On the October 7 edition of The Electorette podcast, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann discussed a new study about abortion-related coverage on evening cable news which found networks like MSNBC and CNN have allowed Fox News to set the terms of these conversations. As a result, much coverage of the topic is rife with sensationalized anti-abortion misinformation:
JENN TAYLOR-SKINNER (HOST): So the Media Matters report is titled, “Other networks are letting Fox News poison abortion-related coverage with dangerous lies.” And it was so fascinating to me because it destroyed an assumption I’d made -- that if you don’t watch Fox News, you’re safe from the lies about abortion, right? And as long as you avoid Fox News you’re free from consuming their misinformation about abortion. And this Media Matters report just blows that assumption out of the water.
SHARON KANN: Right. I think that is -- this is the fourth year that we’ve done this study. We do a version of it every year trying to look at year’s worth of cable news conversations about abortion. And I think something that’s been always surprising to me every year, is not just how much misinformation there is on Fox, but how much of that misinformation by virtue of having an agenda-setting effect or by virtue of sort of driving larger meta-media narratives either shows up in the form of talking points on other networks or shows up frankly just in sort of the frame the conversation is being had in. So I do think that, you know every year it never ceases to amaze me just how much misinformation and lies, tacitly even, show up places that you might think you’re inoculated from them but in reality, nothing is isolated.
In particular, Kann highlighted how anti-abortion misinformation travels from Fox News to other networks when MSNBC and CNN host right-wing commentators and allow them to spread falsehoods unchecked:
TAYLOR-SKINNER: I think there’s this assumption that if we can get our uncles or our grandparents away from Fox News, right? You know, that they’re safe from the misinformation but that’s just not true.
KANN: Right. I think that, you know, we looked at, like I said a year worth of data so there’s tons of different flashpoints or sort of examples that we can really dig in on but, I do think that one of the things that always is striking about the examples is when we see networks like CNN and MSNBC either allowing guests or correspondents to echo inaccurate talking points in their coverage. Or, when in the course of sort of like these super panels where we have like 10 people, you know all on the screen trying to talk about different issues -- where in the course of things there will be talking points or arguments made that just never get pushed back on because they’re not the central focus. But you know, a right-wing or right-leaning commentator who is on the network might have an investment in continuing to have those talking points be part of a conversation. And so I think it is, you know, sometimes it is as simple as a guest makes a comment or makes a statement and it doesn’t get pushed back on by a host. And in other instances, it’s something where because the terms of the debate have been set, you know we might have examples of hosts who are repeating talking points that really don't hold water because that’s just the conversation that’s being had, that sort of the terms that it’s being discussed with.
TAYLOR SKINNER: We should really dig into that because a lot of people complain about MSNBC for instance, or CNN giving people, giving you know, certain conservatives airtime. You know which I think generally just on its face, you know I think that’s fine, but when you give airtime to someone who is known for spreading lies I think that’s a different thing altogether. You can have a healthy debate between people, people who don’t share the same ideology, but when you give airtime to someone who is known for spreading lies, you know, actual lies, it just gives them a platform to legitimize those lies. Partly because I think people rarely question networks’ judgement around who they decide to have as guests.
KANN: Yeah I think that’s true. Like you said it’s not that, you know these networks shouldn’t have conservative voices or that there’s not a legitimate ideological conversation to be had, but at least in the context of abortion especially, you know the ideological conversation is not being had in ways that are either representative of reality or that, you know, speak to the voices that should have the most say on these things. For example, I don’t know what good it does for viewers to have three or four segments with, for example, you know like a [President Donald] Trump spokesperson whose coming on CNN to say that, “Democrats, support, you know, extreme later abortions,” when the conversation around later abortion access -- we should be talking to an abortion provider, a medical professional, somebody that’s had an abortion. It just doesn’t seem worthwhile, in my opinion, and based on the data that we’ve seen, to continue having the same political conversations or the same ideological conversations without acknowledging the realities of abortion access and making sure that viewers have an accurate picture of what that really looks like.
Kann also explained how networks amplify anti-abortion misinformation by providing space to commentators or guests who are “loud on abortion” rather than uplifting the expertise of medical professionals or the perspectives of people who have had abortions:
TAYLOR-SKINNER: You know also, there are just some topics you know, in my opinion, that just aren’t up for debate. Like take climate science for instance or in this case, the data, the actual data around “late-term” abortions. And to entertain debate around things that are factual, you know, knowing that one side isn’t coming to the debate in good faith and is just there to present a non-factual case, you know, a non-scientific argument that implies that there are two equal sides to that debate, right? And that’s just another way to give credence to these lies.
KANN: Right. I think that’s a structural issue with how abortion is discussed, and not just abortion lots of issues like you mentioned. But at least in the context of abortion-related coverage we’ll have networks that are attempting to be nonpartisan or attempting to be fair to both sides and in by doing that will create false equivalences between people who are being loud about their opinions versus you know, the science or the facts or the lived realities of people who are accessing abortion care. And we know that those two things are not equally representative and the science should be the thing that dictates the conversation and experts should be the ones leading it.
In closing, Kann emphasized the importance of individuals being conscious and critical evaluators of the media they consume and discussed how networks should also be strategic in the selection of voices to uplift:
TAYLOR-SKINNER: So what can we do about this? As consumers of news, is there a way that we can counter this? Or combat this?
KANN: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. One -- and this is something that I always tell people -- is that everybody just needs to be a very critical consumer of news, no matter what the topic. Obviously in the context of abortion-related news, you know, I think that it’s especially important, but I do think that’s a good rule of thumb across the board -- is to be a critical consumer of information that sources, fact-check things, especially before you share them, is one. More granularly though, I think, you know, providing more context is something that consumers of news and producers of news should be doing. And, like we mentioned, continuing to think about the voices that you’re elevating and continuing to think about, particualrly as we continue to see states pass increasingly strict abortion bans, think about who’s impacted by those and think about sort of, the ways that conversations about those might be leaving people out and what the impact of that might be.