Olivia Kittel

Author ››› Olivia Kittel
  • The Problem With Debate Moderators Making Abortion About Religion And Judges

    Since 1960, Moderator’s Questions About Abortion Have Almost Always Been Asked In Relation To Faith Or Judicial Appointment Litmus Tests


    During the 2016 election, reproductive rights groups have consistently called on debate moderators to ask questions that would examine the candidates’ positions on abortion-related issues, but moderators have either ignored the call or centered their questions around  judicial appointees or the candidates’ religious views.

    Although faith and judicial appointments are important topics, limiting debate discussions of abortion to only these contexts deprives the public of an opportunity to understand the candidates’ positions on an essential issue: access to reproductive health care.

    On October 12, the Commission on Presidential Debates released the topics for the third and final presidential debate. Although the list includes the Supreme Court, it notably excludes any explicit mention of reproductive health or abortion -- making the likelihood of a question about the topic on its own merits unlikely.

    What is likely, however, is that if the topic comes up, the moderator will either frame it around the candidate’s religion or ask whether they would screen their judicial picks for pro- or anti-choice positions.

    In a recent analysis, Media Matters analyzed all abortion questions asked in presidential or vice presidential debates from 1960 to 2012 and found that 56 percent were framed around religion or used abortion as a litmus test for judicial appointments. In both instances, questions were often asked in a way that stigmatized abortion -- suggesting that the common and legal medical procedure was morally wrong or socially unacceptable.

    The pattern has been borne out in each of the debates this year.

    For example, the first presidential debate on September 26 did not include a single question about abortion or reproductive health care despite efforts by a coalition of reproductive rights advocacy groups. They encouraged NBC’s Lester Holt to ask the candidates how they would “address the crisis in abortion care in our country.”

    In the second presidential debate, on October 9, the only mention of reproductive rights came during a question about the nomination of Supreme Court justices -- when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton mentioned that her ideal nominee would support upholding Roe v. Wade. If history is a guide, this line of questioning will be repeated for the last presidential debate, as one of the topics is the Supreme Court.

    During the October 4 vice presidential debate, CBS’ Elaine Quijano asked Republican candidate Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine an open-ended question about how they “struggled to balance [their] personal faith and a public policy decision.” As ThinkProgress’ Tara Culp-Resser explained, Pence “quickly pivoted to abortion” in his answer, while Kaine, “followed up by saying he trusts women to make this moral choice for themselves.” Although the candidates addressed abortion, as Culp-Resser pointed out, “ the exchange was ultimately situated in a religious and moral context that does a disservice to the bigger issue.”

    In an October 5 article for The New York Times, Katha Pollitt explained why having candidates discuss their abortion positions only in relation to their faith was problematic. She wrote:

    “I wish we didn’t so often discuss abortion rights in the context of religion. We’re not a Christian nation, much less a Catholic or evangelical one. Why should women’s rights have to pass through the eye of a theological needle? Given that the next president will nominate at least one and probably two or three more justices to the Supreme Court, it’s discouraging that we are still talking about abortion as a matter for biblical exegesis.”

    Given the escalating assault on reproductive health care access, it's high time that debate moderators ask substantive questions about abortion that do not focus exclusively on religion or the court and that do not stigmatize the issue. There is a crisis currently underway, and it is likely the presidential nominees have differing views on how to address it -- distinctions the viewing public deserve to hear, and distinctions that can’t be determined by rote questions about religion and litmus tests.

    The final presidential debate will be held on October 19, and if the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, doesn’t ask about abortion, the 2016 election will be the first since 1976 to include no direct debate questions about reproductive rights.

  • When The Trump Bar Is Set So Low, He’s A Success Even When He Threatens To Imprison Hillary Clinton

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    Conservative media figures have succeeded in setting the bar so low for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that they were astonishingly able to champion his October 9 debate performance as a success despite his threat to “jail” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, his admission that he evaded paying federal income taxes and that he hasn’t spoken with his running mate on crucial foreign policy issues, and his claim that his caught-on-tape sexual assault boasts were just “locker room” banter.

    Many right-wing media figures have spent the entire election aiding the Trump campaign by lowering the bar for Trump to declare success -- saying that so long as he doesn’t “vomit all over himself and [he gives] a decent” performance, he’ll succeed.

    The October 9 debate at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, was no exception. Right-wing media figures declared Trump’s debate performance a “win” despite numerous low points:

    It's not just right-wing pundits. Even CNN’s Jake Tapper called the debate “a wash” immediately afterwards, saying that Clinton won on policy and temperament while Trump was “erratic,” and CNN’s Michael Smerconish asserted that “the night belongs to Donald Trump” because “he was able to pivot away” from the tape of him boasting about committing sexual assault and was “barely controlled.” Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz said that “when you consider the sheer media hell that Donald Trump has been through in the last 48 hours, [his debate performance] has to be considered at least a moral victory.”  

    Several conservative media figures championed Trump for “exceed[ing] expectations” of a “crash and burn,” saying he won because he “stayed alive,” and “did well enough to not drop out”:

  • Media Matters’ Do’s And Don’ts For Moderators And Media Covering The 2016 Presidential Debates

    ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    The 2016 presidential debates will kick off on September 26, giving voters one of their last chances to judge the candidates on the substance and breadth of their policy proposals. With over 100 million people expected to watch, the stakes could not be higher. Voters are mere months away from selecting the person who will become the president of the United States and whose actions will have an immense impact on their everyday lives. Informing this decision is a responsibility that media cannot afford to take lightly.

  • Fox Is Replacing Greta Van Susteren With Ailes-Defender And Sexual Assault Denier Brit Hume

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    Brit Hume, the Fox News analyst replacing former host Greta Van Susteren, has a long history of downplaying sexual assault and was a fierce defender of former Fox CEO Roger Ailes from the sexual assault allegations leveled by dozens of women, including several of Hume’s Fox colleagues.

    Fox media critic Howard Kurtz reported September 6 that network anchor Van Susteren is leaving Fox News after 14 years and will be replaced by senior political analyst Hume. Kurtz noted that “this would be among the major programming decisions made by [head of Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox] Rupert Murdoch since the network’s owner stepped in as acting CEO of Fox News after Ailes’ resignation.” New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported that “a source close to Van Susteren … [said she] left because ‘she is troubled by the culture’ Ailes built.”

    Ailes was forced to resign from Fox in July after dozens of women accused him of sexual harassment. Former network anchor Gretchen Carlson and host Andrea Tantaros have both filed lawsuits alleging sexual harassment against Ailes and claiming they were taken off air as retaliation. Network anchor Megyn Kelly also reportedly told lawyers she was sexually harassed by Ailes. Ailes is still working as a consultant to Rupert Murdoch during a “transition period” for the network. Numerous media figures have reported that the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News goes way beyond Roger Ailes and that several network executives, including newly promoted Fox co-president Bill Shine, knew about and covered up Ailes’ harassment.

    Hume was among Ailes’ fiercest defenders inside Fox News amid the allegations and called his resignation “heartbreaking.” Hume responded to his colleague Carlson’s allegations by victim-blaming and disparaging her character, asking why she didn’t just quit following the alleged harassment:

    Following Ailes’ resignation, Hume said he was “absolutely heartbroken that all this happened,” saying of the former Fox chief, “I love the guy, and I love working for him.”

    Hume has a long history of using his national platform to downplay sexual assault. Here are a few of his worst attempts:

    Hume: "I, Myself, Totally Dispute" Campus Sexual Assault Statistics. Hume disputed statistics pointing to an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, saying, “I think an almost entirely false narrative … has been constructed and perpetrated and now perpetuated, I think,  largely by the American left.”

    Hume: Blame “The Deregulation Of Sex” For Campus Sexual Assaults. Hume blamed “the deregulation of sex” for causing sexual assaults, saying that “boys will be boys,” but the “sexual revolution in the ‘60s did away with” the strict rules governing male-female interactions that used to protect women from “lusty” “guys.” He also criticized plans by lawmakers to curb assault, saying of new proposals calling for verbal consent at various stages of a sexual encounter: “It suggests that the people who are drawing up these new plans for how consent is to be given have never had any sex.”

    Hume Repeatedly Downplayed Prevalence Of Sexual Assault. Hume downplayed the prevalence of campus sexual assaults in 2014 by conflating two studies and  baselessly dismissing the veracity of the often-cited statistic that one in five "undergraduate women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault during their college years."

  • Trump Campaign CEO Steve Bannon Repeatedly Failed To Disclose Breitbart News’ Financial Ties To Egyptian Businessman

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    Undisclosed ties to an Egyptian businessman and former political official are just the latest disclosure issues for Stephen Bannon, chief executive for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign.

    Bannon, who is also the executive chairman of Breitbart News, “is known to stay,” according to The Guardian, in a Washington, D.C., town home owned by Egyptian businessman and former politician Mostafa El-Gindy. Gindy’s home also reportedly serves as the Breitbart News D.C. headquarters. Breitbart News has not disclosed its financial ties to El-Gindy in numerous pieces that cite him favorably, while Bannon and Breitbart News have baselessly accused Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of engaging in pay-for-play deals with foreign countries as secretary of state and spread false smears shared discredited book Clinton Cash.

    Bannon, whom Trump hired on August 17 to help head Trump’s presidential campaign, used his position as Breitbart News’ executive chairman to run the conservative website as a propaganda arm of the Trump campaign.

    The Guardian reported August 26 that Bannon is “is known to stay” in a Washington, D.C., town home, known as the “Breitbart embassy,” that’s owned by “Mostafa El-Gindy, an Egyptian businessman and former member of parliament.” Breitbart has reportedly operated its Washington, D.C., bureau from the Gindy-owned home since 2011. From the Guardian’s report:

    Bannon also co-owns a condominium in Los Angeles and is known to stay at the so-called “Breitbart embassy”, a luxurious $2.4m townhouse beside the supreme court in Washington DC, where his website’s staff work from basement offices. A Bloomberg profile of Bannon published last October, with which he cooperated, stated that Bannon “occupies” the townhouse and described it as being “his”.

    But according to records at the DC office of tax and revenue, the Breitbart house is actually owned by Mostafa El-Gindy, an Egyptian businessman and former member of parliament. Gindy has received favorable coverage from Breitbart News, which styles him as a “senior statesman”, without an accompanying disclosure that he is the website’s landlord.

    As the Guardian report noted, “Gindy has received favorable coverage from Breitbart News, which styles him as a ‘senior statesman’, without an accompanying disclosure that he is the website’s landlord.” Breitbart News has consistently refused to disclose its financial ties to Gindy.

    Ironically, Bannon and his conservative website have long led a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation by making discredited and false attacks and spreading the baseless smears hyped in the discredited book Clinton Cash, which was written by Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer. (Trump has also predictably adopted their unfounded attacks on Hillary Clinton.) Bannon wrote and produced a documentary film that accompanied the error-filled book, both of which made a series of baseless allegations of corruption and quid pro quo by the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton that have been widely discredited. Bannon is also the executive chairman and co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute, of which Schweizer is president.

  • The Conservatives Who Said That Trump’s New Campaign Chief Betrayed Breitbart's Memory By Backing Donald Trump

    ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s new campaign chief Stephen Bannon is the executive chairman of conservative website Breitbart News, which has been embroiled in a civil war over the publication’s Trump support. Numerous conservative media figures have slammed Bannon -- who is taking a leave of absence to work for Trump -- and Breitbart News for destroying the legacy of the site’s founder Andrew Breitbart, who said in 2011 that Donald Trump is “not a conservative.”

  • NBC Gives Glenn Beck A Platform To Re-Mainstream Himself

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    NBC's Chuck Todd gave noted-conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck a national platform to re-mainstream himself on the July 17 edition of Meet The Press. Todd introduced Beck as "founder of the conservative website and TV network The Blaze" and a "vocal critic of Donald Trump right from the start."

    During his appearance, Beck criticized presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his vice presidential running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence -- who Beck alleged has previously criticized Trump behind closed doors -- and lamented that "the problem is in our society that there's no authenticity. You can't trust anybody." Beck also criticized Republican officials, including RNC chairman Reince Priebus.

    After the interview, Todd said he was “aghast” and there were “some times where I felt speechless” during Beck’s interview, but didn’t disclose during or after the interview that Glenn Beck is a noted conspiracy theorist. Beck’s Fox News show was cancelled in 2011 after the network lost sponsors for the program due to continuous controversy over its bizarre and extreme content.

    Ranging from violent, racist, and anti-semitic rhetoric to outlandish conspiracy theories, Beck’s on-air track record includes  accusing President Obama of being a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people," claiming that "all of the decisions that the president has championed" led to the terrorist attacks on Paris, and repeatedly invoking Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust to attack his political opponents.

    Over the past year, Beck has been vocally critical of Trump, likening his Muslim ban proposal to the policies of Adolf Hitler. He also has called Trump a progressive and asserted that if Trump wins the GOP presidential nomination it will "bring an end to the Republican Party."

    Beck has also  threatened to quit the National Rifle Association (NRA) over the long-debunked conspiracy theory that NRA board member and conservative activist Grover Norquist is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Beck's antics culminated in an NRA investigation and Norquist "voluntarily suspend[ing] his Board activities pending the outcome."

  • Fox Personalities Respond To Gretchen Carlson's Sexual Harassment Lawsuit With Familiar Victim-Blaming

    Fox’s Response Serves As A PSA In How NOT To Cover Sexual Harassment Stories

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVIA KITTEL

    After Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox CEO Roger Ailes, Fox News personalities have rushed to defend Ailes while disparaging Carlson’s character, dismissing her allegations, and accusing her of having ulterior motives. Their response mirrors the false tropes the network hosts push in their sexual assault coverage.

    On July 6, former Fox News host Carlson filed a lawsuit against Fox CEO Roger Ailes, alleging that he fired her “after she rebuffed Mr. Ailes’ sexual advances and also tried to challenge what she felt was unequal treatment of her in the newsroom by some of her male colleagues.” Carlson also alleged that while she was a host of Fox & Friends, her co-host Steve Doocy “engaged in a pattern of severe and pervasive mistreatment” of Carlson. Carlson has been a witness to years of sexism from her male colleagues, plenty of it directed at her.

    Several other women have come forward with complaints or contacted Carlson’s law firm to report similar experiences of mistreatment.

    Numerous Fox figures have rallied to Ailes’ defense, falling back on the network’s long-held strategy of dismissing sexual harassment – and even sexual assault – allegations by blaming the victims, trying to discredit the allegations by disparaging the victims’ characters, and rushing to defend the character of the accused. Just as New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman predicted, the “Fox News PR machine” is fighting the sexual harassment allegations by “try[ing] to discredit Carlson’s claims and any of the other women’s claims who come forward.”

    Disparaging The Victim’s Character

    After Carlson filed her lawsuit, her former Fox colleagues defended Ailes by immediately disparaging her character, dismissing her allegations, and suggesting she may have had ulterior motives.

    Greta Van Susteren suggested Carlson may have falsely accused Ailes of sexual harassment because she was “unhappy that her contract wasn’t renewed.”

    In a flurry of tweets on July 12, Sean Hannity dismissed Carlson’s allegations, suggesting that if she had really been harassed, she would not have stayed, asked for more airtime, or written to Ailes:

    Brit Hume asked Carlson why she didn’t just quit following the alleged harassment:

    This behavior isn’t new for Fox figures. In the past, Andrea Tantaros has asked, “At what point do women need to take some responsibility” for sexual harassment. Hannity blamed a victim of sexual harassment for “staying in the car” with the accused offender after the alleged harassment. Greg Gutfeld claimed that victims allege sexual harassment “to safeguard future reputation-damaging things.”  

    The network’s victim-blaming isn’t limited to sexual harassment. Hosts have blamed victims of sexual assault for “wearing a miniskirt,” characterized victims as “bad girls … who like to be naughty,” and altogether disputed the prevalence of sexual assault.

    Defending The Character Of The Accused

    Fox figures also responded to Carlson’s lawsuit by touting Ailes’ character.  

    Jeanine Pirro called Carlson’s allegations “absurd” and called Ailes a “no-nonsense guy,” saying, “I just loved him.”

    Kimberly Guilfoyle claimed that of the women she’s talked to at Fox, “Nobody believed” Carlson’s allegations, adding that Ailes “is a man who champions women.”

    Bret Baier said that’s “not the Roger I know,” and added, “I can’t say enough good things about Roger.”

    Neil Cavuto called Carlson’s allegations “sick” and said they “don’t remotely resemble the Roger that I know” because Ailes “is ALL professional.”

    Ainsley Earhardt, Martha MacCallum, and Harris Faulkner have also vigorously defended Ailes, calling him a “father figure” and a “terrific boss.”

    By focusing on defending the character of the accused, reporters treat the accused offender as the victim. And it’s not just Ailes. Fox has a history of treating accused offenders as victims, including by claiming  that the focus on campus sexual assault amounts to “a war happening on boys” and dubiously hyping the frequency of false accusations of sexual assault against men, even though  false accusations are rare.