Justice & Civil Liberties

Issues ››› Justice & Civil Liberties
  • 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.

  • NRA Risks Complete Disaster Following Unprecedented Spending On Trump

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    The NRA has gone out on a limb for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, but the candidate is in the process of sawing it off as his campaign flails amid a rapidly increasing number of new sexual assault allegations.

    While other outside groups that traditionally spend a lot on elections have taken a more measured approach in backing Trump, the NRA has already spent nearly twice as much on independent expenditures in this presidential race as it did in 2012, when it attempted to elect Mitt Romney.

    The NRA’s outsized promotion of Trump began during its May 2016 annual meeting. Previewing the group’s endorsement of Trump, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre told a roaring crowd, “The revolution to take America back starts here, it starts on this day, and by God we will elect our next president, we will save our freedom, and America truly will be great again.” Moments later Trump joined the stage to receive the NRA’s official endorsement from NRA top lobbyist Chris Cox.

    Such an early endorsement of a presidential candidate was “virtually unprecedented” for the NRA, which did not endorse John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 until October.

    The NRA has backed its enthusiasm for Trump with massive spending -- even as other conservative groups have backed off. In August, The New York Times reported that “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy has driven away throngs of Republican elected officials, donors and policy experts. But not the National Rifle Association.” Calling the NRA “the institution on the right most aggressively committed to his candidacy, except for the Republican National Committee itself,” the Times reported, “The association has spent millions of dollars on television commercials for Mr. Trump, even as other Republican groups have kept their checkbooks closed and Mr. Trump’s campaign has not run any ads of its own.”

    Indeed, according to FEC filings viewed on October 13, the NRA has spent the second most of any organization on independent expenditures opposing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and supporting Trump, behind only pro-Trump super PACs:

    Because the NRA spends with two committees -- the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and the NRA Political Victory Fund -- the figures above do not even represent total NRA spending on the 2016 presidential race. According to NBC News, the committees have spent a combined $21 million so far attempting to elect Trump. In contrast, the NRA spent  $12 million trying to elect Romney in 2012 in a spending campaign the gun group termed “all in.”  

    The largest pro-Trump NRA ad buy to date -- reportedly worth $6.5 million -- could not have come at a worse time. On October 5, the NRA released an ad that falsely claimed Hillary Clinton opposed the notion that “every woman has a right to defend herself with a gun if she chooses.” The ad featured a woman who defended herself with a gun against a violent attacker.

    On October 6, the NRA predicted the ad would give Trump a “big boost” in an article in its online magazine, touting “the largest advertising push to date for the National Rifle Association’s support of the Trump campaign":

    The next day, The Washington Post released a video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, sending his campaign into a free fall. Following the release of that tape, numerous women have come forward accusing Trump of more sexual assaults.

    Following these revelations, it is unclear what the NRA will do, having already invested so much money into the race and already touted themselves as "the key" to delivering the election for Trump. According to the NRA’s upcoming election edition of its magazine America’s 1st Freedom, the gun group shows no sign of backing down, with the group’s leadership setting Trump up as necessary to “save our freedom”:

  • New Allegations Of Sexual Assault Against Donald Trump Undermine Right-Wing Media Spin Of “Hot Mic” Comments

    Blog ››› ››› CYDNEY HARGIS

    A New York Times report profiling two more women who are accusing Donald Trump of sexual assault once again seems to contradict the Trump campaign, their surrogates, and supporters in the media who have excused as “just words” 2005 comments made by the Republican nominee bragging about sexual assault.

    After NBC released a tape of Trump gloating about “grabbing” a woman and being able to “do anything,” the candidate dismissed his remarks as “locker room talk.” In the days following, numerous right-wing media figures echoed the candidate’s excuse -- claiming there is a big difference between words and actions -- in an apparent attempt to bolster Trump’s assertion that he had never committed the sexual assault he boasted about.

    The October 12 report seemingly contradicts Trump’s explanation, as two women said the candidate “touched them inappropriately.” One woman claimed that on a plane in adjoining first class seats, Trump “grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt,” while a second woman, a 22-year old receptionist at the time, alleged that outside a Trump Tower elevator, after encountering the nominee “They shook hands, but Mr. Trump would not let go, she said. Instead, he began kissing her cheeks. Then, she said, he “kissed me directly on the mouth.” In a separate October 12 Palm Beach Post report, a third woman said she was “groped” by Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort 13 years ago. The Trump campaign denied the Times report, calling it “fiction.” From the October 12 New York Times report

    Donald J. Trump was emphatic in the second presidential debate: Yes, he had boasted about kissing women without permission and grabbing their genitals. But he had never actually done those things, he said.

    “No,” he declared under questioning on Sunday evening, “I have not.”

    At that moment, sitting at home in Manhattan, Jessica Leeds, 74, felt he was lying to her face. “I wanted to punch the screen,” she said in an interview in her apartment.

    More than three decades ago, when she was a traveling businesswoman at a paper company, Ms. Leeds said, she sat beside Mr. Trump in the first-class cabin of a flight to New York. They had never met before.

    About 45 minutes after takeoff, she recalled, Mr. Trump lifted the armrest and began to touch her.

    According to Ms. Leeds, Mr. Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt.


    In a phone interview on Tuesday night, a highly agitated Mr. Trump denied every one of the women’s claims.

    “None of this ever took place,” said Mr. Trump, who began shouting at The Times reporter who was questioning him. He said that The Times was making up the allegations to hurt him and that he would sue the news organization if it reported them.

    “You are a disgusting human being,” he told the reporter as she questioned him about the women’s claims.

    Asked whether he had ever done any of the kissing or groping that he had described on the recording, Mr. Trump was once again insistent: “I don’t do it. I don’t do it. It was locker room talk.”

    Echoing Trump’s talking point about the 2005 tape, Fox News hosts have repeatedly defended the Republican presidential nominee by downplaying his comment as “just words.” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly dismissed Trump’s admission of sexual assault as “guy talk,” while Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called Trump’s comments “locker room talk” and “frat house language.” Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said those upset by Trump’s comments are “acting like a bunch of prudes” because Trump is “not the only person to eve speak this way” and Fox’s Howard Kurtz called the media’s response “manufactured outrage.”

    Trump and his campaign have denied the new allegations and have reportedly threatened to sue the Times for publishing their story about the new sexual assault accusations.

  • Right-Wing Media Keep Pushing Myth Of "Partial-Birth" Abortion

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    In the 2016 election cycle, right-wing media have spread misinformation about the Democratic position on abortion access by alleging that the party supports so-called “partial-birth” abortions, often invoking the term as a description of an abortion that takes place in the final months or “moments” of pregnancy. In reality, “partial-birth” abortion is a term coined by anti-choice groups to vilify and stigmatize individuals who elect to have an abortion. Here is what the media should know about this common anti-choice myth and why media figures should not deploy it.

  • Mainstream Outlets Have Not Covered A Major Nationwide Prison Strike

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    On September 9, inmates at prisons in at least 12 states began work stoppages and other protest actions to draw attention to unfair labor practices and living conditions in U.S. prisons. The actions have reportedly continued on a rolling basis in many prisons across the country for the last month, yet a Media Matters analysis found virtual media silence on the story.

    According to inmate organizers at the Holman Prison in Alabama, who have been leading prison labor actions since 2012 as the Free Alabama Movement, inmates in prisons across the country launched strikes on September 9. The strikes, which were primarily work stoppages but also included hunger striking and other forms of peaceful protest, began on the anniversary of the deadly 1971 Attica prison uprising, which began as a means to call attention to prison conditions. The actions were primarily meant to protest extremely low-wage or forced labor in prisons, though inmate organizers in some facilities chose to focus their actions on living conditions and overcrowding instead of or in addition to labor practices.

    Estimates from the organizers and allied groups suggest that more than 24,000 inmates in at least 12 states participated in strikes that day. Tracking mechanisms indicate that inmates in several prisons are still continuing acts of protest on a rolling basis, though activity is thought to be “apparently winding down.” These numbers -- if corroborated -- would make the September 9 actions the largest prison strike in U.S. history.

    Though it is difficult to know for sure, actions in some facilities appear to be getting results. In Alabama, the epicenter of strike organizing, guards joined the effort, launching an informal labor strike to highlight prison overcrowding -- conditions that make prisons less safe for both inmates and guards. And the U.S. Department of Justice launched a “possibly unprecedented” statewide investigation into conditions in Alabama prisons last week.

    Yet a search of Nexis transcripts from the major news networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- and National Public Radio for the last month has come up almost completely empty on coverage of the strikes, aside from a single 20-second mention during a run-through of headlines on NBC’s Today and a three-and-a-half-minute NPR Weekend Edition interview with the Marshall Project’s Beth Schwartzapfel.

    Traditional print media outlets did not appear to fare much better, according to a search of the same parameters; Media Matters found one article at The Wall Street Journal reporting on the initial days of the strikes.

    Media Matters found no mentions of prison strikes across the major media outlets available in Nexis from September 8 -- the day before the strikes began -- through October 10. Most coverage seemed to come from new media outlets, like BuzzFeed and Vice News, or left-leaning, sometimes niche outlets like The Marshall Project, Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, and The Intercept. Readers who do not rely on these specific types of sources for their news, instead turning to evening broadcasts or major print outlets like The New York Times, may not know the strikes happened at all.

    Media scholar and MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman explained why coverage of the strikes may be so difficult to find in a Medium post on September 10. Zuckerman, who studies “the distribution of attention in mainstream and new media” and how activists can leverage media coverage, wrote:

    It’s hard to tell what’s going on inside US prisons. While prisoners can reach out to reporters using the same channels they can use to contact friends or family members, journalists have very limited rights of access to prisons, and it would be challenging for an intrepid reporter to identify and contact inmates in prisons across a state, for instance, to determine where protests took place. Wardens have a great deal of discretion about answering reporters’ inquiries and can choose not to comment citing security concerns. Reporters who want to know what’s going on inside a prison sometimes resort to extraordinary measures, like becoming a prison guard to gain access. (Shane Bauer’s article on private prison company CCA is excellent, but the technique he used was not a new one — Ted Conover’s 2000 book Newjack is a masterpiece of the genre.)

    Because it’s so hard to report from prison — and, frankly, because news consumers haven’t demonstrated much demand for stories about prison conditions — very few media outlets have dedicated prison reporters. One expert estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen dedicated prisons reporters across the US, an insane number given that 2.4m Americans are incarcerated, roughly 1% of the nation’s population.

    Coverage of the prison strikes from progressive outlets often acknowledges the problems of reporting accurately on events occurring in prisons as well; many that cited any data on the strikes noted that the numbers were estimates provided by organizers. As Azzurra Crispino from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (an activist group helping to coordinate inmate organizing efforts) explained in an interview with WNYC’s On The Media, some reporters are trying to learn more: “It is the case that we have not seen as much media coverage as we would like, but I am getting a lot of emails and phone calls from journalists who are telling me, ‘I’m not seeing this on the mainstream media, but it’s all over my Facebook and my Twitter feed.’” Crispino also noted that violent riots tend to garner more media attention than the peaceful protests and strikes happening in most facilities. “I would ask the mainstream media: To what extent are you complicit in future violence, if it were to arise, if the message you are sending to prisoners is: if nobody dies, we’re not going to cover it?” she said.

    Another factor in the halted information flow is that state officials often declined to comment or offered competing narratives about what took place in individual facilities when reporters reached out. Officials in at least two states where inmates have recorded strike activity have publicly denied that any work stoppages occurred, and at least one inmate organizer says he is facing what The Intercept called “disciplinary action” for participating in a radio interview about the strikes.

    MIT’s Zuckerman argued that the September strikes are an example of a situation “in which readers can have power by calling attention to events in the world,” and that reader demand could spur “large media organizations” to leverage their resources and existing contacts “to provide a more detailed view of events.” He concluded:

    Perhaps the call for the nation’s largest prison strike has failed. Or perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a long action that will change incarceration as we know it. It’s a problem that we don’t — and can’t — know. A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people, and right now, we don’t know.


    Media Matters searched Nexis for any mentions or variations of the term “prison” or “inmate” within 20 words of the term “strike” or “protest” from September 8, 2016, to October 10, 2016. The search included all available news transcripts for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and National Public Radio; articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today; and abstracts in The Wall Street JournalWall Street Journal results were also checked in Factiva. 

    Image at top from Flickr user Alicia, using a Creative Commons license. 

  • Fox News Debunks Its Own Attempt To Prop Up False Trump Claim Of New Clinton Email Scandal

    Minutes After Catherine Herridge Supports Trump’s Claim Of “Collusion” In DOJ Investigation, Andrew Napolitano Explains That She And Trump Are Wrong

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano debunked Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s claim that a stolen email from a Clinton campaign staffer showed “collusion” in the Justice Department’s investigation into Clinton’s use of private email during her time as secretary of state, just minutes after Fox’s chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge supported Trump’s claim.

    After an NBC News reporter drew attention to stolen emails belonging to Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon, which were released by WikiLeaks, Trump’s campaign charged that one of the emails “reveals ‘collusion’ between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Justice Department that tainted the criminal investigation into Clinton’s private email set-up.” The email in question, dated May 19, 2015, states: "DOJ folks inform me there is a status hearing in this case this morning, so we could have a window into the judge's thinking about this proposed production schedule as quickly as today." As Politico explained about an hour before the Fox segments, Fallon’s message “predates that probe.”

    Despite the impossibility of the Trump campaign’s claim, Fox’s Herridge repeated the claim. Appearing on Your World, Herridge said, “[T]here's another hacked email that shows former Justice Department staffer Brian Fallon, who is now a senior member of the Clinton campaign team, was working with his former Justice Department colleagues about an upcoming hearing in the email investigation.” She continued, “Trump's campaign called it collusion and wants all the communications to be released from the Clinton campaign. That's obviously not realistic, but for a point of context, at the height of the email investigation, any kind of communication between the Clinton campaign operatives and the Justice Department was clearly inappropriate by either side.”

    But just six minutes after Herridge’s irresponsible and erroneous assertions about that email, Fox’s Napolitano explained that both she and Trump were wrong:

    ANDREW NAPOLITANO: You know, the email that we're talking about has to do with the Freedom of Information Act cases, and not with the criminal investigation. If Donald Trump's allegation were true, and the Justice Department had been tipping off the Clinton campaign about the criminal investigation of Mrs. Clinton, that tip itself would be a crime, but that's not what the emails that Catherine Herridge was referencing reveal. In fact, those emails were about the Freedom of Information Act cases, which are civil cases, which anyone can get access to. So I don't see the impropriety here that Trump is concerned about.

    Herridge made sure to note the date of Fallon’s email, but she neglected to inform Fox’s audience that the email was sent two months before the FBI’s investigation began -- making her concern about improper communications in support of the Trump campaign’s claim completely baseless. Herridge has a long history of getting details of the investigation into Clinton’s use of email wrong, thanks to her tendency to rely on anonymous sources that end up burning her.

  • Top Adviser: Trump “Loves” Alex Jones’ “Hillary For Prison” T-Shirts

    Roger Stone: “He Knows Exactly Where They Came From”

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

    Longtime adviser Roger Stone has said that Donald Trump “loves” the “Hillary For Prison” T-shirts sold by conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones and that the Republican nominee “knows exactly where they came from.” The T-shirt slogan from the 9/11 truther has now become a campaign pledge from the Republican presidential nominee.

    During the October 9 presidential debate, Trump said that he would jail Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton if he is elected president. Numerous journalists have condemned the unprecedented threat as undemocratic and something you would hear in “countries with dictators.”

    Mother Jones Tim Murphy noted Trump’s position “has been a core plank of his platform since last winter, and a fantasy of many of his supporters for far longer.” He traced the origin of the talking point to Alex Jones and his Infowars website, which began selling its "Hillary for Prison" T-shirt last year.

    Jones is one of the most extreme conspiracy theorists in the country. He is the leader of the movement that claims the government was behind the 9/11 terror attacks. He has also promoted conspiracy theories about government involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing, Boston Marathon bombing, and Newtown, CT, elementary school shooting, among many others.

    Roger Stone has repeatedly said that Trump has seen the Alex Jones T-shirts and “loves” them.

    During a May 4 appearance on Jones’ show, Stone said that “Trump himself told me that he has seen so many of your supporters and listeners at his rallies. He loves the ‘Hillary for Prison’ T-shirts and he knows exactly where they came from. So Alex, I’m certain that he is grateful for your support.” Jones replied: “I want listeners and viewers to know, you’re having an effect.”

    Stone also told author Jon Ronson that Trump praised Jones for the “Hillary for Prison” theme. From Ronson’s e-book The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right”:

    “Donald is a student of the internet,” Stone replied. “He’s an inveterate watcher, so he was well aware of who Alex is and everything Alex has accomplished. Donald told me he sees the many, many Hillary for Prison T-shirts in his crowds.”

    “What does he think of them?” I asked.

    “He loves them,” he said.

    Stone is himself a discredited conspiracy theorist who pushes racist, sexist, and violent rhetoric. He has claimed that “Hillary must be brought to justice -- arrested, tried, and executed for murder.” Stone praised Trump’s debate call for Clinton’s jailing, stating that it was “his way of telling the Clintons and their daughter that they’re going to prison over their massive corruption.”

  • Trump's Debate Strategy: Revive Conservative Smear That Undermines The American Justice System

    ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Donald Trump is signaling that during the October 9 debate, he will adopt the Washington Free Beacon's smear of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her work in 1975 as a court-appointed attorney for an indigent defendant alleged to have raped a 12-year-old girl, a case she detailed in her memoir a decade ago. As Republican lawyers and the American Bar Association have previously noted, such criticisms undermine the American system of justice.

  • Kellyanne Conway’s History Of Pushing A Right-Wing Media, Anti-Choice Lie About Abortion

    To Limit Abortion Access, Trump's Campaign Manager Has Long Promoted The Dangerous Lie That Democrats Support "Sex-Selective" Abortion

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has a long history of alleging that the Democratic Party supports allowing so-called “sex-selective” abortions because it devalues "little baby girls." During the 2016 election cycle, Conway has frequently promoted this misleading and unsubstantiated right-wing media myth, which perpetuates harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes and is a cover for greater abortion restrictions.