Timeline: How Fox News’ abortion meltdown fueled a 2020 talking point

CNN’s and MSNBC’s failure to debunk harmful “infanticide” claims helped cement the myth of Democratic “extremism”

Image of new york state with pro-choice signs overlaying it
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Right-wing media misinformation about abortion has become a centerpiece of conservatives’ 2020 electoral messaging strategy -- and it largely started with the failure of CNN and MSNBC to adequately address these talking points in early 2019 when Fox News was dedicating substantial coverage to the topic.

A Media Matters study of 12 months of evening cable news programs found that Fox News dominated abortion-related conversations by pushing dangerous misinformation. Notably, Fox News’ abortion-related coverage reached a fever pitch in January and February 2019 with the network’s “news” and opinion programs each contributing to the rampant spread of sensationalized misinformation. While Fox figures had daily meltdowns about abortion, CNN and MSNBC largely ignored the topic -- even failing to debunk Fox’s harmful talking points when they appeared during each network’s minimal abortion-related coverage. As a result of this silence, Fox News effectively transformed dangerous lies about abortion into a core part of conservatives’ 2020 electoral messaging strategy.

Fox News’ early 2019 meltdown was sparked and sustained by the following series of events:

  • the passage of a New York law (called the Reproductive Health Act) that protects abortion in the event the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, including decriminalizing abortions after 24 weeks;
  • a proposed Virginia bill that would have codified abortion access and removed several restrictions on later abortion care;
  • comments made by Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam about the bill that were subsequently misconstrued by right-wing media;
  • comparisons between reactions to Northam’s abortion-related comments and a subsequent scandal involving an uncovered old photo of Northam, in which one person is dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe;
  • President Donald Trump’s repetition of right-wing media’s anti-abortion talking points during the 2019 State of the Union address; and
  • the introduction of the anti-abortion bill, the so-called “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” -- based on the inaccurate right-wing media claim that abortions can and do occur after birth (they don’t).
  • January 2019

    • January 22: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the Reproductive Health Act into law. On January 22, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, codifying and expanding abortion access in the state. The law also contains a provision that removed abortion from the state’s criminal code. Before the law was signed, New York patients who needed abortions after 24 weeks were forced to travel out of state, suffering significant logistical and psychological burdens.
    • January 23: Fox News starts covering New York’s new law and promotes sensationalized misinformation. The day after Gov. Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, Fox News picked up the story, airing two segments -- one during The Ingraham Angle and the other during Fox News @ Night. Both segments relied on sensationalized misinformation, with host Laura Ingraham claiming that the law would allow “abortion up to birth” and host Shannon Bream alleging that abortions were now legal “up until the mother’s due date.”
    • January 24-29: Fox host Sean Hannity begins inaccurately saying New York legalized “infanticide.” Between January 24 and 29, Hannity began using the inaccurate and sensationalized term “infanticide” to describe the New York law. In multiple segments, Hannity alleged the law legalized “infanticide” and suggested that Democrats supporting the law were “extreme.” Other right-wing media figures also started using the term.
    • January 29: Virginia abortion bill is debated; testimony by Del. Kathy Tran goes viral thanks to right-wing media. On January 29, Virginia lawmakers debated a bill that would have codified and expanded abortion access in the state. Although the bill likely would have garnered right-wing media attention due to the similar subject matter and timing as the New York measure, testimony by Virginia Democratic Del. Kathy Tran fueled additional outrage. Tran’s comments about the bill became another focal point for Fox and right-wing media’s allegations that Democrats broadly supported “extreme” abortion measures.
    • January 30: Fox News continues its meltdown; Gov. Northam comments on the Virginia bill. Citing Tran’s comments, Fox News continued railing against state abortion measures. However, on January 30, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments -- in which he misspoke about the proposed bill -- sparked broader backlash. That day, Fox News aired 18 segments during its evening lineup attacking the Virginia bill and mischaracterizing Northam’s comments. These mentions included a segment in which host Tucker Carlson claimed Northam said that “it is OK to kill a child after the child has been born.” Special Report host Bret Baier repeated that anti-abortion groups were accusing Northam “of supporting infanticide” without disputing this inaccurate framing, while The Story host Martha MacCallum said the Virginia bill would allow abortions “even when the mother is about to give birth.”
    • January 31: While Fox News keeps repeating sensationalized misinformation, other networks are silent. Following Northam’s comments, Fox News continued spreading sensationalized misinformation about both the New York and Virginia measures, airing 10 segments during the evening cable lineup. In addition to Fox hosts repeating misinformation, the network also allowed several guests to do the same. For example, during a segment on Hannity, Trump campaign press secretary (then Republican National Committee spokesperson) Kayleigh McEnany alleged Northam was “openly pontificating about infanticide.” Anti-abortion group Live Action’s Director of External Affairs Alison Centofante said during a segment on Fox News @ Night that the abortion measures were representative of the larger Democratic party’s extremism, which she claimed endorses “abortion through all nine months.”
  • February 2019

    • February 1: Fox News continues spreading lies; CNN finally covers abortion and uncritically repeats this misinformation. While Fox News aired 13 segments alleging the Virginia bill would allow “infanticide,” CNN broke its silence by uncritically repeating these claims. On Erin Burnett OutFront, Stephen Moore (then a CNN contributor) claimed that Northam supported a bill that would have “almost literally” permitted “an abortion up until the time you cut the umbilical cord.” In another segment, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner said on CNN Tonight that Northam’s comments were being characterized by “a lot of people” as him “talking about killing a child that has already been born.” Neither Moore nor Sidner’s comments were corrected or given addition context by CNN hosts or other guests.
    • February 4: CNN airs another segment echoing Fox News; Fox airs eight more segments bemoaning Democratic “extremism.” CNN continued echoing Fox News’ coverage: CNN commentator Steve Cortes characterized Northam as having “no respect for the dignity of unborn children -- of unborn babies in the womb.” Meanwhile, Fox News aired eight segments promoting mischaracterizations of abortion. For example, on The Ingraham Angle, Ingraham claimed that the Northam’s comments showed “the grisly reality that the Democrats desire abortion even after birth."
    • February 5: Fox News airs four more segments about “infanticide.” During one of the four segments on Fox News, Hannity hosted Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) who discussed the introduction of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in the House. While the bill has had previous iterations, its introduction in the House and Senate was intended to build on the fervor created by Fox News around abortion.
    • February 6: President Trump gives Fox News’ “infanticide” myth a larger platform by including it in his State of the Union address. During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump specifically mentioned the New York law, as well as the right-wing media characterization of Northam’s comments about the Virginia bill. Trump claimed, “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth.” He also alleged, “We had the case of the Governor of Virginia where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.”
    • February 6: Following Trump’s address, CNN and MSNBC briefly mention Trump’s abortion comment but fail to debunk it; Fox News continues promoting misinformation. On CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, host Chris Cuomo mentioned Trump’s invocation of the “infanticide” narrative but failed to offer any debunk or additional context. During another segment on MSNBC’s MTP Daily, MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele praised Trump for the “abortion piece” in his State of the Union address, claiming that “the way he laid down the message on abortion, on the heels of what was coming out of Virginia, I just think was expert.” Fox News aired six segments discussing “infanticide” and Trump’s invocation of it.
    • February 7-13: CNN and MSNBC stop discussing the “infanticide” narrative; Fox News continues with 16 more segments over nearly a week. Between February 7 and 13, Fox News aired 16 segments including a substantive discussion of “infanticide.” Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC stopped covering the narrative through the end of the month -- allowing this misinformation to spread unchecked. Fox’s segments included a number of allegations that Democrats were “extreme.” In but one example, Hannity claimed that “radical socialist Democrats … now advocate even for infanticide during the birth process -- nine months into pregnancy.” This was typical of the 16 segments the networked aired during evening news this week.
    • February 25: The Senate fails to advance an anti-abortion bill that was based on right-wing misinformation. On February 25, the Senate failed to advance a bill Republicans touted as addressing the problem of children allegedly born alive following an attempted abortion procedures. In reality, as CBS News reported, “the situation described in the bill -- infants surviving abortions -- is an extreme rarity, only occurring in instances of abnormalities so severe that the fetus has been deemed unviable." Anti-choice groups inflated the concept to spark fear and promote abortion restrictions. The push for this bill followed from the sensationalized right-wing media coverage over the New York law and Virginia bill.
    • February 25-26: Fox News ramps up coverage of the “infanticide” myth, airing 10 segments in two days. The failure of the Senate anti-choice bill captured Fox News’ attention and prompted additional abortion-related coverage, with 10 segments airing during the network's evening programming about the bill or “infanticide” between February 25 and 26. Many of these segments blamed Democrats for the bill’s failure. For example, on the February 26 edition of her show, Ingraham claimed, “The Senate attempted yesterday to do something about this Democrat embrace of infanticide and hold doctors accountable,” but were ultimately thwarted.
  • The aftermath of a Fox News lie

    Trump, his allies, and right-wing media figures have made the “infanticide” lie a central part of their 2020 campaign messaging. Trump would later promote this message in subsequent rallies and at other political events, claiming that Democrats are “allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth” and falsely stating Northam’s comments were about whether to “execute the baby” after birth. Other right-wing and Trump campaign figures have adopted the narrative, as well. For example, at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker envisioned a ridiculous scenario where a person would “take the baby home and kill the baby at home.” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley has frequently appeared on Fox News to decry Democrats’ alleged support for “killing babies after they’re born.”

    The myth that Democrats are “extreme” and are promoting “infanticide” or abortions “up to birth” began with Fox News’ dishonest and dangerous rhetoric about the New York and Virginia measures. Fox News’ dominance of abortion-related conversations in early 2019 was a problem -- but CNN and MSNBC’s passivity ultimately allowed the harmful misinformation to flourish and the inaccurate narratives to ultimately calcify.