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  • Right-wing media can't stop mis-citing a 2013 abortion study -- and other outlets are repeating the error

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As part of the escalating rhetoric surrounding abortions later in pregnancy, right-wing media and anti-abortion media have consistently -- and erroneously -- pointed to a 2013 study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health as a piece of “gotcha” evidence allegedly disproving arguments about the dangers of restricting later abortion access. The study doesn't support the purported argument about the frequency of later abortions; that hasn't stopped anti-abortion groups (which repeatedly argue that being "pro-life is pro-science") from touting it -- nor has it stopped other outlets from uncritically allowing or repeating these assertions.

    In 2013, Diana Greene Foster and Katrina Kimport authored a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (though it is sometimes inaccurately cited as a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a disclaimer at the bottom clarifies that “the views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute”). This study examined the potential impact of legislation banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and attempted to assess the reasons why someone would choose to have an abortion around that time period.

    This January, as state legislatures in New York and Virginia began considering measures to protect abortion access or to remove unnecessary anti-choice barriers, right-wing media continually cited this 2013 study out of context to allege that Democrats had an extreme position on later abortion access. In particular, anti-abortion and right-wing media have cherry-picked language from the introduction of the 2013 study as proof that third-trimester abortions are not performed due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. In reality, that is not the time period analyzed by the study and those reasons for seeking an abortion were explicitly excluded from its scope.

    The crux of this disingenuous allegation relies on a misinterpretation of a sentence in the study’s introduction stating that “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Right-wing and anti-abortion media have taken this sentence as evidence that few, if any, people seek abortion care in the third trimester due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. There are several issues with this interpretation.

    First, as the study’s co-author Foster confirmed on Twitter, the study “was about abortions at 20 weeks up to the end of the second trimester [around 27 weeks]. It has no relevance to third trimester abortions.” She continued, “My article was intended to increase understanding of the circumstances of women who have abortions after 20 weeks and within the second trimester,” however, “that doesn’t mean that women seeking abortions in the third trimester are just like those in the second trimester.” In addition to focusing on abortions in the second trimester, the 2013 study also explicitly excluded people who had abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality or dangers to the pregnant person’s life from the analysis altogether. As the authors wrote: “Our study has several important limitations. Our data are limited by the exclusion of women who sought later abortions on grounds of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Despite this, abortion opponents have alleged the study’s findings about common reasons why people seek abortion care -- “they were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous” -- were all evidence that pro-choice advocates’ claims about the medical necessity of access to third-trimester abortion care were inaccurate. In reality, there are many personal and medical reasons people choose to have abortions in the second and third trimester. As Foster further clarified to Rewire.News after a 2018 congressional report inaccurately referenced the study, “I wouldn’t state that fetal anomaly and life endangerment are a small minority of later abortions because nobody has statistics on this.”

    While right-wing media and anti-choice advocates have erroneously cited this study before, faux outrage spun up in reaction to state abortion measures spurred an uptick in the mischaracterizations and misuse of this study -- mischaracterizations that are now spurring inaccurate coverage from other outlets.

    After New York and Virginia’s abortion measures, anti-abortion and right-wing media cited the 2013 study to counter arguments about the necessity of later abortion access

    • Anti-abortion advocate Abby Johnson wrote in Townhall that the 2013 study showed “the most common reasons why women chose abortion late-term” and claimed that it refuted pro-choice claims that people need to be “able to terminate so late in their pregnancies because of fetal abnormalities.”
    • In February, Hillary Clinton tweeted that abortions later in pregnancy occur “almost always” because a pregnant person’s “health or life is at risk, or the pregnancy is no longer viable.” Townhall’s Lauretta Brown disagreed, claiming that “the Guttmacher Institute cited a study from 2013 that found ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • In a series of posts, National Review writers cited the 2013 study to question the necessity of Virginia’s abortion measure. The most explicit example came from senior writer David French, who opined:

    So, why do these babies die? The Guttmacher Institute has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion, and the reasons are chilling. First, the top-line finding is clear: “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Interestingly, even in some of the anecdotes chosen by Guttmacher, the women describe their decision to have a late-term abortion as “easy” or “very easy.” They didn’t find out they were pregnant until later in the pregnancy, didn’t want the child, and aborted it. Their only challenge was raising the money or finding the clinic. The thought that they were killing a viable infant — a person who would could be raised in a loving home if the mother didn’t want her child — apparently doesn’t factor into their decision-making. It’s treated as casually as an early-term abortion.

    This is the reality of late-term abortion in America.

    • The New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat cited the 2013 study on Twitter to claim “most third-trimester abortions are not performed for reasons of fetal or maternal health.”
    • The Federalist’s David Harsanyi:

    • The Federalist also published several articles incorrectly citing the 2013 study. Ben Domenech wrote that those “seeking 3rd trimester abortions” are not doing so “because of the non-viability of the fetus or fetal abnormalities.” Instead, he claimed, “A 2013 Guttmacher study – no friend of anti-abortion activists – found this was not the case at all.” In another article, Kenny Xu wrote that the 2013 study allegedly “revealed that out of 272 women surveyed who had received an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, none of them received it for any kind of clinical endangerment to the health of the mother.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh incorrectly cited the study and then tweeted about how it was further evidence that so-called “pro-aborts” are “damned dishonest” and “everything they say is a lie”:

    • Breitbart published two articles using the study to allege that “research does not support the common pro-abortion-rights narrative that late-term abortions are performed primarily in cases of ‘severe deformities’ or when the unborn baby is determined ‘non-viable,’” and to claim that it “found that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, tweeted that the “pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute” refuted pro-choice advocates’ “claims about ‘tragic’ circumstances of most/all late abortions” involving fetal abnormalities or the health of the pregnant person, again citing the 2013 study.
    • Micaiah Bilger of the anti-abortion media outlet LifeNews.com:

    • Bilger repeated this claim in an article for LifeNews.com, writing, “The truth is that many late-term abortions are elective.” The assertion was repeated in another LifeNews.com article and on the outlet’s Twitter account:

    • Anti-abortion group Live Action published a piece citing the study as evidence that pro-choice advocates were misrepresenting why people have abortions later in pregnancy:

    Abortion supporters will claim, “No one’s going to abort so late in pregnancy unless there’s something wrong with her or the ‘fetus’!” They’re wrong about that. A Guttmacher study points out the reasons why women seek “later” abortions — to use their terminology — and it’s not for the reasons they publicly claim. Instead researchers found that most “were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous.”

    No mention of the mother’s life or health being at risk, or of a fetal anomaly.

    • The Washington Examiner published a “fact check” of a CNN article about abortions later in pregnancy. However, the Examiner’s so-called “fact check” cited the 2013 study to allege that most people do not seek later abortions due to fetal abnormality or risks to the health of the pregnant person. An additional Examiner article said that the 2013 study actually showed “most late abortions are elective, and done for socio-economic reasons.”
    • Americans United For Life’s Catherine Glenn Foster used the 2013 study incorrectly in a thread on Twitter:

    A major anti-abortion movement “research” organization often uses this study erroneously to support inaccurate conclusions

    The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, and attempts to brand its members as impartial scientific experts, when in reality the organization has an explicit mission to oppose abortion access. Unfortunately, while right-wing media and anti-abortion groups often cite CLI to support inaccurate claims about abortion, other outlets sometimes rely on them without sufficient context or disclosure about the organization’s ideological purpose. CLI has adopted an inaccurate reading of the 2013 study to support anti-abortion positions, using it in both a “report” and “fact sheet” on their website. Although in each instance, CLI included a note that the 2013 study does have “significant” limitations, such as excluding those participants seeking an abortion for health risks or fetal abnormalities, both documents still inaccurately conclude that the study is an effective bludgeon for refuting arguments about the reasons people have abortions later in pregnancy.

    However, CLI’s Twitter account did not mention the potential “limitations” of the 2013 study, and instead repeatedly promoted it to further the popular misinterpretations of the findings:

    Other outlets have allowed anti-abortion advocates to erroneously cite this study

    As the hyperbolic “controversy” over the measures in New York and Virginia unfolded, The Atlantic and The Washington Post both gave right-wing misinformation about the 2013 study an uncritical platform in each outlet’s opinion section.

    The Atlantic published a piece by National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in which she wrote, “Research from the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute contradicts the claims that abortions after 20 weeks are most often necessary in heart-wrenching medical emergencies. One study summarized the available data as suggesting that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” A note on the piece stated that it was “updated to clarify that the claim quoted from the Guttmacher Institute study came from its survey of existing research, and was not a finding made by the study itself,” but failed to address DeSanctis’ inaccurate primary claim that she had mockingly pushed on Twitter as well:

    Similarly, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Bethany Mandel, where she said that “according to research from the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, ‘data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” Mandel also continued promoting this claim on Twitter:

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media will continue to erroneously cite this 2013 study, and it will likely be rehashed by anti-abortion lawmakers in any number of reports or hearings. Other outlets have a responsibility not to repeat this inaccurate characterization of the study -- or else they're helping abortion opponents spread further misinformation with potentially dire consequences.

  • Media outlets uncritically push Trump’s anti-abortion lies while reporting on the State of the Union

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Donald Trump’s presidency has created a requirement for outlets to hold themselves accountable for managing his often false and inflammatory rhetoric, by including context and accurate information about his statements directly in headlines and tweets, as well as supplying details in reports. Trump’s inaccurate claims about abortion during the 2019 State of the Union were a prime opportunity for media to provide important context -- an opportunity that some outlets missed, instead promoting Trump’s lies uncritically though headlines and social media.

    During his 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," claimed a Virginia bill would allow providers to "execute a baby after birth,"and 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 Roe v. Wade's abortion protections at the state level, and Virginia Democrats introduced a bill to remove unnecessary barriers to abortion access, which has since been tabled.

    Right-wing media have responded with an avalanche of inaccurate coverage and extreme rhetoric, including saying that abortions later in pregnancy are “murders” and that Democrats were endorsing “infanticide.” To be clear, neither of these claims has any basis 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. Right-wing media’s 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.” Indeed, as patients who have had abortions later in pregnancy wrote 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.”

    Here are the some of the outlets that reported Trump’s comments on abortion without providing this necessary context:

    • ABC’s World News Tonight [Twitter, 2/5/19]

    • NBC News [Twitter, 2/5/19]
    • The New York Times [Twitter, 2/5/19]

    • PBS NewsHour [Twitter, 2/5/19]

  • Anti-abortion groups will claim science is on their side during the March for Life. Media shouldn't let them.

    The Charlotte Lozier Institute is one such group, trying to push its anti-abortion activism as impartial research

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Anti-abortion groups will gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life protest on January 18 under this year’s theme, “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” which claims that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause.” This framing is an attempt by the anti-abortion movement to allege that scientific consensus supports anti-choice policies -- an effort shepherded in large part by the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List). Although CLI and SBA List attempt to portray the organization’s members as impartial scientific experts, media outlets should be wary when citing them given the explicit mission of both organizations to oppose abortion.

    For years, the anti-abortion movement and its allies in right-wing media have erroneously and frequently claimed that anti-choice arguments are supported by science. In fact, CLI was created as part of one such effort to frame anti-abortion research as impartial. Though other anti-choice groups often portray CLI as an independent nonprofit similar to the Guttmacher Institute (which was founded as an official arm of Planned Parenthood before becoming entirely independent), CLI is actually still operated as part of SBA List. CLI filed its federal 990 tax forms as the “Susan B Anthony List Education Fund” and even ran Facebook ads for SBA List during the 2018 midterm elections. CLI reported that its anti-abortion work involves putting “expert testimony before legislatures across the U.S.” by dispatching its associate scholars, as well as helping anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers with research to maximize the “outreach and effectiveness” of these fake health clinics.

    Most recently, SBA List and CLI attempted to push their anti-science agenda during a congressional oversight committee hearing on fetal tissue research. Although both of the witnesses called by Republicans were CLI representatives, only one of these affiliations was disclosed during the hearing. As the communications director for the committee’s ranking Democrat told ThinkProgress, "While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank," and Politico called the move “irregular … as lawmakers usually try to demonstrate broad support for a policy.”

    Despite being branded as the “research arm” of the anti-abortion movement, CLI “has so far produced little in the way of original research and data-gathering and has instead published more commentaries and analyses of others’ research that support its agenda on abortion and end-of-life issues," Rewire.News wrote in 2014. Little has changed since then. In 2018, CLI’s vice president published a study challenging the methodology of previous research showing recent increases in Texas’ maternal mortality rate. Another 2018 study by CLI’s vice president claimed that “Planned Parenthood has had a long-term and accelerating inflationary effect on the incidence and prevalence of abortion in the US.” SBA List summarized the research in a press release claiming that Planned Parenthood was “responsible for 3 Million+ ‘extra’ abortions” because Planned Parenthood’s rate of abortions hasn’t followed the same trend as other abortion providers. The rate CLI and SBA List identified likely has more to do with the rapid closure of independent abortion clinics than with Planned Parenthood performing “extra” abortions. Additionally, right-wing media outlets often publish pieces in which CLI associate scholars who lack backgrounds in scientific research claim to offer scientific analyses of reproductive rights issues.

    Despite CLI's obvious bias, mainstream media coverage in the past has presented the organization as a legitimate research institution. Before the 2018 March for Life, The Atlantic published a piece downplaying the group’s involvement with SBA List, describing CLI as “a relatively new D.C. think tank ... which employs a number of doctors and scholars on its staff” and merely “shares an office with Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life advocacy organization.” As a result of this whitewashing of CLI, Rewire.News listed the Atlantic article in its 2018 “Hall of Shame” for reporting on reproductive rights because it was “aiding in the deception” of the anti-abortion movement’s attempts to gain legitimacy. Other outlets have cited CLI without disclosing its role as an anti-abortion group -- a CNN story about the recent committee hearing offered no description of the organization, while The Birmingham News merely described it as “a Washington DC health think-tank.”

    Other recent media coverage has also given CLI a platform to present scientifically unsupported views on various abortion-related issues. For example, as part of the debate over the Trump administration’s push to end fetal tissue research, outlets such as ABC News, The Hill, and NPR each quoted CLI officials who claimed that fetal tissue research is obsolete or unnecessary when, in fact, such a view is unsupported by the larger scientific community. In another example, The Washington Post allowed CLI President Chuck Donovan to claim that the rate of abortions performed in the United States is declining in part because “pro-life views are more prevalent.” Donovan’s claim is unsupported by the actual research cited in the story.

    Groups like CLI and SBA List often point to media coverage like this as a way of validating their anti-choice viewpoints, further perpetuating the ruse that CLI members are impartial scientific experts worthy of citation. With the anti-abortion movement using this year’s March for Life to allege that “science” supports various anti-choice policies, media outlets have a responsibility to interrogate the qualifications and associations of their sources.

  • Media should avoid these traps in covering this year's March for Life

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN & MADELYN WEBB


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The annual anti-abortion March for Life will take place on January 18 this year

    Every year in January, anti-abortion groups and individuals gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life -- a series of events protesting the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion in the United States. This year, the January 18 march will celebrate the theme “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.” That theme echoes a common argument from anti-abortion groups that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause” including “that life begins at fertilization, or day one.”

    Last year, media coverage of the March for Life demonstrated that some outlets were unable to handle the necessary fact-checking or provide the needed context about the extreme history of many anti-abortion groups, the deceptive science behind many of their claims, and the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies. This year, media can learn from these mistakes before the annual protest kicks off.

    Three lessons media should learn from the coverage of the 2018 March for Life

    #1 Avoid whitewashing the extremism of anti-abortion groups and spokespeople

    During the 2018 March for Life, there were several examples of outlets whitewashing anti-abortion groups and spokespeople by downplaying these organization’s long histories of extreme rhetoric and activism.

    For example, leading up to the 2018 event, NPR highlighted two anti-abortion leaders -- Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, and Abby Johnson of And Then There Were None. In both reports, NPR failed to provide critical context about these anti-choice activists and the efforts of their organizations to oppose abortion access. In one piece, NPR asked Hawkins to comment on the status of various anti-choice movement priorities but failed to mention her long history of extreme comments about abortion, contraceptives, and more. These comments include her statement that certain forms of birth control should be illegal or are “carcinogenic” or “abortion-inducing,” as well as her claim that being an "abortion abolitionist" is "just like the slavery abolitionists." Similarly, NPR’s profile of Johnson and her organization focused on the group’s effort to “persuade as many [abortion clinic] workers as possible to leave the field.” Although NPR did note that the circumstances of Johnson’s departure from her own job at a clinic have been disputed by Planned Parenthood, the outlet did not substantively explain the details, which suggest there’s more to Johnson’s “conversion” story than meets the eye. NPR also didn’t explore the full spectrum of misinformation that Johnson regularly spreads about her former employer -- including the inaccurate claim that Planned Parenthood performs abortions on people who aren’t pregnant.

    Johnson is scheduled to speak during this year’s March for Life rally -- giving outlets ample opportunity to fact-check her inaccurate claims. In addition to Johnson, outlets must also avoid downplaying the extremism of other right-wing media and anti-abortion figures scheduled to speak during the event. These figures include Fox News commentator Alveda King and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, who will be recording an episode of his podcast before speaking at the rally on January 18.

    #2 Prevent anti-abortion groups from promoting junk science and unqualified “experts” to support anti-abortion policies

    During last year’s March for Life, outlets legitimized the false narrative of scientific support for anti-abortion policies by repeating unsubstantiated claims and manipulative terminology and by promoting so-called “scientific experts” without disclosing their ties to anti-choice organizations. For example, The Atlantic published an article the day before the 2018 March for Life quoting several representatives of the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) without noting that the group was founded by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) specifically to produce research supporting the anti-choice movement. Perhaps more concerning than CLI’s origins, the group is still operated as part of SBA List -- filing federal 990 tax forms as “The Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund.” The Atlantic’s failure to identify CLI’s ties to the wider anti-abortion movement earned the outlet a place in Rewire.News’ 2018 “Hall of Shame” for inaccurate or deceptive reporting on reproductive rights. Other outlets such as CNN and The Birmingham News have also made the mistake of either downplaying or omitting CLI’s affiliations when citing the anti-abortion group in reporting.

    Beyond failing to identify CLI’s anti-abortion affiliations in reporting, outlets have also continued to reiterate anti-abortion talking points and signal-boost partisan science. In March, The Associated Press published an article that repeated the discredited claim that there is a pathological link between having an abortion and developing “depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders.” In April, The Washington Post reported on a study that purported to show the effectiveness of a junk science anti-abortion procedure referred to as “abortion pill reversal,” but the journal that published the study was later forced to withdraw it after widely reported methodological concerns.

    The consequences of allowing anti-abortion junk science to go unchecked can already be seen in several states’ anti-choice laws. The unscientific concept of fetal pain was influential in passing an anti-abortion bill in Missouri, even though many medical experts have disputed the validity of the studies and claims used to support such laws. In other states like Ohio and Iowa, anti-abortion lawmakers are promoting bans on abortion as early as six weeks (before many people know they’re pregnant), on the grounds that abortion should be illegal if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat. Already in 2019, Kentucky lawmakers have proposed a similar ban -- despite previous arguments from doctors that such policies actually do more harm than good.

    Given the theme of this year’s march, media have a responsibility to accurately report on reproductive science and not to elevate pseudoscientific talking points from anti-abortion organizations without providing necessary context and pushback. In particular, media should:

    • Avoid using, or letting guests use, the phrase “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a medical term. Anti-abortion groups, in fact, invented the term to inspire shame and stigma. In reality, the term and the nonexistent medical practices to which it refers are a favorite right-wing and anti-choice media talking point when attacking access to later abortions.
    • Be skeptical of claims about so-called “post-abortion syndrome.” Although right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have long claimed that people experience regret or develop depression after having an abortion, the supposed evidence supporting such claims has been consistently refuted.
    • Provide ample context about the lack of evidence supporting so-called “abortion pill reversal,” an anti-choice medical procedure which supposedly allows a patient to reverse an abortion induced via pill. This procedure has been largely discredited as junk science, with one of the major studies supporting it having been pulled from a medical journal after ethical concerns were raised.
    • Identify and disclose the affiliations of Charlotte Lozier Institute’s “associate scholars” and staff. Given the theme of this year’s march, CLI will likely play a prominent role in promoting anti-abortion talking points and misinformation. Media have a responsibility to identify these so-called experts’ affiliation with an organization that has an explicit mission statement to eliminate “the scourges of abortion.” 

    #3 Avoid signal-boosting misinformation about the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies and positions

    During the 2018 March for Life, several outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. For example, in an article about the anti-abortion policies promoted by President Donald Trump’s administration, Politico shared a poll commissioned by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus to support the anti-choice argument that Americans want greater restrictions on abortion access. However, as MSNBC’s Irin Carmon has previous explained of the Knights of Columbus poll, a simple shift in phrasing or question style could substantially alter the findings:

    You could ask Americans if they want Roe v. Wade overturned, as the Pew Research Center did in 2013, and learn that 63 percent want to see it stand. Or you could ask Americans to choose between two vague statements, like the recent poll the Marist Institute for Public Opinion conducted for the Knights of Columbus, a group that opposes abortion. Asked to pick between “it is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn; or two, it is necessary for laws to choose to protect one and not the other,” 77 percent said it was possible to do everything. The policy implications of the first statement are unclear.

    Further examining this phenomenon, Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained that “the public has diverse views on abortion” that cannot neatly be categorized or assessed. In another piece for Vox, Tresa Undem, co-founder and partner at a public-opinion research firm, thoroughly explored how much of “the current polling fails at accurately measuring opinion on this complex issue.” For example, Undem wrote, even those “who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases” when polled about the legality of abortion expressed a higher level of support for abortion access when questioned about their “‘real life’ views on the issue”:

    Among people who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases, 71 percent said they would give support to a close friend or family member who had an abortion, 69 percent said they want the experience of having an abortion to be nonjudgmental, 66 percent said they want the experience to be supportive, 64 percent want the experience to be affordable, and 59 percent want the experience to be without added burdens.

    Additional polling by Undem’s firm, PerryUndem, has also found that most people believe that the decision to have an abortion should be made by a patient and their doctor (and, to a lesser extent, the larger medical community) -- and not by politicians.

    There will be no shortage of claims during this year’s March for Life about the supposed popularity of anti-abortion positions. Given the theme of this year’s march, media should be prepared to provide audiences with the necessary context about polls, organizations, and anti-abortion media personalities included in their reporting about the march. Media must avoid oversimplifying public opinion polling or repeating inaccurate talking points in ways that uplift anti-choice misinformation.

  • Free speech isn't just for pundits

    The pundit class vigorously defends its own First Amendment rights while other free-speech threats go overlooked

    Blog ››› ››› NOAH BERLATSKY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech." The text of the First Amendment is quite plain; no one's free speech, no matter who they are, should be threatened by the government.

    In practice, though, public discourse around the First Amendment often focuses on the free speech of people who speak the most -- pundits, journalists, politicians, academics. We see free speech as the prerogative of the chattering class. The result is that some of the people who most need their speech rights protected are silenced.

    One of the more recent media panics about free speech centered on CNN reporter Jim Acosta, whose White House press credentials were revoked in early November. Weeks later, and after his credentials were returned, Acosta's plight was still generating free-speech think pieces (like this one). And last April, conservative writer Kevin Williamson was hired and then quickly fired by The Atlantic because he said women should be hanged for getting abortions. The action unleashed a media firestorm. The Atlantic is not the government, and firing Williamson obviously did not violate the First Amendment. Nonetheless, as the New York Times said, the controversy “fell squarely into a burgeoning culture war over free speech,” with commentators insisting that his firing demonstrated “a crisis of free speech.” Bret Stephens in the Times said calls to fire Williamson were “illiberal,” and Williamson himself wrote multiple think pieces about how horribly silenced he was.

    Suggesting free speech is threatened because The Atlantic fired a columnist for saying ugly and inflammatory things is silly. But the White House retaliating against journalists is genuinely dangerous and worthy of outrage. Experts at the United Nations have warned that Trump’s attacks on reporters -- including encouraging chants of “CNN sucks” at rallies -- could lead to violence against reporters. The accused pipe bomber who sent explosives to Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and other critics of Donald Trump also appears to have targeted CNN. The threat to journalists is why, when Jim Acosta lost his press credentials, even right-wing, pro-Trump Fox News expressed its support for the CNN reporter. (Though Fox personalities attacked him.)

    Chattering-class free speech can be important. But it's telling that these controversies receive huge amounts of media attention, while threats to the free speech of people with smaller platforms -- and therefore more need for speech -- are given considerably less coverage. Threats to Jim Acosta and Kevin Williamson rally the class of people who are friends and colleagues with Jim Acosta and Kevin Williamson. Threats to people who do not have such friends and colleagues generate less attention and less outrage.

    For example, the media response to the Trump administration's decision to prosecute nearly 200 people arrested at the J20 Inauguration Day protest in 2017 -- including several journalists -- was muted. If taking away one reporter's press credentials is bad, then threatening journalists and dozens of protestors with decades in prison seems like it would have to be worse. Moreover, while Acosta's credentials were restored in less than three weeks, the J20 prosecutions dragged on for 18 months before all charges were dismissed.

    Yet mainstream pundits who cover free speech issues and were vocal about the first were oddly quiet about the second. CNN's weekly Reliable Sources program, which covers media and press issues, discussed Jim Acosta at length for three shows in a row in November. It provided no major coverage of the J20 prosecutions, even though the legal proceedings dragged on for a year and a half. And the show’s year-end wrapup of highs and lows for media in 2017 completely ignored the Trump administration’s prosecution of protestors, including journalists.The Atlantic followed the Jim Acosta story doggedly. In contrast, its only coverage of the J20 protests was a couple of articles about the government accessing IP addresses which mentioned the prosecution of participants in passing.

    Or consider the passage of SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) last April, around the same time that the Kevin Williamson firing touched off a frenzy of free-speech hand-wringing. SESTA makes websites legally responsible for hosting ads for sex work on their platforms, creating a hole in internet safe harbor laws. The law claimed to be directed against sex trafficking, but in fact its (predictable) effect has been to force consensual sex workers off platform after platform. Craigslist shut down its personals section; Reddit removed sex-worker-related subreddits. Sex-worker-run blog Tits and Sass shared anecdotal reports that pimps were taking advantage of the shuttering of online ad platforms to harass and exploit women who could no longer use the internet to vet clients. This is congruent with research showing that homicide rates for women drop when sex workers can find and suss out clients online.

    SESTA is an example of a restriction on free speech that literally gets people killed. But again, many mainstream pundits who write regularly about free speech issues didn't discuss it at all. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote a 4,000-word piece about the dangerous precedent of firing Kevin Williamson, hasn't written about SESTA.

    Perhaps the most glaring example of the way free speech concerns center the speaking class is the obsession with speech on college campuses. Even minor campus community conflicts involving professors quickly turn into national media feeding frenzies. As just one example, in summer of 2017, biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to Evergreen State College’s Day of Absence -- an event in which white students were asked to leave campus in a show of anti-racist solidarity. After confrontations with students, Weinstein went on Tucker Carlson’s far-right Fox News show, and the conflict metastasized. The New York Times’ Bari Weiss published an opinion piece on the incident, it was part of the evidence in a House subcommittee investigation of limitations on campus free speech, and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt devoted substantial space to it in their book about creeping campus intolerance, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

    Compare this outpouring of interest to the response to a recent controversy at Stateville Prison in Illinois. In March 2018, a prison debate club presented a demonstration debate about “parole opportunities for prisoners with lengthy or life sentences” to a number of state legislators. After that, the debate club was arbitrarily suspended, and the debate coach, Katrina Burlet, was barred from the prison. After one prisoner, Eugene Ross, spoke by phone to reporters at a press conference about the debate club, he was taken into solitary confinement as punishment, he said, and he was released only after journalists and others advocated on his behalf. The New York Times did not cover this story; there have as yet been no congressional hearings. 

    Of course, many people argue that colleges are important venues for the cultivation of ideas, and that intolerance at Evergreen is therefore a story with national resonance. But prisons are also national institutions, and government silencing of speech inside them has broad implications for police power and law enforcement policy, and for what “liberty” actually means in the country with the largest imprisoned population on earth. Inmates who try to talk about conditions in prisons can be threatened with solitary confinement, as Washington State prisoner Arthur Longworth was after he published a novel criticizing prison facilities. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow are banned from many prisons. Even if you think college campuses are very important, it’s hard to argue that the free speech rights of heterodox professors are really under more serious assault than the free speech rights of prisoners.

    So why is the chattering class so fascinated with the free speech of the chattering class, rather than with the free speech of everyone else? The question is its own answer. People with power and large platforms tend to identify with other people with power and large platforms. Pundits are more likely to speak on college campuses than they are to be imprisoned. Therefore they worry more about free speech on college campuses than about free speech behind bars. You could call this chattering class solidarity -- the voiceful tend to stick together. Efforts to silence pundits and brand-name reporters and college professors are very serious. Efforts to silence everyone else matter less.

    At the foundation of chattering class solidarity is the idea that free speech is mainly important because it allows the chattering class to chatter. Free speech discussions about Kevin Williamson, or Jim Acosta, or Bret Weinstein are centered on the idea that we need free speech so that we can have a vibrant marketplace of ideas in which important, smart people express important, smart thoughts, or report on the important doings of the powerful to which only they have access. “The great strength of American liberalism is its permeability, its openness to evidence and diverse perspectives,” Jonathan Chait argues. He is concerned about restrictions of free speech on campus, in particular, because the strength of liberalism is in its flowering of multiple ideas. Speech is free so that professors and lecturers can lecture and profess, reaching together toward a multifarious truth.

    But if you take your eyes off the chattering class, free speech is less about opining and more about claiming the right to exist. For sex workers, being allowed to speak and advertise on the internet is the difference between a reasonably safe living and the constant threat of violence. When prisoners' free speech is restricted (as it generally is) they have no way to describe the conditions they live under, or the abuses they suffer. When ICE arrests immigration activists, they aren't able to criticize the government policies that target them. Jim Acosta was briefly barred from the White House, but without free speech, marginalized people often disappear altogether.

    The chattering class needs free speech. But if we view free speech only as it relates to the chattering class, we miss the most important and damaging threats to speech. It's people with the least access who need solidarity the most. When we defend free speech only for the chattering class, the most important speech is left unprotected.

    Noah Berlatsky is a guest contributor to Media Matters. He is the author of Chattering Class War.

  • 2018 was marked by anti-abortion extremism, lies, and harassment

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Anti-abortion figures and right-wing media continued to push misinformation about reproductive health in 2018 and tried to insert abortion into nearly every major news story -- no matter how tenuous the connection. The past year also included ample efforts by anti-choice groups to influence federal policy under President Donald Trump, as well as several anti-abortion acts of harassment and violence. Here are some lowlights of anti-abortion extremism this year:

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media attempted to distract from various news stories by drawing inaccurate comparisons to or blaming abortion

    As the Trump presidency entered its second year, right-wing and anti-abortion media attempted to deflect from the administration’s various crises by drawing ridiculous comparisons to reproductive rights or blaming abortion.

    Parkland shooting and the gun-control debate


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    • After a February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, left 17 dead, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan compared the debate around gun violence prevention policies to calls from the anti-abortion movement to restrict access to abortions after 20 weeks. Noonan argued that lawmakers should “trade banning assault weapons for banning late-term abortion. Make illegal a killing machine and a killing procedure. In both cases the lives of children would be saved.”
    • LifeNews.com’s Steven Ertelt tweeted:
    • During a February 22 appearance on Fox News’ Fox News @ Night, Townhall's Guy Benson talked about the supposed media bias of outlets reporting on the NRA’s political donations but not covering donations from Planned Parenthood’s political arm.
    • Writing for Townhall, conservative blogger Erick Erickson also compared Planned Parenthood to the NRA, saying that “elite opinion makers in America champion Planned Parenthood, which actually does kill thousands of children each year, while savaging the National Rifle Association, which has never killed a child and whose members have actually saved others' lives.”
    • On the March 1 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson asked Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), “What would drive a 19-year-old to want to murder strangers?” In response, Duffy partly blamed abortion, saying, “We dehumanize life in those video games and in those movies, and with abortion.”
    • During the March 2 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham claimed that people should be angier about Planned Parenthood performing abortions than about the role that the NRA plays in facilitating easier access to firearms. Ingraham stated, “If we're going to judge people based on an organization’s blood spilled, well, I hope Planned Parenthood is going to lose all of its partnerships or affiliations given the fact that we have about 57 million babies who never got to see the light of day.”
    • During the March 4 edition of Fox News’ Fox and Friends Weekend, conservative radio host Kathy Barnette said that although the Parkland shooter “killed 17 little souls on that day, but Planned Parenthood kills over 800 babies on a daily basis, and where is the moral outrage on that?”

    Family separation policy


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    • On the June 18 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson attacked Democrats for opposing the Trump administration’s policy requiring the separation of immigrant children from their parents as they cross the U.S. border, saying that the “same people who support third-term, post-viability abortion for purposes of sex selection” were “lecturing” others about “the holiness of children.”
    • Rep. Steve King (R-IA) tweeted:
    • On Westwood One’s The Mark Levin Show, host Mark Levin said that “suddenly the Democrats care about children” after Trump’s family separation policy went into effect. Levin went on to claim inaccurately that “when it comes to abortion,” Democrats support it “right up to the last second. It can be eight months, 29 days, and they still support abortion.”
    • Anti-abortion outlet LifeNews.com responded to a tweet from Planned Parenthood saying children shouldn’t be separated from their parents by alleging that Planned Parenthood was “ignoring how its own practices permanently and violently separate children from their fathers and mothers” and that the organization “does that 876 times a day in abortions.”
    • An article on the website for CRTV’s Louder with Crowder claimed that Planned Parenthood “separates babies from mothers every day. With surgical brutality. These babies are not being stored in chain-linked cages, waiting for processing. Planned Parenthood stores their children in jars. A calvarium in one jar, legs in another. Parts shipped, and sold, separately.”
    • Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor posted this since-deleted tweet:

    Confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    • On September 16, The Washington Post published an exclusive interview with Christine Blasey Ford, sharing her previously anonymous account of being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were both in high school. On September 17, Erick Erickson wrote a post claiming that "the left" was amplifying her account as a tactic to keep abortion legal: “This entire thing is about the right to kill kids, not about the veracity of the accusation.” He continued, “The left is perfectly willing to destroy a man's reputation in order to keep destroying children,” adding that Democrats would use an “uncorroborated, single sourced, 35 year old claim … to protect the right to kill girls in utero.”
    • During the September 17 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson made a similar argument, claiming that Ford’s report came out only because Kavanaugh would likely be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. “Does anyone really believe this story would have surfaced if Brett Kavanaugh had pledged allegiance to Roe v. Wade?” he asked. “Of course it wouldn't have. … Whatever the story is, it's not about protecting women. Don't buy that spin.”
    • From the Washington Examiner:

    • Micaiah Bilger, who writes for anti-abortion outlet LifeNews.com, tweeted at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund account: “If allegations are enough to disqualify someone from something, shouldn't all the allegations against you, Planned Parenthood, disqualify you from getting half a billion of our tax dollars every year?”
    • Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue tweeted a link to a bizarre website that claimed Ford’s account was politically motivated because of the potential impact Kavanaugh’s confirmation would have on the production of a so-called abortion pill. This is a false claim attempting to conflate her research for a pharmaceutical company that developed mifepristone to treat hyperglycemia related to Cushing's syndrome with pills used in medication abortions:
    • On Fox & Friends, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera said that Ford’s motivation was “all about abortion” because “Kavanaugh is a pro-life guy and this is what it's all about.”
    • Right-wing site RedState argued: “The whole reason Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is in the crosshairs of a sexual assault allegation ... is because the left is 100 percent focused on making sure their ability to abort children and profit from it goes uninterrupted.”
    • Religious news site The Stream wrote, “The anti-Kavanaughs — i.e. the Left, the Democrats — could not care less whether he’s innocent or guilty.” Rather, “this is about abortion. It’s about the larger sexual ideology as well, but abortion first and foremost,” because “abortion is both sacrament and god” to those groups.

    Some right-wing media and anti-abortion groups pushed extremist narratives or engaged in harassment

    Harassment, extremism, and violence are not new tactics to the anti-abortion movement. But 2018 featured some particularly notable instances when anti-abortion groups and right-wing media engaged in perpetuating harmful misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme narratives about abortion, or fueled anti-abortion harassment:


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    • In January, the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue started signal-boosting a series of posts targeting Planned Parenthood originating from a far-right message board on 8chan as the organization began delving into the QAnon conspiracy theory. The group leaders Troy Newman and Cheryl Sullenger -- the latter having served time for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic -- further slid into full embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theory over the course of the year.
    • The founders of a group connected to Operation Rescue, Abortion Free New Mexico, also started promoting QAnon-related conspiracies, which the outlet New Mexico Political Report called “a concerning shift in focus and organizing, contradicting their stated goals of non-violence and inclusive outreach.”


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    • In March, National Review writer Kevin Williamson was hired by The Atlantic even though Williamson had previously expressed misogynistic and homophobic viewpoints. Among these was his statement that “women who have had abortions should face capital punishment, namely hanging.” After initially defending Williamson’s hiring as an exercise in ideological diversity, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced in April that the outlet was “parting ways” with Williamson. In particular, Goldberg noted that Williamson’s doubling down on his argument that those who have had abortions should be hanged -- made in a podcast uncovered by Media Matters the day before Williamson’s firing -- “runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”
    • On June 1, right-wing outlet Infowars livestreamed a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic the day after the anniversary of the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. This stunt continued a long line of right-wing media fostering or encouraging anti-abortion harassment, including the 2015 Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter who had a penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars.
    • In November, right-wing media and anti-abortion figures had a tantrum over what they called a "horrible new ad” attributed to Planned Parenthood -- despite the so-called ad actually being a 2015 video from a political action committee, not Planned Parenthood. However, as conservative figures continued to express disgust, people on social media started to make threats of violence against the health care organization citing shares of the 2015 video online.

    Right-wing media celebrated the Supreme Court giving a boost to anti-abortion fake health clinics

    Fake health clinics (also known as anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers) engage in deception and manipulation in their advertising and interactions with clients with the goal of stopping that person from accessing an abortion. This year, fake health clinics were front and center at the Supreme Court in a case called National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the NIFLA, stopping the implementation of a California law designed to deter some of the manipulative practices of these fake health clinics. Right-wing media celebrated the decision as a “win” for free speech:


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    • National Review’s editors lamented that the vote was only 5-4, writing that it “should not have been a narrow one,” and that the closeness occurred because “four of the Court’s justices were so hell-bent on promoting the manufactured right to abortion that they were prepared to jettison” the right to free speech. The editors called the California law “an obvious and malicious violation of the First Amendment” and argued that it was “perhaps the best example of the rapidly growing extremism of the abortion-rights movement.”
    • National Review's Alexandra DeSanctis:
    • The Catholic Association’s Andrea Picciotti-Bayer wrote an op-ed for Fox News arguing that the decision “vindicates women and the pregnancy centers who help them” because “the most important service found at a pregnancy center is caring.”
    • In a Newsmax article titled “SCOTUS Gives America a Free Speech, Pro-Life Birthday Gift,” Priests for Life National Director Frank Pavone celebrated the NIFLA decision as “a victory to the fundamental rights which America promised to guarantee at its inception.”
    • Alliance Defending Freedom’s Jessica Prol Smith wrote for The Federalist that "even Americans who call themselves ‘pro choice’ can celebrate this court’s decision to protect authentic options and protect freedom for a woman to choose motherhood.”

    Anti-abortion groups continued to push misinformation about abortion and to allege that they were being censored to rally support and raise money

    Anti-abortion groups continued to promote misinformation on reproductive rights and to use claims that they were being censored by social media companies and news outlets as a tactic to rally support and raise money:


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    • In honor of the annual anti-abortion rally the March for Life, right-wing outlets published several articles claiming that the anti-choice movement has science on its side. For example, Fox News’ opinion page published an article by Lauren DeBellis Appell about the March for Life that praised the anti-abortion movement and said it was “winning” in the United States because of technological advancements, including ultrasounds. Christianity Today similarly quoted Denise Harle, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, as saying that “science and technology are on our side” specifically in the context of the myth that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. As The Atlantic noted in a January 18 piece, the anti-abortion movement’s embrace of science could be seen as a “dramatic reversal” because “pro-choice activists have long claimed science for their own side.” Demonstrating support for this view among anti-abortion groups, the January 18 article was picked up by organizations such as the March for Life, Democrats for Life, and the Charlotte Lozier Institute. The March for Life rally adopted the idea that “pro-life is pro-science” as part of its official theme for 2019.
    • Anti-abortion outlet LifeSiteNews asked for donations in light of supposed censorship by social media companies. The site posted in March 2018 about the “surprising and disturbing reason why LifeSite’s Spring campaign is struggling.” The reason, according to LifeSiteNews, “is an almost declared war by the globalist social media giants – Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube against websites, blogs and individuals who promote conservative views.” LifeSiteNews pleaded to its readers, writing, “To those of you who were not blocked from reading this letter, we are depending on you much more than normal to help us to reach our goal.” Unsurprisingly, the outlet provided zero evidence of the censorship it was allegedly experiencing.
    • Following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April 2018, anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) emailed supporters to detail instances where the group claimed to have been censored by social media companies. SBA List then asked supporters to “please make a generous donation of $250 to help win the fight against pro-abortion Silicon Valley elites!”
    • On October 24, SBA List tweeted that Facebook was “censoring” the organization because it had pulled two of its 2018 midterm elections ads which urged people to “vote pro-life” and to oppose a candidate who allegedly “supports painful late-term abortions.” After the ads were pulled, the group sent out a fundraising email asking people to “Please RUSH a contribution … to help us fight back and get this ad in front of voters in key swing-states DESPITE the ongoing censorship of pro-life voices by the abortion lobby.” SBA List also tweeted that “deleting these ads just weeks before the midterm elections advances the pro-abortion argument" and again claimed that “censoring a #prolife ad that respectfully exposes the brutality of late abortions” meant that Facebook was “publicly taking a stand that they SUPPORT painful late-term abortions of VIABLE children.”


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    • A 12-month-long Media Matters study of evening cable news programs found that Fox News dominated discussions of abortion and reproductive rights, but the network’s coverage was wrong 77 percent of the time about four common abortion-related topics: the discredited anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and so-called extreme abortion procedures.
    • On One America News Network’s Tipping Point with Liz Wheeler, host Liz Wheeler frequently alleged that liberals were ignoring right-wing anti-abortion conspiracy theories about Planned Parenthood misusing federal funds, supposedly promoting abortion for profit, or engaging in the cover-up of sexual abuse of minors.

    Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services continued to be a hot bed for anti-abortion groups and misinformation

    Last year, Media Matters documented how Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was filled with appointees promoting anti-choice “alternative science” about contraception and abortion. While some of those people have moved to other areas of the administration or just moved on, Trump’s HHS has continued to employ and promote the work of anti-abortion movement darlings in 2018:

    • In January, Politico reported that people like Roger Severino, the head of the Office of Civil Rights in HHS, and Shannon Royce, the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, are part of “a small cadre of politically prominent religious activists inside” HHS who “have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care — a strategy that's taking shape in a series of policy moves that took even their own staff by surprise.” Royce used to be chief of staff and chief operations officer at the anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council and had previously promoted harmful “ex-gay” conversion therapy.
    • Scott Lloyd became known for denying abortion care to unaccompanied immigrant teens in his custody as the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Lloyd left his position at ORR in November, but he still works with HHS as part of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives and is also planning to write an anti-abortion book. Before his move, Lloyd had reportedly inquired whether a teenager in HHS custody could have her abortion “reversed,” an anti-abortion scam that is not based in science. According to The New York Times, Lloyd also kept a weekly spreadsheet of the “unaccompanied minors who have asked” for an abortion, with information about “how far along” their pregnancy was during his time at ORR. Lloyd was also responsible for slowing down the release of detained children under Trump’s family separation policy as he decided “to personally review requests” for “hundreds of kids.” This resulted in detained children spending “extra time in the jail-like facilities, which have been associated with far more allegations of abuse and mistreatment than the shelters and homestays that hold most of the children in ORR custody.”
    • In May 2018, Diana Foley became deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Population Affairs, which oversees the Title X family planning program. As Rewire.News noted, Foley had “served as the president and CEO of Life Network, which, according to its website, promotes ‘life-affirming alternatives to abortion’ and operates two anti-choice clinics.” Beyond this, Foley had also given a 2016 presentation in which she expressed support for the discredited idea that people pathologically experience emotional and physical difficulties as a direct result of having an abortion.
    • In 2018, Steven Valentine became the chief of staff for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. As Rewire.News reported, Valentine served as SBA List’s interim legislative director where he actively worked to draft and pass anti-abortion legislation. His brother Billy Valentine still works for SBA List as the organization’s vice president of public policy.
    • Before Matthew Bowman became deputy general counsel at HHS in 2018, he worked for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) as part of the organization’s team “litigating some of ADF’s most prominent religious imposition cases.” Rewire.News wrote that during these cases, “Bowman repeatedly promoted the false claim that intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives cause abortions. His distaste for ensuring access to contraceptives extended to writing a January 2015 post for the conservative site TownHall.com with the headline: ‘How the contraception mandate may spread measles.’”

    Anti-abortion violence and harassment continued against abortion providers and clinics

    Every year, the National Abortion Federation releases a report documenting the previous years’ incidents of anti-abortion harassment and violence against providers, patients, and clinics. This year’s report found that “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017. We also continued to see an increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions, and had the first attempted bombing in many years.” The harassment of abortion providers, clinics, and supporters continued in 2018:


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    • In February, a man crashed a stolen vehicle into a Planned Parenthood in New Jersey “injuring a pregnant woman and two others.” According to prosecutors, the man had begun “researching the locations of Planned Parenthood clinics more than a year before.” He was later charged with terrorism, but pleaded not guilty.
    • Flip Benham, the former head of anti-abortion extremist group Operation Save America, was arrested in North Carolina and “charged with communicating threats” outside of a clinic in Charlotte, according to The Charlotte Observer.
    • In March, a man in West Virginia was “charged with making threats on Facebook against the Pittsburgh office of Planned Parenthood,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before the alleged threats, he had written on Facebook “that his girlfriend got an abortion against his wishes in 2010. He said he found out who the clinicians were who aborted his child and said he knew five houses where he could steal an AR-15.”
    • A man suspected of setting off a series of bombs in Austin, TX, was reported to have “previously wrote online that he was opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.”
    • A Planned Parenthood in San Diego was vandalized twice in six weeks.
    • In April, a man who crashed his car into barriers outside of a Planned Parenthood in Seattle was “charged for the assault and the damage but not for targeting the provider of women’s health services,” though he told police in an interview, “Damn right … I blew up Planned Parenthood...Blew Planned Parenthood the fuck up.”
    • A man in New Hampshire pleaded guilty “to leaving a 9 mm bullet at a Beverly medical office where his girlfriend had just terminated a pregnancy.” He told police, “I left the bullet there because they killed my baby."
    • A Planned Parenthood clinic in California closed because a partner organization “received ‘hostile communications’ from anti-Planned Parenthood activists.”
    • Abortion clinics in California and Iowa sustained property damage from targeted actions. In July, a Planned Parenthood in California was set on fire and caused “moderate damage” before being put out. In September, a man was arrested “after allegedly grabbing a log and throwing it at a window of an abortion clinic” in Iowa.
    • A man who was a “self-proclaimed misogynist,” according to BuzzFeed News, killed two women at a yoga studio in Florida in November. In a series of videos he had posted in the years before the attack, “he said that he resented having to subsidize as a taxpayer ‘the casual sex lives of slutty girls’ through the Affordable Care Act’s contraception provisions.”
    • In December, a man was charged with threatening “to murder a United States official” after he left death threats in a voicemail with an unidentified female U.S. Senator’s office. According to Newsweek, the man “became ‘very angry’ after watching online video clips of the senator discussing reproductive rights and criticizing Trump.”
  • Big Oil is spending massive amounts on Facebook and TV ads to kill a climate ballot measure in Washington state

    The No on 1631 campaign is running 71 different ads on Facebook and blanketing the airwaves with TV commercials

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Washington could become the first state in the nation to place a fee on carbon emissions from polluters. Voters will decide next week on Initiative 1631, a ballot measure that would have the state collect money from the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and use it to fund a variety of environmental and clean energy programs. In response, major oil companies and industry-funded think tanks have launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to blanket the internet and airwaves with distortions and misinformation intended to erode support for I-1631.

    After a carbon tax bill failed to pass the state legislature earlier this year, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy assembled possibly one of the broadest and most diverse coalitions ever to get a carbon fee on the November ballot, including more than 200 clean energy and environmental groups, labor unions, community-of-color groups, tribal nations, and others. The diversity of this coalition is no veneer. Unlike previous attempts to pass a carbon price in Washington, I-1631 was developed around the principles of environmental justice, community health, and public oversight, and grassroots organizing was pivotal to getting it on the ballot.

    The coalition’s initiative would impose a carbon fee on major polluters that would start at $15 per metric ton in 2020 and gradually increase over time. The fees collected, which are projected to amount to $1 billion in the first year and $2.3 billion over five years, would be used to implement clean energy and efficiency projects, assist low-income communities’ transition to a clean energy economy, reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector, and increase awareness of climate change and its impacts, among other programs.

    Despite the failure of carbon tax Initiative 732 in November 2016, a poll taken after its defeat found that 67 percent of voters supported I-732 or “a better measure” to address climate change. As support for a new and improved ballot initiative began coalescing this spring, the oil industry was watching -- secure in having stopped federal action on carbon pricing, but afraid of the domino effect if states like Washington start implementing their own climate policies.  

    The No on 1631 astroturf campaign ramps up

    The industry-backed campaign to stop I-1631 commenced modestly at first, with the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) forming the No on 1631 political action committee (PAC) in April. WSPA is a trade association that works on behalf of some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. The No on 1631 PAC initially received five-figure donations from BP, Chevron, Phillips 66, Shell, Andeavor, and U.S. Oil & Refining Company. Then far greater sums poured in throughout the summer and fall. As of November 2, No on 1631 had received more than $31.5 million, almost all of which came from out-of-state oil companies. The PAC’s top 10 funders are:

    1. BP America:  $12,896,031
    2. Phillips 66:  $7,201,187
    3. Andeavor:  $4,362,827
    4. Andeavor LLC (Marathon Petroleum Corp.):  $1,700,000
    5. American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers:  $1,250,000
    6. Valero Energy Corporation:  $995,000
    7. Koch Industries, Inc.:  $950,000
    8. U.S. Oil & Refining Company:  $558,531
    9. Chevron U.S.A., Inc.:  $500,000
    10. PBF Energy, Inc.:  $400,000

    The competing PAC that is supporting I-1631 has only raised about half as much -- $15.6 million -- and its money has come from a wider variety of sources, including environmental groups and individuals in Washington state, like Bill Gates, as well as from out of state, like Michael Bloomberg.

    Unprecedented spending fuels advertising blitz

    The unprecedented tens of millions of dollars Big Oil has poured into the "no" campaign have allowed it to blanket social media and local television airwaves with anti-1631 propaganda.

    Over just the two-week period from October 16 to October 29, the No on 1631 PAC spent more than $1.1 million on digital advertising. Most of this money seems to have been gone to Facebook advertising. As of November 1, No on 1631 was running 71 Facebook ads, which have garnered millions of impressions. Most of the ads feature the No on 1631 logo with a single, misleading talking point and a link to the PAC’s website. To implement its online media strategy, No on 1631 retained the agency BASK Digital Media, which has worked for a number of other conservative groups and campaigns this year, and marketing and advertising firm Target Enterprises, which has also done millions of dollars of work for Republican candidates and conservative groups this election cycle.

    No on 1631 is spending big on TV ads too. During the two-week period from October 16 to October 29, it paid Target Enterprises about $6.2 million for broadcast and cable/satellite advertising. Its ads have run on at least 20 television stations throughout the state. And it has spent $2.1 million on direct mail during the same period.

    The No on 1631 PAC has also run a letter-to-the-editor campaign and helped place anti-1631 op-eds in newspapers across the state. Some anti-1631 op-eds have been written by Todd Myers, a longtime industry shill who is currently the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, a Koch-funded conservative group. As one of the most vocal opponents of I-1631, Myers has given multiple media interviews, been cited in other anti-1631 pieces, and debated environmental advocates over the initiative.  

    A number of other right-wing groups, some of them funded by or linked to the Koch brothers' network, are also fighting against the initiative, either as part of the main "no" campaign or independently, including the Association of Washington Business and the National Federation of Independent Business.

    Potentially millions exposed to Big Oil’s distortion campaign

    Hundreds of thousands or even millions of people may have viewed the "no" campaign's TV and Facebook ads, which range from disingenuous to outright dishonest. Many of the talking points in these ads come from a Washington Policy Center report that has also been promoted by the Association of Washington Business and other groups opposed to I-1631.

    One such ad features small-business owner Sabrina Jones, who tells viewers that I-1631 “exempts many of the state’s largest polluters.” A fact check by KING 5 News found the ad failed to mention that the TransAlta coal plant, the primary exempted facility, is already scheduled to close permanently in 2025, thanks to a deal previously reached with the state government. As The Atlantic reported, additional regulation of the plant would delay its closure date.

    In No on 1631’s most-aired commercial, former state Attorney General Rob McKenna blasts the initiative while failing to disclose that his law firm represents Chevron, a major funder of the "no" campaign. McKenna misleads viewers about I-1631’s expected impacts on residents, citing a state government report that projects $2.3 billion in fees will be collected from polluters over five years and misrepresenting that figure as meaning Washington residents will pay $2.3 billion in higher costs -- a vastly overstated claim, even if polluters try to pass along all of their costs to the public.

    Most recently, the No on 1631 campaign has been aiming disinformation directly at the Latino community. According to Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, “No on 1631 sent out a mailed advertisement to Spanish speakers across Washington state. It contained a list of Latino businesses who were opposed to the carbon fee, who were in favor of No on 1631. Most of those businesses had no idea their names were on that list.” Some of those businesses expressed anger after finding out about the mailer, according to an environmental justice activist.

    Will voters be swayed by Big Oil's propaganda?

    The oil industry's donations and the "no" media campaign have both ramped up in recent weeks, likely spurred at least in part by an early October poll that found 50 percent of voters supported I-1631, while 36 percent opposed it and 14 percent were undecided. Big Oil is desperate to stop Washington from becoming an example of successful, grassroots climate action.

  • As Kavanaugh faces first hearings, anti-LGBTQ groups are trying to overturn protections from conversion therapy in courts

    The same anti-LGBTQ groups who have heavily endorsed Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court are clamouring at the possibility of overturning protections for LGBTQ people from conversion therapy

    Blog ››› ››› BRIANNA JANUARY & BRENNAN SUEN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters 

    As Judge Brett Kavanaugh faces confirmation hearings to become the next Supreme Court justice, the same anti-LGBTQ groups who have heavily endorsed him are also pushing cases through the courts to overturn measures protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is a harmful and discredited practice that seeks to change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These groups have seized on a June Supreme Court decision that may signal a shift in how the court handles communications in professional settings -- such as in therapists’ offices or clinics offering even limited health care services -- that have otherwise been regulated, claiming that those communications would be protected under the First Amendment. They argue that the decision suggests that regulating mental health professionals from subjecting LGBTQ people to a harmful practice like conversion therapy would be ruled unconstitutional because it would be imposing limits on “professional speech.” Media should consider these cases and a lack of transparency on Kavanaugh’s record on LGBTQ issues as he faces his hearing.

    Senate hearings begin for Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court

    Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings began on September 4 after LGBTQ advocates raised numerous concerns about how the court would rule on future LGBTQ cases if he is confirmed. There are many open questions about his record on LGBTQ issues, including his involvement with debates around “same-sex marriage, non-discrimination protections, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his time as President George W. Bush’s White House staff secretary. Senate Republicans had long blocked access to records from Kavanaugh’s time as staff secretary, and LGBTQ legal organization Lambda Legal filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents from that time to determine what role he played in anti-LGBTQ initiatives that the Bush White House supported. Just hours before hearings began, Bush's former lawyer "turned over 42,000 pages of documents from the nominee's service in the Bush White House," and Senate Democrats in turn asked to adjourn the hearing.

    Kavanaugh has also highly praised late anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and called him a “role model” and “judicial hero.” Kavanaugh said that Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which he decried the ruling that brought marriage equality to the entire country, demonstrated a judicial philosophy that the courts had “no legitimate role … in creating new rights not spelled out in the Constitution.” Additionally, extreme anti-LGBTQ groups have united behind Kavanaugh’s nomination and are calling for him to be confirmed. These groups have called him an "outstanding pick" and said he would "be strong on [their] issues."

    2018 has been a historic year for efforts protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy

    Advocates working to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy have made history this year by “recalling” the dangerous and discredited practice and working to pass protections at the state and municipal levels at a record-breaking pace. This year alone, five states -- Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Washington -- have signed protections from conversion therapy into law. That means 14 states, Washington, D.C., and dozens of municipalities across the country now have laws and policies protecting LGBTQ youth from the practice. What’s more, these protections have bipartisan support, and governors from both sides of the aisle have signed conversion therapy bills.

    But according to the Williams Institute, conversion therapy still remains prevalent throughout the country. In a groundbreaking January report, it estimated that 20,000 LGBTQ youth would “receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18” in the 41 states that at the time did not protect youth from the practice. Furthermore, the report estimated that approximately 698,000 adults in the United States have undergone conversion therapy, including around 350,000 who underwent the practice before turning 18 years old.

    Anti-LGBTQ groups who support conversion therapy are encouraged by recent Supreme Court ruling in case regarding anti-abortion pregnancy centers

    On June 26, the Supreme Court decided NIFLA v. Becerra, a case involving a California law called the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act. The law requires anti-abortion fake health centers to post a certain type of notice, depending on whether the center is licensed by the state. Licensed clinics are required to post a notice informing clients that California provides low-cost or free reproductive health care. Unlicensed clinics are required to post a notice informing people that they were not a licensed medical facility. As BuzzFeed News reported, “The court held in a 5–4 majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas that the notice required of licensed clinics under the law ‘likely violates’ the First Amendment, but the notice required of unlicensed clinics ‘unduly burdens speech’ and is unconstitutional.”

    Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an influential and extreme anti-LGBTQ group working to undermine LGBTQ equality in all aspects of life, represented clients in NIFLA. The group also represented a Christian baker who refused service to a gay couple in another Supreme Court case this year, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission; the case saw a narrow ruling in favor of the baker and “left open the larger question of whether a business can discriminate against gay men and lesbians based on rights protected by the First Amendment.”

    ADF and other anti-LGBTQ groups welcomed the NIFLA ruling, and some claimed that it signaled a shift in how the courts would treat “professional speech” under the First Amendment, including how it would treat protections from conversion therapy. The Atlantic’s Emma Green described “professional speech” as “a somewhat fuzzy legal category that allows states to require doctors and lawyers to disclose medical or ethical facts, for example.” In other words, in NIFLA and potentially other cases involving communications in medical and other regulated fields, the courts are weighing whether those communications are protected under the First Amendment even though these fields are typically regulated and patients and other people seeking medical advice could be put at risk if they receive inaccurate information.

    According to Christian conservative outlet CBN News, Mat Staver, chairman of extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel, declared the ruling a "prize" for his and other anti-LGBTQ groups’ advocacy against a shelved bill in California (AB 2934) that would have categorized conversion therapy as fraud. Staver said that the bill, if passed, would have been dead on arrival because of the NIFLA ruling and that sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) “cases are going to be a thing of the past." Liberty Counsel had been preparing to file a lawsuit againt the bill had it passed. ADF senior counsel Matt Sharp came to a similar conclusion and predicted that the ruling would “strongly call into question the foundation of AB2943.” Pro-conversion therapy group Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI) responded to the NIFLA ruling in an email blast, saying it and other recent decisions “have opened the door for overturning the therapy ban laws that have been passed over the past five years” and that it was “seeking to reopen” two of its previous challenges to conversion therapy laws alongside Liberty Counsel. Additionally, Family Research Council’s (FRC) Peter Sprigg wrote:

    Like NIFLA in the pregnancy center context, defenders of the right to seek counseling to overcome unwanted same-sex attractions (and of the right to offer such counseling) have argued that free speech also protects their activities. In challenges to laws banning sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) with minors by licensed mental health providers in California and New Jersey, they argued that such laws in effect limit what a counselor or therapist may say to a client in the privacy of his or her office, and thus infringe upon the free speech of the caregiver.

    By affirming that “professional speech” is protected by the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has cast serious doubt on the constitutionality of bans on sexual orientation change efforts.

    Conservative state-level advocacy groups affiliated with extreme national anti-LGBTQ groups are also enthusiastic for the NIFLA ruling’s potential impact on conversion therapy cases. For instance, the Pennsylvania Family Institute and the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) -- both affiliates of the Family Policy Alliance -- claimed the ruling could indicate that the high court could find protections from conversion therapy unconstitutional. (Family Policy Alliance is a partner of anti-LGBTQ group Focus on the Family that also works with ADF and FRC.) Similarly, the Illinois Family Institute announced that it is considering challenging the state’s protections against conversion therapy in light of the Supreme Court’s NIFLA’ ruling.

    These groups are already challenging protections from conversion therapy in the courts

    National anti-LGBTQ groups like ADF and Liberty Counsel have a long history of supporting and advocating for conversion therapy, and they are actively working to undermine protections from conversion therapy in courts and state legislatures across the country.

    In June, Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of conversion therapy practitioners Dr. Robert Otto and Dr. Julie Hamilton against Boca Raton and Palm Beach County in Florida for their measures protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy. In a press release about the suit, the group framed the issue as a matter of protecting “the speech of licensed professionals in the city and county who offer change counseling” and as a First Amendment violation, similar to the messaging around NIFLA’s impact on protections from conversion therapy. Liberty Counsel is also representing out-of-state conversion therapy practitioner Dr. David Pickup, among others, in a separate lawsuit against conversion therapy protections in Tampa, FL. Local news outlets have given platforms to Hamilton and Pickup to spread misinformation about conversion therapy. And before the Massachusetts legislature failed to get its bill on the governor's desk this year, MFI President Andrew Beckwith said that his group was "already working with attorneys at Liberty Counsel and Alliance Defending Freedom to challenge this bill should it become law" before asserting that the NIFLA decision "undermines the legal basis upon which" protections from conversion therapy rely.

    These challenges aren’t new or unique for the group; Liberty Counsel has worked to overturn efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy for years, including failed attempts to challenge measures in New Jersey and California. According to ATCSI, the group is “seeking to reopen” those cases “and to challenge the laws passed in every state where ‘therapy ban’ legislation has be (sic) enacted.” Liberty Counsel's Staver even went on an anti-LGBTQ rant before a House subcommittee in which he called California and New Jersey laws prohibiting the practice “religious discrimination” and “one of the greatest assaults on children and families that has arisen in recent times.”

    The Supreme Court has previously turned away multiple challenges to laws protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy, but it could take up a case in the future given the recent ruling in NIFLA and new justices sitting or potentially sitting on the court. Following the NIFLA ruling, journalists have already speculated that the Supreme Court could take up a conversion therapy case in the future. While it is unclear how Justice Kavanaugh would side on a case about protections from conversion therapy, it is clear that the same extreme anti-LGBTQ groups challenging those measures in court are clamouring for his confirmation. These groups have claimed that Kavanaugh will defend their issues as a Supreme Court justice, and conversion therapy very much could be one of those issues that Kavanaugh has a chance to defend.

  • New EPA chief Andrew Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media and climate-denier blogs

    But will he be as combative toward the mainstream press as Scott Pruitt was?

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Scott Pruitt, ousted administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had cozy relationships with right-wing media outlets and combative relationships with the mainstream press. Andrew Wheeler, who's stepped in as acting administrator, has also shown a fondness for right-wing media and signs of disdain toward some mainstream media. But Wheeler has not interacted with the press in the same hostile and tribal ways that Pruitt did. Will Wheeler's approach to the media shift now that he's at the helm at EPA?

    On the topic of climate change, it’s easier to predict whether Wheeler will change course: probably not. Like Pruitt, Wheeler has long been skeptical of climate science and climate action, as evidenced not just by Wheeler’s public statements but also by his Twitter account. He has tweeted out links to climate-denying blog posts, including one post that declared, “There is no such thing as ‘carbon pollution.’”

    Pruitt leaned heavily on right-wing media

    Throughout his tenure at the EPA, Pruitt made heavy use of right-wing media outlets to spread his preferred talking points and fight back against media coverage he didn't like. During his first year, Pruitt appeared on Fox News more than twice as often as all other major TV networks combined, Media Matters found, and Fox was less likely than other networks to cover Pruitt's scandals. Pruitt was also a frequent guest on national right-wing talk-radio shows, where he received soft treatment.

    After Pruitt got unexpectedly tough questions during an April interview with Fox's Ed Henry, he retreated to right-wing outlets that were even more likely to give him good press, giving interviews to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Washington Free Beacon, and a Mississippi talk-radio show.

    Pruitt cultivated a particularly cozy relationship with right-wing outlet The Daily Caller, giving the site exclusive quotes and information. The Daily Caller in turn repeatedly defended Pruitt against scandals and attacked people who released damaging information about him. Even after Pruitt resigned, The Daily Caller continued to act as his attack dog, publishing pieces with headlines including "Source: A torrent of negative press ended Scott Pruitt's career at EPA" and "Jilted former EPA aide with sordid history takes full credit for Pruitt's resignation."

    Pruitt attacked and stymied mainstream media outlets

    Under Pruitt, the EPA press office repeatedly attacked, stymied, and manipulated reporters at mainstream news outlets, as Media Matters documented. The agency refused to release basic information about its activities, blocked journalists from attending official agency events, favored reporters who would provide positive coverage, and publicly insulted and retaliated against reporters and outlets whose coverage officials didn't like.

    One of many such attacks came in September, when the EPA sent out a press release that personally maligned Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, accusing him of having "a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story." Another attack happened in June of 2018, when EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox called an Atlantic reporter "a piece of trash” after she asked for comment on one of Pruitt's aides resigning. 

    Pruitt appeared to attack the media on his way out the door, too. His resignation letter blamed "unprecedented" and "unrelenting attacks" on him.

    Wheeler liked tweets from right-wing media figures, defended Milo Yiannopoulos

    Wheeler, for his part, has also demonstrated an affinity for right-wing media figures and outlets, but he's done it in a different way -- via his personal Twitter account. He has "liked" many tweets by conservative media figures, including ones that criticize mainstream or liberal media outlets.

    Wheeler "liked" a July 3 tweet by Donald Trump Jr. that linked to a Daily Caller post lauding Fox News's high ratings and mocking CNN's lower ones:

    He "liked" a June 11 tweet by NRATV host and Fox regular Dan Bongino that bashed MSNBC:

    Wheeler "liked" a June 1 tweet by libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that criticized a HuffPost story: "HuffPo isn’t a place of journalism, it’s a place of Far Left activism." (Media Matters rebutted the misleading claims of right-wing figures who criticized the story.)

    He "liked" a May 22 tweet by NRATV host and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch that knocked Planned Parenthood.

    He "liked" an April 3 tweet by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel that inaccurately claimed Obama EPA officials spent as much on travel as Pruitt did.

    He "liked" a January 6 tweet by Fox News personality Brit Hume that mocked Al Gore.

    Wheeler has "liked" tweets from frequent Fox News guests Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens of the conservative group Turning Point USA, including this one:

    According to Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby, in 2016 Wheeler tweeted out a conspiracy theorist's video that defended Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right troll and former Breitbart editor, but Wheeler later deleted the tweet:

    In August 2016, Wheeler publicly defended alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous after the latter was banned from Twitter for encouraging users to harass actress Leslie Jones. In a now-deleted tweet, the lobbyist linked to a six-minute video, “The Truth About Milo,” produced by InfoWars editor-at-large and noted conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, in which Watson posited that conservatives might be “banned from using the internet altogether if they trigger your butthurt.”

    Since being named acting head of the EPA last week, Wheeler appears to have deleted 12 more tweets from his feed.

    Wheeler tweeted links to climate-denier blog posts

    While EPA watchers have predicted that Wheeler is likely to differ from Pruitt in his demeanor, Wheeler has displayed the same attitude as Pruitt toward climate change.

    In 2011, when Wheeler was a lobbyist for the Murray Energy coal company, he tweeted a link to a post on the climate-denial blog JunkScience.com. The post, written by the site's founder and longtime climate denier Steve Milloy, argued that information from the American Lung Association should not be trusted because the organization "is bought-and-paid-for by the EPA."

    Wheeler retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and highlighted projections about India's rising coal use.

    In 2009, Wheeler sent a tweeted promoting a climate-denying blog post published on the conservative American Thinker site:

    On at least two occasions, Wheeler has tweeted links to posts on RealClearPolitics that questioned the science of climate change. A tweet in 2009 linked to a post titled "A Reason To Be Skeptical," and the tweet included the hashtag #capandtax, a conservative smear against cap-and-trade policies. The piece he linked to, which also appeared in The Denver Post, promoted “Climategate,” a bogus, manufactured scandal in which conservatives claimed that hacked emails showed climate scientists were fabricating evidence of warming temperatures. 

    And a tweet in 2015 praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'”

    This piece, which Wheeler called "great," largely dismissed climate science and criticized the media outlets and peer-reviewed journals that regularly report on climate change:

    Of course, we don’t have good data or sound arguments for decarbonizing our energy supply. But it sounds like we do. If you read Scientific American, Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and you take them at face value, you would have to agree that there is a strong likelihood that serious climate change is real and that decarbonization or geo-engineering are our only hopes.

    Wheeler gives interviews and quotes primarily to mainstream outlets

    Though Wheeler's Twitter account seems to show a preference for right-wing outlets, he does not exhibit the same ideological bias when he gives interviews or quotes to media. Most of the interviews he's given during his career in Washington, D.C., have been to mainstream outlets.

    Media Matters has identified eight interviews Wheeler has granted to media outlets since October 5, 2017, when President Donald Trump nominated him to serve as deputy administrator of the EPA:

    During his years as a lobbyist from 2009 to 2017 -- when he worked for coal, nuclear, chemical, and utility companies, among others -- he was quoted at least eight times by E&E News, a subscription-based news organization aimed at professionals working in the energy and environment fields, and he sat for one video interview with E&E. He also gave quotes at least twice to another inside-the-beltway news organization, Politico, as well as to The New York Times and FoxNews.com.

    From 1995 to 2008, when Wheeler worked for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), he gave at least four more video interviews to E&E News. He was also quoted in a Washington Post article in 2008.

    Right-wing media are already leaping to Wheeler's defense

    Whether on not Wheeler starts giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets, right-wing outlets are likely to defend him against criticism. They've already started.

    The Daily Caller, which had a tight-knit relationship with Pruitt and his press office, published a story on July 5 titled "Pruitt has been gone for less than a day and his replacement is already getting attacked." And Breitbart ran a piece on July 5 that quoted conservatives praising Wheeler and argued that "the media is already attacking him in much the same relentless fashion it did Pruitt."

    What's next for Wheeler and the EPA press office?

    It's not surprising that Wheeler gave quotes and interviews primarily to mainstream and inside-the-beltway publications while he was working for Inhofe and representing his lobbying clients. He was trying to reach influencers and mold public opinion.

    In contrast, Pruitt, who has been rumored to be plotting a run for Oklahoma governor or senator, has spent his time in D.C. trying to raise his profile and burnish his image with GOP donors and the conservative base of the Republican Party. He often turned to highly partisan right-wing outlets to achieve those ends.

    Now that Wheeler is the boss setting the agenda and determining strategy, will he continue his conventional approach of talking to mainstream media, or will he follow Pruitt's recent example and turn primarily to highly partisan right-wing outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller? And under Wheeler's leadership, will the EPA's press office treat reporters more professionally than it did under Pruitt, or will it continue to be highly combative with the media?

    In the few days since Wheeler was announced as interim EPA chief on July 5, he seems to have taken a more traditional and conciliatory approach. He's given two substantive interviews to major newspapers, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. And according to Politico, Wheeler will be taking a different approach from Pruitt in terms of dealing with the press: "Wheeler will announce where he is speaking or traveling in advance, he will publish his full calendars 'frequently,' without litigation from groups pursuing public records, and he and other top political appointees will hold briefings for the media on major policy announcements."

    But even if the media approach changes, the policy approach won't. "EPA's agenda remains largely unchanged," Politico continued. "Wheeler will still pursue much the same policy platform — fighting the courts to roll back a slate of Obama-era regulations on climate change, air pollution, stream protection and more."

    Ted MacDonald, Evlondo Cooper, and Kevin Kalhoefer contributed research to this post.

  • The Supreme Court just enabled fake health clinics to lie to patients

    Right-wing media are calling it a "win" for the First Amendment

    ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT & SHARON KANN

    On June 26, the Supreme Court decided National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra in favor of a network of fake health clinics. Right-wing media and anti-abortion organizations framed the decision as a “win” for the First Amendment, but those outlets (and even some more mainstream ones) ignored that these clinics are harmful and actively deceive people seeking abortions.

  • Media Matters’ Sharon Kann talks about abortion stigma in media coverage on Hellbent podcast

    Kann says that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On the April 26 edition of the Hellbent podcast, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann spoke with co-host Devon Handy about four topics: (1) The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson; (2) abortion coverage that often plays into abortion stigma and ignores the reality that abortion is a common health care procedure; (3) an upcoming Media Matters study showing that right-wing misinformation is crowding out good coverage on abortion; and (4) anti-abortion fake health clinics that have taken advantage of the fragmented media space.

    1. The Atlantic recently fired writer Kevin Williamson after Media Matters found audio of Williamson defending his previous comment that people who have abortions should be hanged. Handy and Kann also discussed Williamson’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he lamented his supposed persecution. Kann said that he ignored the harm that violent rhetoric like his can cause to those who have had abortions:

    SHARON KANN: The ultimate point he made was that he was trying to be provocative, although he did admit sloppily, because he didn't think that people who support abortion access are willing to have, I think he said, a candid conversation about the reality. And we know that's not true. There are people telling their abortion stories and there are people reporting -- there are people doing good reporting on abortion and what it means to have an abortion in the United States.

    DEVON HANDY (CO-HOST): Right.

    KANN: And that he doesn't want to engage with those stories doesn't mean people aren't candidly engaging. And it doesn't mean that he gets to call for, or at least on multiple occasions suggest, that it's appropriate for them to be hanged.

    HANDY: Right. Right. And he's also made just a smorgasbord of awful, racist, sexist comments on a number of topics and then he has, like you said, this sort of gall to go on The Wall Street Journal and whine about how the Twitter mob came for him and how, and what I think he's getting at, which he doesn't necessarily specifically say it in this Wall Street Journal article, but he said that -- it seems that he's saying that white conservative men are the disadvantaged in the media landscape right now. So, do you think that's what he's saying? Does he really believe that? I mean, again you can't speak to him in particular. But I'm just a little confused by his whole premise.

    KANN: I mean, I think his premise kind of demonstrates what the markers to him are of, not just success, but of what it means to be held accountable or to experience -- I won’t call it oppression in his case, but to experience pushback on a viewpoint that you have.

    HANDY: Right.

    KANN: I think he has a line in that Wall Street Journal piece about how if you want to understand what ideas are truly, truly oppressed, truly put upon, like look at who's getting sponsorship from Google and getting South by Southwest panels. And his implication is that for a white conservative writer, they are experiencing oppression because they're not getting corporate sponsorships. Where, on the flip side, other people are hearing the types of rhetoric that -- I mean, even if we don't want to go so far to say that he believes this, the rhetoric that he's espousing -- and having a reaction of saying, I've had an abortion, and hearing that someone would call for me to be hanged, it feels like an actual type of oppression and it feels threatening. And so for him, and I think the people defending him along that same line, to be saying that a marker of oppression is not getting a sponsorship is kind of a stark opposition to what real markers of oppression would be.

    2. Kann also explained that Media Matters’ annual studies of coverage of abortion and reproductive health in evening cable news have found that discussions of abortion are often framed around politics or religion and that they ignore the reality that abortion is a “common ... health care experience”:

    HANDY: I feel like with something like abortion rights and reproductive health coverage, it is scientific in a lot of ways and it relies on a medical, scientific understanding. And do you think that that's actually part of the conversations that we're having or is it more emotional?

    KANN: I think that -- so it's actually interesting -- that's an interesting way of phrasing the question because we've actually looked at -- every year we do a study that looks at, not just who is having conversations about abortion in particular on prime-time cable news, but how that coverage is framed.

    HANDY: Right.

    KANN: And we do one of these every year. The most recent one we did last year found that more often when we're having conversations about abortion, at least in those prime-time sections, the conversations are framed almost entirely around abortion as a political issue or abortion as a matter of faith when in reality, like you said, it is a medical practice. It's a legal health care procedure. And you know, I don't think people are usually having the conversation in those kind of ways.

    HANDY: Why do you think that is?

    KANN: I think partly it's like what you said. I don't think outlets are doing all the work they should be doing to center conversations about abortion as something that is common and something that is a health care experience. And I think part of it is that you know, even when outlets have the best of intentions they're not always giving people all the information they need to understand why certain things are happening in conversations about abortion. So, for example, in our work a lot we think about this in terms of abortion stigma, where people can be trying to have a conversation about abortion or report on a new restriction or even a new piece of legislation meant to expand access to reproductive rights, and they might include a lot of phrasing about how abortion is inherently tragic or how it's a very difficult decision. And some people might experience it that way but to treat that as the universal implies there's something not normal about that health care experience.

    HANDY: Right.

    KANN: So I think that people are kind of interacting with it in those frames. And that's why we are having the frank, fair, and factual conversations about abortion I think we would like to see.

    3. Kann also previewed an in-the-works Media Matters study on abortion coverage that will demonstrate that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are “talking more about abortion” and talking about it in such a way that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage”:

    HANDY: So, you have been writing about abortion rights and reproductive health for over two years. Have you seen a shift in how media covers these topics?

    KANN: I think -- that's a good question -- I think, I've seen more examples of individual reporters and even specific outlets that are going out of their way to center, not just narratives about abortion, but factual narratives about abortion that focus on the voices of people who have had them. And I find that really encouraging.

    HANDY: Wow.

    KANN: On the flip side, I've also seen, in particular for major outlets, sort of a failure to center those conversations. And I think, you know, I mentioned the study that we typically put out every year; we're about to put out our most recent edition of that forthcoming. And something that we've seen in that, and that I think bears across anecdotally a lot of what I've seen for the past two years, is that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are just talking more about abortion. And they're talking about it at a volume that, I think even when we have good instances of reporting from like progressive outlets, it's getting kind of drowned out. And so there's almost a void of coverage that's being filled by inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage.

    HANDY: Right. Has there been a shift in particular since Trump has taken office?

    KANN: I think that there's more awareness since Trump has taken office. I think, because although a lot of the policies that the Trump administration is championing particularly in the context of abortion and reproductive rights are problematic in a lot of ways, I think they're more visible to people because they're operating at a national level. But I think it's also important to remember that a lot of the policies that they're championing are either things that have been operating at the state level for years or that the people now in positions of power have been trying to push at state levels or in anti-abortion organizations for years. So I think people are more aware -- I see a more general attentiveness and engagement with people. But I think it's that full context is also hopefully something people are taking from that.

    4. Kann and Handy also discussed anti-abortion fake health clinics and how a fragmented media landscape has led to those clinics pushing their own media platforms “independent of any external fact-checking or accountability”:

    HANDY: So what are the tools that people can use or what are the things that people can look for when looking for verified or, quote unquote, “good information” from any news source?

    KANN: Yeah, I mean, I think that is sort of the basics of vetting information and critical thinking are all sort of the short of the answer. I think folks should always pay attention to where they're sourcing their news from. In particular, you know, there are outlets or there are entities that try to present themselves as media outlets but that have none of the safeguards or none of the quality control than an actual news outlet would have. So making sure you understand what the outlet is and where they're sourcing from. Making sure that if something seems too good to be true or seems alarming that you can source it back to you know, either primary documents or another like in a -- hopefully like an outlet you recognize can back it up as well and just sort of making sure you're going through all those steps to ensure that the information you're getting is accurate.

    HANDY: You know, it's kind of funny. As you were saying that I was thinking these outfits that present themselves as media outlets it's kind of like crisis pregnancy centers positioning themselves as health care providers for women who are seeking abortions. …

    KANN: Yeah, definitely.

    [...]

    HANDY: And that sort of parallel is very interesting that we're dealing with two things at once here.

    KANN: Yeah. I mean, I think that's something that we as Media Matters have done a decent amount of research and some content on our website about as well, which is that one of the most interesting evolutions I think we've seen is not just that crisis pregnancy centers, or these fake anti-abortion health clinics, aren't just operating to deceive people trying to come in, they're also, in some cases, operating media outlets and platforms independent of any external fact-checking or accountability --

    HANDY: Wow.

    KANN: -- because that is how they try to access -- get people to access their information and think they're credible. So it's not even just the centers themselves that operate in that deceptive way. They're starting to adopt these tactics as well.

  • Media Matters' Sharon Kann discusses Kevin Williamson on SiriusXM's Tell Me Everything

    Kann says Williamson’s abortion comments show the importance of investigating the “fragmented media space”

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On the April 9 edition of SiriusXM’s Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann spoke about The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson after Media Matters uncovered a National Review podcast in which Williamson affirmed his belief that people who have abortions should be hanged. Kann told host John Fugelsang that such comments -- particularly given the podcast format in which they were discovered -- demonstrate the importance of investigating the “fragmented media space”:

    JOHN FUGELSANG (HOST): You went through a lot of Fox News to find these comments.

    [...]

    SHARON KANN: After that, we kind of figured too that -- I think it’s something that’s very interesting about our current media environment and something that my team has been increasingly interested in looking at across the spectrum of news outlets, not just Fox, but how access to different media platforms or the creation of this fragmented media space where people can get all their information from Facebook or from podcasts, how that’s impacted the veracity of information that’s even put out, particularly about abortion. So after we did -- looking at all of his Fox News appearances -- we found out he had had a podcast with another National Review writer Charles Cooke and decided to dig into that and do another post.

    Kann further explained that the fragmented media space is creating a pipeline that helps extremists end up on mainstream outlets, including shows like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:

    FUGELSANG: What do you think is the public impact of trolls finding a voice in highly respected publications? I mean, this phenomena is not going to lessen in the years to come, is it?

    KANN: I don’t think it will lessen. I think hopefully people’s consciousness will be raised about it, and there will sort of be a higher standard of attention paid, both among people who are inputting or receiving that information and when people are making hiring decisions. I think more broadly, I mean, the effect of trolls is something that we’ve been reckoning with I think on a national platform level since the election, but I think in the aftermath we’ve been continuing to think through. You know, in the context of just trolling you’ll hear a lot -- we’ve done some work that you can find on our website about how, at least in the context of anti-abortion sentiment, there are people who will go and agitate on platforms specifically dedicated to being anti-abortion and spreading misinformation who will then agitate on Twitter, agitate on Facebook, and find themselves on Tucker Carlson’s program.

    FUGELSANG: Yep.

    KANN: And so I think attention to the pipelines that are being operated through and attention to what type of sentiment is getting pickup and going from just communities of trolls to a wider platform will be increasingly important.

  • Kevin Williamson’s real enemy wasn’t the left. It was Kevin Williamson.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On Thursday, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced that the publication had cut ties with conservative columnist Kevin Williamson just a couple weeks after hiring him. Williamson’s move from the conservative National Review to The Atlantic -- a magazine whose commentators typically straddle the center-left and center-right -- was controversial from the first. Critics highlighted Williamson’s disparaging remarks about people of color and transgender people. But the debate quickly focused on 2014 tweets in which the writer argued that women who have abortions should be punished as murderers, with penalties that could include death by hanging. In a March 27 memo, Goldberg defended his decision to hire Williamson, suggesting that the writer’s tweets about abortion were an example of impulsive, bad behavior on Twitter, rather than an expression of a carefully considered worldview. But after Media Matters on Wednesday resurfaced audio in which Williamson reiterated and defended that abortion position, Goldberg issued a second memo stating that the magazine had cut ties with Williamson.

    Goldberg’s announcement triggered a wave of enraged reactions from other conservative commentators, with some describing the decision as an unfair silencing of Williamson’s views and part of a broader effort to ban conservatives in general and those with pro-life views in particular from mainstream publications.

    This position ignores a number of key points: the right of editors to determine what views they want represented by their staff, the difference between Williamson's views and the majority of those held by pro-life commentators, and what appear to be the specific facts surrounding Williamson's brief tenure at The Atlantic. And most importantly, it inaccurately inflates a highly specific hiring controversy at a single publication into a larger campaign to purge mainstream opinion writing of conservative thinkers.

    The Atlantic’s editor has the right to decide which views are represented by its writers.

    The editor of every magazine or newspaper opinions section makes decisions about which views are acceptable for its writers, making determinations about how to draw those lines based on the particular intellectual project of the outlet.

    Williamson’s former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg argues for a distinction. “Editors or owners should have absolute authority to control what appears in the pages of their magazines,” he writes, but what “editors should not have any control over is what their writers are allowed to think.” The Atlantic’s editors would have been within their rights to turn down a pitch from Williamson calling for harsh punishments for women who have abortions, under this rule, but not to fire him for making the argument in other venues.

    This is not how that principle is generally applied, including at National Review. In April 2012, Rich Lowry, the magazine’s editor, dropped longtime columnist John Derbyshire and contributor Robert Weissberg over racist commentary they issued in other venues. Lowry fired Derbyshire after he wrote an essay for another magazine in which he recommended that parents tell their children to be wary of black people, and said he would no longer publish Weissberg after he gave a speech at a white nationalist convention in which he explained how zoning laws and other methods could be used to create "Whitopias" in the United States.

    In both cases, Lowry specifically stated that he was dropping the commentator for his comments in other venues. In announcing he was cutting ties with Derbyshire, Lowry said that while the columnist was “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer,” his essay had been “so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.” Lowry concluded: “It's a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.” He likewise stated that he would no longer publish Weissberg due to his “noxious talk.”

    Lowry decided that he did not want Derbyshire’s or Weissberg’s racist commentary associated with the magazine he edited, even though they had not made those arguments at National Review. Jeffrey Goldberg has the same right to say that Williamson’s views fall outside the bounds of The Atlantic’s intellectual project and bring discredit to the magazine. We can argue about whether that magazine is making a wise decision in which views are permissible, but it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that the editor’s behavior is unusual -- even on the right.

    Williamson’s abortion comments were extreme and outside the bounds of current debate.

    Williamson was “Fired From The Atlantic For Opposing Abortion,” according to a headline at the right-wing website The Federalist. Nonsense. Several conservative writers in mainstream opinion sections oppose abortion (The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, to name two). They represent the sizable minority of Americans who share that view.

    But Williamson argued not merely against abortion, but in favor of punishment up to death for women who have abortions. How far outside the bounds of typical debate is that view? Douthat and the conservative orthodox Christian commentator Rod Dreher -- both pro-life writers who oppose Williamson’s firing -- each describe it as “extreme,” with Dreher adding that “Kevin is the only pro-lifer I know who believes this — and I didn’t know he believed it until it came out after his hiring was announced.”

    Most anti-abortion groups and politicians also reject Williamson’s position. After Trump floated the idea of “some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, March for Life issued a statement calling the comment "completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion." There are a few rare and disturbing cases in which conservative candidates have suggested punishing women for having abortions. But those proposals are outliers and have made little headway, suggesting that they're of limited value even in conservative political spaces.

    We can argue about whether the current bounds of debate should have been stretched to allow oxygen to the notion of hanging women who have abortions. But that’s what the debate is about, not whether “opposing abortion” is suddenly a position that is verboten at mainstream publications.

    Williamson appears to have been fired for misleading Goldberg about his abortion position. If he hadn’t done so, it’s unlikely he would have been hired.

    Williamson’s supporters want to portray him as a free speech martyr, the victim of a cowardly editor who refused to stand up to the anti-abortion mob. “Williamson's views are not a surprise to anyone and he was hired despite those views until they became inconvenient for Goldberg,” writes The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.

    It’s impossible to reconcile that claim with Goldberg’s two memos, in which The Atlantic editor-in-chief strongly suggests that he always considered the belief that women should receive punishment that could include the death penalty unacceptable for a writer for his publication.

    In his first memo, Goldberg suggested that Williamson had been hired in spite of the “most horrible” abortion tweet, which he described as indefensible and unacceptable but aberrant. In the second, we get a sense of why Goldberg was so willing to overlook the tweet. In his telling, Williamson had misled him, explaining the tweet as “an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post,” not as representative of “his carefully considered views.” The public resurfacing of audio in which Williamson defended the tweet, along with comments Goldberg said Williamson had made to him after being hired, convinced Goldberg that Williamson did actually hold the position indicated by his tweet. This destroyed the argument Goldberg made in support of hiring him despite the tweet, leading to Williamson’s firing.

    Goldberg deserves no credit for this affair -- he failed to properly vet Williamson’s work. If Goldberg believes that writers at The Atlantic should not hold a particular view, it is his responsibility to ensure that they don’t before he hires them.

    Goldberg represented himself in his first memo as an authority on Williamson’s work, in contrast to those who were arguing against his hiring. “I have read most, or much, of what he has written; some of his critics have not done the same,” he wrote.

    If Goldberg had done his due diligence on Williamson, then based on his own standards for the magazine he never would have hired him. But his effort apparently amounted to taking Williamson’s word that his tweet was an anomaly; it was Media Matters that found the podcast proving otherwise, leading to the termination.

    Liberals are not trying to ban all conservatives from mainstream opinion sections.

    Many on the right are sounding the alarm following Williamson’s firing. “Conservative thought is more and more relegated to a ghetto and should any prominent conservative try to leave the ghetto, the leftwing mob will take action to destroy them,” warned Erickson in a piece representative of this sentiment.

    The concern that liberals seek to indiscriminately “destroy” any conservative commentator who dares land a job at a mainstream outlet is dramatically overblown.

    By my count, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic have hired eight conservative or libertarian commentators to contribute opinion pieces since the 2016 election. If the theory Erickson espouses were true, each would have been greeted with denunciations from across the liberal commentariat and calls for the firings of the newly minted columnists. But if you consider the reaction to each hire individually (acknowledging that on the Internet, you can always find someone making any argument), that did not happen.

    The only recently hired columnist whose backlash approached Williamson’s was Bret Stephens at the Times -- and the loudest voices against them came from different factions of the left: women’s rights groups in Williamson’s case and climate activists in Stephens’ case. The hirings of four -- Hugh Hewitt, Gary Abernathy, and Max Boot at the Post and Reihan Salam at The Atlantic -- were almost entirely ignored by progressives. And the treatment of the Post’s Megan McArdle and the TimesBari Weiss fell somewhere between these poles (with criticism of the latter largely coming in response to particular things she wrote after joining that paper). None of these other columnists have faced any serious threat to their employment.

    So no, there isn’t a liberal conspiracy to ban every conservative writer from the public sphere: There are a series of cases in which different liberal activists have responded differently to the hirings of different conservative writers based on their work. The conservative media’s incentive structures do encourage bigoted and extreme commentary that is not acceptable in more mainstream venues, but the record of the last few years demonstrates that right-wing thinkers who eschew or avoid the worst tendencies of their colleagues can escape that fate.

    Williamson should be a cautionary tale to other writers on the right -- but not for the reasons many of them think. Kevin Williamson’s problem wasn’t a climate of censorship in mainstream publications. In the end, it was Kevin Williamson.

  • Yes, Kevin Williamson wanted to hang people who've had abortions. Don't let conservatives rewrite history.

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This week, former National Review writer Kevin Williamson was fired by The Atlantic after 2014 audio proved that Williamson did, in fact, mean it when he said people who’ve had abortions should be hanged. In the resulting conservative meltdown, what right-wing outlets seemed desperate to do is have any conversation other than the one actually at hand. Instead, they chose to cry censorship, bemoan so-called liberal bias, and tried to rewrite history by saying Williamson was fired for holding a general anti-abortion stance.

    But this retelling is fundamentally untrue. Williamson wasn’t fired because he holds anti-abortion views. He was fired because he repeatedly, across multiple platforms, advocated for the criminalization and brutal execution of people seeking abortion care. And the fervor to distract from that truth would be truly astounding, if it wasn’t so eminently predictable. 

    When news of Williamson’s hiring first broke, a number of pundits across the ideological spectrum tripped over themselves to downplay and excuse his statements -- defending a so-called “provocateur” whose cherished turns of phrase include calling attacking transgender people as being “delusional,” and arguing that “it just simply is not the case that young black men are getting gunned down, unarmed, by police officers in any sort of significant numbers.” These writers -- including The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who initially framed Williamson’s comment as an “objectionable tweet” -- argued that Williamson hadn’t really meant what he said about people who’ve had abortions being executed, and asked us to kindly calm down. “For heaven’s sake,” wrote The New York Times’ Bret Stephens, “it was a tweet.” Others, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum called the rightful outrage over Williamson’s hiring, “weird,” while National Review’s David French implored readers to just “give tolerance a chance.”

    Once Williamson’s meaning proved truly undeniable, leading to his firing, right-wing media outlets raced to reframe the conversation -- ignoring the substance of his remarks to instead cry wolf about perceived ideological intolerance. For example, The Federalist wrote that Williamson “was fired for his opinions on abortion” after “the usual suspects freaked out and proceeded to dig up old tweets and audio.” Washington Examiner published not one, but two, pieces arguing that Williamson was a victim in a larger ideological war. In another example, RedState argued that Williamson wasn’t fired because of his “fanciful views about legal consequences connected to abortion,“ but that he was “kicked out for refusing to back down in expressing that abortion is murder and should be viewed as such even in this current climate.” David French even asked where the respect for Williamson’s tolerance was as he is “the son of a teen mom, born shortly before Roe v. Wade, and narrowly escaped being aborted,” who would’ve been forced to share an office at The Atlantic with people who support abortion access.

    What these defenses, and even Goldberg’s original justification for hiring Williamson, ignore is that statements like Williamson’s send a clear message to the one-in-four women who’ve had abortions in the United States: that their lives do not matter, that they are criminal, and that they deserve (even in hypothetical terms) to be brutally executed for seeking constitutionally protected and sometimes life-saving medical care.

    Williamson wasn’t fired because he’s anti-abortion -- he was fired because he advocated for the brutal punishment of those who’ve have abortions. Even if you grant the premise that Williamson was merely expressing what could happen in a future without legal abortion, that he not only carved out an exception to his overall ambivalent stance on the death penalty for those who have abortions, but also advocated for a method that is considered too inhumane by almost all the states that currently employ capital punishment, takes his comments beyond mere speculation.

    As research from Media Matters has previously shown, the people who are often empowered to shape the conversation about abortion are overwhelmingly men. As a result, these conversations reflect not only an incomplete understanding but also treat abortion as some sort of hypothetical thought exercise or as a political bargaining chip, ignoring real impacts that lack of access has on the lives of real people.

    Furthermore, Williamson’s defense of capital punishment for those who’ve had abortions is extreme but not really that hypothetical. Already, policies at the state level punish people for attempting to access abortion care. As Irin Carmon wrote in 2016: “Just ask Purvi Patel, who is appealing a 30-year prison sentence for her conviction for feticide in Indiana,” or Anna Yocca, Rennie Gibbs, Jennie Lynn McCormack, or Jennifer Whalen. She continued that all these cases all demonstrate how “women have been prosecuted under current restrictions on abortion, at times with major felonies.” Just this week in Idaho, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini was forced to walk back comments that the Associated Press characterized as “women who get an abortion should be punished” including that “that the punishment should include the death penalty.” During the presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (before later backtracking) that he thought there should “be some form of punishment” for people who have abortions. As Robin Marty explained, although the right may claim that punishing people for abortion is merely an “extreme fringe” of the movement, there are already anti-abortion groups and candidates running on platforms incredibly similar to what Williamson advocates. 

    Williamson felt so strongly on this topic that he even confirmed at the time to an anti-abortion publication that he meant exactly what he said. Given that right-wing media outlets have regularly participated in or facilitated anti-abortion harassment, it’s not surprising to see a lack of concern about Williamson’s comments. Conservatives may be desperate to change the conversation, but the fact remains: advocating for the brutal execution of people who’ve had abortions isn’t provocative or tolerant -- it’s cruel.

  • The Atlantic fired Kevin Williamson for his abortion comments. Check out all this other stuff he said.

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN & JULIE TULBERT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After previously defending the hiring of former National Review writer Kevin Williamson as an exercise in ideological diversity, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced on April 5 that the outlet was “parting ways” with Williamson. In particular, Goldberg noted that Williamson’s defense of his belief that those who have had abortion should be hanged “runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”

    Although some chose to write off Williamson’s comments on abortion as offhand statements, in reality, Williamson defended and expanded his belief that those who have abortions should face hanging in a 2014 edition of his podcast, “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” In the episode, Williamson said that although he was “kind of squishy on capital punishment in general,” he was “absolutely willing to see abortion treated like regular homicide” and in particular had “a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment.”

    Beyond his statements about abortion, Williamson also has a long resume when it comes to problematic articles and commentary, on a variety of topics.

    Before he was fired, Media Matters was reviewing additional episodes of Williamson’s podcast. Here are some previously unreported lowlights from other subjects Williamson discussed on “Mad Dogs & Englishmen”:

    On race

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: But at the end of the day we also have to pay attention to the actual facts of the case. And the unhappy part of that story is that a lot of the complaint is based on fiction. A lot of what we have to say about it is based on fiction. It just simply is not the case that young black men are getting gunned down, unarmed, by police officers in any sort of significant numbers. It’s just not something that really happens.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: And I don’t think that a lot of people talking about this right now really even quite understand what the basic genesis of these protests were and where they came from. I think [football player Colin] Kaepernick is a fairly unsympathetic character because he seems to be someone who doesn’t actually know very much what he’s talking about and kind of likes to play radical, maybe to make up for the fact that his sports career wasn’t all that promising there at the end.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Yeah, so the kid, as I was noting in my piece, he yells at me and calls me a “cracker” and “white devil” and whatnot. And the kid sort of looked to me like Snoop Dogg, the rapper. And, he had -- he was very thin, had that sort of pointy kind of wry face, and had some braids and everything too. So I mention in my piece, I sort of did the math, he was just under 4 feet high it looked like and Snoop Dogg is a bit over 6 feet high, that he looked like a three-fifth-scale Snoop Dogg. So apparently the fraction three-fifths now, according to Jamelle [Bouie], is inherently racist because --

    CHARLES COOKE (CO-HOST): Because of the Constitution?

    WILLIAMSON: Because of the three-fifths compromise over slavery in the Constitution. In which the unit in question, I note, was not three-fifths of a Snoop Dogg.

    On gender and sexual assault

    CHARLES COOKE (CO-HOST) But this notion that we will make it incumbent upon your boss to provide a health plan, then tell him what has to be in it, and then tell him that it’s none of his business is inherently absurd. 

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Someone just needs to tell these brave feminist warrior princesses fighting the patriarchy that it’s time to stop asking Daddy to buy you stuff.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: This makes me want to bang my head on the table, because it’s just complete B.S. So, this stat that we’re always treated to, endlessly discredited, that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, is produced this way: Take all the earnings of all the women who have full-time jobs and all the earnings of men who have full-time jobs and compare them. Yes, and you will come up with that. But that doesn’t tell you anything about what sort of jobs they’re in, or how long they’ve been in the workforce or what kind of education they have, or anything else.

    [...]

    Now, that may be that some nefarious, sexist cabal somewhere is shunting all the women over into HR and putting the men in sales jobs, but it could also be other things, like choices that people make. Commission sales is an inherently insecure job; women are more risk-averse than men are.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: So, people make different decisions about those sorts of things. And we all know this. I mean, you walk into an elementary school and you notice the male teachers because there’s relatively few of them. You go to other sorts of positions and you’ll notice women there because they stand out because there are relatively few women in those jobs.

    CHARLES COOKE (CO-HOST): Construction.

    WILLIAMSON: Construction, bouncers, things like that. Not that you would go into a strip club, but if you did go into a strip club you would notice a very pronounced division of labor between the people collecting the money at the door and the people performing on stage. They're just -- people make different sorts of decisions about things.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: A lot of the reaction against Trump, and I say this as an up-and-down-the-line anti-Trump guy, isn’t based on his policies, it’s based on the sort of people who are attracted to him and his candidacy. And that’s what was on my mind very much while watching these stupid protests and marches and riots and all of that kind of stuff. I want there to be opposition to Trump, but I want it to be intelligent, mature, patriotic, and authentically liberal opposition to him. Instead, we got a bunch of self-infantilizing people dressed in vagina hats, screaming about tampons and that sort of thing.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: So, let’s see, if the two candidates -- the two major party candidates were Bugs Bunny characters. … [Hillary Clinton is] a slightly Daffy Duck kind of character, I think in some ways. She’s got an annoying voice, she tends to blow herself up when there’s no particular reason to, things just tend not to go right for her, she’s an egomaniac. She could be sort of a Daffy Duck.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: This is something I bang on a lot about I know, and forgive me for bringing it up here again but I think it is relevant, that the idea that there is an epidemic of rape on college campuses is, first of all, demonstrably untrue. That there’s an epidemic of rape anywhere in the country is demonstrably untrue. Sexual assault have declined something like 68 percent in the last 20 years.

    On immigration

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: When I’ve -- I’ve talked about using an income criterion as a kind of cut-off for not all of our immigration problems -- programs -- but a lot of immigration programs, and a pretty high way, say $200,000 a year is more or less OK. There’s background check and other stuff, but if you’re coming in at a wage like that, you’re not being hired probably because you’re the cheapest guy for the job. You’re being hired because someone is looking for a specific set of skills. Because I simply don’t think our country is going to made better off by importing a lot of poor people. It sounds callous to say, but I think we probably have enough poor people in the United States to start with. I don’t really look out at the country and see a shortage.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: One of the other problems with the purely economic libertarian arguments about immigration is that people aren’t capital. They’re just not. They bring other stuff with them. And that stuff has to be taken into consideration, I think, as well. 

    CHARLES COOKE (CO-HOST): Well, and people care about culture.

    WILLIAMSON: Yeah, they do care about culture. And that actually matters and it should be taken into account. And people think this is chauvinistic or racist or Islamophobic or whatnot, but there’s no reason that stuff should not be taken into account because we do care about the composition of our society.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: And this is where people start to get a little nervous on grounds of things that sound like discrimination to us, and maybe it is discrimination in a way. But I think it’s useful and healthy discrimination that obviously people who are looking to immigrate here from Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iran or Saudi Arabia should obviously, in my view, be subject to a much, much higher level of scrutiny than people who are coming here from Switzerland or Sweden.

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON: One of the things I think that we have to be even more forthright about is that we aren’t talking here about a geographic[al] question, we are here talking about a cultural question. We are talking about people who come from Islamic backgrounds. And that’s also going to hold true for many immigrants from the United Kingdom and from other Commonwealth countries that have large immigrant populations of their own from the Middle East. So, I’m thinking that someone who immigrated from Pakistan to the U.K. 20 years ago or 25 years ago, and now the family wants to immigrate to the United States, I would treat them essentially the same way as we would people immigrating from Pakistan. And that gets you into the problem, I guess, where you don’t really get to use the geographic dodge.