By Pamela Burke
Thursday, May 1, 2008
After 16 years at the L.A. Times Stephanie Simon has just moved to the Wall Street Journal. Her up-close coverage of the abortion wars--one person and angle at a time--built a singular body of work in the archives of her former paper.
LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--Stephanie Simon may have reported from nearly every state in the continental United States for the Los Angeles Times, but her office is her bedroom in her house in Denver.
Often she can be found there, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and pounding out stories on her computer that have been called "brilliant, blunt, fair and poignant." Some have called her more controversial articles chilling and one-sided. Whatever the story, her readers sit up and take notice.
For almost 16 years, ever since she began working as an intern at the paper--sold by the Tribune Company to real estate magnate Sam Zell in 2007--she's been reporting for the paper.
But on April 14 she took on a new post as a national reporter for the Wall Street Journal, purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. last August.
"It's sad to leave the Times but this feels like the right time to move on," says Simon, who will continue to work out of her bedroom office. "I'll have a chance to reach readers nationwide and get to learn from a new group of top reporters and editors."
With a husband and three children under 10, she's barely had time to sleep in recent years. And the new job means she'll start her day earlier to meet East Coast deadlines.
But the drawbacks of her work pale in comparison to the benefits, says Simon. "I have experiences that people in no other job could have. I've been on a meth bust in rural Missouri, shot Glock pistols at a firing range in Green Bay and met with the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. Who else can do this?"
An indelible experience, she says, was covering the massacre of high school students in Columbine, Colo., in April 1999. She arrived on campus early, before the death toll was known, and attended an evening service with students who didn't yet know who of their friends had survived.
It was hard even to take notes, she says, but talking with students on the lawn the next day was even harder. "It was as if everything had been drained from them."
But of all her subjects, the culture wars over abortion have been the most consistently demanding, difficult and attention-getting.
Her articles have encouraged plenty of blog postings pro and con. She has focused on how the issue evolves and expresses itself in people's daily lives.
"I've been fortunate as a reporter that people let me see their most intimate moments," says Simon. "My goal has been to open up different windows into the abortion debate, to look at a small angle of it and illuminate one aspect at a time."
One of her former editors at the Times credits her with the rarest and most important gift a journalist can have: the ability to view the world as it appears to others.
"It is not a pose," says Millie Quan. "She genuinely wants to know how others see things. She invests her interest in them; they return their trust. It's a great bargain for readers."
Simon has witnessed the abortion issue from almost all sides and perspectives.
From East Los Angeles she's written about the "birth control divide" that produces higher rates of unplanned pregnancy among women with less income and education.
In Austin, Texas, she interviewed a mother of two who couldn't afford the $23 a month for birth-control pills she once received for free. When state lawmakers cut Planned Parenthood's budget, they began to charge for some formerly free services to low-income women.
She covered Republicans in Kansas who wanted to "steer clear of an issue that had the potential to alienate as many votes as it inspires."
In 2004 she wrote from Wichita, Kan., about protesters standing vigil and testing the limits of free speech in "a crusade to expose abortion providers, to isolate them, to shame them into quitting."
During a visit to a clinic in Fayetteville, Ark., Simon spoke to a 20-year-old administrative assistant who described her feelings as she was ending her first pregnancy as normal and unashamed. "It's an everyday occurrence," she said. "It's not like I'm doing anything wrong."
In San Francisco she reported on "post-abortive men," who insisted they share equally in the abortions that their former fiancees and girlfriends had and spoke publicly about their regrets.
She says the abortion beat "just happened" while she was a general assignment reporter covering the Midwest during the late 1990s. Her editors let her keep expanding on it when she moved from St. Louis to become national faith reporter in Denver in 2005.
By far the hardest story to cover, Simon remembers, was that of women seeking late-term abortions at a clinic in Wichita, Kan. In searching for someone to interview for the article that became "Grief, Gratitude and Baby Lee," Simon met Danielle Hayworth.
Pregnant with twins and one with anencephaly, a serious brain malformation, Hayworth had refused to abort the one who would not see, hear or think even though her doctors had recommended it.
Simon visited Hayworth many times over a period of six months. She was there for the ultrasounds, there when she went to the mortuary to plan for baby Lee's funeral, there when she had a C-section and there when she held him at the end.
"It was heart-wrenching at every level to share in this amazing experience and a huge privilege," says Simon. "Danielle wanted a testimony to him and hoped that his life didn't end in vain. This story was a memorial to her son."
Because her stories often arouse passionate and opposite reactions in her readers she says she chooses her words very carefully. But even then she can't always anticipate how they'll be received.
"I described a doctor walking into his basement to do an abortion and he was very upset that this conjured up basement surgery," she says.
She's tried to cover all sides of the issue but says many readers still object that their sides are left out or slighted.
"My goal is to take them behind the rhetoric of the debate and to look for a window into their lives," she says, careful not to voice her own opinions on the subject. "I choose not to censor material that seems to favor one side or the other."
Quan reinforces Simon's desire to remain an observer in her reporting. "I've no doubt Stephanie has opinions, probably strong ones, about the whole range of issues on which she has written," she says. "She's not interested in broadcasting her own views but those of the people she writes about."
Simon hopes to continue covering abortion politics and more thoroughly explore some of the states in which she hasn't spent much time.
She regrets missing her son's fairy tale podcast at school recently but says that kind of sacrifice comes with the rewards of her work.
"I get to work at home, take breaks outside on a beautiful sunny day, pick up the kids and cook dinner," says Simon. "It's sometimes grueling but I have a fantastic job."
Pamela Burke is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.
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