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Eight More Than Enough: Media create, then condemn, “Octomom”

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March 12th, 2009

By Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

When Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets, a media firestorm erupted. First came stories playing on the well-worn “wow factor,” highlighting the medical curiosity. Initial headlines were simple, exemplified by this UK Times story: “American Woman Gives Birth to Live Octuplets.” The AP’s piece, posted on Fox News’ website, bore a cutesy headline: “8 Is Definitely Enough: New Mom Learning What It’s Like to Have Octuplets.”

While these initial stories focused upon the feat of medicine required to deliver an anticipated seven premature babies, plus the surprise of “Baby H” (one egg had split into two, unbeknownst to the obstetrician), basic information was missing: the mother’s name, the doctor’s name, and the specific medical treatment undergone by the thirty-three year-old to produce so many babies at once. Without that information, any medical ethics concerns remained wholly hypothetical.

Turns out, eight wasn’t enough. The story’s focus morphed from medical oddity, to larger ethics questions, to gawking at a woman deemed crazy for having fourteen children (octuplets along with 6 previous kids).

Media buzz about Nadya Suleman began building, and quickly. The story, along with the curiosity factor, was potentially lucrative. Recently, super-sized families can be both expensive and profitable, at once. Since finding ratings success with its reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8, which focuses on Jon and Kate Gosselin and their sextuplets plus twins (discussed previously here at WIMN’s Voices)—The Learning Channel has profited greatly from documenting mega-sized families. Its other series about large families—18 Kids and Counting—focuses on the Duggars, high school sweethearts with 18 children (so far… and just two sets of twins). The Gosselins and the Duggars are self-proclaimed religious families.

The Learning Channel hasn’t trained cameras upon Suleman—and her fourteen children—24/7 (at least, not yet). What’s the difference between Suleman’s fourteen and the Gosselins’ eight? To begin, Suleman’s a single mother. She has six other children, ages eight and under (and at least one has been diagnosed as autistic). It’s clear that despite the uncommonly large size of their families, the “normalcy” of these married (religious) couples appeals to programmers. Couples like Karen Wesolowski and Martha Padgett—lesbians who each birthed twins within twenty-four hours of one another—don’t get a series, just a brief special on the Discovery Health Channel.

Regardless of her moneymaking potential (Suleman has been through two publicists so far, and has raked in a ton of free goods and services after an appearance on the syndicated Dr. Phil show), Suleman’s first interview to Dateline NBC’s Ann Curry in early February was a hot property – even the interview itself became big news.

By then, the media—and the medical community—had begun raising questions about the doctor implanting six embryos in a young woman (under 35, the medical recommendation is two) as well as questions about Suleman, herself. During the interview—which was rehashed in the media obsessively—Curry probed: “People feel, you know, this woman is being completely irresponsible and selfish to bring these children in the world without a clear source of income and enough help to raise them. The world outside is saying, ‘What are you doing?’” A divorced mother who says all fourteen came from a known sperm donor, Suleman insisted essentially that she loved all of her children and could, once she completes her education, provide for them.

From broadcast TV to newspapers to tabloid magazines, from blogs such as Jezebel to MSNBC’s Scoop,” every aspect of Suleman’s life seemed fair game for the media microscope: her motivations, her mental stability (or instability), her insistence that she wasn’t taking public assistance despite her publicist’s clarification that she was, in fact, receiving food stamps and disability benefits for some of her children.

Much was made of her seeming to emulate actress Angelina Jolie. For example, MSNBC’s The Scooppost includes comments by plastic surgeon Dr. Anthony Youn, who has never treated Suleman. He is quoted speculating that the “megamom” appears to have “undergone surgical procedures, including lip augmentation and rhinoplasty, which make her resemble Jolie.” The celeb-gossip site TMZ, along with numerous other outlets, reported that “Octomom” (so anointed by the media) was offered $1 million to make a pornographic movie. Add to this Suleman’s parents reportedly second-guessing their daughter’s stability and her ability to raise the brood on her own, and the result was massive media rubbernecking.

In the midst of this media circus, substantive questions about medical ethics, parental responsibility, and even how the media covers such outliers have been pushed aside for breathy comment about possible foreclosures and rumored domestic dramas.

There were faint glimmers of more substantive questioning, especially in the blogosphere (for example, read Katie Allison Granju’s thoughtful post on Babble. Granju writes about how medical mistakes in this case need to be called out more clearly, rather than demonizing a woman who appears to be mentally unstable. She touches upon the real complexity of the issues raised by Suleman’s suddenly super-large family: if you believe women should get to choose how many children they bring into the world, you can’t make the criticism personal. She wrote, before all the specifics were made public:

“The sad thing is that this psychologically vulnerable patient (read the articles to which I link in the first line above; her own mother says she has notable mental health problems) was able to connect with a one-in-a-million crazy doctor, and get him/her to conduct this experiment on her body, creating eight medically fragile human beings. It was the perfect storm of unethical medical care.”

Granju’s last point deserves more attention. Instead, coverage of “octomom” has spiraled into a frenzy, and wound up focused upon a so-called “crazy woman” and her personal train wreck. Rather than opening up important discussions about how we as a society might proceed when technology—of a sort that can help so many people create families desperately desired—can go so far from being safe or sound or productive, profit-hungry media simply sensationalized Suleman’s story for ratings-generating, tabloid-selling buzz. In doing so, they’ve managed to cast a potentially mentally unstable single mother as a histrionic nutcase. This is especially regrettable considering how many legitimate debates – from medical ethics to thorny questions about reproductive justice to renewed discussions about the social safety net – could have been sparked, and illuminated, through more journalistically valid coverage of this case.

Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a regular contributor to Mothers Movement Online and has a monthly column at NPR’s Justice Talking blog as well as writing for many other publications. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

One Response to “Eight More Than Enough: Media create, then condemn, “Octomom””

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    July 9th, 2013 11:40

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