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Fox’s “straight news” anchors repeat the same anti-choice talking points as the network's opinion hosts
There are many reasons that Fox News’ false dichotomy between the network’s so-called “news” and “opinion” divisions is laughable, but there is perhaps no clearer indication than the sheer amount of anti-abortion misinformation spread by both "opinion" and “straight news” personalities alike.
After the Democratic National Committee announced that Fox News would not be hosting any of this year’s Democratic presidential primary debates, backlash from Fox’s senior leadership was swift, with officials imploring the DNC to “reconsider its decision” on account of the “ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism” reportedly shown by some of the network’s hosts. As Variety previously reported, the network had already rolled out a messaging campaign to reassure wary advertisers about the outlet’s legitimacy, extolling the virtues of the network’s news hosts. This messaging campaign is merely a repackaging of the same inaccurate story Fox has been telling for years: Viewers and critics shouldn’t hold the blatant xenophobia, sexism, racism, and lies of the opinion side against the allegedly objective news team. But this recycled talking point further falls apart when it comes to anti-abortion misinformation spread by the network’s hosts.
In January, abortion rights measures in New York and Virginia sent Fox News and broader conservative media into a frenzy. Although both measures were attempts to protect abortion access should the Supreme Court overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade, Fox News hosts across the network’s news and opinion programs seized on the opportunity to spread sensationalized misinformation and attack Democrats for allegedly supporting “infanticide” or so-called abortions “up until birth.” Despite these inaccurate characterizations, Fox News devoted over six and half hours of coverage before the 2019 State of the Union address to falsely claiming that these state measures allowed “infanticide” -- a talking point that ultimately appeared in President Donald Trump’s remarks. In fact, Trump and Republican lawmakers are reportedly banking on using anti-abortion extremism to rally voters for the 2020 elections -- a strategy that was on full display during the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
It’s no secret that Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity -- each a part of Fox’s volatile and increasingly bad-for-business prime-time lineup -- are all frequent anti-abortion misinformers. Although Fox has attempted to distinguish the work of Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Shannon Bream, and Chris Wallace from their colleagues, these "news"-side hosts have all pushed their share of lies, distortions, and misinformation about abortion and reproductive rights.
Although Fox clearly has a profit motive in portraying Baier as a straight news host, there is little to distinguish him from his colleagues on the opinion side when it comes to his abortion-related reporting. In Media Matters’ annual study of abortion-related coverage on evening prime-time cable news programs, Baier and his program Special Report have consistently been dominated by anti-choice talking points and inaccurate statements about abortion and reproductive rights.
Notably, Baier hosted a 2016 town hall with Democratic presidential candidates and used the platform to recycle misleading right-wing anti-abortion talking points. On his program, in the same year, Baier inaccurately described a common abortion procedure as “dismemberment abortion” and misled viewers that a Supreme Court case involving access to contraceptives was actually about abortion rights. Baier previously invoked a longstanding right-wing media talking point comparing legally operating abortion providers to convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell. In 2009, Baier even went so far as to falsely assert that the Obama administration would allow doctors to be jailed for refusing to perform abortions.
Beyond frequently hosting anti-choice guests such as Live Action founder Lila Rose and Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins, MacCallum seemingly makes little secret of her personal views on abortion and will often use sensationalized rhetoric when discussing the topic.
Even before MacCallum became a staple of Fox’s evening lineup, she was already a serial anti-abortion misinformer. In 2015, MacCallum attacked Planned Parenthood for allegedly using taxpayer money to support abortion care (the organization does not, as the Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds for abortion services). Like Baier, MacCallum also used a 2016 presidential primary forum as an opportunity to spread anti-abortion misinformation sourced from the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) deceptive videos attacking Planned Parenthood. Since MacCallum began hosting her own program, she has consistently promoted anti-abortion talking points about later abortion and Planned Parenthood. In 2017, MacCallum pushed several myths about the existence of so-called “sex-selective” abortion practices, even demanding a guest on her program explain whether it was acceptable “for someone to decide because they don’t like the sex of their baby to abort it at eight months.”
Whether appearing as a correspondent on Special Report or hosting her own program, Fox News @ Night, Bream has been a frequent source of anti-abortion misinformation on Fox. Despite representing the network’s so-called “straight news” contingent, Bream’s promotion to host her own program was celebrated by anti-abortion leaders.
Bream was a frequent promoter of CMP’s deceptive videos, even hosting the Fox News “special” promoting the group’s claims in 2015. In 2016, Bream touted “exclusively obtained” copies of letters from a House investigation based on CMP’s allegations -- letters received a full day before they were publicly released or shared with Democratic members of the investigative panel, in direct violation of congressional rules. Since then, Bream has repeatedly signal-boosted anti-abortion talking points and myths by spreading misinformation about abortion safety, letting guests make inaccurate allegations about Planned Parenthood without pushback, and citing polls commissioned by anti-abortion groups without necessary context to suggest a lack of public support for abortion. If there’s a talking point circulating around anti-abortion media and personalities online, it’s more likely than not that it will eventually surface on Bream’s program.
Although Chris Wallace does not discuss abortion as frequently as some of his Fox colleagues, his invocation of so-called “partial-birth” abortion during the final debate of the 2016 presidential election is more than enough to disqualify the anchor from consideration as a fair and balanced voice on abortion-related issues. Wallace’s inaccurate and sensationalized question was then picked up by other right-wing media outlets and has since re-emerged in Trump’s current talking points about abortion. Wallace has also shown a propensity for repeating right-wing smears against Planned Parenthood, citing anti-choice videos attacking the organization well before CMP’s campaign of deception began.
It doesn’t matter whether viewers watch so-called "news" or "opinion" programming: Both are likely to contain sensationalism, outright lies, and harmful characterizations about abortion patients, providers, and procedures -- seemingly no matter the potential consequences.
There will be no Fox News debate for this year’s Democratic presidential primary contest. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez closed the door to the right-wing network on Wednesday, telling The Washington Post that the party had rejected the network’s bid in light of the “inappropriate relationship” between Fox News and President Donald Trump that The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer documented in her damning new story. Perez’s statement brought a quick response from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ senior vice president and Washington managing editor, who urged the DNC to “reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism,” from moderating a debate.
Sammon’s comment is a well-worn talking point familiar to anyone who has followed the network’s public relations campaigns over the years. Fox executives and flaks are constantly telling reporters and advertisers alike that the network simply has separate “news” and “opinion” sides like any other news outlet. In their telling, it is unfair to hold the conspiracy theories and naked bigotry of Fox’s right-wing prime-time hosts against Wallace, Baier, MacCallum, Shep Smith, and the rest of the purportedly objective news team.
But Mayer’s piece is more than a dissection of Fox’s merger with the Trump White House and emergence as a propaganda tool for his administration. It also helps underscore the farcical nature of the narrative that Sammon and his fellow Fox executives use in pushing back against the network’s detractors.
“Fox’s defenders view such criticism as unfounded and politically biased,” Mayer writes, noting that in response to her inquiries, “Fox’s public-relations department offers numerous examples of its reporters and talk-show hosts challenging the Administration.”
This argument was never credible, but the network’s reinvention as state TV has rendered it utterly appalling. Everyone at Fox is complicit in what the network has become.
If you work at Fox News, you own this -- what @JaneMayerNYer is outlining here is so pervasive and deep-rooted that it cannot be explained away or compartmentalized. This is not a news network anymore: https://t.co/S7OrSWj2f5
— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) March 4, 2019
The Fox-Trump fusion that Mayer reveals -- the total breakdown of basic journalistic standards, the endless propagation of paranoid conspiracy theories bolstering Trump, the revolving door between network and White House, the Fox hosts advising the president by day and shilling for him on air by night -- came about while Wallace and company were collecting paychecks from the network. To the extent they may have wished to halt that slide, they were obviously unable to do so.
That's because Fox is -- by design, and to its core -- a right-wing propaganda apparatus that relies on misinformation, disinformation, and outright bigotry to promote the conservative movement and Republican Party. That is its business model and its political project. It also employs some reporters, who have little influence over the bulk of the network’s operations. The reporters may at times criticize the unwillingness of other Fox employees to follow basic media ethics, but to no avail; as Mayer points out, “many Fox News reporters were angry, and provided critical anonymous quotes to the media” after Sean Hannity appeared on stage at a Trump political rally, but Fox supported Hannity nonetheless. The network’s pro-Trump talkers provide Fox with an audience, ratings, and political heft, and so its executives will choose the Hannitys over the Wallaces every time.
The Wallaces nonetheless play important roles -- ones that are unique in the media.
At a normal outlet, journalists report out stories and try to break news. At Fox, on-air talent who roughly adhere to journalistic standards serve a very different purpose: They provide Fox’s PR team a fig leaf to point to when critics decry the network’s vile programming. When Hannity, Tucker Carlson, or Laura Ingraham get in trouble, Fox corporate can point to the likes of Wallace or Smith “challenging the Administration” as evidence that the network is more than a right-wing fever swamp.
Mayer highlights two examples of this phenomenon: Smith giving a monologue in which he “contradicted Trump’s scaremongering about immigrants,” and Wallace debunking one of the White House’s “wildly inaccurate” talking points during an interview with press secretary Sarah Sanders. Both instances garnered media attention precisely because they cut against the right-wing lies and smears typically seen on Fox programs with much bigger audiences.
That attention benefits Fox’s PR offensive: When clips like these go viral, they become examples the network’s team can highlight when they want to argue that Fox is not a monolithic pro-Trump apparatus. Fox keeps people like Wallace and Smith on the payroll not in spite of these types of segments, but because these segments burnish the Fox brand for journalists, advertisers, politicians, and other elites who don’t watch the network’s programming on a regular basis, more than making up for the hosts’ hefty salaries.
But these deviations from Fox’s norms are ultimately hollow. In effect, they are the new versions of former Fox host Megyn Kelly’s “Megyn moments,” bolstering the credibility of the hosts and their network, but without any broader impact on the trajectory of Fox’s programming. Smith may tell his audience that there is no immigrant “invasion,” but that doesn’t stop the network’s prime-time lineup from assuring its much larger audiences that there is one. Wallace can give Trump aides a hard time in his interviews, but those exchanges end up going viral everywhere except at Fox itself, which apparently prefers not to inform too many viewers about the administration’s false talking points.
As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple put it: “Nothing that Smith says during his Fox News program -- no matter how sick his burns on Trump might be -- neutralizes the impact of Dobbs or Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or dozens of other Fox talking heads. Nothing. Episodic truth-telling about Trump doesn’t excuse fulsome conspiracy-theorizing about Trump.”
Baier and, of late, MacCallum, are often included in these discussions, but they largely went unmentioned by Mayer. I find their typical inclusion in these discussions suspect. Both tend to avoid publicly criticizing their colleagues, unlike Smith and Wallace, and produce far fewer of these viral moments. Baier’s biggest story in recent years was his quickly debunked and largely retracted report, days before the 2016 election, that the FBI was conducting a “very high priority” investigation of “possible pay-for-play interaction” between Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation that would “likely” result in an indictment; more recently, he’s breached ethical norms by golfing with Trump. Meanwhile, MacCallum is every bit as pure an ideologue as anyone else on the network, using her show to claim that a border wall is “needed” to stop the immigrant “invasion” and declare that “both sides” were at fault during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, among other misdeeds.
It’s also telling that the network’s PR effort consistently focuses on these sorts of moments from Fox’s journalistically inclined anchors rather than major news stories that its reporters break. That’s because the dirty secret of Fox News’ “news” team is that the “news” team doesn’t break much news.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and a host of other news outlets have spent the last few years producing scoops at a furious, exhausting rate. What Fox scoops can you remember? Despite unparalleled access to the Trump administration and other Republican officials, the network has little to show for itself.
Instead, the Fox “news” team provides daily fodder for the network’s right-wing stars to opine about. Their role is to fill the network’s “news” hours with reports on whatever stories conservatives are panicking over that day -- Uranium One, Benghazi, migrant caravans, and the purported Justice Department conspiracy against Trump among them. They provide incremental stories, often sourced to Republican legislators, that advance the narratives with fresh details for the “opinion”-side hosts to freak out about.
Sammon himself is a key party to this dynamic. In 2010 and 2011, this top “news”-side figure became the subject of widespread criticism after Media Matters produced a series of reports showing how he had used his position to slant the network’s news coverage to the right -- including by claiming on air during the 2008 election that Barack Obama was advocating socialism, a charge he admitted he did not believe. Rather than firing Sammon for lying to its audience, Fox curtailed his on-air appearances but let him keep his senior job overseeing the network’s news coverage. Most recently, he was the point man in Fox’s effort to get the Democratic National Committee to let the network host a presidential primary debate, an attempt that ended Wednesday when the DNC announced that it would not partner with Fox in light of Mayer’s story.
Mayer points to two cases in which Fox considered taking a big swing at a major scoop. It’s instructive to consider them as a pair. First, during the 2016 presidential campaign, a FoxNews.com reporter put together the story that Trump had had a sexual relationship with the adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels and that a payoff and nondisclosure agreement had been arranged to prevent her from detailing the affair. Second, in 2017, a second FoxNews.com reporter developed a story suggesting that the murdered Democratic staffer Seth Rich, rather than Russian intelligence operatives, had stolen the DNC emails that were leaked during the campaign.
The former story, which would have been damaging to Trump, never ran. The latter, which benefited his claims that he had not been helped by Russia, did. The Rich story quickly unraveled, eventually forcing Fox to issue a retraction. The network also claimed it was conducting an internal investigation, but to this date no results have materialized and no employee held accountable.
That’s how things work at Fox. It’s long been a propaganda outlet, and now it’s merged with the White House. It is toxic, and no number of tough Wallace interviews or Smith viral monologues can redeem it.
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After several states promoted measures protecting abortion access, right-wing media not only spread an immense amount of misinformation about the efforts, but also lashed out at people who have had abortions, stigmatizing and denigrating them for making a personal health care decision. In particular, these outlets and media figures targeted people who have had abortions later in pregnancy -- by suggesting that they are heartless murderers, misrepresenting them as callous and irresponsible, and even calling them “satanic.”
The bills that instigated this outrage are far from radical: Democratic lawmakers in New York and Virginia were attempting to protect abortion access at the state level, not to legalize “infanticide” -- as some right-wing media alleged. Right-wing media seized on clips of Democratic Virginia lawmakers Rep. Kathy Tran and Gov. Ralph Northan alledgedly describing later abortion procedures, spurring the spread of further hyperbole and misinformation about proactive state abortion protection bills. In reality, these measures would legalize abortions later in pregnancy “when the fetus is not viable or a woman’s health is at risk,” a far cry from right-wing media’s allegations that such procedures (and the people who have or provide them) are “demonic.”
Here are just some of the examples of right-wing media misrepresenting people who have received abortions, a legal and sometimes necessary medical procedure:
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This post was updated on 2/5/19.
Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency and nominee to fill the job permanently, has lashed out at the media repeatedly in the last few days. The EPA's press office sent out three press releases on February 1 and another one on February 5 that criticized media outlets for their reporting or discussion of either Wheeler or the EPA's activities.
These latest attacks on journalists' work are not the first that the EPA press office has issued under Wheeler. In this, he's following in the footsteps of both his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, and his boss, President Donald Trump.
Wheeler testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at a confirmation hearing on January 16, and the committee voted along party lines to approve his nomination on February 5. Wheeler’s nomination will go before the full Senate soon.
In the meantime, Wheeler is not happy about getting what he perceives to be negative press about him or the agency he's leading.
On Friday morning, the EPA sent out a press release with this headline: "Huffington Post Report Filled with Biased and Misleading Claims." The release criticized a HuffPost article that reported that Murray Energy, the coal company that Wheeler used to lobby for, has ended its lobbying contract with Wheeler's old firm. The article noted that many of the policy changes Murray Energy has wanted to see have already been implemented at the EPA.
The EPA's press release listed a number of criticisms of the article, but it didn't demonstrate that the piece was incorrect. One complaint was that the article quoted someone from the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which the EPA dismissed as a "liberal interest group." Another bizarrely nitpicky gripe was about the grammatical construction of one sentence, which the EPA release claimed was intended to "trick the reader" into thinking Vice President Mike Pence was at a meeting with the head of Murray Energy. The sentence makes no such claim. HuffPost stands by its article.
On Friday evening, the EPA sent out another press release attacking a media report, this one with the subject line "E&E Publishes Hogwash Misleading Story." It criticized another article about Wheeler's former lobbying firm. The article, published by E&E News, reported that a former lobbying colleague of Wheeler met repeatedly with EPA officials about sites contaminated with toxic waste. The article drew from a batch of internal EPA emails and calendars that were recently released in the wake of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.
The press release did not note any factual errors in the E&E article, but rather criticized two sections that it called "misleading." The release also made the petty and unrelated claim that E&E had previously issued a correction to a story it published about Wheeler last year; in fact, it was a clarification, not a correction. "Clicks are more important than facts for E&E News," the EPA press release charged -- even though E&E News is a firewalled subscription news service, not one that relies on attracting a broad public audience for its reporting. E&E News stands by its story.
Also on Friday, the EPA published a press release attacking a comment made by a former Obama administration official on the Fox News program The Story with Martha MacCallum. Austan Goolsbee, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, said on the show that the EPA is changing rules to allow power plants to "dump more mercury into our drinking water." The EPA charged in its press release that it was an "outlandishly false claim" and disputed it on narrow grounds, saying that the agency has not changed a key rule governing mercury emissions from power plants. But as recent opinion pieces in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times explained in wonky detail, the EPA has been taking steps that could lead to more mercury pollution. The Times piece summed the situation up: "Wheeler is inviting the coal industry to challenge the mercury rule in court."
Then on Tuesday, the EPA press office issued an even more vituperative press release -- this one personally attacking a Politico reporter for an article she wrote headlined "Former Koch official runs EPA chemical research." She reported on how a former Koch Industries employee is now leading research that will help determine how the agency regulates PFAS chemicals that contaminate drinking water. EPA's press release was headlined "Politico Continues Misinformation Campaign on PFAS," and ended with a personal insult against the reporter: "It appears Annie Snider’s talents are best used for fundraising pieces for special interest groups rather than reporting any resemblance of the truth."
Wheeler may be feeling especially threatened by reporting on PFAS because the issue could disrupt his Senate confirmation. On February 4, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) threatened to hold up Wheeler's nomination unless the agency sets strict new rules for two types of PFAS. And 20 senators, including two Republicans, sent Wheeler a letter on February 1 calling for drinking-water limits on those same two chemicals.
These attacks echo ones the EPA press office launched last fall. On October 30, it sent out a press release with the headline "EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press." The release didn't name any media outlets, but it asserted that "recent media reports have inaccurately misrepresented the actions taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency" to address toxic air pollutants emitted by an industrial facility in Illinois.
On November 1, the press office got more aggressive, sending out a press release titled "Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report." It attacked an article on CNN's website that reported on an EPA move that would allow states to emit more ozone pollution, which leads to smog. CNN stood by its story -- and rightly so. John Walke, a clean air expert at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, explained in a detailed Twitter thread that the EPA was "wrong about all seven" of its accusations against CNN.
As more articles come out reporting on Wheeler's emails and calendars, thanks to that Sierra Club lawsuit, we could see the EPA sending out still more press releases attacking media outlets.
Note: The EPA press release about the HuffPost article mentions Media Matters and claims that we are "affiliated" with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Media Matters founder David Brock once served on the board of CREW, but he is no longer affiliated with the group. Media Matters had no involvement in the HuffPost article.
Right-wing media have manufactured a scandal about Democrats supporting bills that supposedly allow abortions up to moment of birth -- and beyond. Here are some of the anti-choice myths being pushed by right-wing media and the facts about laws protecting or expanding reproductive rights and access to abortion at the state level.
On January 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act that protects abortion in case the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and expands access to this essential form of health care. Despite the clear harm that New York’s previous law imposed on patients, right-wing and anti-abortion media have expressed outrage -- with Fox News leading the charge.
The Reproductive Health Act comprises several provisions, including the removal of abortion from the state’s criminal code. The part of the law that has irked Fox News (and broader right-wing media) the most involves a provision decriminalizing abortions after 24 weeks “when the fetus is not viable or a woman’s health is at risk.” Permitting abortions after this point was necessary because previously, “the law made self-induced abortions a misdemeanor crime, and made providing one a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.” Although right-wing media frequently scaremonger about later abortions, these procedures in reality are extremely rare and performed due to complicated personal and medical reasons. Before the Reproductive Health Act, New York patients needing medically necessary abortions after 24 weeks were forced to travel out of state, thus suffering both logistical and psychological burdens.
Fox News is no stranger to inaccurate and stigmatizing coverage of abortion and reproductive rights. As Media Matters has previously documented, Fox News not only covers abortion-related issues more frequently than other cable networks but also covers it in a highly inaccurate way. Coverage of the Reproductive Health Act has been no exception. Between January 22 and 29, Fox News’ coverage has used discussions of the law to revive allegations about abortion providers engaging in misconduct, promote anti-choice junk science about abortion procedures, attack Democrats as “extreme,” and employ sensationalized and stigmatizing language to vilify those who have abortions.
Fox News guests attacked the New York law as allowing misconduct by abortion providers, invoking and misleading about the case of former Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell. For example, during the January 25 edition of Fox News’ morning program Fox & Friends, guest and actor Dean Cain not only spread misinformation about Gosnell but also promoted a movie (starring himself) sensationalizing the Gosnell case. Later the same day, Cain appeared on Fox News' The Story with Martha MacCallum, where host MacCallum asked Cain about his movie that she claimed “highlighted the horror of the reality of late-term abortion, and the doctor who carried out so many of them.” Cain responded by not only promoting his movie, but also connecting Gosnell’s actions to the New York law, arguing that his crimes “may very well be legal under this new New York law.”
Gosnell is currently serving “three life terms in jail” for “first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies born alive at his rogue clinic, then stabbed with scissors.” There is no ambiguity about the illegality of Gosnell’s actions. But unlike right-wing and anti-abortion media’s allegations, Gosnell’s practices are in no way representative of abortion providers or abortion procedures in the United States. As MSNBC’s Irin Carmon wrote in 2013, Gosnell’s actions were not evidence of widespread malfeasance by abortion providers because it was his "willingness to break the law" that made many patients seek him out, believing “they had no alternative,” despite warnings from other reputable providers. Similarly, as Robin Marty explained in 2018, while there are a myriad distinctions between Gosnell and a “legitimate, trained abortion provider,” the restrictions imposed in the wake of his actions have very little to do with abortion safety. She wrote:
His clinic was unsanitary and dangerous for patients generally, and he was further known to provide better care and cleaner rooms for his white and higher-income clients than those who were poor, immigrant, or brown or black. He did so apparently under the assumption that his more privileged clients would report him to the health department, whereas those from marginalized communities would either be afraid to do so or — even worse — think that what they were receiving was exactly what they deserved. (Even so, he was reported to authorities, and the governmental agencies that failed to act on the complaints from his patients that would have exposed his crimes far earlier should be held to account for their negligence.)
Even with abortion legal in his state, Gosnell didn’t bother to operate by the rules; there’s little reason or history to believe that women would have been safer had abortion been illegal. Gosnell’s clinic was where patients went primarily when they thought they had no better options, or couldn’t afford a better clinic. They went there because he didn’t enforce the 24 hour wait mandated by the state. They went there because the anti-abortion protesters surrounding the reputable clinics in the city were so aggressive that they were afraid to enter.
As Marty summarized, “unsafe and unsanitary conditions in an exam room in which abortions are performed are not normal, but anti-abortion activists are invested in making the public believe they are.” This was exactly the issue at play during oral arguments in the 2016 Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which Texas’ Solicitor General Scott Keller defended an anti-choice law that imposed medically unnecessary and harmful restrictions under the guise of increasing patient safety, referencing the Gosnell case. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Texas, determining that there must be evidentiary support that a restriction is necessary to protect patient’s health, right-wing media -- and Fox News in particular -- were in lockstep with the state’s inaccurate talking points about Gosnell from the start. And if Fox News’ coverage of the New York law is any indication, little has changed since.
Right-wing media frequently spread misinformation and junk science about alleged abortion procedures -- and Fox News’ coverage of New York’s abortion law was no exception. Fox News and broader right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets have spent years misleading about abortion procedures, in particular focusing on invented procedures like so-called “partial-birth” abortion or invoking the inaccurate idea of “abortion on demand.” In reality, so-called “partial-birth” abortions and Fox News’ various iterations of “abortion on demand” are inaccurate -- but both concepts are strategically deployed to spread misinformation about medically necessary later abortions. In particular, the phrase “partial-birth” abortion was invented by anti-choice advocates as a mechanism to vilify and shame individuals who have later abortions.
But Fox News’ coverage of the Reproductive Health Act frequently used both of these terms to spread misinformation and shame about the law. For example, during the January 24 edition of The Story with Martha MacCallum, Fox News contributor Guy Benson argued that the New York law “permits abortion on demand, up to the seventh month of pregnancy, and really all the way up to the moment of birth, for virtually any reason whatsoever.” During the January 25 Fox & Friends interview with Dean Cain, guest co-host Ed Henry invoked the words of a conservative lawmaker about how “late-term abortion” is “partial-birth abortion” and akin to “infanticide,” implying that New York’s law could be characterized as such. In the same segment, co-host Ainsley Earhardt also claimed the law would legalize “abortion up until birth” -- a claim she repeated on January 28. On January 29, she claimed that the New York law allows her to be “nine months pregnant and [walk] into the hospital” and say, “I don’t want the child anymore.” In a similar segment on January 26, Fox & Friends Weekend guest co-host Katie Pavlich said that the “extreme” law would allow “abortions up until the due date.” Some, like Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy went even further, arguing inaccurately that “the baby can be born alive” under the New York law and a doctor could still “terminate it.”
Given how often Fox News and its various contributors spread misinformation and vitriol about abortion, these segments are unsurprising in both their frequency and content. And as more states propose bills that are similar to New York’s law, Fox News viewers will only see more of the same.
Unsurprisingly, Fox News has also used discussion of the New York law to attack Democrats for being too “extreme” in their positions on abortion. Some Fox News programs went even further by connecting the law to the machinations of a larger Democratic agenda. During the January 28 edition of Fox News’ Hannity, host Sean Hannity claimed the New York law was evidence that “every Democrat who wants to run for president is about to take that hard turn to appease what is now the radical, extreme, socialist Democratic party base.” He continued: “Viable lives can now be destroyed with the seal of New York -- and Andrew Cuomo and the New York legislature putting their seal of approval.”
This isn’t the first time that media have attempted to paint support for basic reproductive rights as “extreme.” In early 2017, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party,” advocating for the dubious idea that Democrats must sacrifice protecting abortion and reproductive rights in order to win voters. During the December 2017 special election of Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, right-wing media frequently alleged that he supported so-called “partial-birth” abortions or abortions up to the moment of birth, in order to prove that he was too “extreme” for Alabama voters. Fox News was particularly active in spreading this inaccurate narrative, with hosts and contributors alike alleging that Jones’ stance on abortion included promoting “abortion on demand,” claiming that he was “a person who supports abortion at every level” and parroting the idea that he wanted abortions to be performed “through all nine months of pregnancy.” This inaccurate framing also influenced coverage outside of the right-wing media sphere -- a trend that has been repeated with coverage of other political fights.
In 2018, media kept rehashing the allegation that support for abortion rights was harmful to the Democratic Party. Polling on abortion-related issues is notoriously complicated, requiring clear questions and language that accurately reflects the realities of abortion access and procedures. However, polling that takes such realities into account has demonstrated a wide degree of support for abortion rights and Roe v. Wade. Already in 2019, with candidates announcing their candidacy for president in 2020, this talking point is gaining steam -- with Fox News sure to be leading the charge.
During numerous Fox News segments about the Reproductive Health Act, the only thing more plentiful than the misinformation about the law was the stigmatizing language various hosts and guests used to describe abortion and those who have one.
Abortion stigma refers to an idea that abortion is inherently wrong or socially unacceptable, and it is reinforced (both intentionally and unintentionally) through media coverage, popular culture, and by a lack of accurate information about the procedure itself. In particular, right-wing media have capitalized on a lack of accurate public knowledge about abortion to demonize abortion providers and patients, as well as spread misinformation about abortion more broadly.
Fox News often uses stigmatizing language about abortions or about those who have them, but the network’s repeated commentary in the wake of the New York law demonstrated the rhetorical impact of this strategy. For example, Fox News host Sean Hannity on multiple occasions described the law as allowing “infanticide.” Other Fox News figures focused their indignation on the people who may need a later abortion, claiming that people are having “recreational” later abortions, or even inaccurately alleging that abortion is never “necessary for reproductive health.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham even went so far as to ask a guest on her program to explain how the law isn’t “Hitlerian” when, in her opinion, it would allow a baby to “be killed” when it “could be born.” In almost every segment about the New York law, a Fox News host or guest oscillated between outrage and disgust -- expressing disbelief and variations of the sentiment that they couldn’t “even believe that this is happening.”
Later abortion procedures are an important part of comprehensive reproductive health care. And if any of these Fox News figures had bothered to talk to, or even read an account from someone who has had a medically necessary later abortion, they might understand the reality of these decisions: Later abortions are usually of wanted pregnancies and are either not viable or pose a direct risk to the life or health of the pregnant person. Rather than spreading rampant misinformation about later abortions, and those who need them, Fox News might want to do some actual reporting and figure out the facts before devoting so much time to sensationalized and stigmatizing coverage.
Grace Bennett and Julie Tulbert contributed research for this piece.
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