Video ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
It’s not “hard to imagine” anti-abortion harassment because it happens every day
After Trump administration officials faced protests at restaurants in light of the administration’s policy of separating families at the border, The Washington Post’s editorial board called on readers to “let the Trump team eat in peace.” Arguing for “civility,” the editorial board asked, "How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?"
For abortion providers, patients, and clinics across the country, it’s certainly not “hard to imagine” the inability to “live peaceably." Pro-choice providers and patients are routinely targeted with death threats, harassment, and even assassinations at clinics and in their homes.
Since 1993, at least 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics, including abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated in 2009. Tiller’s murder was fueled in part by rhetoric like that of former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly attacked him as “Tiller the baby killer” and suggested that “there's got to be a special place in hell for this guy.” As ThinkProgress’ Tara Culp-Ressler explained, abortion providers often feel “under siege” and live “in a state of heightened fear and anxiety because targeted harassment follows them everywhere.” Providers have described abortion opponents picketing their homes and their children’s schools. For example, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America is known for distributing flyers to providers’ neighbors with identifying pictures and home addresses under the headline “KILLERS AMONG US.”
Abortion clinics and those who staff and visit these centers also face constant harassment. In a 2018 look at anti-abortion extremist harassment of abortion providers the previous year, the National Abortion Federation found that “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017.” There was also a continued “increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions,” as well as “the first attempted bombing in many years.” Low-income patients, in particular, often face heightened harassment because they may be able to come to clinics only on weekends -- “peak hours for protesters” -- to avoid missing work.
In 2018, there have already been several documented incidents of anti-abortion violence and harassment, including one in which an anti-abortion activist was “charged with sending a series of online death threats to Chicago-area abortion clinics” and another in which a person “deliberately crashed a stolen truck” into a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Jersey. In the last two years, anti-abortion protesters have also engaged in several so-called “Red Rose Rescues,” in which protesters illegally enter clinics to harass patients inside.
Prior to the attack by an anti-abortion extremist on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, the FBI released a warning about an “uptick” of attacks on abortion clinics following the release of the Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos targeting Planned Parenthood. CMP’s discredited videos also likely endangered the lives of the providers they showed -- all of whom were filmed without consent.
In a manner of speaking, the Post’s editorial board was right. It’s not hard to imagine anti-abortion extremists harassing abortion supporters -- because that’s something providers, patients, and supporters have endured for decades.
Following the Trump administration’s implementation of a policy requiring the separation of immigrant children from their parents as they cross the border, some self-described “pro-life” organizations and media figures have failed to denounce this policy. Others, though, have seemingly attempted to distract from the outrage about the policy by making outlandish and inaccurate comparisons to abortion.
Media Matters’ abortion rights and reproductive health team monitored evening cable news programs for 12 months and found that Fox News was responsible for 54 percent of all abortion related coverage, more than MSNBC (29 percent of all segments) and CNN (17 percent of all segments) combined. And of those segments on Fox, 77 percent included misinformation and outright falsehoods about four common abortion-related topics: the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and “extreme” abortion procedures.
The bottom line: Fox News isn’t just dominating the conversation about abortion; it’s also filling an information void left by CNN and MSNBC with misinformation and stigma. Other networks need to stop treating abortion as a political football and present frank, fair, and factual conversations about this necessary form of health care.
On May 31, 2009, an anti-abortion extremist murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who had been harassed and targeted by anti-choice groups and right-wing media for years. On May 31, 2018, Infowars reporter Owen Shroyer announced that he would be hosting and livestreaming a protest outside a Texas Planned Parenthood location.
During the May 31 segment of Genesis Communication Network’s The Alex Jones Show, Shroyer announced that Infowars would “launch a protest here in Austin at Planned Parenthood” the next day in response to his frustration that the NRA and Infowars were “being blamed for anytime there’s a shooting” while Planned Parenthood wasn’t blamed for being part of “a death cult.” Shroyer noted that in addition to organizing the protest, he would also be livestreaming the event to various channels. Toward the end of the segment, host Alex Jones and Shroyer started mocking the people they think will show up to the protest, calling them satanists and claiming they'll say things like “We are slaves, we are dying,” “I love abortion,” and “I want to kill kids.”
Back in reality, anti-abortion violence and harassment are both very real and very serious threats to those who publicly provide, write about, or even discuss abortion. Since 1993, 11 people have died as a result of anti-abortion violence, and numerous providers, patients, and their families have been injured; as recent data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) demonstrates, this trend shows little sign of abating. NAF found that in 2017, “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017.” There was also a continued “increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions,” as well as “the first attempted bombing in many years.”
According to NAF’s 2016 report, rates of anti-abortion clinic protests were already at the highest levels seen since the organization began tracking incidents in 1977. And in 2018, there have already been numerous reports of violence or threats against clinics, with incidents reported in Illinois, New Jersey, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and more. In North Carolina, abortion provider Calla Hales has documented the frequent anti-abortion protests and harassment directed at her clinic -- including attacks on her personally.
Nevertheless, right-wing media have frequently fostered or encouraged anti-abortion harassment -- sometimes directly targeting abortion providers by name. Before being ousted from Fox News after public reports that he sexually harassed multiple colleagues, Bill O’Reilly spent years not only spreading misinformation about abortion, but also openly bullying abortion providers like Tiller. Prior to Tiller’s death, O’Reilly called the doctor “Tiller the baby killer” and insisted there was a “special place in hell” for him. After a deadly shooting attack at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015, O’Reilly defended his previous attacks on Tiller, claiming that his comments were accurate.
Even without O’Reilly, Fox News programming is still rife with anti-abortion misinformation and demonization of abortion providers. In just one example, after Fox News’ The Five briefly moved to a prime-time slot, co-host Greg Gutfeld took a page out of O’Reilly’s playbook and called for anti-abortion violence. During the April 2017 segment, Gutfeld compared abortion to slavery and argued that “if you are pro-life and you believe it is murder, you should be willing to fight” and “start a war” to stop abortions from being performed.
Beyond Fox News, wider right-wing programming has also contributed to an atmosphere that fosters anti-abortion violence and harassment. In 2016, after Robert Dear allegedly opened fire in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center (killing three and injuring at least nine more), The New Republic reported on Dear’s penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars -- noting in particular how these outlets contributed to Dear’s paranoid, conspiratorial views on abortion and Planned Parenthood. According to The New Republic:
In fact, as I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies. The right-wing media didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear. They brought authority and detail to a world he was convinced was tormenting him. They were his shelter and his inspiration, his only real community.
Fox News had launched in October 1996, a little more than a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, and O’Reilly was one of its biggest on-air talents. “Fox gives voice to people who can’t get on other networks,” O’Reilly later told a reporter. “When was the last time you saw pro-life people unless they shot somebody?” Like Limbaugh, O’Reilly devoted lots of air time to denouncing abortions, and those who provided them.
That the conspiracy theory site Infowars would follow this playbook for stoking anti-abortion harassment is of little surprise.
Kann: “Fox News is seizing on the opportunity to flood out other” prime-time coverage on abortion
During the May 22 edition of Rising Up with Sonali, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann talked to host Sonali Kolhatkar about Media Matters’ annual study examining abortion coverage on prime-time evening cable news.
Media Matters analyzed evening prime-time news programs on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN from March 1, 2017, through March 1, 2018, and identified segments featuring a substantial discussion of abortion and reproductive rights. The resulting 211 segments were then coded for the number of accurate or inaccurate statements made about four abortion-related topics: the discredited anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and so-called “extreme” abortion procedures. Media Matters found that Fox News dominated the conversation about abortion -- airing 114 of the 211 total segments across all cable news networks (54 percent) -- and that its coverage of the four abortion-related topics was inaccurate 77 percent of the time.
Kann spoke about how “Fox News is seizing on the opportunity to flood out other” prime-time coverage on abortion with rampant misinformation, explaining that such coverage is “stigmatizing”:
SONALI KOLHATKAR (HOST): Now, Fox News is spending a lot of time on abortion. Conversely, do you find that other news outlets, other cable news outlets, even so-called liberal ones, are just not spending enough time on abortion?
SHARON KANN: Yeah. I actually think that was one of the most interesting findings from the study this year, which is that, like you said, it's not just that Fox News is talking about abortion the most, it’s that their sort of volume of coverage is being met by a lack of coverage by other organizations. And so, it’s not just a matter of Fox News is talking about abortion the most and also the least accurately, it’s that other organizations aren’t seizing on opportunities to talk about abortion in frank, fair, and factual ways. And that results in a combination of lots of stigmatizing coverage and lots of inaccurate coverage, but then also instances where, when they do talk about it, it’s only spoken about in terms of it is like a political football issue rather than as a necessary form of health care.
KOLHATKAR: Right, and I’m wondering if that stems from our taking for granted that there is widespread support for access to abortion in the public, and so liberal news outlets feel like they don’t need to talk about it, they don’t need to clarify medical terms or expose how the right talks about it. That it’s just taken for granted that there is this support for abortion, but then with Fox News filling in that gap you see a very vocal minority having an outsized impact on politics and the discourse in general.
KANN: Definitely. I think, like you said, we have polling, and we understand that Americans are more largely in support of abortion access and, in particular, when people understand the circumstances that someone will access abortion care under, they are more likely to support access to that care. On the flip side, we have Fox News and other right-wing members of this echo chamber who are seeking out these conversations, not to invite the voices of people who have had abortions or might have abortions, but instead to sort of forward coverage that isn’t factual. And so I think something that other outlets can be doing a better job of, in that I think Fox News is seizing on the opportunity to flood out other coverage on, is centering people who’ve actually had abortions and making sure that we’re not just talking about abortion as something to be considered in the context of midterm elections or as a matter of a private decision, but we’re also talking about it as centering the people who’ve actually had abortions.
KOLHATKAR: So, there were four common abortion-related topics that you alluded to earlier. What are some of the other issues, you said “partial-birth abortion” was one of them. I remember this becoming an issue even during the  presidential debates some. So, one would hope that the more liberal news outlets would take this on and clarify it that, as you said, this isn’t really a medical recognized term. But Fox News talks about it like it’s a real thing -- that we’re aborting essentially fully-formed babies.
KANN: Right, Fox News does, not just with “partial-birth” abortion, but with lots of allegations of allegedly “extreme” abortion procedures is how we referred to them, and that captures any number of inaccurate representations, but I think it’s also important not to let off the hook other outlets who are maybe not doing enough to debunk these claims. So, I think the example you alluded to with the presidential debate, we saw that during that time even when other networks were discussing the things that had been said in the debate, they weren’t going the extra step to say, “This was said in the debate. Here’s where the term comes from. It was actually invented by anti-abortion activists to shame and vilify people having medically necessary later abortions,” but they instead took it for granted that that was an actually thing. And so, even when people maybe are trying to provide further context to something that was said, making sure to provide necessary debunk and citing the opinions of experts as well.
KOLHATKAR: Let’s talk about Planned Parenthood, and this real lack of information about the government’s role in taxpayer or tax funds for abortion. I think if you talk to Fox News viewers or people who exclusively watch Fox News, they might be under the impression that their tax dollars go towards funding abortions in states around the country. Is that true, and how does Fox News sort of cover that?
KANN: That is not true. The Hyde amendment exists, and it is a federal rule that prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars or any federal funds to support abortion services with a couple of exceptions … . Fox News, however, does not recognize this. You’ll hear Fox News, other right-wing outlets, and even anti-abortion organizations frequently saying that we need to create further protections against so-called taxpayer funded abortion. And something that they’ll often say to support this is that, even if money isn't being given to Planned Parenthood to fund abortions, that because Planned Parenthood and other providers may provide abortion services, that money is fungible, which is inaccurate and doesn’t account for the number of safeguards that people have to show where they are actually spending the money.
Watch the full interview HERE for further information about Media Matters’ study and media coverage of abortion and reproductive rights issues.
President Donald Trump recently announced a proposed rule change that would deny Title X federal family planning funding to those clinics, including Planned Parenthood, that perform or refer for abortions. In reporting from across the country, a number of local outlets highlighted the deleterious impact the proposed rule would have on their own communities, particularly for low-income individuals seeking family planning services.
When Media Matters last crunched the numbers on Fox News programming responsible for the most abortion misinformation, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Tucker Carlson were unsurprisingly the worst culprits. However, as allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against O’Reilly (and other network figures including Eric Bolling) and he was eventually fired, Fox News transitioned to an evening lineup with more female hosts -- Shannon Bream, Martha MacCallum, and Laura Ingraham. But this change has not come close to fixing the network’s abortion misinformation problem.
Media Matters analyzed evening prime-time news programs on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN from March 1, 2017, through March 1, 2018, and identified segments featuring a substantial discussion of abortion and reproductive rights. The resulting 211 segments were then coded for the number of accurate or inaccurate statements made about four abortion-related topics: the discredited anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and so-called extreme abortion procedures. We found that Fox News dominated the conversation about abortion -- airing 114 of the 211 total segments across all cable news networks (54 percent) -- and that its coverage of the four abortion-related topics was inaccurate 77 percent of the time. And 44 percent of its 114 segments were aired on programs Bream, MacCallum, and Ingraham anchored.
The shows Bream, MacCallum, and Ingraham hosted had 107 statements about the four abortion-related topics, out of which the hosts either personally spread -- or gave a platform to those spreading -- anti-abortion misinformation 76 times (71 percent). Here’s a sample of what each host has offered her viewers in the last year:
Overall, Bream made 30 appearances on Fox News where a substantial discussion of abortion occurred. Although Bream entered the prime-time lineup when she started hosting her own show, Fox News @ Night, on October 30, 2017, she had previously regularly appeared as a guest or a correspondent during The First 100 Days and Special Report. Bream individually made 35 total statements about CMP, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and so-called extreme abortion procedures. Of these 35 statements, 23 contained misinformation (66 percent).
As Media Matters documented after Fox News @ Night debuted, Bream appears well-attuned to the talking points and interests of the anti-abortion movement; an anti-abortion leader even celebrated her promotion, tweeting that Bream “covers Life issues with fearlessness and fairness.” Since then, Bream has promoted anti-abortion talking points and myths -- suggesting they were simply concerns she “heard from a lot of pro-life groups” -- including by asking a misleading question about taxpayers paying for the abortions of undocumented minors who come to the United States.
As a host, Bream has been consistent in repeating misinformation about anti-abortion group CMP, which engaged in a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood by releasing deceptively edited videos. Just as she had done repeatedly in the past, Bream promoted CMP and said its actions caused Planned Parenthood to become “mired in scandal” and that CMP’s videos showed “Planned Parenthood officials discussing pricing for fetal body parts and tissue left over after abortions.”
MacCallum made 14 appearances in Fox News segments that had a substantial discussion of abortion. All these segments were on the two Fox News programs she hosted during the study period -- The First 100 Days and The Story. During those appearances, MacCallum made nine statements in total about CMP and so-called extreme abortion procedures, all of which were inaccurate (100 percent). MacCallum also frequently relied on extreme and stigmatizing rhetoric about abortion.
When discussing CMP, MacCallum often treated the discredited organization and its deceptive smear videos as credible sources of information. For example, during a March 2017 segment of The First 100 Days, MacCallum not only played a long excerpt from one of the videos, she also said that it was “still hard to watch,” implying that it accurately depicted that Planned Parenthood was engaged in the sale of fetal body parts. In an interview with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), MacCallum focused on Blackburn’s phrasing in one of her campaign ads, which Twitter briefly blocked her campaign from promoting. In the ad, Blackburn referred to her time on the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, saying, “I fought Planned Parenthood and we stopped the sale of baby body parts.” Instead of questioning Blackburn on her inaccurate phrasing or talking about the smear campaign that Blackburn and the panel had engaged in against Planned Parenthood, Bream accepted her narrative, saying, “You fought hard, as you say, to ban the sale of baby body parts. I mean, it’s such a difficult phrase even to say and I think you’ve fought very hard for it.”
Similarly, during a July 2017 segment on The Story, MacCallum pushed several myths about the existence and widespread practice of so-called sex-selective, late-term, and full-term abortions. In reality, these are inaccurate descriptions of abortion, created by anti-abortion groups to vilify those accessing legal health care. In one example, MacCallum said that an Oregon bill (now law) that ensured protection of reproductive rights for all -- including undocumented immigrants -- would allow for “sex-selective” and “late-term, even full-term, abortions for an illegal immigrant.” MacCallum continued to push the misinformation, asking her guest, political commentator Danielle McLaughlin, whether she thought it was “OK for someone to decide because they don’t like the sex of their baby to abort it at eight months” and demanding to know, “Why would any state want to pass a law that would allow that?”
During the study period, Ingraham made 10 appearances in Fox News segments where there was a substantial discussion of abortion. Like Bream, Ingraham started hosting her own show, The Ingraham Angle, on October 30, 2017, and before that, she had also occasionally appeared as a guest on Special Report and Hannity. Although Ingraham made only three statements total about the four abortion-related topics, two of these statements were inaccurate (67 percent).
Despite only making 10 appearances during the period of study, Ingraham made a splash with her frequent use of alarmist and stigmatizing rhetoric. In one appearance, Ingraham called Planned Parenthood a “monstrosity of killing.” A December 2017 segment of The Ingraham Angle may be the most bewildering segment of the year about abortion. It started as a fairly regular Fox News segment about abortion, with Ingraham fearmongering that because of a court decision to allow undocumented minors abortion access, the United States would become “an abortion magnet.” Then, Ingraham insisted that a picture of a baby be put up on screen and demanded that her guest, attorney Rachel Self, “look at the screen.” Self calmly explained that she was unable to see the image because she was not in studio. Undeterred, Ingraham escalated the situation and eventually cut Self’s mic off, saying, “I can’t hear her talking over me.”
Fox News added more female hosts to its prime-time lineup, but having greater gender representation didn't translate to accurate and nuanced coverage of abortion. Bream, MacCallum, and Ingraham show that a push for gender parity in the cable news world cannot happen in a vacuum and must go hand-in-hand -- particularly for abortion-related issues -- with a commitment to frank, fair, and accurate coverage.
Fox News is dominating the conversation about abortion on evening cable news -- and the network is doing it all wrong
A 12-month-long Media Matters study of evening cable news programs found that Fox News dominated discussions of abortion and reproductive rights and that the network was wrong about four common abortion-related topics 77 percent of the time.
Loading the player reg...
In anticipation of its annual gala, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) has been promoting official room blocks for the event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and running a contest in which the prize includes a free stay at the property during the gala. On May 14, during the White House press briefing, deputy press secretary Raj Shah then announced that President Donald Trump would be delivering the keynote address at the gala.
Since Trump’s election, many experts have warned about the potential for the president to benefit from expenditures made at Trump Organization properties. As part of an ongoing analysis of how political groups leverage use of the Trump hotel in D.C. to gain influence with the administration, The Washington Post noted that since Trump’s election, the property has “turned into a Republican power center where foreign governments, political groups, religious organizations and business interests have held dozens of events.” In March, CNN reported that in February alone, Federal Election Commission documents indicated that “the RNC spent more than $271,000 on venue rental and catering at Trump properties in Florida and Washington, DC," noting that "more than half of that" was spent at the Trump International Hotel. Politico similarly explained, “Because Trump has maintained his financial interest in his vast business while president — and, unlike previous presidents, filed for reelection soon after taking office — the relationship between pro-Trump political groups and the Trump businesses has no precedent.”
SBA List is one group cashing in on its ties to President Trump. On May 22, the group will host its annual “Campaign for Life” gala, with Trump as the keynote speaker. Before Trump’s appearance was announced, SBA List promoted on its website a discounted room rate ($399 per night) at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. for those attending the gala. However, after the White House announced Trump as the speaker, SBA List’s website stopped listing the hotel among its accommodation options. It’s unclear exactly when the change was made, but according a Google cached version of the webpage, SBA List took down the page listing the hotel and discounted rate as early as the night before the announcement.
SBA List enjoys close ties to the president and his administration. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the gala’s keynote address, while this year “longtime friend” of the organization Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, will be awarded “SBA List’s 2018 Distinguished Leader Award.” Previously, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser was appointed to lead Trump’s “Pro-Life Coalition.”
Kann says that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage"
On the April 26 edition of the Hellbent podcast, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann spoke with co-host Devon Handy about four topics: (1) The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson; (2) abortion coverage that often plays into abortion stigma and ignores the reality that abortion is a common health care procedure; (3) an upcoming Media Matters study showing that right-wing misinformation is crowding out good coverage on abortion; and (4) anti-abortion fake health clinics that have taken advantage of the fragmented media space.
1. The Atlantic recently fired writer Kevin Williamson after Media Matters found audio of Williamson defending his previous comment that people who have abortions should be hanged. Handy and Kann also discussed Williamson’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he lamented his supposed persecution. Kann said that he ignored the harm that violent rhetoric like his can cause to those who have had abortions:
SHARON KANN: The ultimate point he made was that he was trying to be provocative, although he did admit sloppily, because he didn't think that people who support abortion access are willing to have, I think he said, a candid conversation about the reality. And we know that's not true. There are people telling their abortion stories and there are people reporting -- there are people doing good reporting on abortion and what it means to have an abortion in the United States.
DEVON HANDY (CO-HOST): Right.
KANN: And that he doesn't want to engage with those stories doesn't mean people aren't candidly engaging. And it doesn't mean that he gets to call for, or at least on multiple occasions suggest, that it's appropriate for them to be hanged.
HANDY: Right. Right. And he's also made just a smorgasbord of awful, racist, sexist comments on a number of topics and then he has, like you said, this sort of gall to go on The Wall Street Journal and whine about how the Twitter mob came for him and how, and what I think he's getting at, which he doesn't necessarily specifically say it in this Wall Street Journal article, but he said that -- it seems that he's saying that white conservative men are the disadvantaged in the media landscape right now. So, do you think that's what he's saying? Does he really believe that? I mean, again you can't speak to him in particular. But I'm just a little confused by his whole premise.
KANN: I mean, I think his premise kind of demonstrates what the markers to him are of, not just success, but of what it means to be held accountable or to experience -- I won’t call it oppression in his case, but to experience pushback on a viewpoint that you have.
KANN: I think he has a line in that Wall Street Journal piece about how if you want to understand what ideas are truly, truly oppressed, truly put upon, like look at who's getting sponsorship from Google and getting South by Southwest panels. And his implication is that for a white conservative writer, they are experiencing oppression because they're not getting corporate sponsorships. Where, on the flip side, other people are hearing the types of rhetoric that -- I mean, even if we don't want to go so far to say that he believes this, the rhetoric that he's espousing -- and having a reaction of saying, I've had an abortion, and hearing that someone would call for me to be hanged, it feels like an actual type of oppression and it feels threatening. And so for him, and I think the people defending him along that same line, to be saying that a marker of oppression is not getting a sponsorship is kind of a stark opposition to what real markers of oppression would be.
2. Kann also explained that Media Matters’ annual studies of coverage of abortion and reproductive health in evening cable news have found that discussions of abortion are often framed around politics or religion and that they ignore the reality that abortion is a “common ... health care experience”:
HANDY: I feel like with something like abortion rights and reproductive health coverage, it is scientific in a lot of ways and it relies on a medical, scientific understanding. And do you think that that's actually part of the conversations that we're having or is it more emotional?
KANN: I think that -- so it's actually interesting -- that's an interesting way of phrasing the question because we've actually looked at -- every year we do a study that looks at, not just who is having conversations about abortion in particular on prime-time cable news, but how that coverage is framed.
KANN: And we do one of these every year. The most recent one we did last year found that more often when we're having conversations about abortion, at least in those prime-time sections, the conversations are framed almost entirely around abortion as a political issue or abortion as a matter of faith when in reality, like you said, it is a medical practice. It's a legal health care procedure. And you know, I don't think people are usually having the conversation in those kind of ways.
HANDY: Why do you think that is?
KANN: I think partly it's like what you said. I don't think outlets are doing all the work they should be doing to center conversations about abortion as something that is common and something that is a health care experience. And I think part of it is that you know, even when outlets have the best of intentions they're not always giving people all the information they need to understand why certain things are happening in conversations about abortion. So, for example, in our work a lot we think about this in terms of abortion stigma, where people can be trying to have a conversation about abortion or report on a new restriction or even a new piece of legislation meant to expand access to reproductive rights, and they might include a lot of phrasing about how abortion is inherently tragic or how it's a very difficult decision. And some people might experience it that way but to treat that as the universal implies there's something not normal about that health care experience.
KANN: So I think that people are kind of interacting with it in those frames. And that's why we are having the frank, fair, and factual conversations about abortion I think we would like to see.
3. Kann also previewed an in-the-works Media Matters study on abortion coverage that will demonstrate that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are “talking more about abortion” and talking about it in such a way that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage”:
HANDY: So, you have been writing about abortion rights and reproductive health for over two years. Have you seen a shift in how media covers these topics?
KANN: I think -- that's a good question -- I think, I've seen more examples of individual reporters and even specific outlets that are going out of their way to center, not just narratives about abortion, but factual narratives about abortion that focus on the voices of people who have had them. And I find that really encouraging.
KANN: On the flip side, I've also seen, in particular for major outlets, sort of a failure to center those conversations. And I think, you know, I mentioned the study that we typically put out every year; we're about to put out our most recent edition of that forthcoming. And something that we've seen in that, and that I think bears across anecdotally a lot of what I've seen for the past two years, is that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are just talking more about abortion. And they're talking about it at a volume that, I think even when we have good instances of reporting from like progressive outlets, it's getting kind of drowned out. And so there's almost a void of coverage that's being filled by inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage.
HANDY: Right. Has there been a shift in particular since Trump has taken office?
KANN: I think that there's more awareness since Trump has taken office. I think, because although a lot of the policies that the Trump administration is championing particularly in the context of abortion and reproductive rights are problematic in a lot of ways, I think they're more visible to people because they're operating at a national level. But I think it's also important to remember that a lot of the policies that they're championing are either things that have been operating at the state level for years or that the people now in positions of power have been trying to push at state levels or in anti-abortion organizations for years. So I think people are more aware -- I see a more general attentiveness and engagement with people. But I think it's that full context is also hopefully something people are taking from that.
4. Kann and Handy also discussed anti-abortion fake health clinics and how a fragmented media landscape has led to those clinics pushing their own media platforms “independent of any external fact-checking or accountability”:
HANDY: So what are the tools that people can use or what are the things that people can look for when looking for verified or, quote unquote, “good information” from any news source?
KANN: Yeah, I mean, I think that is sort of the basics of vetting information and critical thinking are all sort of the short of the answer. I think folks should always pay attention to where they're sourcing their news from. In particular, you know, there are outlets or there are entities that try to present themselves as media outlets but that have none of the safeguards or none of the quality control than an actual news outlet would have. So making sure you understand what the outlet is and where they're sourcing from. Making sure that if something seems too good to be true or seems alarming that you can source it back to you know, either primary documents or another like in a -- hopefully like an outlet you recognize can back it up as well and just sort of making sure you're going through all those steps to ensure that the information you're getting is accurate.
HANDY: You know, it's kind of funny. As you were saying that I was thinking these outfits that present themselves as media outlets it's kind of like crisis pregnancy centers positioning themselves as health care providers for women who are seeking abortions. …
KANN: Yeah, definitely.
HANDY: And that sort of parallel is very interesting that we're dealing with two things at once here.
KANN: Yeah. I mean, I think that's something that we as Media Matters have done a decent amount of research and some content on our website about as well, which is that one of the most interesting evolutions I think we've seen is not just that crisis pregnancy centers, or these fake anti-abortion health clinics, aren't just operating to deceive people trying to come in, they're also, in some cases, operating media outlets and platforms independent of any external fact-checking or accountability --
KANN: -- because that is how they try to access -- get people to access their information and think they're credible. So it's not even just the centers themselves that operate in that deceptive way. They're starting to adopt these tactics as well.
What’s a would-be conservative provocateur to do after being fired for misleading his employer and arguing on multiple occasions that people who’ve had abortions should be hanged? If you’re former National Review writer Kevin Williamson, the answer is apparently pontificating in The Wall Street Journal about your perceived victimization at the hands of the unsophisticated masses and media elite alike, who just don’t respect your audacity to “tell people things they don’t want to hear.”
In his April 20 Wall Street Journal article, Williamson argued that his “trollish and hostile” comments about hanging women who have abortions were meant as rhetorical strategy to highlight “the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate,” and not as “a public-policy recommendation.” He argued that his comments instead detracted from his intended purpose of discussing "the more meaningful questions about abortion," claiming that "there aren’t very many people on the pro-choice side ... who are ready to talk candidly about the reality of abortion.”
Williamson’s idea that people are unwilling to have candid conversations about abortion tells us far more about Williamson and the state of right-wing punditry than about the nature of conversations about abortion among pro-choice advocates. Abortion rights advocates have emphasized the importance of empowering people to share their abortion experiences. In contrast, right-wing media have long demonized and vilified those who have abortions, describing the legal medical procedure as “sickening,” “grisly,” and on par with terrorism. In some instances, abortion providers are attacked as villains and compared to Nazis while those who have had later abortions are called “selfish and disgusting.”
Abortion is a common health care experience in the United States. But right-wing media outlets and personalities -- particularly those self-styled as edgy firebrands -- show little sign of candidly engaging on the topic in good faith. For example, in 2016, in response to a woman sharing her abortion story with The New York Times, The Daily Caller “edited” her narrative “for accuracy and clarity” and added stigmatizing language and ad hominem attacks in brackets. In 2014, Renee Bracey Sherman wrote about the litany of threatening “Facebook posts, messages, emails, and tweets” she received after authoring a piece about her abortion experience.
For Williamson, victimization appears to mean suffering the slings and arrows of conservatives and liberals in “the Twitter mob,” or being denied “sponsorships from Google and Pepsi.” Meanwhile, abortion providers, patients, and clinics in the United States are consistently and openly subjected to targeted harassment and in some cases violence. According to data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF), targeted harassment of abortion providers and clinics rose in 2016 to the highest levels seen since NAF began tracking incidents in 1977, including “a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.” Since 1993, attacks on abortion clinics and abortion providers have led to 11 deaths, including a 2015 attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic that killed three and injured at least nine more.
Already in 2018 there have been numerous reports of violence or threats against abortion clinics. In February, anti-abortion activist Luke Wiersma was “charged with sending a series of online death threats to Chicago-area abortion clinics,” and according to one report, Wiersma allegedly said that he would “do anything and everything to stop the unmitigated murders of fetuses” including “kill to stop these atrocities.” In another incident, in New Jersey, Marckles Alcius “deliberately crashed a stolen truck” into a Planned Parenthood clinic and “indicated to investigators after his arrest that the act was intentional and that he was willing to die.” These are hardly isolated incidents -- similar attacks or threats have also been recently reported in Illinois, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and more.
Beyond bemoaning his alleged victimization, Williamson also argued that his undoing was the result of “the rage-fueled tribalism of social media” and that “no one is very much interested in my actual views on abortion and capital punishment.”
Actually, we’re very interested. And the one in four women who have had an abortion in the United States are even more so. Williamson and his cadre of right-wing allies will continue to attempt to reframe the conversation away from the substance of his remarks -- to make his firing about anything other than the ramifications of his own rancor. Williamson will continue to play the victim, but that doesn’t change the facts: He was not a conservative thought leader sacrificed at the altar of vindictive liberal bias and elitism. He casually and cruelly gave voice to the idea that people who’ve had abortions should be brutally murdered.
Kevin Williamson isn’t the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy, or even an ill-informed “Twitter mob.” He’s only the victim of his own desire to provoke, no matter whom his argument may hurt -- and he’s learning what it’s like to be held accountable for his actions.
If there’s one thing Republicans love more than pretending they’re being victimized by liberal elites, it’s raising money off this inaccurate claim -- a tendency demonstrated clearly during recent congressional hearings on the activities of Facebook. During these hearings, Republican members of Congress elevated various overinflated right-wing grievances against social media companies (such as claims of anti-abortion censorship and anti-Christian bias) in order to pressure the platform into allowing greater promotion of inflammatory or inaccurate content. In particular, they seized on pro-Trump YouTubers Diamond and Silk, who have actively lied about Facebook censoring them and then used the attention to raise money. As close watchers of the anti-abortion movement know, this tactic of crying censorship to garner attention and raise funds is a favorite of anti-choice actors. Here are a few that have recently employed this practice:
Lila Rose, founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight in June 2017 alleging that Twitter was censoring Live Action’s ads due to ideological bias. In reality, the content still appeared on Live Action’s Twitter page, but was not allowed to be promoted as an advertisement to other users, not because of bias, but because it violated several of Twitter’s content policies regarding "hate content, sensitive topics, and violence.”
Instead of altering the organization’s content to meet Twitter’s policies, Rose appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and used claims of supposed censorship to raise funds for Live Action. As Rose told Carlson, “We’re actually doing a campaign right now to get people to fund Live Action and to get out the information that Twitter is trying to block using other platforms -- using Facebook, using YouTube, using the blogosphere, obviously coming on here and talking with you.”
Live Action continued to deploy this dishonest tactic even after Rose’s Fox News appearance. Following the June 26 segment, Live Action sent a fundraising email claiming that “Live Action is being suppressed” and asking supporters “to help us strengthen our efforts against the abortion industry.” Live Action’s censorship allegations also animated other right-wing media outlets. For example, on June 29, Christian Broadcasting Network published an article promoting Live Action’s claims about Twitter’s ad policy, which stated that “Live Action has launched a campaign to compensate for their losses due to Twitter’s censoring,” and directed readers to Live Action’s fundraising page. Rose and Live Action also pushed the narrative on Twitter, using the hashtag #DontDeleteMe -- even though all of Live Action tweets remained publicly available on the platform.
The group also continued to use claims of censorship to raise funds in three October 2017 emails. In one email, Live Action stated that “Twitter is STILL banning our paid ads” and asked whether members would “give a gift to Live Action today so that we can expose more people to the truth.” In another email, Live Action claimed, “While we work to pressure Twitter to lift their ban on ads for pro-life content, we must double our efforts elsewhere” and asked people to “make a gift … so that we can reach more people with the truth.” Live Action made a similar plea in another email, asking people to “consider helping us reach more Americans with the truth about abortion through our other social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.”
The extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue claimed in July 2017 that Google was censoring parts of its website after its page rankings decreased in the results of searches for “abortions in US” or “abortion statistics.” The group alleged that “Google’s search engine has manipulated search parameters to dramatically reduce exposure” to Operation Rescue's web pages, which contain abortion statistics purporting to show the "truth about abortion." Operation Rescue then sent a fundraising email asking for support to "launch a massive campaign to ensure our critical abortion research and pro-life content is available, and no longer pushed down by the pro-abortion radicals at Google." Prior to the complaint, Google announced a policy change regarding how sites containing misleading or false information would be ranked.
In October 2017, Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) claimed that one of the organization’s Twitter ads, targeting Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in the 2017 election, was taken down by the platform, seemingly for inflammatory language. Citing this example and other anti-abortion censorship allegations, SBA List asked people to “make a gift today to get our pro-life message past Twitter’s censorship” and to “fight back against Twitter’s censorship.”
Following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last week, SBA List reprised this tactic and emailed supporters to detail instances where the group claimed to have been censored by social media companies. SBA List then directed people to “please make a generous donation of $250 to help win the fight against pro-abortion Silicon Valley elites.”
Not to be left out of the conversation about supposed anti-abortion censorship, the anti-choice news outlet Life News also sent an email after Zuckerberg’s testimony stating, “Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are increasingly censoring pro-life voices,” and asking readers to sign a petition and to “make a donation today … so we can continue to stand up to these social media giants [and] their censorship.”
Another anti-abortion outlet, LifeSite News, also asked for donations in light of supposed censorship by social media companies. The site posted in March 2018 about the “surprising and disturbing reason why LifeSite’s Spring campaign is struggling.” The reason, according to LifeSite News, “is an almost declared war by the globalist social media giants – Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube against websites, blogs and individuals who promote conservative views.” LifeSite argued that its inability to raise funds was due to censorship from Facebook and Google and pleaded to readers, writing, “To those of you who were not blocked from reading this letter, we are depending on you much more than normal to help us to reach our goal.” Unsurprisingly, the outlet provided zero evidence of the censorship it was allegedly experiencing.
The producer of an anti-abortion film about Roe v. Wade claimed that Facebook temporarily blocked his ability to post an Indiegogo crowdfunding page for the production of the film. On the Indiegogo page, the film is described as “the real untold story of how people lied; how the media lied; and how the courts were manipulated to pass a law that has since killed over 60 million Americans.” According to the film’s crowdfunding page, the film needs “support now more than ever. Facebook has banned us from inviting friends to ‘Like’ our page and from ‘Sharing’ our PAID ads.”
In October 2017, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) announced she was running for a Senate seat by tweeting out a campaign video that included a mention of her time as chair of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives -- a sham investigation based on deceptive and disproven claims by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The video included inflammatory language such as that Blackburn had “stopped the sale of baby body parts.” After Twitter temporarily blocked her from running the tweet as a paid ad due to its inflammatory language, Blackburn claimed censorship and made the rounds on Fox News to push this story. Blackburn also used the opportunity to tweet that the “conservative revolution won’t be stopped by @Twitter and the liberal elite,” urging people to “donate to my Senate campaign today.”
Anti-abortion groups and outlets have found a great deal of success in crying censorship -- a lesson that wider conservative media outlets and figures appear to be taking to heart. As a recently published report from the right-wing Media Research Center (a report that was readily promoted by outlets like Life News) melodramatically framed the issue: “The question facing the conservative movement is one of survival. Can it survive online if the tech companies no longer allow conservative speech and speakers? And, if that happens, can the movement survive at all?”
Kann says Williamson’s abortion comments show the importance of investigating the “fragmented media space”
On the April 9 edition of SiriusXM’s Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann spoke about The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson after Media Matters uncovered a National Review podcast in which Williamson affirmed his belief that people who have abortions should be hanged. Kann told host John Fugelsang that such comments -- particularly given the podcast format in which they were discovered -- demonstrate the importance of investigating the “fragmented media space”:
JOHN FUGELSANG (HOST): You went through a lot of Fox News to find these comments.
SHARON KANN: After that, we kind of figured too that -- I think it’s something that’s very interesting about our current media environment and something that my team has been increasingly interested in looking at across the spectrum of news outlets, not just Fox, but how access to different media platforms or the creation of this fragmented media space where people can get all their information from Facebook or from podcasts, how that’s impacted the veracity of information that’s even put out, particularly about abortion. So after we did -- looking at all of his Fox News appearances -- we found out he had had a podcast with another National Review writer Charles Cooke and decided to dig into that and do another post.
Kann further explained that the fragmented media space is creating a pipeline that helps extremists end up on mainstream outlets, including shows like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:
FUGELSANG: What do you think is the public impact of trolls finding a voice in highly respected publications? I mean, this phenomena is not going to lessen in the years to come, is it?
KANN: I don’t think it will lessen. I think hopefully people’s consciousness will be raised about it, and there will sort of be a higher standard of attention paid, both among people who are inputting or receiving that information and when people are making hiring decisions. I think more broadly, I mean, the effect of trolls is something that we’ve been reckoning with I think on a national platform level since the election, but I think in the aftermath we’ve been continuing to think through. You know, in the context of just trolling you’ll hear a lot -- we’ve done some work that you can find on our website about how, at least in the context of anti-abortion sentiment, there are people who will go and agitate on platforms specifically dedicated to being anti-abortion and spreading misinformation who will then agitate on Twitter, agitate on Facebook, and find themselves on Tucker Carlson’s program.
KANN: And so I think attention to the pipelines that are being operated through and attention to what type of sentiment is getting pickup and going from just communities of trolls to a wider platform will be increasingly important.