During the four nights of the two Democratic presidential primary debates in June and July, Fox News outpaced CNN and MSNBC in the amount of time it gave to abortion coverage even though the network didn’t host either debate. CNN moderators failed to ask a single question about abortion during the second primary debate this week. And even though MSNBC moderators asked the candidates questions about the topic during the network’s debate in June, Fox News spent more time discussing the issue than CNN, MSNBC, or the candidates themselves did.
Right-wing media have been regularly dominating the conversation about abortion ahead of the 2020 elections, filling a void of abortion-related coverage by spreading misinformation and stigma about it. Fox News has been a frequent promoter of anti-abortion misinformation -- including the allegation that Democratic support for abortion access is “extreme.” Given this emphasis, as well as the decreasing accessibility of abortion care across the United States, it is essential that moderators ask candidates specific and nuanced questions about abortion during the debates.
This trend of right-wing media dominating abortion coverage continued during three of the four nights of the Democratic debates. Media Matters monitored both debates and live pre-debate and post-debate coverage on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News and found that Fox News discussed the topic for almost 26 minutes total. In comparison, the topic was discussed on MSNBC for 11 and a half minutes and on CNN for about six minutes; this count includes the time when abortion was discussed on the debate stage as well as during pre-debate and post-debate coverage.
CNN's moderators failed to ask the candidates any questions about abortion during the network's two nights of debates. The only time abortion was discussed during CNN’s July 31 debate night was when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) asked former Vice President Joe Biden about his different positions on the Hyde Amendment. Notably, even when discussing the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal funds from supporting abortion care except in cases of rape or incest), neither Harris nor Biden used the word “abortion.” The topic was also essentially absent from the July 30 debate.
Even though abortion was discussed during both nights of the MSNBC debate in June as moderators questioned candidates about it, Fox News still discussed the topic more each night than the debate participants and commentators on MSNBC or CNN did. During the first night of the June debate, Fox News discussed abortion for about nine minutes and 19 seconds between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m. In contrast, debate participants and commentators on MSNBC discussed the topic for only about four minutes and 15 seconds, and CNN commentators discussed abortion for only two minutes.
This disparity was even greater during the second night of the MSNBC debate. During the same time period of 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., Fox discussed abortion for 15 minutes and 48 seconds, while debate participants and MSNBC commentators discussed the topic for four minutes and 44 seconds. Commentators on CNN discussed abortion for less than two minutes.
Though there are many important topics that moderators should be raising during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates, Democratic voters are clear that they want to hear candidates discuss abortion. If moderators continue to prioritize optics, vacuous political theater, and right-wing talking points over substantive questions, right-wing media will continue dominating the discussion and will keep spreading anti-choice misinformation unabated on their own platforms.
Media Matters searched the SnapStream video database for mentions of the following keywords: “abortion,” “Roe,” “reproductive rights,” “right to choose,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “anti-choice,” “pro-abortion,” “decisions about her body,” “infanticide,” or “Hyde.” We searched on Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBC between 8 p.m and 1 a.m. for the June debates and between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. for the July debates due to the earlier start time.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances in which a speaker in the debate or on a network discussed abortion or a related topic. Segments included host monologues, news reports or packages, interviews, and guest panels. We did not include teasers for upcoming segments or rebroadcasts.