While Fox News dominates abortion-related evening news coverage with misinformation, CNN and MSNBC barely discuss the topic. And when these networks do discuss abortion, they more often repeat or allow the promotion of right-wing misinformation without sufficient pushback. At this critical time for reproductive rights, CNN and MSNBC need to increase and improve their abortion-related coverage -- which includes refuting right-wing media misinformation when it appears on the networks.
A Media Matters study of 12 months of evening cable news programs found that Fox News aired 334 (or 63%) of the segments featuring a substantial discussion of abortion. In comparison, MSNBC had 115 segments (22%), and CNN had only 77 (15%).
Media Matters coded the accuracy of statements about four abortion-related topics and found that Fox News had the highest percentage of inaccurate statements at 85% (708 inaccurate statements). However, in the rare instances when CNN and MSNBC discussed the abortion-related topics analyzed in the study, their statements were inaccurate 67% (14 inaccurate statements) and 40% (12 inaccurate statements) of the time, respectively. In particular, statements about abortion “extremism” were most common on all three networks: Fox News aired 606 such statements, out of which 90% were inaccurate; MSNBC aired 19 statements, 58% of which were inaccurate; and CNN aired 11 statements, all of which were inaccurate.
Fox’s dominance in abortion-related conversations -- particularly in discussions about so-called abortion “extremism” -- is unsurprising. Many of these inaccurate statements came from hosts’ and guests’ use of inaccurate language, inventing scenarios of “infanticide” or abortions “up to the moment of birth” to mischaracterize Democratic efforts to protect abortion access. It is perhaps even more alarming that the few statements about abortion “extremism” made on CNN and MSNBC closely echoed the statements made on Fox News. Indeed, many of the inaccurate statements on CNN and MSNBC about abortion “extremism” repeated right-wing media's anti-abortion talking points and inaccurate language about abortion.
Media Matters identified 11 statements on CNN pertaining to so-called abortion “extremism,” all of which were inaccurate and echoed right-wing media misinformation.
For example, in a May 2018 segment on Anderson Cooper 360, Steve Cortes (who may or may not still be a CNN political commentator) criticized another guest’s “moral judgment” of President Donald Trump by falsely claiming that former President Barack Obama “supported abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy -- literally until the day of birth.” In a July 2018 segment on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, Cortes again used this inaccurate and sensationalized language, this time to claim that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh would “put some sensible restrictions around abortion, to say that you cannot abort a child a day before birth, which is what Roe v. Wade instituted in most of this country.” Neither of these inaccurate characterizations was refuted by CNN hosts or other guests -- allowing this incendiary framing to spread unchecked.
After Fox News spent January and February having a meltdown about state abortion protections, statements on CNN echoed this inaccurate rhetoric, alleging that Democrats supported “infanticide.” For example, during a segment on Erin Burnett OutFront about Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in February, Stephen Moore (then a CNN contributor, now a failed pick for Trump’s Federal Reserve Board) claimed that Northam supported a bill that would have “almost literally” permitted “an abortion up until the time you cut the umbilical cord.” Instead of refuting this inflammatory and inaccurate talking point that had been pervasive on Fox News, host Erin Burnett said, “I don’t want to get into the debate about abortion.”
Even when CNN hosts or correspondents weren’t unintentionally repeating anti-abortion language, they often failed to refute right-wing talking points or claims when levied by guests. For example, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner said in a February segment on CNN Tonight that Northam's comments about a bill that would have removed some restrictions on third-trimester abortions were being characterized by “a lot of people” as the governor “talking about killing a child that has already been born.” Even though it was a highly inaccurate description, host Don Lemon did not push back or refute the premise of Sidner’s claim. In a segment on Cuomo Prime Time following Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, host Chris Cuomo mentioned Trump’s description of state abortion protections as endorsing “infanticide,” similarly failing to offer any debunk or context.
Unlike CNN’s coverage, where hosts both repeated and failed to debunk inaccurate right-wing media talking points, MSNBC’s 19 inaccurate statements about four abortion-related topics largely resulted from a failure in segments to provide adequate context about anti-abortion claims.
For example, during a June 2018 segment of Hardball, NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams described a vote by former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy as upholding “a ban on what are called partial-birth abortions,” without explaining that the concept of so-called “partial-birth” abortions was invented by anti-abortion extremists to spread misinformation.
While “partial-birth" abortion is a term used in a 2003 federal law called the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act,” it is imperative to clarify, as NPR did in this report, that “partial-birth” abortion “is not a medical term. It's a political one.” In fact, the term was “first coined” by anti-abortion groups that thought it would help the movement create fervor and further restrict abortion rights. Indeed, right-wing media use the term often (despite no such procedure being practiced), with other outlets sometimes even uncritically picking it up.
Inaccurate terms like “partial-birth" abortion weren’t the only anti-abortion concepts for which MSNBC failed to provide additional context. For example, host Lawrence O’Donnell twice used the phrase “abortion on demand” when quoting a lower-court opinion by Kavanaugh. Although O’Donnell was accurately quoting Kavanaugh, as NBC News had reported, such language was likely a signal to anti-abortion groups that Kavanaugh was hostile to abortion rights. However, O’Donnell did not delve into the anti-abortion history or framing of this term during these segments, failing to provide viewers with this necessary context.
In contrast, during a July 2018 segment of Hardball, MSNBC political analyst Heidi Przybyla demonstrated how to effectively refute anti-abortion language without uncritically repeating the underlying misinformation. In discussing the quote from Kavanaugh, Pryzbyla explained that his use of “abortion on demand” is a “code word,” meant to signal his position to anti-abortion groups. Przybyla also clarified that there are “already … a number of restrictions in states on abortion past 20 weeks. And so if you’re calling our current laws on abortion ‘abortion on demand,’ then essentially what you’re referring to is taking away some of those exceptions for the life of the mother.” In another segment, this time on MTP Daily, MSNBC political analyst Zerlina Maxwell refuted CBN's David Brody's lie that Hillary Clinton “supported partial-birth abortion,” by stating that “partial-birth abortion” is a “scientifically” inaccurate concept, and is actually “a made-up thing.”
The problem isn't just Fox's dominance in abortion-related conversations -- it's the failure of CNN and MSNBC to consistently provide robust and factual abortion-related reporting
Fox News dominated abortion-related coverage and contaminated it with misinformation, but that doesn’t let other networks off the hook -- particularly when they adopt the same inaccurate talking points during their infrequent abortion-related conversations. The anti-abortion terms used in these segments -- such as “infanticide” and abortion “up until birth” -- are not only inaccurate, but also highly incendiary and dangerous.
In addition to acknowledging these right-wing arguments, other networks need to not only discuss abortion-related topics more frequently, but they must also counter the endless stream of misinformation from Fox News with accurate information.
Fox’s anti-abortion misinformation appears overwhelming in part because the network discusses the topic the most. It’s bad enough when these inaccurate talking points are circulated among right-wing media outlets, but when they escape the self-reinforcing right-wing media echo chamber, it makes it even harder to rebut the harmful misinformation. CNN and MSNBC need to deflect attempts to bring Fox News’ style of coverage onto their networks -- especially when the stakes are this high.