentary). As with many good designs, there are multiple ways to go to the same place, aiding discoverability of the site’s content and structure.

A lot of content is loaded on-demand, which causes problems reaching links at the end of the page, since new content may be loaded before you can click on a footer link (a familiar problem with the “infinite scroll” design pattern). The on-demand loading of content doesn’t work when JavaScript is disabled, rendering the site partially unusable without JavaScript. There is no commenting system of any kind.

The site prominently advertises an email newsletter called Rewire daily. Each email contains headlines and summaries of stories, linking back to the main Rewire site. The email database is likely also used for fundraising appeals, though I have not received one yet.

Content is under conventional copyright, i.e. it may not be copied or re-used without permission.

The Verdict

Rewire is without a doubt a useful resource for anyone concerned about reproductive rights in the United States, an issue which is especially relevant given the onslaught of legislative attacks in many US states and the hostile environment for women’s rights under the Trump administration.

As a news site, its commitment to intersectionality is reflected in its selection of stories, e.g., an in-depth investigation of reproductive rights may be posted alongside an update on the Dakota Access Pipeline. The underlying assumption – that different movements’ struggles deeply relate to each other – may benefit from more explicit explanatory context in some cases.

I was disappointed by the lack of organizational transparency (no reporting on impact, no financial breakdown, only a “we will get back to you” response to an email inquiry without any further follow-up) and with a slight tendency towards sensationalizing in service of its agenda.

Because of these concerns, I subtract 1.5 points off its rating per the review criteria. This results in a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 4 given that Rewire fills a niche of specialized journalism that is not currently occupied by other nonprofit news sources. As such, Rewire is now also part of the Twitter list of quality nonprofit media.

(March 13, 2017: re-worded paragraph in conclusion that relates to intersectional coverage)

(March 16, 2017: removed paragraph that referenced the #NoBanNoWall tag below the site’s logo; Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson clarified that it was a temporary placement as part of highlighting trending topics below the logo)

Posted under: Nonprofit Media