Graphic of top five US papers

Andrea Austria and Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

The top 5 U.S. papers fell short in fact-checking the first GOP debate. They have more chances to avoid the same mistakes.

Abortion misinformation, climate change denial, and border extremism were let loose in Milwaukee — and went largely unchallenged in print reporting

America’s most-read newspapers failed to properly contextualize anti-abortion misinformation, climate denial, and extreme immigration policies when reporting on the first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 campaign cycle. With the next debate scheduled for September 27, journalists have another opportunity to fact-check these candidates and ensure they aren't continuing to allow misinformation to go unchecked.

From August 23 through August 28, Media Matters found: 

  • The top five U.S. newspapers by circulation — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today — published 90 print and online articles about the GOP presidential debate. 
  • Out of the 90 articles, only 16% of articles (14) mentioned the anti-abortion misinformation about procedures after 21 weeks of pregnancy and the popularity of 15-week abortion bans, which was spread by Republican candidates during the GOP debate; just 4 articles fact-checked it.
  • Roughly 26% of articles (23) mentioned entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s false claim that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” Thirteen out of those 23 articles failed to fact-check Ramaswamy. 
  • Only 6% of articles (5) covered Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ alarming promise to invade Mexico, and just 2 of those articles characterized DeSantis’ promise as aggressive. Just one explicitly called it an act of war.
  • 71% of articles that mentioned abortion misinformation on the GOP debate stage failed to fact-check it

  • GOP candidates pushed misinformation about abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy and the popularity of 15-week abortion bans, but only 14 articles mentioned these misleading claims. Just 4 articles — from The Washington Post and The New York Times — fact-checked anti-abortion misinformation from the GOP candidates.

    Many of the GOP candidates support a minimum 15-week federal abortion ban. Former Vice President Mike Pence falsely claimed that 15-week abortion bans are “supported by 70 percent of the American people.” As The Washington Post and The New York Times pointed out, recent polls show a majority of Americans — somewhere between 53-57% — oppose 15-week abortion bans.

    Both DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) promoted the myth of abortion “up to the moment of birth” during the debate. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley also used “late-term abortions” to refer to third-trimester abortions. When it comes to abortions up until the moment of birth, the Kaiser Family Foundation notes, “these scenarios do not occur, nor are they legal, in the U.S.” As for the phrase “late-term abortion,” it's a “biased nonmedical phrase intended to appropriate clinical language in order to misconstrue the reality of patient care,” according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Yet, USA Today repeated the term “later-term” abortions without correcting the record on its use.

    DeSantis also told a “born-alive” abortion story — common anti-abortion propaganda. The New York Times covered the “dramatic, and unverifiable, story” in its own fact-checking article. According to the Times, details of the supposed abortion survivor’s birth in 1955 are impossible to verify, and “medical advances and practices had changed so dramatically in the nearly seven decades since then that her story had little relevance for the current debate about abortion rights and policy.”

  • 57% of articles that mentioned Ramaswamy’s claim, “the climate change agenda is a hoax,” failed to fact-check it

  • Mainstream media generally struggle to cover climate change well, or sometimes at all — the first GOP debate was no exception. America’s top newspapers largely ignored candidate Vivek Ramaswamy calling the “climate change agenda” a “hoax” and claiming “more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change."

    All five papers published at least one article mentioning Ramaswamy’s climate denialism — 23 articles total. Only 10 of those articles actually fact-checked Ramaswamy. Many others highlighted Ramaswamy’s debate performance but largely ignored his climate denialism.

    In one case, The Wall Street Journal ran only the first half of Ramaswamy’s statement: “I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for.” (Heated’s Emily Atkin reported that Ramaswamy has an over $50 million stake in an investment firm that urges U.S. energy companies “to keep drilling for oil so long as it’s profitable.”) Instead of noting Ramaswamy then said “the climate change agenda is a hoax,” the Journal focused on how Ramaswamy “positioned himself as Trump’s heir as a truth-speaking nonpolitician.”

  • Only 5 articles mentioned DeSantis’ promise to invade Mexico, and only 2 articles called it extreme

  • Ron DeSantis promised GOP voters he’d order military forces to invade Mexico to tackle the influx of the synthetic opioid fentanyl into the United States “on day one.” Only five articles even mentioned DeSantis’ vow. Just two of those articles, one from The New York Times and one from The Washington Post, framed DeSantis’ promise to effectively go to war with America’s neighbor as aggressive.

    Only The Washington Post explicitly called DeSantis’ promise to send troops into Mexico without the consent of its government what it is: “an act of war.” USA Today ignored it, and The New York Times was much more vague, watering down DeSantis’ proposal as one of the many examples of “aggressive rhetoric on ways to shore up the southern U.S. border” from the GOP presidential candidates. The Times' fact-check focused on how most illicit drugs come into the states through ports of entry, not over the border. (That Times article was specifically focused on immigration, while the paper’s debate recaps, live coverage, and fact-checking articles ignored DeSantis’ comments.)

    DeSantis’ push for a military incursion into the United States’ third largest trading partner has become an increasingly popular Republican talking point since the Trump administration. These proposals ignore Mexican sovereignty and the recent history of failed military interventions while the U.S. waged its war on drugs and war on terror.

    Mexico’s position is clear. Last March, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said, "We are not going to permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government's armed forces intervene.”

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database for print and online articles from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for any of the terms “GOP,” “Republican” or “Fox News” within the same headline or lead paragraphs as any of the terms “primary,” “debate,” “stage,” “candidate,” or “presidential” from August 23, 2023, the date of the first GOP presidential primary debate, through August 28, 2023.

    We included articles, which we defined as instances when the first GOP presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraphs.

    We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they sufficiently fact-checked comments from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about starting a military incursion into Mexico, from entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy calling “the climate change agenda” a “hoax,” and from any GOP candidate misrepresenting abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy and the popularity of abortion bans.