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Sharon Kann

Author ››› Sharon Kann
  • Wash. Post health care reporter has a history of spreading misinformation about abortion

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN & JULIE TULBERT

    On February 14, Washington Post health care reporter Paige Winfield Cunningham garnered significant attention for tweeting that it was “super weird how people are blaming their diminished sense of well-being on the Trump administration” when “personal events determine [her] quality of life; not who’s in the [White House].” Beyond this insensitive tweet, Winfield Cunningham also has a history of spreading right-wing misinformation about abortion and reproductive health in her reporting.

  • Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue has become fully “red-pilled” by an 8chan conspiracy theory

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It was concerning enough when in January 2018, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue encouraged followers to look into the allegations of an anonymous conspiracy theorist on the 8chan message board. Now, it appears that Operation Rescue, with its history of violent rhetoric and harassment, has become fully converted and is seeking to cultivate anti-abortion followers into believers in a far-right conspiracy theory.

    Headed by longtime extremists Troy Newman and Cheryl Sullenger -- the latter has served time for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic -- Operation Rescue has been described as an organization dedicated to “shut[ting] down abortion clinics by systematically harassing their employees into quitting.” Operation Rescue initially signaled that they’d been “red-pilled” -- a term popularized by the “alt-right” to refer to an ideological conversion to “seeing the world as it really is” -- in a January 7 press release, in which the group signal-boosted a series of posts from a far-right community on 8chan.

    8chan is a message board system -- similar to 4chan and Reddit -- that enables users to engage in discussions anonymously. This has made such communities hotbeds of racist commentary, misogyny, and politically motivated harassment campaigns, in addition to serving as fertile ground for those in the so-called “alt-right” or white nationalist movement. As Mother Jones’ Mariah Blake explained, “men’s rights forums on sites like 4chan and Reddit are awash in misogyny and anti-feminist vitriol” -- a trend that has turned such sites into what Vox’s Aja Romano called a “gateway drug” that leads people into the “alt-right.” 

    In the January 7 release, Operation Rescue focused on an 8chan conspiracy theory called “The Storm” in which a user who refers to himself as “Q” claims to be a “high-level government insider” secretly sharing clues to “inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state.” The scope of the conspiracy theory has expanded to encompass all types of events, ranging from a fire at Trump Tower to a train accident involving Republican members of Congress. Most recently, followers of The Storm have joined a campaign calling for the release of a four-page classified memo drafted by House intelligence committee Republicans that allegedly shows illicit behavior by the FBI and Justice Department during the early phases of investigating connections between Trump associates and Russia -- a campaign organized around the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. According to The Daily Beast, right-wing figures as well as online message board communities “have since turned the hashtag into a rallying cry, imploring fans to tweet the hashtag.” On February 2, the President Donald Trump authorized the release of the memo, despite explicit warnings from the FBI about the veracity of its contents.

    In the January 7 press release, Operation Rescue acknowledged that "Q" is a conspiracy theorist -- or at least inspires conspiracy theories. Since then, the social media activity of the group and its leadership indicates that they’ve gone full Sean Hannity. Between January 7 and February 12, both Sullenger’s Twitter account and the official Operation Rescue account have increased their engagements with accounts promoting #ReleaseTheMemo and related hashtags (#Qanon, #TheGreatAwakening, #FollowTheWhiteRabbit). In the past month alone, Sullenger’s changed her account handle to “CherylS sez #ReleaseTheMemo” and followed a number of right-wing media personalities’ accounts, including Alex Jones, Jerome Corsi, Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, and Sara Carter.

    Since January 2018, Sullenger and Operation Rescue’s social media accounts have demonstrated a precipitous slide into full-embrace of The Storm and #ReleaseTheMemo:

    Cheryl Sullenger

    • January 10 -- Sullenger tweeted a National Review article and included the hashtag #Qanon.

    • January 16 & 17 -- Operation Rescue sent a press release, calling on followers to participate in the “Mother of All Tweet Storms.” According to the release, followers of The Storm were “asked to create memes that express truths that have been misreported or ignored by the Main Stream Media (MSM) and call them out for their dishonest reporting.” Operation Rescue characterized the event as “a tweet war of Biblical proportions with folks joined together in a concerted effort to break through to the masses with the truth about governmental corruption, human trafficking, and even Planned Parenthood.” The Operation Rescue Twitter account then spent the better part of January 17 tweeting a variety of memes attacking Planned Parenthood and promoting hashtags related to The Storm.

    • January 22 -- Sullenger tweeted #ReleaseTheMemo and included a screenshot from Fox News’ Hannity, in which host Sean Hannity was talking about it. Hannity has been an active promoter of so-called “deep state” conspiracy theories.

    • January 24 -- Sullenger reacted to news that Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards is leaving the organization sometime in 2018, by tweeting multiple memes of Richards depicted in prison with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. The official Operation Rescue account also tweeted a press release about Richards’ departure using the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #FollowtheWhiteRabbit. Sullenger also tweeted a link to a YouTube video about #Qanon, calling it, “Must watch!” In addition to Sullenger’s Twitter activity, the Operation Rescue account also liked a tweet about #ReleaseTheMemo.

    • January 27 -- Sullenger retweeted a Jerome Corsi tweet about #ReleaseTheMemo, featuring a story from far-right blog The Gateway Pundit about Hannity and the memo. Sullenger additionally tweeted an explainer video about The Storm, writing, “#TheStorm is real. #ReleaseTheMemo.” Sullenger also tweeted @realDonaldTrump, asking him to read the memo during the State of the Union address because “Americans need to know the #truth.” Meanwhile, The Operation Rescue account liked a tweet about #GreatAwakening and #QAnon.

    • January 28 -- Sullenger attacked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) -- a frequent right-wing target -- on Twitter, citing a clip from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. This tweet included the hashtags #GreatAwakening and #ReleaseTheMemo. In addition to her own tweet, Sullenger also retweeted content from Jerome Corsi and Hannity about #ReleaseTheMemo.

    • January 29 -- Sullenger quote-tweeted a claim from Corsi about the memo, writing that she would not “be happy until we can all see the memo with our own eyes.” In addition, Sullenger also tweeted about the resignations of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Democratic National Committee CEO Jess O’Connell from their positions -- linking each to #ReleaseTheMemo. Notably, Sullenger shared an image from an account (@Thomas1774Paine) about the memo supposedly being delivered to the White House -- writing in a public post on her Facebook that “we are on the brink of history!” The Operation Rescue Twitter account retweeted a user, @LadyStephC, calling the memo “the tip of the iceberg” and including a number of hashtags related to The Storm.

    • January 31 -- After a train crash involving Republican members of Congress, Sullenger retweeted a conspiracy theory from Corsi that suggested the accident was part of a “deep state” plot to stop the Republicans from releasing the memo.

    • February 1 -- Sullenger tweeted several memes linked to the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, suggesting that if the memo is released some Democratic politicians will go to jail. Another meme that she tweeted showed "Q" as a revolutionary standing up to the "deep state" and implied the only way Americans would be "free" is by following him. Sullenger retweeted “alt-right” troll Jack Posobiec, in addition to tweeting a screenshot of an 8chan message board comment (allegedly from “Q”) and including the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #Qanon.

    • February 2 & 3 -- Retweeting a comment from Trump’s Twitter account about opposition research firm Fusion GPS, Sullenger argued that the same firm had “issued fake ‘forensic analysis’” in order to “cover up [Planned Parenthood]'s illegal baby parts trafficking” -- referring to a debunked allegation from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. In her tweet, Sullenger included the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #ThesePeopleAreSick. Sullenger also retweeted right-wing media personality Mark Levin. After the release of the disputed memo, Sullenger retweeted several of Corsi's tweets hyping allegations of widespread wrongdoing by government entities. On February 3, Sullenger retweeted Trump claiming that the memo "totally vindicates" him.

    • February 4 -- Sullenger tweeted a video alleging that Super Bowl LII attendees were at risk of being targeted by terrorists, commenting, "Better safe than sorry!" For good measure, Sullenger also tweeted a Life News article about Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards calling her "evil" and using the hashtags #LockHerUp, #AbortionIsMurder, and #GreatAwakening. 

    • February 5 -- Retweeting an account that previously shared screenshots from 8chan, Sullenger commented that both Clinton and Planned Parenthood "both must pay for crimes." Sullenger also shared a press release published by Operation Rescue further connecting the memo to the organization's typical talking points about Planned Parenthood. 

    Troy Newman

    Throughout much of this timeline, the social media accounts of Troy Newman did not engage as often with topics related to The Storm, #ReleaseTheMemo, or even right-wing media personalities. However, on January 31, a public post on Newman’s Facebook page directed followers to what appears to be a conspiracy theory blog for a man named Jim Stone.

    The site seems to house blog posts about a number of conspiracy theories, including one about an alleged plot by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to smuggle a gun into the State of the Union and assassinate Trump:

    Among other extreme conspiracy theories, Stone claimed the January 31 train accident occurred because Republican members of Congress had “received death threats over the memo, and were heading to a safe place when they were stopped by a staged ‘accident’”:

    Perhaps the most outlandish conspiracy theory of all: "If Trump gets killed, they can produce a fake Trump and have him say whatever they need him to say in real time." The blog continued that this technology had been used "with Hillary [Clinton] during the campaign" and that it was "critical information you cannot skip seeing": 

    After the memo was released on February 2, Newman tweeted and posted on Facebook, wondering if it was "too early to call this an attempted coup" against Trump. 

    One thing is certain: If Sullenger and other members of Operation Rescue have been fully “red-pilled,” they are not only exposing their audience to a wellspring of conspiracy theories, but also potentially becoming further radicalized themselves. And if exposure to rapidly misogynist online communities is truly a “gateway drug,” as Romano warned, the cross-pollination between these 8chan conspiracy theorists and anti-abortion extremists is an incredibly dangerous prospect.

  • Republicans want the media to ignore their draconian abortion bill. So far, the media is playing along.

    The House passed a 20-week abortion ban based on junk science -- and if anti-choice groups get their way, the Senate will do the same

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN, MILES LE & DAYANITA RAMESH


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Anti-choice politicians are making moves on an extreme anti-abortion bill -- but if you’re watching cable news, you might not have heard much about it.

    In October 2017, members of the House of Representatives passed a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy -- and if anti-abortion leaders and their legislative allies get their way, the Senate may soon vote to do the same. In a January 24 article, Bustle warned that a procedural vote on the 20-week ban could come as early as “the start of next week” and described the effort as “a new and more aggressive chapter in the Republican fight against women’s reproductive freedoms.” This comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden speech addressing the 2018 March for Life participants, where he called on lawmakers to pass the 20-week ban and send it to his desk.  

    But if you’re watching cable news, you might not hear much about this draconian measure or the junk science used to justify the harmful and medically unnecessary restriction. Unfortunately, right-wing media are taking full advantage of the silence since last October to fill the void with anti-abortion misinformation and spin:

    Twenty-week abortion bans are built on the inaccurate claim that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks in pregnancy, despite the wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary that such claims do not track with the majority of scientific consensus.

    For example, Dr. Anne Davis, an abortion provider and consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Salon in 2013 that the push for 20-week bans caused patients to begin asking her about fetal pain, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that the fetus does not feel pain at 20 weeks. Davis said, “It’s just another thing these women have to struggle with. And why? These are created concerns. They are not based in science, they are based in politics.”

    Undeterred, right-wing media seized on the passage of the House bill to promote anti-choice misinformation. Outlets such as Townhall and Breitbart lauded the House vote, with the latter arguing that the legislation was “based on the science” that a fetus can feel pain “as early as 18 weeks.” The Washington Examiner claimed that there was “no doubt” about fetal pain or the necessity of banning abortions at 20 weeks. The Daily Signal criticized the Journal of American Medicine Association for disputing the occurrence of fetal pain by 20 weeks and alleged that there were “subsequent studies finding otherwise.”

    Even the researchers behind studies commonly cited by anti-abortion groups and politicians reject such use of their findings. As The Daily Beast explained in a May 2016 article, one researcher “told The New York Times that his frequently-cited research ‘did not deal with pain specifically’” and was being misrepresented by anti-abortion advocates.

    Although the science behind 20-week bans may be scarce, the harm such restrictions do is anything but.

    A ban on abortion at 20 weeks would disproportionately impact low-income people. As the Guttmacher Institute explained, these patients may have to delay an abortion to later in pregnancy “because they had difficulty raising funds for the procedure and travel costs, or because they had difficulty securing insurance coverage.” But anti-choice politicians and right-wing media frequently vilify people who have later abortions and largely ignore the reality that people who seek these procedures do so for a variety of personal and medical reasons. 

    The bottom line is this: Right-wing and anti-choice media are going to talk up unsupported claims of “fetal pain” before 20 weeks and the harmful legislation that follows. Journalists have an obligation to debunk the junk science and right-wing talking points behind this 20-week ban as it moves through the Senate

  • Tucker Carlson accidentally proved why campaigns to combat abortion stigma are necessary

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    New year, same old Tucker Carlson. During the January 23 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson attempted to attack a recently launched campaign that aims to debunk abortion stigma -- only to demonstrate why such campaigns are actually necessary in the first place.

    The term abortion stigma refers to an idea that abortion is inherently wrong or socially unacceptable. It’s a belief that is culturally ingrained and reinforced in both implicit and explicit ways through media coverage, popular culture, and a lack of accurate information about the procedure itself. In particular, right-wing media and anti-choice groups have worked relentlessly to capitalize on this lack of public knowledge and awareness by demonizing abortion providers and patients and by fearmongering about the safety of abortion procedures. Because abortion stigma pervades when there is a lack of information or factual discussions about abortion, some advocates promote the idea of highlighting individual experiences and personal narratives as a strategy to encourage more public dialogue about abortion being a normal part of health care.

    Accordingly, in early January 2018, Ohio abortion provider Preterm launched a new campaign called “My Abortion, My Life,” consisting of 16 billboards put up around the city of Cleveland, Ohio. According to Preterm, all the billboards feature “a fill-in-the-blank sentence: ‘Abortion is ______’” and are filled in with “a different word or phrase, highlighting the variety of ways abortion is important to our lives.” According to Cleveland.com, Preterm’s director of development and communications issued a news release saying that the organization wanted “to push people to think about abortion in new, diverse ways with these billboards" and wanted “people in our community who have had abortions to know that they're not alone."

    During the January 23 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson hosted psychologist Dr. Robin Bryman to discuss the Preterm campaign and abortion stigma. The segment, in which Bryman (seemingly) supported abortion access, demonstrated how easy it is to rely on talking points rife with abortion stigma.

    Carlson began the segment by asking Bryman about a recent paper by Dr. Gretchen Sisson (of University of California, San Francisco and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) in which she argued for better depictions of abortion plotlines in television. Although Bryman initially appeared to be in support of abortion access, commenting that the study was “trying to destigmatize [abortion] with women,” her statements quickly veered into essentializing tropes.

    Although Bryman advocated for people to have the option to seek an abortion throughout the segment, she continuously reiterated stigmatizing characterizations of the medical practice describing it as “a very hard decision to make,” “a no-win situation,” and as “traumatic.” Carlson capitalized on Bryman's depictions and kept promoting the idea of abortion as inherently wrong. At one point, when Carlson asked her if there was anything that made her “personally uncomfortable” about abortion, Bryman responded: “Absolutely.” In another instance, Carlson asked Bryman directly about the Preterm campaign, and other efforts like it to encourage public dialogue -- both parties couched their comments in stigmatizing rhetoric:

    TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): What does that mean, “no-win situation?”

    DR. ROBIN BRYMAN: In other words, it means that a woman that has an unwanted pregnancy has to make a decision. And the decision is a no-win situation. She has to end the life of an unborn baby.

    CARLSON: I mean, I think you’re right. So, why do you hear people say, we should celebrate it, we should convince others there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not a big deal, it’s a positive thing --

    BRYMAN: Oh, it’s not -- it’s a huge deal. And it’s not a positive thing. And I don’t agree with that. I think it’s a traumatic thing that sometimes there’s no other option. And that’s why I do keep saying that it’s a no-win situation, because it really is.

    Carlson was not alone in his attack on the Preterm campaign. As with other attempts to combat abortion stigma, almost immediately after the campaign launched, it ignited right-wing backlash and became the target of articles from a variety of conservative and anti-abortion sites. Townhall described the campaign as “rather disturbing” and argued that “there’s no way to spin away that abortion is the termination of a baby.” Conservative Review claimed that the campaign “relies on deception and flagrant contradictions” before going through each of the 16 billboard designs with comments, calling some “a malicious lie,” “inherently selfish,” and “depraved.” The article also concluded that “abortion is a ‘sacred’ rite in the culture of death.” Meanwhile, outlets like The Daily Wire and Life News both used the campaign to promote the myth that abortion providers target black communities.

    Although Bryman claimed that individuals should have the option to have an abortion several times during the segment, her answers underscore the importance of having conversations even among pro-choice communities about why abortion isn’t inherently “a hard choice” or “a big deal.” As Preterm explained, “Abortion can be simple or complex. Easy or hard. A blessing or a struggle. It can be all of the above—and more.” And having conversations about those experiences is essential.

    Carlson’s reaction to this campaign and others is largely unremarkable, like much of his commentary that isn’t blatant pandering to white nationalists. What is remarkable, however, is that his attempt to attack Preterm’s campaign actually underscores the necessity of such approaches by advocates to combat abortion stigma.

  • Anti-abortion group that named Trump "Person of the Year” promotes an 8chan conspiracy theorist

    Operation Rescue praised a message board conspiracy theorist for helping "wake up Americans to the barbarity of abortion"

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue appears to have adopted a new tactic in its quest to attack Planned Parenthood and undermine abortion access. This time the group is praising an anonymous conspiracy theorist on the 8chan message board for taking the so-called "evidence" of Planned Parenthood's alleged wrongdoing "seriously and bringing it to the attention of an audience that may otherwise never have been exposed to the truth."

    Operation Rescue is an extreme anti-abortion group with a history of spouting violent rhetoric and harassing abortion providers. Headed by longtime extremist Troy Newman, Operation Rescue has been described as an organization dedicated to “shut[ting] down abortion clinics by systematically harassing their employees into quitting” -- a goal that typically involves training anti-choice activists, developing regional spin-off groups, and ultimately assisting with smear campaigns against abortion providers such as the discredited videos created by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. Newman and Operation Rescue have also been Trump supporters; the organization named the president as the “2017 Pro-Life Person of the Year.” 

    Although Operation Rescue has largely stuck to this playbook for its anti-abortion activism, on January 7 the group demonstrated a new tactic: signal-boosting a series of posts from a far-right message board on 8chan that targeted Planned Parenthood.

    8chan is a message board system -- similar to 4chan and Reddit -- that enables users to create and curate discussions anonymously, making them hotbeds of racist commentary and politically motivated harassment campaigns. These forums gained a reputation for being fertile ground for those in the so-called “alt-right” or white nationalist movement. In the past, 8chan has come under scrutiny for its use by certain users involved in the Gamergate movement, which involved the targeted harassment of individuals, including many women, who advocated “for greater inclusion in [video] gaming,” according to The Washington Post.

    Although there has been some discussion of the 8chan sub-forum “politically incorrect” or /pol/, there are many different sub-forums on the platform. The series of posts highlighted by Operation Rescue occurred on a new sub-forum called The Storm. A user who refers to himself as Q and claims to be a “high-level government insider” began posting first on 4chan and then 8chan about a series of "intel drops — which he, for some reason, called ‘crumbs’" in order to "inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state.” New York magazine’s Paris Martineau called the forum a "fantasy world" where “all of the far right’s wildest dreams come true”:

    Q promises that Clinton, Obama, Podesta, Abedin, and even McCain are all either arrested and wearing secret police-issued ankle monitors, or just about to be indicted; that the Steele dossier is a total fabrication personally paid for by Clinton and Obama; and that the Las Vegas massacre was most definitely an inside job connected to the Saudi-Clinton cabal. They believe all of this will be coming to a head any day now. That “The Storm” — of arrests, political turmoil, and Republican vindication — is coming.

    On January 7, Q posted on The Storm that followers should “review the Congressional investigation on PP” and “be prepared for what you learn,” ending with the statement, “These people are SICK!”:

    As Operation Rescue explained in its release, the “Congressional Investigation referenced is the results of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives” -- referring to a politically motivated inquiry into Planned Parenthood by anti-abortion members of the House of Representatives. Although during its 10 months of investigation, the House select panel found no substantiated evidence of wrongdoing, Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion outlets and groups have frequently promoted the panel’s final report.

    Although Operation Rescue acknowledged that Q is a conspiracy theorist, or at least inspires conspiracy theories -- the anti-abortion group still praised him when one of his posts aligned with its agenda, claiming that “#Qanon is now taking on Planned Parenthood in his uniquely enigmatic way.” Most notably, the Operation Rescue report closed with a quote from Newman, seemingly lauding Q:

    “We are grateful to Q and the Trump Administration for taking the evidence against Planned Parenthood seriously and bringing it to the attention of an audience that may otherwise never have been exposed to the truth. We hope the Qanon exposure helps wake up Americans to the barbarity of abortion,” said Newman. “Planned Parenthood is a corrupt enterprise that makes their money off the backs of dead babies and taxpayers. We urge Congress to defund Planned Parenthood immediately, and are praying for their speedy prosecution.”

    While Operation Rescue praised mysterious poster, the post itself inspired a number of responses -- ranging widely in tone and focus. Some users generally celebrated the news and asked for more information about when “Planned Parenthood is going down”:

    Others shared information from the Congressional investigation, and encouraged followers to read the full report:

    Some users even went so far as to suggest wider conspiracies about Planned Parenthood’s “blood sacrifice to Moloch and Lucifer” and the alleged use of fetal tissue in vaccines and food products:

    Operation Rescue has long been extreme in its tactics, but if this latest development is any indication, the organization may be preparing to lurch into the fever swamp of far-right conspiracy theories and harassment peddled on The Storm and similar communities across various message boards. Anti-abortion harassment has already grown worse over the past few years -- and if Operation Rescue is really pivoting to the far-right message board echo chamber, there’s little reason to believe that trend will abate.

  • How adopting right-wing spin about Doug Jones' support for abortion access led media astray

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On December 12, Alabama voters elected Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate -- ending a 25-year streak in which Democrats were unable to win a single seat in the state. Jones’ victory put to rest weeks of media hand-wringing and speculation about what would be more offensive to Alabamians: Republican candidate Roy Moore’s reported sexual misconduct with teenagers when he was in his 30s or Jones’ allegedly “extreme” position on abortion.

    In November, The Washington Post reported multiple women’s accounts of experiencing inappropriate conduct from Moore when they were in their teens, including one account of Moore pursuing a 14-year old girl. A few days later, another woman reported that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. In response, Moore largely avoided granting interviews to media, with the exception of a few friendly outlets such as Breitbart and One American News Network. To counteract these reports, right-wing outlets began leveraging what they claimed were Jones’ “extreme” views on abortion access against allegations of wrongdoing against Moore.

    In reality, as Jones has explained, he supports upholding current Alabama law, which allows patients to seek an abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy with limited exceptions for “medical necessity” beyond that point. During a September 27 interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Jones stated that he was “a firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her own body.” Despite this, many outlets not only adopted right-wing media’s inaccurate spin that Jones’ stance was “extreme,” but also went on to claim that Jones’ support for abortion access would ultimately cost him the election.

    From early in the campaign, right-wing media consistently pushed the talking point that Jones’ position on abortion access was “extreme.” For example, during the November 15 edition of Fox News’ The Five, co-host Jesse Watters described Alabama voters as having to decide between Moore, who “may have done inappropriate things with young girls 40 years ago,” and Jones, who he claimed supported so-called “‘partial-birth’ abortion” (a procedure that doesn’t exist but was invented by anti-abortion groups to shame those seeking abortions). In another example, Fox’s Marc Thiessen tried to equate Moore’s predatory behavior and Jones’ stance on abortion by calling them “two extremes.” Beyond this, Fox hosts and contributors alike leveraged a variety of inaccurate claims about Jones’ position on abortion -- saying he was for “abortion on demand,” claiming he was “a person who supports abortion at every level,” or parroting that he supported “abortion through all nine months” of pregnancy. In a particularly ill-fated exchange on the night of the election, Fox's Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume predicted that Jones' support for abortion would be his undoing:

    Unfortunately, rather than debunking such obvious anti-choice talking points, some outlets instead adopted this right-wing spin about Jones.

    During a November 27 discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-host Joe Scarborough claimed that Democrats would be better off if they had run “somebody who were, let’s say, conservative to moderate on abortion … but with Democrats on 99 percent of the other issues.” The following day, a panel on Morning Joe continued this line of argument with MSNBC political analyst Elise Jordan stating that adopting an anti-abortion viewpoint “would have taken Doug Jones easily over the finish line.” Beyond Jordan’s claims, during the same discussion MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki also promoted the right-wing argument that Jones supported “no restrictions on abortion at all.”

    On CNN, contributor Stephen Moore also adopted the right-wing spin about Jones, arguing that he supported “partial-birth abortion, which a lot of people in Alabama think is tantamount to murder.” While at The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis speculated that Alabama voters may not be able to cast a vote for Jones because of his “extreme position on what many see as a definitive life or death issue.” Lewis concluded that Jones “would be in a much better position” to win if his views about abortion weren’t “so radical.”

    As election day drew nearer, other outlets continued to run with the argument that not only was Jones’ position “extreme,” but that it would also cost him the election. For example, The Boston Globe claimed that for Alabama voters, Jones’ stance was “a deal-breaker” and that if Moore was “running against a Democrat less doctrinaire on abortion, the revelations about Moore’s pursuit of young girls would likely have sunk his campaign.” NPR reported on December 8 that “for some Alabama voters, supporting abortion rights may be a sin worse than some of the sexual misdeeds Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore has been accused of.” On the night of the election, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd said that he’d been told that “if Doug Jones loses, it will be a one word answer: Abortion.”

    This is far from the first time that media have gotten carried away with the argument that support for abortion access costs votes or elections for Democratic or progressive candidates. In early 2017, The New York Times published an op-ed titled, “To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party” -- kicking off wave of responses rebutting the false dichotomy that Democrats must sacrifice reproductive rights to win voters.

    As HuffPost reported on December 4, however, there was ample reason to believe that Jones’ support for abortion access wouldn’t be a hindrance. According to polling performed by Clarity Campaign Labs, “Abortion wasn’t really in the top couple issue” when likely Republican voters explained why they wouldn’t support Jones over Moore.

  • Right-wing media do the dirty work of anti-abortion groups by hyping attacks on Planned Parenthood

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It comes as little surprise that Fox News once again carried water for the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), this time returning to an old tactic of using advance copies of documents to validate already debunked claims from CMP’s smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.

    On December 7, Fox News reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had “launched a federal investigation into Planned Parenthood’s practices and the sale of fetal tissue.” As evidence, the article cited “a letter first obtained by Fox News” that “formally requested unredacted documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee” that were gathered in 2016 as part of an investigation into Planned Parenthood. The article concluded that the DOJ’s actions would “reopen the years-long debate on whether Planned Parenthood and other providers violated the law with the illegal sale of body parts.” 

    As Jezebel noted, the DOJ’s “letter is essentially a procedural document,” and it “remains unclear whether or not the DOJ plans to launch a full investigation or whether or not this is simply a political attempt to garner headlines like the one published at Fox News” claiming that Planned Parenthood is being investigated even though “there is no formal investigation.”

    Claims about the alleged “sale of body parts” emerged in July 2015, when David Daleiden and his discredited organization, Center for Medical Progress (CMP), released a series of deceptively edited smear videos attacking Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (NAF). Since then, multiple investigations have disproven Daleiden’s claims and, in fact, cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. In contrast, Daleiden is now subject to several legal actions -- during the most recent of which two of his attorneys were fined and held in contempt for violating a preliminary injunction by releasing materials that targeted individual abortion providers.

    In reality, both the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation and a parallel effort by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives were considered from their inception to be politically motivated attacks on abortion access and reproductive health more broadly. During its 10 months of operation, the House select panel found no substantiated evidence of wrongdoing, prompting numerous lawmakers to call for its disbandment. As Rewire explained, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s efforts were similarly unfruitful, and the final report merely echoed “allegations disproven by three Republican-led congressional committee investigations, 13 states, and a Texas grand jury.”

    Although right-wing and anti-abortion outlets love to frame Daleiden and his co-conspirators as “citizen journalists” conducting an “undercover investigation,” a federal judge and journalism experts have agreed: Daleiden and his ilk are not journalists. In contrast, as data from NAF demonstrates, since the release of the videos in July 2015, violence and harassment of abortion reporters has skyrocketed. Despite this -- and Daleiden’s litany of legal issues -- right-wing and anti-abortion media have not been deterred from carrying water for CMP’s deceptive claims.

    This is not the first time that Fox News has received exclusive information relating to the congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood. In May 2016, Fox News’ Shannon Bream touted "exclusively obtained" copies of letters that the House select panel sent to various entities at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This “exclusive” ran on May 31 -- a full day before the letters were publicly released or shared with Democratic members of the panel, in direct violation of congressional rules. More recently, right-wing and anti-abortion media circulated footage from CMP that was barred from release by a district judge. Even after CMP was forced to remove the footage from YouTube, anti-abortion media outlets that had promoted the footage reposted and shared it.

    Before its conclusion, the House select panel was notable for its function as a conduit through which anti-abortion groups consistently funneled information in order to give their attacks a veneer of legitimacy. And if, in fact, the DOJ’s inquiry does signal a formal investigation, the release of the December 7 letter to Fox News a full day before ranking Democratic members received it should be a warning sign about the impartiality of this investigation.

  • Fox’s Shannon Bream has a new show and a history of spreading misinformation about abortion

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    On October 30, Fox News’ Shannon Bream debuted the evening program Fox News @ Night. The show was new, but one thing stayed the same: Bream’s commitment to misinforming about abortion.

    As Mic noted, Bream’s program represents a “departure from a longtime tradition” of playing reruns of other “popular primetime shows” during the 11 p.m. hour. Bream herself has attempted to brand her program as “straight news, not opinion” and claimed the program “will be straight down the middle.” In reality, Bream has a long history of presenting misleading reporting about a number of reproductive rights topics -- and if the first episode of Fox News @ Night is any indication, having her own program won’t change anything. 

    For example, long after the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood were discredited, Bream gave CMP founder David Daleiden an unchallenged platform to push misinformation. Before that, Bream had played frequent validator for CMP’s claims -- going so far as to anchor a Fox News special on its content, titled Planned Parenthood: The Hidden Harvest. Beyond her emphasis on CMP’s inaccurate contentions, Bream also has a tendency to cite polls commissioned by anti-choice groups to suggest a lack of public support for abortion access. 

    In back-to-back segments during the October 30 edition, Bream also hosted NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to discuss a recent case involving the Trump administration’s denial of an abortion to an undocumented minor being held in federal custody. According to BuzzFeed, the minor (referred to as Jane Doe) did not ask for “the government to pay for the procedure or arrange the transportation” -- in fact, as Politico reported, she had already “obtained the money” for the procedure. Nevertheless, Fox News’ coverage of the case has focused on a made-up idea that taxpayers should be outraged about the possibility of funding abortions for undocumented immigrants like Doe -- an offshoot of the debunked, but oft-repeated, right-wing myth of so-called “taxpayer-funded abortion.” (In fact, no taxpayer money may go to abortions under the Hyde Amendment.)

    During the first segment, Bream not only pressed Hogue on a series of anti-choice talking points about the case (including the myth of taxpayer-funded abortion), but also directly channeled the concerns of anti-abortion groups. In one instance, after Hogue noted that opponents of Doe’s abortion want to “put Roe [v. Wade] on trial through this case,” Bream interjected that what she “heard from a lot of pro-life groups is they were worried this is Roe v. Wade 2.0.” Bream continued that these anti-abortion groups were concerned that Doe’s case was “not just about abortion, but it’s now encouraging -- they think -- in some ways, people coming here from other countries where maybe they can’t get an abortion.”

    Bream’s comment about having “heard from a lot of pro-life groups” is unsurprising. In but one example, the afternoon before Bream’s program debuted, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, tweeted that Bream is a “friend” and that she “covers Life issues with fearlessness and fairness.”

    The Fox prime-time lineup has seen a lot of change over the past year. Following the ouster of Bill O’Reilly for numerous reports of sexual harassment (and more recent news of further settlements still), the network was forced to make changes to its evening talent. As a result, white nationalist golden boy and serial anti-abortion misinformer Tucker Carlson scored a prime-time spot -- a platform he has used to host anti-abortion activists and present their allegations in a way that appeals to his extremist base. In September, after Fox was forced to fire prime-time host Eric Bolling (again for reports of sexual harassment), the network announced Fox News @ Night, hosted by Bream at 11 p.m., and another program, The Ingraham Angle, hosted by longtime contributor Laura Ingraham (who has her own history of spreading misinformation about abortion).

    As Variety reported, Fox executives are hopeful that the addition of Ingraham and Bream will finally “cap a flurry of schedule changes” that audiences have endured over the past year. And although Bream has pitched her show as one that “will focus heavily on politics and events in Washington” -- a choice that one media professor told Variety will offer viewers “news, not more punditry” -- audiences shouldn’t be fooled.

    If the chyron previewing the abortion-related segment during the October 30 premier is any indication, Bream’s coverage of reproductive rights topics will be more of the same Fox News xenophobia and bluster:

  • How one Republican used a tactic from the anti-abortion media playbook to bully Twitter

    Rep. Marsha Blackburn has a long history of taking cues from anti-abortion groups to gin up right-wing support -- and her latest attack on Twitter is no different

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Anti-abortion groups and media outlets have a habit of claiming censorship in order to boost fundraising by ginning up outrage and support. Now this media manipulation tactic is being employed by a staunch anti-choice ally: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

    On October 5, Blackburn announced a run for retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) seat. As part of this announcement, Blackburn’s campaign tweeted a short video advertising her right-wing bonafides, including her work as chair of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which was created to conduct a politically motivated investigation of Planned Parenthood on the basis of deceptive videos from a discredited anti-abortion organization. Although the panel was regarded by many as merely “an expensive witch hunt,” Blackburn touted her role during the campaign video, claiming that she had “fought Planned Parenthood” and “stopped the sale of baby body parts.”

    Although Blackburn's campaign wanted to pay to promote the video on Twitter as an ad, the social media site initially objected, drawing widespread outrage among anti-abortion and right-wing outlets. According to an October 10 Associated Press report, Twitter found that Blackburn’s statement about “baby body parts” violated platform rules because it was “‘deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.’” Twitter allowed the video to remain up but not as promoted content, concluding that the campaign “would be allowed to run the rest of the video” as a paid ad if it ommitted the phrase.

    This stance did not last long, however. The next day, Twitter reversed its position and announced that it would allow Blackburn’s campaign to promote the ad, commenting to Politico, “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”

    Blackburn's campaign quickly seized on Twitter’s refusal as an act of censorship -- taking a page straight from the anti-abortion media playbook.

    As Media Matters has previously noted, anti-abortion extremists have increasingly employed the tactic of alleging “censorship” or claiming that inaccurate anti-choice content is being “shut down” to gin up fundraising support and rile up right-wing media allies. By reacting to perceived slights as instances of injustice or censorship, these groups can incite followers, increase fundraising, and appeal to an audience motivated by anti-elite sentiments but normally less attuned to the activities of the anti-abortion movement.

    In one example, anti-abortion extremist Lila Rose alleged that Twitter was censoring advertisements from her group Live Action by similarly prohibiting their promotion as sponsored content. After Rose appeared on the June 26 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss Twitter’s alleged bias, a banner was added to Live Action’s home page begging for donations to combat the act of censorship. By June 30, the organization had announced that it had reached its fundraising goal but nevertheless asked supporters to continue donating in order to “guarantee” Live Action could continue working “to expose the abortion industry.” Other anti-abortion organizations and right-wing outlets also came to Live Action’s defense, working to create even more support for claims of censorship and persecution.

    Emulating this tactic, the Blackburn campaign was quick to cry foul and turn the perceived slight into a fundraising opportunity. On October 9, the campaign’s Twitter account circulated a video inaccurately alleging that Blackburn was “banned by Twitter” and asking supporters to share the clip in order to “spread the word” that “Silicon Valley won’t stop our conservative movement with censorship.” The account also shared posts from anti-abortion groups and outlets alleging that Blackburn had been censored. The Blackburn campaign even sent an email to supporters asking for donations, warning that the “liberal elite wants to censor us at every opportunity.” Over the next 24 hours, Blackburn appeared multiple times on Fox News to repeat her claims of censorship and enjoyed a surge in media attention from outlets across the political spectrum. Twitter ultimately caved to the pressure and allowed the campaign to run Blackburn’s ad with the allegations against Planned Parenthood intact.

    The symbiotic relationship between Blackburn and various anti-abortion groups or media is hardly a secret. During Blackburn’s time as select panel chair, the committee held three hearings that utilized evidence sourced directly from anti-abortion groups as so-called “evidence” of wrongdoing by abortion providers and related organizations. Indeed, several anti-abortion groups, including (but likely not limited to) New Mexico Alliance for Life, Protest ABQ, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Medical Progress provided “documentation and materials” to the select panel. A member of Protest ABQ even bragged about having influence over the panel's investigators, stating that their research "finally paid off and turned into the panel investigating.” In addition to leveraging connections to anti-abortion groups, Blackburn also leaked an advanced copy of allegations from the panel to Fox News -- before sharing it with minority members -- and provided an exclusive interview inaccurately alleging that Planned Parenthood had operated in “direct violation of federal law.”

    Blackburn’s deployment of the censorship tactic elides the more fundamental issue with the ad itself: the fact that it was based on a falsehood. Contrary to Blackburn's claim, multiple state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, while the anti-choice activists responsible for the initial “baby parts” allegations are currently the subject of multiple lawsuits.

    Blackburn’s campaign took a page out of the anti-abortion playbook to garner a concession from Twitter. And as New York magazine's Margaret Hartmann noted, Blackburn’s success -- despite the falsity of her claims -- “has probably encouraged Republican midterm candidates to throw some unproven, inflammatory statements into the ads.” Indeed, Blackburn has already taken to calling Twitter's reversal "our first Senate conservative victory." 

  • Gillespie and Northam should be asked about abortion in the next Virginia gubernatorial debate

    Candidates in 2013 were asked about abortion. Moderators in 2017 must do the same.

    ››› ››› REBECCA DAMANTE & SHARON KANN

    In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie have faced off in two debates -- neither of which has included a question about their positions on abortion. On October 9, Northman and Gillespie will participate in a third debate, moderated by NBC affiliate WCYB anchor Paul Johnson and featuring reporter Carmen Forman as a panelist. Given Gillespie’s known extremism on abortion and reproductive rights, Johnson and Forman have a responsibility to ask both candidates about their views on the issue.