Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Kentucky broadcast media favor anti-choice voices in covering Operation Save America protests

During the final week of July, the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) protested in front of Kentucky’s last remaining abortion clinic with the goal of shutting it down. From July 1 through 31, Kentucky broadcast media aired 209 segments on the topic and overall featured a greater number of anti-abortion protesters than pro-choice advocates. Kentucky media also failed to provide context about the violent history and rhetoric of OSA, including group members’ violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE Act) during a protest in May.

  • Anti-abortion group Operation Save America held a week-long protest in Kentucky

    Anti-abortion group Operation Save America held a week-long protest in Kentucky. During the final week of July, the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Save America (OSA) swarmed Kentucky to protest in front of the state’s one remaining abortion clinic, EMW Women's Surgical Center, in the hopes of shuttering it and making abortion inaccessible in the state. OSA gained considerable media attention after announcing it would be holding its national event in Kentucky this year. [Media Matters, 8/1/17]

    Kentucky broadcast media largely failed to include the voices of pro-choice activists in their coverage

    Of 209 segments, 64 percent included quotes from or interviews with anti-choice activists. In July, there were 209 segments about OSA’s protests across the Lexington, Louisville, Paducah-Cape Girardeau-Harrisburg, and Bowling Green television markets. Of these 209 segments, 134 (64 percent) included quotes or interviews with anti-choice extremists such as OSA director Rusty Thomas, OSA leader and pastor Joseph Spurgeon, or OSA attorney Vince Heuser.

    In comparison, only 41 percent included quotes or interviews with pro-choice activists. Of the 209 segments, 85 (41 percent) included quotes or interviews with pro-choice figures. When including comments from pro-choice activists, stations largely turned to Dr. Ernest Marshall and Executive Director Anne Ahola, both of EMW Women’s Surgical Center.

    Twenty-four percent of segments included quotes from, or interviews with, only anti-choice activists while only 4 percent featured exclusively pro-choice voices. Of 209 segments, 51 (24 percent) included quotes from, or interviews with, only anti-choice figures. These 51 segments exclusively promoted anti-abortion voices and provided no counter balance with pro-choice activists or service providers. In comparison, only nine segments (4 percent) featured exclusively pro-choice voices.

    Segments with anti-choice advocates often featured violent and inflammatory language. In segments featuring anti-choice advocates, the language used was often extreme. In one segment from WBKO (ABC) in Bowling Green, OSA pastor Joseph Spurgeon said, “We look at violence in the streets and in the West End, in particular, and wonder how to stop it. Do we really think God will help us stop the violence in our streets when we have sanctioned killing?” In a segment from WHAS 11 (ABC) in Louisville, OSA director Rusty Thomas said, “Babies are being murdered and thrown away like a piece of trash under our watch! And it’s not an if -- it is a when -- that death camp is gonna go the way of every bloody tyranny of men. They’re done! They’re over! They are history in Jesus’ name.” [WBKO, AM Kentucky Live, 7/20/17; WHAS, News 11 @ 11, 7/25/17]

    Louisville broadcast media gave anti-choice voices the largest platform

    WLKY (CBS) and WHAS (ABC) featured the largest imbalance of anti-choice to pro-choice guests. Of the four major networks in Louisville, WLKY (CBS) and WHAS (ABC) featured the greatest imbalance between anti-choice and pro-choice activists. Out of 55 segments on WKLY, 39 (71 percent) included anti-choice activists and only 17 (31 percent) included pro-choice voices. Beyond giving these anti-choice voices a disproportionately large platform, WLKY also aired the greatest number of imbalanced segments -- where anti-choice activists were the sole voices in a newscast -- with 28 of 55 (51 percent) featuring no pro-choice activists. WLKY was also the only network to advertise OSA’s “solemn assembly” protest -- an event where the group leads church congregations in asking for repentance -- on the evening of July 23. Louisville’s WHAS (ABC) had a similar representation problem, with 20 of its 30 segments (67 percent) highlighting anti-choice voices, and merely 11 of its 30 segments including pro-choice advocates (37 percent). [Operation Save America, accessed 8/10/17]

    Louisville’s WDRB (FOX) and WAVE (NBC) both had a smaller imbalance in terms of anti-choice versus pro-choice guests. WDRB (FOX) aired 66 total segments about the protests, 47 of which (71 percent) included anti-choice activists and 39 of which (59 percent) included pro-choice voices. In addition, through the month of July, Louisville’s WAVE (NBC) aired 15 segments about the OSA protests, including six segments (40 percent) with anti-choice guests and four segments (27 percent) with quotes or interviews with pro-choice activists.

    Louisville’s WLKY twice aired a national CBS segment featuring graphic language and spreading anti-choice misinformation. On July 24, CBS Evening News aired a segment that quoted OSA members using graphic language and spreading anti-choice misinformation. OSA members interviewed called Roe v. Wade “a covenant with death” and reinforced misinformation about so-called “sex-selective” abortions -- a term used by anti-choice legislators as justification to restrict abortion access, especially among minority communities, even though there is little scientific evidence supporting the necessity of a ban on the practice. In the segment, CBS highlighted comments from activist Jason Storm and his wife, Sara, including her claim that “little baby girls are also being murdered in these abortion clinics.” CBS included pro-choice comments only from clinic director Anne Ahola. WLKY aired this segment twice, despite these issues in tone and balance. [CBS Evening News, 7/24/17; Media Matters, 4/3/17]

    Kentucky’s broadcast media omitted important context about OSA’s violent history and rhetoric

    Out of 209 segments, zero included context about OSA’s past violence and rhetoric. Out of 209 segments in Kentucky broadcast media, zero segments provided viewers with context about OSA’s history of harassment and extremism. The closest these outlets came to detailing OSA’s history was mentioning the arrest of 10 OSA members in May 2017 for blocking the entrance of EMW Women’s Surgical Center, which they did in 89 of the 209 segments (43 percent). In addition, during the Kentucky protest, OSA used the tactic of circulating flyers labeled “KILLERS AMONG US” in the providers’ neighborhoods. Although some segments mentioned this tactic, media largely failed to connect this stunt with OSA’s history or with wider instances of anti-choice violence against and even murder of abortion providers.

    OSA has a long history of conducting protests and engaging in targeted harassment of abortion clinic providers. In addition to the May arrests, local coverage could have mentioned that OSA is best known for its “Summer of Mercy” protest in 1991, where 1,718 protesters were arrested. OSA also carries out targeted harassment of abortion clinic providers, which typically entails the group protesting in the neighborhood of the providers and distributing flyers to their neighbors with identifying information -- including the provider’s photo and home address. All of OSA’s leaders have espoused violence as a tactic, including founder Randall Terry. In 1995, Terry advocated for implementing biblical law in the U.S. and urged Christians to “take up the sword” and “overthrow the tyrannical regime that oppresses them.” Current OSA leader Rusty Thomas has claimed abortion is the cause of terrorism. He blamed the 9/11 terrorism attacks on abortion, claiming, “If we repent and end abortion, God will deliver us from the evil of Islamic terrorism.” [Media Matters, 8/1/17]

    Kentucky broadcast media largely failed to inform viewers that OSA violated the FACE Act in May

    The FACE Act was enacted to protect access to reproductive health facilities. In response to escalating incidents of anti-choice violence and protest -- including the 1993 murder of abortion provider Dr. David Gunn -- the federal government enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994 to protect access to reproductive health facilities. The act forbids protesters from blocking the entrances of abortion clinics “by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction.” [Rewire, 5/15/17; Department of Justice, accessed 8/8/17]

    OSA violated the act in May, but Kentucky broadcast media mentioned the act in only 9 percent of segments. OSA violated the FACE Act on May 13, when members of the group were arrested for blocking the entrance of EMW Women’s Surgical Center. Nevertheless, only 19 of 209 segments (9 percent) mentioned that OSA violated the FACE Act in May.

    Local media failed to note buffer zone violations by OSA documented by National Abortion Federation staff and Kentucky clinic escorts. According to the accounts of on-the-ground pro-choice activists, OSA potentially violated the clinic’s protective buffer zone during the week-long protest. On July 24, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) noted on Twitter three times that U.S. marshals had to tell anti-abortion protesters to step outside the buffer zone, including one incident when a protester began chalking anti-abortion messages in the protected area. On July 26, NAF and the Twitter account of Louisville clinic escorts tweeted that OSA’s attorney was violating the buffer zone. Despite the documentation of these violations, local media failed to note that buffer zone infractions were occurring. [Twitter, 7/24/17, 7/26/17, 7/26/17, 7/26/17]


    Media Matters searched iQ media for coverage of Operation Save America and its clinic protests between July 1, 2017, and July 31, 2017, in the Lexington, Louisville, Paducah-Cape Girardeau-Harrisburg, and Bowling Green television markets. This resulted in 209 segments, including the airing and re-airing of CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News. These segments were then coded for:

    • number of appearances by anti-choice figures;

    • number of appearances by pro-choice figures;

    • mention of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act;

    • mention of Operation Save America’s violent history; and

    • mention of arrests of Operation Save America members in May 2017.

    Charts by Sarah Wasko