Boxes of mifepristone and a court gavel are shown behind the MSNBC logo
Molly Butler / Media Matters // Mifepristone image credit: Robin Marty

Research/Study Research/Study

A looming court decision could revoke abortion pill access nationwide: MSNBC is the only cable channel adequately covering it

CNN and Fox News lag far behind in coverage on the potential U.S. ban of mifepristone

While the country awaits a ruling in a legal case that appears poised to revoke access to abortion pills across the United States, MSNBC is the only cable network giving the lawsuit — which could radically change the national landscape of abortion access— the coverage it deserves.

Between when the lawsuit was filed by anti-abortion advocates in November 2022 and February 28 of this year, MSNBC has dedicated 2 hours and 37 minutes of coverage to the story, while CNN and Fox lag far behind with just 32 minutes and 2 minutes of coverage, respectively. 

  • Last November, a group of anti-abortion activists represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (an anti-LGBTQ hate group) filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration, attempting to reverse the FDA’s approval of the abortion medication mifepristone in the year 2000. Despite the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization vouching for the proven safety and efficacy of mifepristone, the ADF and its clients are falsely asserting that the FDA lacks the authority to approve the drug and inaccurately casting mifepristone as unsafe. 

    Further, the case’s plaintiffs purposefully filed the suit in Amarillo, Texas: a jurisdiction known for siding with conservatives. Federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, who was appointed by Donald Trump and has a record of ardently espousing anti-abortion views, will decide on the case. Legal experts have accused the ADF of “judge shopping,” or seeking out specific judges likely to side with the plaintiffs, in order to stack the deck in their favor. As law professor Stephen Vladeck stated, “There is no obvious factual reason for filing this in Amarillo.” 

    A decision on the case could be released any time in the near future, and any appeals of the decision would be brought to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, also known for its conservative leanings, and then potentially to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Republican-appointed justices hold a 6-3 majority. 

    This lawsuit is especially high-stakes given that a decision in Amarillo striking down abortion pill access would impact the entire country, not just Texas residents. Medication abortions, which is typically a two-pill regimen of mifepristone followed by misoprostol, make up more than half of U.S. abortions as of February 2022. These pills have also become a crucial safety net for people seeking abortions following the June 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade, which caused reproductive health clinics to shutter in communities across the country, while prescription abortion medication is still accessible via mailing or retail pharmacies. Removing mifepristone from the market would additionally put an increased load on the remaining abortion clinics, many of which are already facing much higher demand for surgical abortions from patients traveling from states with bans and restrictions. Without mifepristone available in the U.S., healthcare providers may pivot to misoprostol-only medication abortions – which are still safe and effective but may come with more intense side effects and a higher rate of failure than a mifepristone-misoprostol abortion.   

  • Findings

  • Media Matters timed coverage of the Texas lawsuit on the three major cable networks – CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – between November 18, 2022, when the ADF filed its lawsuit, through February 28, 2023. In that period, total cable coverage amounted to 3 hours and 11 minutes across CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

    A bar chart shows cable coverage of the Texas lawsuit challenging the FDA's approval of mifepristone -- CNN had 32 minutes; Fox had 2 minutes; and MSNBC had 2 hours and 37 minutes

    MSNBC spent the most time covering the lawsuit, at 2 hours and 37 minutes. Across the board, MSNBC dedicated a total of 71 segments, passing mentions, and teasers to the lawsuit, including 31 guest segments largely comprised of abortion advocates. MSNBC hosts Joy Reid and Alex Wagner spent the most time on the lawsuit with 26 and 24 minutes of coverage, respectively. Both Reid and Wagner used their platforms to raise awareness about the case and its potential implications for the reproductive health landscape. In one instance, Wagner even decried the lack of coverage on the lawsuit. 

    Here’s one example of Wagner and Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, outlining the dangers of a potential ruling stripping mifepristone access:

  • Video file

    Citation From the February 9, 2023, edition of MSNBC's Alex Wagner Tonight

  • While CNN also gave a platform to abortion advocates as interview guests, the network spent only an abysmal 32 minutes on the lawsuit across a total of 16 segments, passing mentions, and teasers during the study period. Fox News fared the worst, spending only 2 minutes on the case during a single correspondent report from the November 24, 2022, edition of Special Report with Bret Baier.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the Snapstream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “abortion” within close proximity of any of the terms “medication,” “pill,” “chemical,” “drug,” “mifepristone,” “Alliance Defending Freedom,” “ADF,” “Food and Drug Administration,” “FDA,” “lawsuit,” or “suit,” or any variation of the term “prescribe” from November 18, 2022, when Alliance Defending Freedom first filed the lawsuit, through February 28, 2023.

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Texas mifepristone lawsuit was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the lawsuit. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the lawsuit with one another.

    We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker mentioned the lawsuit without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the lawsuit scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.