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Joe Scarborough inaccurately claims Democrats “do not understand how out of step with American they are” on abortion
The morning after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, MSNBC’s Morning Joe not only promoted his misleading comments about abortion procedures, but the hosts also echoed weeks of sensationalized and inaccurate right-wing media coverage about support for state measures to protect abortion access.
During his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump repeated talking points from a scandal manufactured by right-wing media alleging that Democrats support state bills supposedly legalizing “infanticide” or abortions “up to moment of birth.” In his speech, Trump said that a law in New York "would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth" and that a Virginia bill would allow providers to "execute a baby after birth." He called on Congress "to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children." In reality, Democratic legislators in New York recently passed legislation to codify abortion protections from Roe v. Wade at the state level, and Virginia Democrats introduced a bill to remove unnecessary burdens to abortion access, which has since been tabled. In response, right-wing media have spent much of the past few weeks fearmongering about abortion procedures and spreading misinformation that Democrats are extreme for protecting abortion access.
Although this misinformation has been primarily pushed by right-wing media, the February 6 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe was an example of a program repeating these inaccurate talking points to a broader audience. In discussing Trump's address, co-host Joe Scarborough said, “Democrats have a blind spot. They do not understand how out of step with America they are” for “passing extreme late-term abortion legislation,” and he further claimed that it “will cost them votes in states they will need in 2020 if they don't recognize it as a national party.” Co-host Willie Geist agreed, pointing to a June 2018 Gallup poll he said showed a lack of support for so-called “late-term abortion.”
By repeating these anti-choice talking points, Morning Joe amplified right-wing misinformation to an audience beyond Fox News. For example, “late-term abortion” is a medically inaccurate term used to suggest that abortions that happen later in pregnancy are too “extreme,” as Scarborough claimed. In reality, abortions that take place later in pregnancy are extremely rare and often performed for medical necessity or due to access barriers created by anti-choice politicians. Some media outlets’ characterization of these abortion procedures as happening “at birth” -- or in some cases, allegedly after -- is simply wrong; according to medical professionals, such a scenario “does not occur.” Treating abortions later in pregnancy as an “extreme” procedure is stigmatizing to patients and glosses over the specifics of their experiences. As a number of later abortion patients explained in an open letter, “The stories we hear being told about later abortion in this national discussion are not our stories. They do not reflect our choices or experiences. These hypothetical patients don’t sound like us or the other patients we know.”
Morning Joe similarly misinformed viewers about polls showing support for abortions that happen later in pregnancy. Although right-wing media often claim that supporting abortion rights is harmful to the Democratic Party's electoral chances, this is an oversimplification. Polling on abortion-related issues is notoriously complicated, requiring clear questions and language that accurately reflects the realities of abortion access and procedures. Support for abortions later in pregnancy increases when people are provided context explaining that abortions at this stage are often undertaken out of medical necessity or in response to complex personal circumstances.
This isn’t even the first time that Morning Joe has uncritically adopted inaccurate abortion-related talking points from Republicans and right-wing media. During Sen. Doug Jones's (D-AL) special election in Alabama, a Morning Joe panel similarly attempted to make the case that Jones’ “extreme” stance on abortions after 20 weeks would ensure his defeat -- based, in part, on polling about support for abortion restrictions. They were wrong.
From the February 6 edition of Morning Joe:
JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): I do want to just say for Democrats, because it hasn't been mentioned much in the mainstream media, and I’m glad you brought up the late-term abortion legislation passed in New York and Virginia. This is such a blind spot for Democrats, just like NRA actions after Sandy Hook, the video games and, again, refusing to pass any reasonable, rational legislation, painted Republicans as extremists. Democrats have a blind spot. They do not understand how out of step with America they are. Not only passing extreme late-term abortion legislation, but then celebrating it. It's a real blind spot for Democrats that will cost them votes in states they will need in 2020 if they don't recognize it as a national party.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): Couple of other blind spots we’re going to get to.
WILLIE GEIST (CO-HOST): The most recent reliable polling comes from last June from Gallup shows that 13 percent of Americans support late-term abortion -- 13 percent. By the way, that includes only 18 percent of Democrats --
SCARBOROUGH: Which --
GEIST: -- to your point.
SCARBOROUGH: -- by the way, guess what, that's about the same number that are opposed to background checks for terrorists and domestic abusers and all the others.
Just two weeks ahead of the midterm elections, right-wing media figures and President Donald Trump are spreading lies about the migrant caravan, falsely claiming that the caravan has been infiltrated by radical terrorists and is on its way to invade and destroy the U.S. These lies are designed purely to scare people into voting for Republicans in the midterms; any honest reporting on this situation must be framed around that fact. Here are some good examples so far, via CNN, MSNBC, and Shepard Smith on Fox News:
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Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
Lazy conventional wisdom is running abound in horse race coverage of the upcoming midterm elections.
The October 22 broadcast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe devoted a lengthy segment to claims that the Democratic Party has no messaging or, if it does, the message is packaged incorrectly. This evaluation of Democratic Party election efforts is evidence-free -- Democrats have largely coalesced around the issue of health care -- and it is also a gift to the Republican Party, as it plays into the argument that Democrats have no principles or plan for governance.
Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski opened the discussion by saying, “Donald Trump is talking about trade, crime, immigration, and judges. What are the Democratic issues that pack the same kind of inspiring emotional punch? Democrats can still win these midterms, but with time running out, the message and the momentum appears to be on Donald Trump’s side.”
Brzezinski's claim that Democrats have no response to Trump’s midterm rhetoric probably says more about the beltway press -- which tends to cover Trump's every move, at the expense of other topics -- than about reality.
What is happening on the ground tells a different story. Although it is important to note that the idea that a party needs a singular national message to be successful in elections is itself largely empty conventional wisdom, Democrats have unified to a great extent around the issue of health care in their messaging. Wesleyan Media Project -- an initiative that tracks and analyzes all broadcast election ads -- found in a September analysis that “Pro-Democratic messaging in federal races is concentrated primarily on healthcare, with 44 percent of airings in U.S. House races and 50 percent of airings in U.S. Senate races featuring the topic.” An October 18 report from the project stated, “It’s official: the 2018 midterms are about health care.” The “typical” message, according to an analysis by Vox, is that “the Republicans voted to take away people’s health care and end Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions.”
The media, however, have largely not been interested in covering health care policy, which could explain the perception that Democrats have no message on the issue. An October 19 Media Matters analysis found that broadcast nightly news shows did not air a single substantive segment about health care policy between January 1 and October 18
Despite Brzezinski's suggestion that Democrat messaging is inept, polling suggests that what the Democrats are doing is working. According to Morning Consult, a survey research company, the “strategy” to focus on health care “is paying off” because it is a high priority issue for voters and “voters who say health care is their top priority favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 28 points.”
Republicans have also been clearly put on the defensive by this messaging strategy. As The New York Times reported on October 16, “For months, Democratic candidates have been running hard on health care, while Republicans have said little about it. In a sign of the issue’s potency, Republicans are now playing defense, releasing a wave of ads promising they will preserve protections for Americans with pre-existing health conditions.” (It should be noted that these ads include false claims -- many of the Republicans running them have clear voting records of supporting legislation that would threaten mandatory coverage of pre-existing conditions.)
After Brzezinski’s opening, co-host Joe Scarborough and frequent show panelist Mike Barnicle offered a factually incorrect analysis of Democrats’ communication strategy around health care. They both essentially attacked Democrats for not effectively messaging on the issue, even though Democrats are actually messaging in the ways that Scarborough and Barincle said they should be.
Scarborough said, “So, if the Republican issue that they’re going to lean on is immigration, the Democratic issue is health care. I haven’t heard a compelling argument about health care.” He then claimed, “All they would have to say is the same exact thing that [then-President] Bill Clinton said [in 1996] for the next two weeks and they’d win a landslide and it’s this: Republicans are coming for your Medicare to pay for their tax cuts for the rich. … All they have to say is Republicans are coming after your Social Security and your Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Boom. They can’t put a sentence together like that. They are incapable.”
But that is largely what Democrats are saying. According to the Wesleyan analysis, ads supporting Democrats running for House seats are mentioning health care 44 percent of the time, Medicare 18 percent of the time, Social Security 17 percent of the time, and taxes 14 percent of the time. So what Scarborough says Democrats are incapable of talking about are actually the four top issues that they are messaging on:
And in the Senate, Democrats are mentioning health care in 50 percent of ads and prescription drugs in 16 percent of ads.
Barnicle went a step further, saying of Democrats running for House seats: “All they talk about is impeaching the president, when all they would have to do, as Joe just referenced, is go to the country and say, ‘If you have a child who is sick, you better pray that the Republicans don’t take control again because your child will be in severe danger of losing health care.’” But as the Weslayan analysis showed, in the House, Democrats are running on health care, not impeachment.
Another example of lazy horse race coverage occurred during the October 22 broadcast of CNN’s New Day when David Gregory said: “It’s also disturbing -- I mean, if you look at both parties, what they are really selling their supporters is anger and fear. That’s the vision for the country, which is pretty ugly during an ugly time following an ugly political episode with the confirmation of Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh.”
There is really no comparison between Republicans and Democrats engaging in fearmongering as an election tactic. For weeks, Trump, the GOP, and its conservative media allies have argued without evidence that the Republican supporters are in danger of being killed by angry mobs of Democrats. And now Trump and his allies are coalescing on racist messaging that a caravan of migrants from Central America is poised to invade the U.S. While examples of divisive Democratic messaging can certainly be found, two of the party’s most high-profile candidates -- Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum -- have made aspirational messaging about healing political divides in the U.S. a primary argument of their candidacies.
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) October 22, 2018
Horse race punditry is often shallow on election coverage, but analysis should not be so poor that it is clearly at odds with reality.
A segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe covering Serena Williams’ loss in the U.S. Open final included commentary by three white pundits, who all criticized Williams, and a sole Black commentator, who defended her actions and argued that she set a good example for young women. The segment was a stark example of why newsroom diversity matters, and what happens when the dominant voices in the media are white ones.
During the match, chair umpire Carlos Ramos repeatedly penalized Williams. Many in the media and on social media platforms have noted the gendered and racist nature of the violations against Williams. Some pointed out that male players have rarely been penalized for similar actions or for showing emotion on the court.
The three white commentators on Morning Joe seemed largely unmoved by these arguments. Mike Lupica, a sports journalist, argued that Williams was “was out of line” and claimed that she had “priors at this event,” referring to past instances where Williams reacted strongly at the tournament. He also attempted to disconnect the umpire’s decisions from Williams’ race, suggesting that the violations could not have been rooted in racism because Williams’ opponent Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian descent. Co-host Joe Scarborough attempted to dismiss arguments of sexism, denying that the extreme, and often unpenalized, rants of former men's tennis player John McEnroe demonstrate that Williams was treated differently because of her gender. Instead he claimed that Williams was penalized because “the codes, a lot of the standards were changed to stop the sort of verbal abuse that John McEnroe heaped on umps.” His co-host Mika Brzezinski claimed that Williams’ behavior is not “becoming whether a man does it or a woman does it.”
The only commentator who defended Williams’ actions was Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, who also happened to be the only Black person included in the segment. Glaude noted that the umpire’s decision was akin to “throwing Lebron James out in Game 7.” He said he understood “exactly her emotion, her anger” and argued that Williams was “absolutely justified in standing up for herself” and “point[ing] out the very gendered way in which she was responded to.” He also suggested that, “every young girl in this country who saw it should look up to her in that moment and stand up for themselves and not be disciplined by how they're supposed to behave in those moments.”
From the September 10 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
Glaude’s empathy for Williams, as compared to Lupica, Scarborough, and Brzezinski’s apathy, is evidence of the importance of cable programs having diverse voices, especially while discussing issues of race and gender. But, while the systemic racism and overwhelming whiteness of media is a problem for many reasons, it's also an accuracy problem:
The absence of people of color in newsrooms and on television allows the biases of white journalists and commentators to go unchecked, resulting in reporting that often overlooks important angles, privileges one side of a story, and fails to provide necessary context to understand news events.
Media diversity isn't a luxury good that can be jettisoned for the sake of convenience. White newsrooms are broken newsrooms.
On Sunday, July 22, President Donald Trump tweeted another bellicose threat of war, this time against Iran. In discussions about the president’s tweets, some media outlets prominently featured Iraq War boosters.
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
Though, collectively, these figures were hardly as pro-military action as they were in 2003 in their support for the Iraq War (some even harshly criticized the president’s posturing), the prominence of such boosters in the conversation betrays one of the media’s long-running, barely-acknowledged failures: The same voices that helped the Bush administration lie its way into the "the single worst foreign policy decision in American history" are still, for some reason, considered important voices on foreign policy.
Former press secretary for President George W. Bush Ari Fleischer appeared on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom to urge the United States to destabilize Iranian society in order to trigger regime change.
Steve Doocy, co-host of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, said that the Iranian “people are really hacked (sic) off, they don’t really like the corruption, they don’t like the leadership, they want something new, and now this,” referring to Trump’s tweet.
On Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, senior strategic analyst retired Gen. Jack Keane, who was the a strong advocate of Bush’s troop “surge” strategy in Iraq, hailed Trump for having “absolutely reset the table [away] from coddling Iran” as soon as he was inaugurated and framed the tweet -- which he called a “policy decision” -- as a continuation of this trend.
On CNN’s New Day, global affairs analyst Max Boot commented that Trump “belongs in a padded cell” for his tweet and was “predictable” for “gin[ning] up a threat of war with Iran” to shield himself from embarrassment over the Helsinki summit.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough commented that Trump was “screaming about the Republican (sic) Guard and his threat to wipe out Iran,” and suggested that the threat against Iran was a tactic to distract from the news that, among others, the FBI possessed recordings of the president talking with his former attorney Michael Cohen about payments to a former playboy model.
Fox’s senior political analyst Brit Hume predicted that Trump’s broader posture against Iran, from exiting the nuclear deal to Sunday’s tweet, indicated that his administration “is attempting to overthrow the government or attempting to get regime change” in Iran, even though Trump officials “will not say” so.
On CNN Newsroom, military analyst Rick Francona, who was previously part of a military analyst program set up by the Pentagon to sell the Iraq War, warned that “if you start poking the eye of the Iranians” as Trump’s tweet did, “they’re liable to push back,” and the resulting situation “will ratchet out of control very quickly.”
National security adviser John Bolton, hired directly off of Fox News, underlined the president's threat with a statement that said: “If Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before.”
Researchers found that Kavanaugh "is an uncommonly partisan judge" who "justified his decisions with conservative doctrines far more than his colleagues," particularly in the run-up to elections
On July 9, President Donald Trump nominated conservative D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court in a move that would undoubtedly shift the court far to the right and out of step with the American people. Many media figures, though, have casted Kavanaugh as a centrist pick, citing his ties to former President George W. Bush and saying he is less conservative than other potential nominees.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called Kavanaugh “such a mainstream pick” and praised him for voicing opposition to indicting a sitting president, saying it “speaks to the content of the judge’s character” because it was written under a Democratic president.
CNN senior political analyst and occasional host John Avlon praised Trump’s choice as “not as far right” as many of the other options he had considered. After CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin disputed that characterization, fellow commentator David Gregory dug in, saying, “Any Republican would have made this selection.”
The New York Times published a July 9 opinion piece on its website written by a liberal friend and former law professor of Kavanaugh’s, which Fox News exploited as evidence of widespread bipartisan support for the nominee.
A New York Times article described him as “often a moderating force.”
On CBS This Morning, Dan Senor, a Republican strategist and former colleague of Kavanaugh’s in the George W. Bush administration, said he’s “not some fire-brand right-winger” and argued that other Republicans also would have nominated him.
MSNBC political commentator Bret Stephens claimed that Kavanaugh is “within the broad mainstream of the American movement.”
But data shows that Kavanaugh is “an uncommonly partisan judge” who has historically “tended to dissent more often along partisan lines than his peers,” according to research compiled by social scientists Elliott Ash and Daniel L. Chen. They also noted that Kavanaugh “justified his decisions with conservative doctrines far more than his colleagues” and that his right-leaning partisan decisions ramped up in the midst of presidential elections, “suggesting that he feels personally invested in national politics.” Additionally, Kavanaugh’s views on the environment, labor, LGBTQ discrimination, reproductive rights, gun safety, and immigration -- which are often out of step with those of the majority of Americans -- have won him the support of some of the most extreme factions, including extremist anti-LGBTQ groups and nativists like Ann Coulter and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
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Update: This piece has been updated to include additional examples.
On February 14, after a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, left 17 dead, right-wing and anti-abortion media made outlandish comparisons between gun regulation and abortion restrictions, as well as comparing the National Rifle Association (NRA) to Planned Parenthood.
GUY BENSON: CNN, one of our rival networks, tweeted out a list of the Republicans who had voted no, with a list of their ratings from the NRA, and people were highlighting how much money they had taken from the NRA. And that type of coverage simply did not exist with the Democrats and Planned Parenthood and the abortion lobby when they voted for a life-and-death issue against the strong wishes of the American people. And, to me, that dichotomy is striking and unavoidable.
MICHAEL DUFFY: Science is chasing politics in both those cases. And Peggy Noonan wrote a really interesting column on Saturday, I think, where she said --
ANDREA MITCHELL: It’s a wonderful column.
DUFFY: -- where she said -- she had a proposal at the end that was shocking at first when you read it that basically said the right should give on late-term abortion -- I'm sorry, the left --
MITCHELL: The left, exactly.
DUFFY: -- should give on late-term abortion and the right should give on some of these gun restrictions, particularly with respect to assault weapons. And that that’s a vote, she said, for life in general. And she cited young people as a changed political factor.
MITCHELL: I'm glad you mentioned that, Mike. Because she is ahead of the curve in all of these cultural issues, I think, Peggy has a unique sensibility. And --
DUFFY: It was an interesting trade up.
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