Ryan Saavedra | Media Matters for America

Ryan Saavedra

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  • Debate moderators asked about abortion. Right-wing media reacted with predictable spin.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (6/28/19): This piece has been updated to include reactions to abortion-related comments during the July 27 debate.

    After moderators asked about abortion during the first 2020 Democratic primary election debate, right-wing and anti-abortion media demonstrated their commitment to the inaccurate talking point that candidates’ support for abortion access is “extreme.”

    During the June 26 debate, moderators asked several questions about abortion. Moderator Lester Holt initially asked former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro if he would “support some version of a government health care option” that would “cover abortion.” In addition, Holt asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) whether she would support “any limits on abortion.” Though not substantial, these questions are a slight improvement over the 2016 election cycle, when moderators often either failed to ask candidates about their positions on abortion or explicitly framed the abortion discussion around inaccurate right-wing talking points.

    Going forward, moderators can and should do more to ask the candidates specific and nuanced questions about abortion. However, even if they do, right-wing media’s response will seemingly remain the same: alleging that in their support for abortion rights, candidates are out of touch with voters, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Conservatives have already demonstrated that anti-abortion misinformation will be a core part of their messaging strategy in 2020. Since the beginning of the year, right-wing and anti-abortion media have been promoting the allegation that support for abortion access is “extreme” -- whether in discussing candidates’ positions or state laws attempting to codify or expand abortion rights.

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media reactions to the first Democratic debate were not much different. Here are some of the predictable attacks launched by right-wing media:

    1) Repeating the allegation that Democrats are “extreme” for supporting abortion access

    • The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway: 

    • Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen:
    • Anti-abortion group Priests for Life’s Bryan Kemper:
    • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh:
    • Anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America (SFLA):
    • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro:
    • Anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List):

    • A Twitter account managed by President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign team:

    2) Attacking Warren for allegedly avoiding an abortion question -- a common right-wing media claim about candidates’ abortion-related comments

    • National Review’s John McCormack:

    • The Washington Free Beacon alleged that Warren “did not directly answer a question at Wednesday night's Democratic primary debate about whether she'd support any abortion restrictions.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra:
    • SFLA:

    3) Attacking Castro for his answers about reproductive justice and trans-inclusive abortion care

    • Mollie Hemingway:
    • SBA List:
    • TheBlaze’s Jason Howerton:

    • Fox News’ Todd Starnes:
    • Right-wing and anti-abortion media also exploited the opportunity of the debate to use anti-trans language of "biological men" to misgender and demean trans folks. Following a comment from Castro about trans-inclusive abortion care (during which, many advocates noted, he misspoke or used inaccurate terminology), The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh tweeted, “Never forget that a Democratic politician on a national stage claimed that biological men can get pregnant.” And LifeNews.com's headline stated, “Julian Castro says biological men have the right to kill babies in abortion too.” The Gateway Pundit wrote, “Democrat candidate Julian Castro says biological men must be granted abortion rights.” BlazeTV’s Allie Beth Stuckey said, “People are saying Castro stood out the most last night. I didn’t see that at all. Maybe it happened after he said biological men could get pregnant and I turned the TV off.”

    During the second Democratic debate held on July 27, right-wing media and anti-abortion advocates continued to criticize candidates’ answers about abortion and similarly argued that candidates expressing support for abortion were “extreme.”

    Moderators during the second debate asked only one abortion-related question (with a follow-up question restating the initial premise). Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) what he would do as president if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Sanders discussed nominating judges who “will defend Roe” and additionally argued that his healthcare plan would ensure abortion access regardless of patients’ income. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also addressed the question and explained the harms of the Hyde Amendment, which restricts government funding of abortion services. Here are some of the additional attacks from right-wing media and anti-abortion advocates in response to these abortion-related comments from the debate:

    4) Attacking Sanders’ comments about the Supreme Court and characterizing his healthcare plan as “extreme” for ensuring abortion access

    • Anti-abortion organization National Right to Life:
    • The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra:
    • SBA List:
    • The Rubin Report’s Dave Rubin:
    • LifeNews.com:

    • SFLA:

    5) Berating Gillibrand for speaking to “America’s women” about abortion and current threats to abortion access

    • Townhall’s Guy Benson:
    • SBA List’s Mallory Quigley:

    • Abby Johnson, president of the anti-abortion organization And Then There Were None:
    • SBA List:

    Additional research by Chenay Arberry and Maddy Webb

  • Right-wing media push false narrative that Biden called for a “physical revolution”

    A bad-faith reading, an edited video, and a lot of cognitive dissonance helped stir up a new scandal

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The conservative media sphere has worked itself up into a frothy rage over a video in which Joe Biden supposedly calls for a “physical revolution.” Spoiler: Biden did not, in fact, call for a “physical revolution.”

    On Monday, the former vice president participated in the Poor People’s Campaign’s presidential forum in Washington, D.C. During a Q&A session, MSNBC’s Joy Reid asked Biden how he would advance any sort of legislative agenda as president, with the Senate run by a man who has already vowed to be the “Grim Reaper” for Democratic policies. He replied with a fairly boilerplate call for bipartisanship and use of the bully pulpit to unite people, arguing that there’s not exactly a better option:

    You’ve got to make it clear to Republicans that you understand that some things, there is a rationale for compromise. For example, when we did the Recovery Act -- Mr. President, as you may remember, at the State of the Union, said, “Joe will do the Recovery Act” -- $89 billion. And it was done without any waste or fraud -- 2% waste, fraud or abuse. Well, what happened there? We didn’t have the votes initially, so I went out and got -- I changed three Republican votes. You try to persuade. Doesn’t mean you can do it all the time. But it kept us from going into a depression.

    So folks, look, if you start off with the notion there is nothing you can do, then why don’t you all go home, then, man? Or let’s start a real, physical revolution if you are talking about it. Because we have to be able to change what we are doing within our system, because you talk about the creed -- we the people, we hold these truths self-evident -- we haven’t always lived up to that standard, but we’ve never fully abandoned it.

    A few hours later, The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra tweeted a 51-second clip of the exchange between Reid and Biden, edited so it could seem Biden was actually promoting revolution. And he connected that statement to an earlier comment in which Biden referred to dogged campaigning against obstructionists as a “brass knuckle fight.”

    But Saavedra’s video cut out some important context, and The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was in the room for this event, pushed back hard on Saavedra’s framing.

    “Biden didn’t ‘call for’ [revolution] at all,” Weigel wrote in response to a tweet by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). “He did the opposite: He told a crowd that it needed to ‘be able to change what we’re doing within our system,’ saying if they didn’t want that they must want ‘a real physical revolution.”

    But by then, it was too late and the claim was already circulating on the right. Saavedra’s edit left out the sentences immediately after the reference to “a brass knuckle fight,” in which Biden explained what exactly he meant by that: “What you do is when they say, ‘We’re not going to support you,’ you do what I did last time -- I went into 68 races in 22 states -- and they were not blue states. … You have to go out and beat these folks if they don’t agree with you, by making your case.”

    Similarly, by not including the portion immediately before the “physical revolution” part -- in which Biden talks about convincing people and winning votes -- Saavedra made it seem as though Biden might have been advocating for a violent conflict when he was trying to make the exact opposite point. 

    Twitter caps videos at two minutes, 20 seconds in length. Measuring from the beginning of his answer through the “physical revolution” comment, Biden spoke for 2:16, meaning that no edit to his words was necessary -- especially not one that cut essential context. In his write-up for The Daily Wire, headlined, “Biden Suggests Starting ‘Physical Revolution’ To Deal With Republicans,” Saavedra again omitted context in order to make it seem as though the “brass knuckle” comment was related to the reference to a “physical revolution”:

    "There are certain things where it just takes a brass knuckle fight," Biden continued, later adding: "Let’s start a real physical revolution if you’re talking about it."

    Saavedra, it should be noted, is no stranger to calls for violent revolution. In 2017, while he was a writer at Breitbart, Saavedra tweeted, “People think I’m kidding when I say this but the crusades need to come back.”

    Predictably, others in conservative media took a cue from Saavedra and pushed this false narrative hard.

    On Twitter, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson claimed that Biden “advocated” for revolution. Right-wing radio host Mark Levin tweeted, “Biden suggests ‘physical revolution’ aka violence and the Democratic Party-media snooze” (Donald Trump Jr. liked this tweet). Brandon Morse at RedState framed Biden’s remarks as advocating for a literal brass knuckle fight, adding, “In this day and age where Antifa may just show up at your door, no matter how you slice it, Biden’s words come off as threatening.”

    Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell used the occasion to label tech companies “hypocrites” for not banning Biden from their platforms over the out-of-context remarks.

    The chain of events leading to Saavedra’s tweet provides an interesting look at how news can trickle through the media before getting spit out as something totally different.

    U.S. News & World Report writer David Catanese was the first verified Twitter account to note the remark, which he highlighted while live-tweeting the event. He was followed by CNN’s Dan Merica and David Wright. Josh Feldman at Mediaite published a somewhat uncharitable but still accurate write-up of the appearance.

    Finally, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) weighed in with a tweet.

    Any one of those posts may have served as the genesis for the idea behind Saavedra’s edited video, or perhaps none of them did. But once that narrative was out in the world, others quickly latched on.

    There’s nothing new about these sorts of plucked-from-context bits of outrage bait pushed by people on the right.

    Last year, using another selectively edited clip, Saavedra was one of the driving forces behind an attempt to suggest that former Attorney General Eric Holder was advocating for Democrats to literally kick Republicans in comments about the fight against voter suppression. They ignored Holder’s later comment:

    Now, when I say, you know, “we kick ‘em,” I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal. But we’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to fight for the very things that John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, you know, all those folks gave to us. That stuff can be taken away. That’s what they want to do.

    This certainly won’t be the last time an otherwise mild quote from a 2020 candidate gets taken out of context and twisted. Journalists and audiences alike need to watch out for bad-faith smears that seem questionable to begin with. 

  • Right-wing media amplify absurd interpretation of something Rep. Ilhan Omar said about 9/11

    A majority of criticisms against Omar are being made in bad faith

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On March 23, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) spoke at an event put on by the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Woodland Hills, CA. The roughly 20-minute speech, which centered on some of the challenges American Muslims face such as anti-Muslim rhetoric, is attracting new attention weeks later for a line mentioning 9/11.

    In context, what she said was clear: No matter how “good” American Muslims are, they’ll continue to be treated as second-class citizens because of anti-Muslim attitudes and government policies that intensified in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. American Muslims are still treated with suspicion and subjected to undue scrutiny by the government and public alike. The argument Omar was making in her speech was very clearly about how unfair it is to be lumped in with terrorists and constantly stereotyped on the basis of faith. While saying this, she referred to the 9/11 hijackers as “some people.” When put in context, that choice of words was clearly meant to differentiate between terrorists and American Muslims. The controversy surrounding this line (in bold below) is based on misinterpreting what she said as downplaying the 9/11 attacks -- something that she never did.  Below is a partial transcript:

    The truth is you can go to school and be a good student. You can listen to your dad and mom and become a doctor. You can have that beautiful wedding that makes mom and dad happy. You can buy that beautiful house. But none of that stuff matters if you one day show up to the hospital and your wife, or maybe yourself, is having a baby, and you can’t have the access that you need because someone doesn’t recognize you as fully human.

    It doesn’t matter how good you were if you can’t have your prayer mat and take your 15-minute break to go pray in a country that was founded on religious liberty. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you one day find yourself in a school where other religions are talked about, but when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists. And if you say something, you are sent to the principal’s office. So to me, I say, raise hell; make people uncomfortable.

    Because here’s the truth -- here’s the truth: Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, “This person is looking at me strange. I am not comfortable with it. I am going to go talk to them and ask them why.” Because that is a right you have.

    A bad-faith reading of Omar’s speech sparked the latest in an increasingly long line of attacks on the congresswoman.

    On April 8, Imam Mohamad Tawhidi tweeted a 19-second clip from the speech, falsely stating that Omar doesn’t consider 9/11 a terrorist attack. He also called CAIR a “terrorist organization.”

    By the afternoon of April 9, right-wing media were all over this story, perhaps nudged on by tweets from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the latter of whom accused Omar of being “anti-American.”

    Breitbart, The Washington Times, and the Christian Broadcasting Network published articles about the video. The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, who called Omar an “idiot” earlier in the week, wrote that Omar “trivialized the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.” Conservative Review went so far as to baselessly suggest that Omar appeared “to be entertaining a conspiracy theory when she [said] that ‘some people did something.’” On the April 9 edition of The Glenn Beck Program, co-host Pat Gray commented on the clip, saying that Omar “makes American Muslims sound like the victims of 9/11. They weren’t.”

    During his April 9 Fox News show, Sean Hannity criticized Omar, referring to the “just unearthed” video. Describing the video as “unearthed” might give the impression that there was an attempt to hide it, but it was actually posted on YouTube, and Fox News even streamed it live on Facebook.

    On the April 10 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade questioned whether Omar was sufficiently American, saying, “Really? ‘Some people did something’? You have to wonder if she is an American first. ... Can you imagine if she was representing your community, and you were in her district, how embarrassed you must feel today.”

    Kilmeade continued: “This would’ve been an opportunity for a Muslim American to say, ‘Let me just tell you how Al Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab, and others don’t represent our religion and that maybe we got lumped in together.’” He also said that the U.S. is “trying to contain this infection which is Muslim extremists. Why she wouldn't use herself and her leadership position to separate the American Muslim from that school of thought is beyond me.”

    Obviously, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Omar to explain to an audience of Muslims at a Muslim advocacy organization fundraiser something they very obviously already know -- that they’re not the same as the 9/11 terrorists. Kilmeade didn’t let that stop him, however.

    This is the latest example of right-wing media willfully offering obtuse and sinister interpretations of something a Democrat said.

    Recently, the RNC published an 18-second clip of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) saying, “We need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system, and to have a pathway to citizenship.”

    A reasonable interpretation of what she said is that many undocumented immigrants pay into our systems as it is, and these productive members of society should have a right to pursue citizenship if they want to. The right-wing narrative, however, coalesced around an obviously false claim that she was suggesting giving Social Security money to undocumented immigrants.

    The same thing happened last year after a clip of former Attorney General Eric Holder was widely spread with the claim that he was calling for violence when he said “when they go low, we kick them,” even though he went on to very explicitly say what he meant by “kick.”

    In addition to being undercut by the context of the event, their argument against Omar’s speech is further demolished when you consider that President Donald Trump has a history of referring to terrorists as “losers” -- which Fox News defended at the time. The one real point they might have is that she misstated when CAIR was founded. The organization was founded in 1994, not after the 9/11 attacks.

    Update (4/11/19): Right-wing media continued their anti-Omar pile-on into the evening and morning after this piece was originally published. During the April 10 edition of Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs and guest Tammy Bruce laid into Omar for the “some people did something” line.

    “She sounds like she hates America, Tammy,” said Dobbs. “She sounds like she hates Jews; she hates Israelis. What is it she doesn’t hate?”

    Bruce then baselessly claimed that the line was intended to convey a belief that “we deserve, perhaps, what happened to us [on 9/11]. That those innocent victims deserve that in some fashion.”

    On April 11, the New York Post published a front page story based on the distorted comment accompanied by a photo of one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the headline “Here’s your something.” This, again, doesn’t fairly reflect what she said.

    The message of her speech was specifically that American Muslims often get unfairly lumped in with terrorists. On March 1, NBC reported that the West Virginia Republican Party allegedly set up an anti-Muslim display in the state capitol building. Among the items was a picture of the World Trade Center being hit by a plane with the words “‘Never forget’ - you said..” Below that was a photo of Omar with the text “I am the proof - you have forgotten.”

    In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant named Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested on drug and gun charges, and prosecutors found that he had been creating a hit list of prominent Democrats and journalists to attack. Omar was among the names. In early April, a Trump supporter named Patrick W. Carlineo was arrested for threatening to assassinate Omar.

    Ramping up anti-Omar sentiment based on a willful misreading of something she said will only put her in more danger.

  • What The Daily Wire gets wrong (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets right) about algorithms and racism

    “If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has become something of a pastime for conservative media since the rising Democratic star landed on their radar following her primary victory in late June 2018. Since then, they’ve rarely passed up an opportunity to pounce on gaffes -- real or imagined, big or small. A new attempt by The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra to catch the 29-year-old representative in an embarrassing situation has left him the subject of ridicule.  

    On January 21, Ocasio-Cortez sat with author Ta-Nehisi Coates for a wide-ranging conversation. During the talk, the freshman representative brought up the idea of bias being effectively built in to algorithms, specifically referring to facial recognition software.

    “They always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings. And those algorithms are still pegged to those -- to basic human assumptions,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re just automated. … If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Saavedra posted a video of this comment to Twitter, snarking that the congresswoman (whom he once called “dumb-dumb”) was wrong about algorithms being biased as they are “driven by math.”

    Ocasio-Cortez was right, Saavedra was wrong, and Twitter was quick to let him know. Naturally, he doubled down.

    When Parker Higgins, director of special projects at Freedom of the Press, pushed back on Saavedra’s initial claim, Saavedra called him a “moron,” pointing to a study about facial recognition software that happened to have the word “mathematical” in its title but didn’t mention bias.

    Saavedra came back to this point later that day in an article titled “AOC Snaps: World Could End In 12 Years, Algorithms Are Racist, Hyper-Success Is Bad.” The article plays on a number of anti-Ocasio-Cortez talking points -- increasingly embraced by conservative media -- that are aimed at painting her as uninformed and unqualified. Right-wing media have mocked her argument about the urgency of acting on climate change, and her comment about the world ending in 12 years was clearly exaggeration, but the most recent report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stressed that the next 12 years will play a pivotal role in determining whether we’ll be able to avert global climate disaster  

    As for her point about algorithms, the criticism against Saavedra wasn’t over the idea that math is involved in algorithms. Math is involved in much of what we do, from baking a pie to making change for a $20 bill. The criticism was that Saavedra seemed to incorrectly believe that because algorithms involve math, they can’t be racist or biased in some way. Yet just a few months ago, he was accusing social media companies of using algorithms that are biased against conservatives, a popular conspiracy theory on the right that is not supported by data.

    Racial bias in algorithms is a well-documented reality.

    Bias in algorithms should absolutely be taken seriously by policymakers -- especially as more of our economy becomes automated or relies on artificial intelligence.

    In July 2018, the ACLU published the results of a test it ran using Rekognition, Amazon’s facial-recognition technology, which has law enforcement applications. The ACLU ran photos of all members of Congress through the software, matching them up against a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. The results wrongly matched 28 members with photos from the database and showed a disproportionately high percentage of false matches for people of color. While they make up just 20 percent of Congress, people of color accounted for 39 percent of false matches. The stats confirmed the findings of a study that these technologies are simply less accurate on darker-skinned individuals.

    Here, the ACLU explains some of the real-life consequences algorithms-gone-wrong can have on people’s lives:

    If law enforcement is using Amazon Rekognition, it’s not hard to imagine a police officer getting a “match” indicating that a person has a previous concealed-weapon arrest, biasing the officer before an encounter even begins. Or an individual getting a knock on the door from law enforcement, and being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification.

    An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that. A recent incident in San Francisco provides a disturbing illustration of that risk. Police stopped a car, handcuffed an elderly Black woman and forced her to kneel at gunpoint — all because an automatic license plate reader improperly identified her car as a stolen vehicle.

    Safiya U. Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, explained to Media Matters in an email that Saavedra’s misconceptions about algorithms were actually pretty common. She wrote:

    Many people have been taught that math, computer science, and engineering are value-free, neutral, and objective; but the truth is that all kinds of values are imbued into the products and projects that are made by people who work in industries that use these disciplines. We now have decades of empirical research that show the many ways that technologies can be designed and deployed to discriminate, whether intentionally or not. It’s factually incorrect to assert that the technologies designed by people are value-free when we have so much evidence to the contrary. My own research reveals the ways that racism and sexism are reinforced in digital technologies, and what’s at stake when we are ignorant about these projects. I think [Ocasio-Cortez] is challenging us to understand that we need more public policy interventions, and she’s right.

    Technology is only as good as the people who create it. Each person has biases, both implicit and explicit. As Ocasio-Cortez noted during her conversation with Coates, if bias isn’t addressed at the development level, all algorithms will do is automate that bias, potentially making existing problems even worse.