CNN and MSNBC fall for right-wing media talking points to paint 2020 Democratic candidates as “extreme” on abortion

Two pro-choice signs in front of a TV screen

Citation Audrey Bowler / Media Matters

On CNN and MSNBC, hosts and guests have recently promoted right-wing media talking points on abortion intended to paint 2020 Democratic candidates as “extreme” or “out of touch” with voters.

As Media Matters previously outlined, right-wing media’s 2020 playbook includes several tactics for creating faux outrage about Democratic candidates' alleged views on abortion. We’ve already seen the impact of these tactics in the 2020 campaign, with outlets outside of the right-wing media echo chamber sometimes uncritically repeating anti-abortion misinformation. This is part of right-wing media’s plan -- to flood the zone with so many lies about abortion that they become the accepted narrative during the presidential race. Here are some of those tactics and the ways they’ve been employed this election cycle:

Hounding candidates with anti-choice questions -- and spinning any abortion-related answers -- to generate an outrage-based news cycle

Just this month, right-wing media figure Meghan McCain dishonestly framed a question on abortion to presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, which spun off into an outrage news cycle that was eventually picked up by CNN and MSNBC.

[1] Meghan McCain asked an inaccurate question on abortion.

On the February 6 edition of ABC’s The View, co-host Meghan McCain used right-wing media framing about abortion, asking Buttigieg if he would “be comfortable” if someone wanted to “invoke infanticide after a baby was born.” Buttigieg immediately pushed back on McCain’s question as promoting anti-abortion misinformation. Indeed, the idea that abortions can amount to “infanticide” or that abortions happen “at birth” are fallacies, but they have been a centerpiece of right-wing media’s and Republicans’ 2020 strategy.

[2] Others in right-wing media piled on.

Right-wing media seized on Buttigeg’s comments to falsely claim that he supports “infanticide.” The Washington Examiner wrote, “Pete Buttigieg’s supposedly ‘moderate’ candidacy is a sham, he just revealed his true far-left stances on The View” and now “admits he’s an abortion radical.” Similarly, Townhall said that Buttigieg’s answer shows he’s “no moderate” and is “really just as radical as the rest” of the candidates. National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis claimed that Buttigieg “prefers to disguise his radical position by dressing it up with fictions.” In The Washington Times, Valerie Richardson alleged that Buttigieg “had a chance … to come out against late-term abortion, but he didn’t take it.” The Trump campaign even sent out an email after The View segment to call Buttigieg an “extremist” who “opposes any limits on abortion” and supports “abortion any time, for any reason.”

[3] CNN and MSNBC picked it up.

This outrage spilled over to CNN, where CNN contributor Scott Jennings claimed on Cuomo Prime Time that Buttigieg showed he supports “abortion on demand,” “partial-birth abortion,” and “abortion any time and any place.” While anchor Chris Cuomo accurately refuted Jennings’ statements, a segment on MSNBC repeated right-wing media claims about Buttigieg’s answer without any pushback. On the February 8 edition of MSNBC Live, NBC News reporter Shannon Pettypiece merely said that President Donald Trump’s campaign had “seized on some comments” made by Buttigieg “that implied he was supporting late-term abortion … to show him as a further to the left candidate than he had portrayed himself.” Pettypiece claimed that this example was “also something that benefits Trump” without providing context about how the campaign’s claim is false right-wing media framing meant to discredit Buttigieg.

Manufacturing fake “grassroots” support for anti-choice misinformation

During this election cycle, people within the anti-abortion movement who do not introduce themselves as such have been posing anti-choice questions to candidates. Right-wing media have amplified the answers as supposed evidence of Democratic “extremism,” and at least one news cycle has made its way to MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

[1] Anti-choice questions from voters actually came from people in the anti-abortion movement.

On February 10, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) was asked at a campaign event whether she would accept anti-abortion Democrats into the party (she said she would). The question did not come from a typical voter, but rather from a person formerly associated with the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, which advocates for the end of abortion access.

Similarly, on January 26, Buttigieg answered a question at a Fox News town hall about whether he would “want the support of pro-life Democrats,” saying, "I'm not going to try and earn your vote by tricking you. ... The best I can offer is that if we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line. And in my view, it’s the woman who is faced with that decision in her own life.” While it was not clearly identified during the town hall, the question came from the anti-abortion movement -- specifically, Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

[2] Right-wing media amplified the responses.

Following Klobuchar’s response, right-wing media figures, including McCain again on The View, used it as an opportunity to say that the rest of the Democratic candidates are out of step with voters. The Washington Examiner wrote, “Klobuchar seems to understand that the radicalism seeping into the Democratic Party from the pro-choice movement is not sustainable.” National Review falsely claimed that “as support for abortion on demand increasingly becomes a Democratic litmus test,” Klobuchar’s answer “is worth noting.” All of these figures and outlets failed to note that the question came from someone associated with the anti-abortion movement.

Many right-wing media outlets also failed to note that the Buttigieg town hall question came from someone in the anti-abortion movement, instead spreading misinformation and outrage about Buttigieg’s answer. RealClearPolitics’ Susan Crabtree falsely claimed that Buttigieg “declined to say whether [he] supports a controversial 40-week abortion bill” -- her inaccurate characterization of a Virginia bill that failed to advance in the 2019 legislative session. Washington Examiner wrote that Buttigieg’s answer “gave a solid reminder … that the Democratic Party is inflexibly pro-abortion.” Fox News’ Katie Pavlich said that all the questioner wanted “was a recognition there is diversity of thought on the issue” on abortion, and Buttigieg instead told her “no” and “to deal with it.” Of note, this is not the first Fox News town hall where a dishonestly framed question was poised to a candidate and resulted in right-wing media outrage.

[3] MSNBC picked it up.

On the February 11 edition of Morning Joe, co-host Willie Geist repeated the right-wing media framing on Klobuchar’s answer, claiming it was an attempt to show herself as “centrist” as opposed to “other candidates” who “have said, ‘No. It’s important that you be pro-choice to be in this party.’” The next day, Geist again brought up Klobuchar’s answer during a discussion about the candidate embracing a so-called moderate position. Geist’s comments play into and give legs to the right-wing media narrative already built up that Democratic candidates on the whole are too “extreme” for voters, when polling shows that “eighty-two percent of Democrats support abortion rights in most or all circumstances.” Geist's comments come as no surprise, though: This isn’t the first time that a co-host on Morning Joe has suggested that Democrats may need to tone down their rhetoric on abortion to win.

In addition, writer Emily Crockett noted on Twitter why the context of who asked the question mattered -- context that was ignored in Geist’s analysis:

Then, in a later segment, co-host Joe Scarborough seem to jump on the right-wing media outrage news cycle over Buttigieg’s town hall answer, asking him whether there is any “space in the Democratic Party for pro-life voters.” Scarborough’s question disregarded the important distinction between Democrats who are personally “pro-life” but support policies protecting abortion rights and those who advocate for a ban on abortion. According to ThinkProgress, even if “many people are morally opposed to abortion,” they may not “necessarily think it should be out of reach for other people who feel differently.” Nuanced polling on the issue backs this up.

Regrettably, these segments on CNN and MSNBC continue a trend shown in a recent Media Matters study on evening cable news coverage of abortion: While CNN and MSNBC have allowed Fox News to dominate abortion-related conversations with dangerous misinformation, the scant coverage the other two cable networks provided often pushed the very same lies.