During the latest Fox News town hall, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called out the network's oversized role in mainstreaming inaccurate and sensationalized information about abortions that take place later in pregnancy. One of the ways the network and other right-wing media outlets have spread such misinformation is by asking candidates misleading questions about abortion rights and spinning their answers as “extreme." The town hall events have served as yet another chance to deploy this deceptive tactic.
As at previous Fox News town halls, during the June 2 event, Gillibrand was asked by an attendee about her position on “late-term abortion or last trimester abortions.” In response, she explained that “the debate about whether or not women should have reproductive freedom has turned into a red-herring debate,” thanks in part to highly inaccurate allegations by Fox News and other right-wing media that support for later abortion access amounts to promoting “infanticide.”
Gillibrand also cited research from Media Matters showing that Fox News “talked about infanticide for 6.5 hours” in the run-up to President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address and that, in the last week of January, Fox News hosts and guests used the word “infanticide” 35 times when discussing state measures intended to protect abortion access.
Indeed, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have seized on these sensationalized talking points about “infanticide” to hound candidates with falsely framed questions or to attack their support for abortions later in pregnancy. This tactic is a crucial part of right-wing media’s playbook for the 2020 elections which relies on the use of anti-abortion misinformation to gin up controversy and support among conservative audiences.
During Gillibrand's town hall event, moderator Chris Wallace (allegedly representing Fox’s “news” division, although he himself has a history of spreading anti-abortion misinformation) attempted to defend Fox in response to her comments, suggesting she shouldn’t criticize the network that was hosting her. But Fox has been far from friendly to the candidates it has hosted; after previous town halls, network personalities have spent the next day attacking the candidates for their comments.
In particular, the network, other right-wing media, and anti-choice advocates have used these town halls as a mechanism to falsely characterize Democratic candidates as having “extreme” abortion positions. To begin with, the hosts of these events -- Wallace and another of Fox News’ supposed “straight news” personalities, Martha MacCallum -- have presented abortion-related questions in misleading ways. MacCallum asked both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) during their town halls whether they supported abortion up to “the moment of birth.” Wallace also asked a misleadingly framed question to South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg about whether he believes in “any limit” on when a person could get an abortion.
After the town halls, Fox News and other right-wing media spun the candidates’ answers to allege that they support abortion up to birth or “infanticide.” For example, after Buttigieg said he trusts “women to draw the line” on when to have an abortion during his town hall event, Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume claimed that Buttigieg’s position was “not widely held in this country.” Hume further argued that Buttigieg’s position was extreme because he said “there is no moment before birth when he wouldn't support a woman's right to an abortion.” Other Fox News personalities repeated a similar refrain: treating Buttigieg’s comments as evidence of alleged Democratic “extremism” on abortion, a talking point further echoed by other right-wing media and those in anti-abortion circles.
Sanders’ answer that abortion in the third-trimester “happens very, very rarely” and “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician” predictably evoked the ire of right-wing and anti-abortion media, with one headline proclaiming “Bernie Sanders Supports Abortions Up to Birth, Okay to Kill Babies Up to Birth Because ‘It’s Rare.’” During the April 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson attacked Sanders, arguing that “Like 10 years ago, that would be considered like an extreme position. Today, it's the moderate position in the Democratic Party. Some are defending ‘infanticide’ just flat-out. Safe, legal, and rare. No. That's not at all the position today. It should be free, frequent, and horrifying.”
Klobuchar received less right-wing media attention after her Fox News town hall and very little of that attention focused on her abortion-related comments. Instead, outlets focused on attacking her claim about Planned Parenthood offering mammograms as a lie -- although the provider does facilitate this care through referrals. For her part, Gillibrand has drawn criticism (including on Fox News) that she was incorrect to attack Fox News because, critics claimed, Democrats do indeed support “infanticide.”
No matter the focus of right-wing media’s outrage, it is undeniable that Fox News’ abortion-related coverage, including the network’s town halls, has served as the jumping-off point for inaccurate and dangerous rhetoric about abortion access. And whether or not Democrats continue to appear on the network, personalities on both the “news” and opinion sides will undoubtedly continue to deploy this tactic throughout the 2020 election cycle.