TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee drastically outshined nightly broadcast news shows in its coverage of abortion and reproductive rights during the first 11 months of 2016. The weekly comedy program, in just 31 episodes, spent more than twice as much time as any single nightly news show discussing abortion throughout the whole year, and host Samantha Bee’s coverage both delved into policy and debunked abortion myths, unlike the bulk of broadcast coverage. Broadcast news’ lacking coverage of reproductive rights, particularly in a year marked by several newsworthy events around abortion and abortion access, reflected the media’s larger failure to discuss substantive policy issues and left a gap that allowed conservative misinformation to dominate the national dialogue that did take place.
A Media Matters study found that ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News spent a combined total of 46 minutes and 11 seconds discussing abortion and reproductive rights from January 1 to November 30. NBC led the broadcast networks in the time spent covering abortion, with 16 minutes and 23 seconds, while ABC and CBS spent 15 minutes and 52 seconds, and 13 minutes and 56 seconds, respectively, covering issues related to reproductive rights. By contrast, TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee spent a total of 39 minutes and 43 seconds discussing abortion from when the program premiered in February through November, meaning the weekly comedy program offered more than double the amount of time any one network dedicated to the issue.
Throwing the disparity into even sharper relief, Full Frontal’s almost 40 minutes of abortion coverage took place over the course of 15 segments in just 31 episodes, while the nightly newscasts’ 46 minutes total took place over 37 segments in roughly 1,000 editions combined.
Undercoverage Came Despite The Year’s Many Newsworthy Abortion Stories, And Despite Polling Showing Abortion Was One Of The Policy Topics Voters Cared About Most
The lack of coverage about abortion on nightly broadcast news shows was totally at odds with the number and scope of major abortion stories in 2016. And a Pew Research Center report on important issues in the 2016 election found that 45 percent of respondents ranked abortion as “very important” in deciding their vote, placing abortion in the top 15 issues of the election cycle. There was no shortage of topics related to abortion and reproductive rights for the newscasts to focus on this year:
States Continued To Gut Abortion Access In New And Inventive Ways. States around the country passed a series of laws aimed at limiting access to abortion. In the first half of 2016, “17 states had passed 46 new abortion restrictions,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. These regulations included a requirement to hold a burial or cremation for any fetal remains (including those from miscarriages), misguided anesthesia requirements for abortions at 20 weeks or later, and even attempts to completely ban abortion.
Whole Woman’s Health Struck Down Unconstitutional Barriers For Abortion Access. The Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt dramatically reshaped the legal landscape of abortion rights by clarifying the “undue burden” standard, which limited the ability of states to regulate (and restrict) a woman’s access to abortion. The decision struck down the Texas anti-choice law HB-2, rejecting the “barely plausible” claims that it increased patient safety, thus issuing a strong rebuke to the “woman-protective anti-abortion” rhetoric that permeated the discussion of HB-2 and other Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, of which numerous other states also have versions.
Trump’s Anti-Abortion Campaign Rhetoric And His Election Energized Anti-Choice Lawmakers And Anti-Abortion Activists. President-elect Donald Trump’s attacks on reproductive rights throughout the campaign included pledging to overturn Roe v. Wade, calling for women who have abortions to be punished, and pushing anti-choice myths like that of “partial-birth abortion.” Anti-choice lawmakers and activists, energized by Trump’s election, have continued plotting their assault on women’s health. As Politico reported, “Congressional Republicans are aiming to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood early next year,” in what would be “the single biggest victory for anti-abortion groups in years.”
The Supreme Court Punted In Zubik v. Burwell, Leaving Contraception Access In Limbo For Many Women. The Supreme Court in June sent Zubik v. Burwell, a consolidated case brought by religious nonprofits challenging the opt-out process of the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate, back to the lower courts in a deadlocked 4-4 decision, urging an appeals court to forge a compromise between the two parties and leaving millions of women without contraception access. As SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston explained, the nondecision created issues around “how soon the government can work out technical arrangements to provide actual access to the contraceptive benefits.”
Congressional Republicans Attempted, But Failed, To Defund Planned Parenthood. Congressional Republicans voted in January to strip $450 million in federal funding from Planned Parenthood, marking “the first time a bill defunding Planned Parenthood has made it to the president's desk in more than 40 years,” according to Mother Jones. President Obama ultimately vetoed the legislation.
Republican Congressional “Witch Hunt” Targeted Women’s Health Care Providers. The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives continued its “witch hunt” against women’s health care providers in 2016, which has been based almost solely on misinformation and has put abortion providers, researchers, and patients at risk of violence. In their report, Republicans on the panel referred Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast to the Texas attorney general’s office, claiming that the group illegally profited from fetal tissue donations. Congressional Democrats on the panel accused the Republicans of using “McCarthy-era tactics” and abusing their power.
A New Report Discovered A Sharp Uptick In Anti-Choice Violence. A report released in April from the National Abortion Federation found “a dramatic increase in hate speech and internet harassment, death threats, attempted murder, and murder” related to abortion. The report called the trend “alarming.”
The lack of reproductive rights coverage on broadcast news reflected the broader pattern of policy discussions being omitted from election coverage. An October study by Tyndall Report found that evening newscasts dedicated a mere 32 minutes to substantive policy coverage throughout the whole year. Another study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that only 10 percent of news coverage during the election focused on the candidates’ policy stances. By contrast, 42 percent of news reports focused on polling and horserace coverage.
Samantha Bee Artfully Debunked Conservative Misinformation, Which News Media Allowed To Flourish With Its Lack Of Coverage
The lack of nightly broadcast news coverage on abortion and reproductive rights allowed misinformation about abortion to gain traction in the media and in politics. For example, in the third general election presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace framed a question about abortion around the myth of partial-birth abortion. Trump echoed the partial-birth abortion myth in his answer, outrageously stating that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton supported abortion procedures that “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month [of pregnancy].” Vice President-elect Mike Pence also invoked the concept of “partial-birth abortion” to attack Clinton during the only vice presidential debate. These mentions marked the only two times abortion was discussed in the general election debates.
While nightly news programs were failing to adequately cover abortion -- and allowing the partial-birth abortion myth to fester -- on Full Frontal, Bee explicitly called out the concept as a myth, exclaiming into a bullhorn, “Partial-birth abortions aren’t a thing.”
Bee emphasized the “nonmedical” term’s origin as a "right-wing construct” made up by the National Right to Life Committee in the 1990s, and she explicitly called out Chris Wallace for “conflat[ing] partial-birth abortion -- which doesn't exist -- with late term abortion, which does, rarely.” Bee also mocked Trump for his comment about babies being ripped from the womb at nine months, pointing out that “removing a baby from a woman's womb in the ninth month isn't an abortion -- it's a birth.” Bee’s coverage of the third presidential debate set a model for media to call out other media figures and politicians who adopt right-wing media fictions, like “partial-birth abortion,” to attack and demonize reproductive rights and the people who support them.
Bee also directly refused false claims that politicians and conservative media pushed in defense of HB-2, which the Supreme Court overturned in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In oral arguments in the case, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller falsely claimed that the regulations the law put in place, which included requirements that facilities where women get abortions meet the same standards of ambulatory surgical centers (ASC) and that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, were medically necessary. Keller also asserted that the law wouldn’t reduce access to abortion services because “the six most populous areas of Texas” would be able to perform “over 9,000 abortions annually.” A report for the University of Texas in January found that the law had already “delayed and in some cases prevented” abortions altogether.
Bee interviewed Texas Republican state Rep. Dan Flynn -- one of the authors of HB-2 -- and exposed the flawed logic behind the arguments that HB-2 supports women’s health care. Bee pointedly asked, “How does removing access to health care increase health care?” and she corrected Flynn when he asserted that abortion involves “cutting on people’s bodies,” noting that “you don’t cut a woman in an abortion, though.” And Bee debunked Flynn’s claims of increased safety and clinic access, asking, “Have you thought about regulating the safety of back alleys? Because that’s where a lot of women will be having their abortions now.”
Crucially, Bee also spotlighted Americans United for Life (AUL), “an anti-choice group that creates boilerplate bills for lawmakers around the U.S.” that restrict abortion rights. Bee called out Flynn’s lack of knowledge about reproductive health, saying, “you don’t seem to know anything specifically about abortion, really at all,” and explaining -- in a way most news media fail to do -- the process through which AUL’s restrictive anti-choice model legislation is passed in state legislatures.
Full Frontal offered a clinic in how to properly debunk conservative misinformation on abortion. From her deep dive investigations into long-standing myths to her monologues responding to contemporary events, Samantha Bee set the bar for news coverage of abortion issues.
Media Matters searched Nexis and iQ media for mentions of “abortion,” “Planned Parenthood,” “women’s health,” “reproductive rights,” “Center for Medical Progress,” “Roe v. Wade,” and “Whole Woman’s Health” in editions of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and TBS’ Full Frontal that aired between January 1 and November 30. For this study, Media Matters included only those segments where the stated topic of discussion was abortion or where the discussion contained “substantial discussion” about abortion (defined as a discussion in which two or more speakers had at least one direct exchange on abortion). We identified four types of segments: a host monologue, a news package or news report, a panel discussion, or an interview. We did not include teasers for upcoming segments. Segments identified were timed using iQ media.
Sarah Wasko contributed graphics to this piece