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President Donald Trump and other conservative candidates have already signaled that anti-abortion lies will be a core part of their 2020 playbook -- tactics that right-wing media are certain to amplify in order to fearmonger and rally support ahead of the election. In line with this, right-wing outlets have already been badgering Democratic candidates about their stances on abortion access, in some cases smearing them with sensationalized and inaccurate tropes about later abortions.
Following the introduction of measures in New York, Virginia, and other states to ensure abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, right-wing media generated a firestorm of coverage that mischaracterized Democrats’ efforts to protect abortion rights as promoting “infanticide” or so-called abortion “up to birth.” In reality, the idea that abortions happen up to the “moment of birth” is a fiction fueled by right-wing media and does not reflect any actual medical procedures performed in the U.S. Rather, abortions that happen later in pregnancy are performed for complicated personal and medical reasons, with the people anti-choice advocates compare to murderers often having to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy. In other instances, people need abortions later in pregnancy due to anti-choice restrictions prohibiting or greatly delaying earlier access.
Beyond broadly alleging that Democrats support abortion “up to birth,” right-wing media have also promoted the false claim that pro-choice candidates are in favor of denying care to babies “born alive” after so-called “failed abortions.” These alleged “born alive” abortions that right-wing media protest are not based in any medical practice or standard of care, as Rewire.News reported in 2013. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress recently introduced the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to aid so-called “abortion survivors” who are “born alive” following an attempted abortion procedure. As doctors Daniel Grossman and Jennifer Conti pointed out to The New York Times, it is more likely that the bill would force doctors to pursue treatment options that run counter to patients’ wishes -- such as ensuring that a fetus delivered “at the edge of viability” but unlikely to survive could not receive “comfort care” which would “allow the child to die naturally without extreme attempts at resuscitation.” In addition, as writer Robin Marty explained, the bill could also be used opportunistically by anti-choice opponents to prosecute abortion providers.
Right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have used these manufactured controversies as part of a playbook for attacking abortion rights supporters and have already proven they'll deploy the same strategy against candidates. The playbook involves:
Although right-wing media have long represented Democratic positions on abortion in bad faith, the campaign trail has given these outlets more opportunities to hound candidates with inaccurate and sensationalized questions about abortion to intentionally generate outrage. In addition, others in the right-wing and anti-abortion media echo chamber are then able to pick up these comments -- or really any comment from candidates on abortion -- and spin them to fit predetermined anti-choice narratives. Thus far, those anti-choice narratives have been focused on Democrats’ alleged support for abortion “up to birth” or even after.
Unfortunately, this has permeated beyond right-wing media and several outlets outside of this ecosystem have adopted this inaccurate framing. Already in 2019, non-right-wing outlets have uncritically repeated dangerous lies about abortion from Trump’s State of the Union address and echoed the language used by right-wing media and Republicans about efforts to secure a vote for the so-called Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.
Presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) received a flurry of inaccurately framed questions about his stance on abortion in March. On March 18, at a campaign event in Ohio, Millie Weaver (also known as “Millennial Millie”), a staffer from the far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars, questioned O’Rourke about his support for abortion access later in pregnancy. Relying on an inaccurate right-wing framing of the topic, Weaver asked:
Are you for third-trimester abortion or are you going to protect the lives of third-trimester babies? Because there is really not a medical necessity for abortion. It’s not a medical emergency procedure because typically third-trimester abortions take up to three days to have. So, you would -- in that sense, if there was an emergency, the doctors would just do a C-section, and you don’t have to kill the baby in that essence. So, are you for or against third-trimester abortions?
In her subsequent article about the event, Weaver continued to distort the premise of the question, as well as misrepresenting O’Rourke’s answer. Weaver claimed that she asked “if he supports up-to-birth abortions” and that his answer that abortion should be “a decision that the woman makes” showed he “endorses third-trimester abortions.”
After that, O’Rourke was peppered with similar questions about abortion from other right-wing outlets and reporters. For example, after Weaver's question, The Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito -- known for producing “revealing dispatches from Trump country” that have drawn claims of fabrication and plagiarism -- asked O’Rourke whether he supported access to third-trimester abortions “to make sure” there was “clarity” about his previous answer. Zito ultimately wrote that “O’Rourke has refused to rule out abortions more than six months into a pregnancy,” but she noted on Twitter that supporters’ “cheers” in reaction to his answer “told me so much about the state of what Democrats want from their eventual nominee.” Apparently dissatisfied that his answer didn’t garner broader coverage, Zito followed up with another piece about O’Rourke’s “extreme abortion stance” days later, complaining:
It is hard to find any D.C. reporters in a mainstream news organization writing about a viewpoint professed by a Democratic presidential candidate as being “extreme” or “radical.” Yet had this been a Republican candidate coming out in support of something the majority of Americans find impossible to support, it would be a headline for days, followed by asking every Republican running or holding office if they support that radical position as well.
Right-wing media used O’Rourke's answers to these bad faith questions to claim that he supports abortion “up to birth” or beyond and to say that this view represents the Democratic “party line” on abortion. Fox News, Townhall, and The Daily Wire published articles condemning the alleged position of O’Rourke and the Democratic Party on abortion access. Right-wing media figures echoed this approach, with the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro saying on Fox & Friends that “Beto O'Rourke and every other major Democrat feel forced to embrace this position, that you have to be for abortion up to and sometimes beyond the point of birth. It just demonstrates the radicalism of the Democratic Party.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity dedicated an entire opening monologue on March 19 to this claim. Hannity claimed that O’Rourke’s comments were further evidence of the Democratic Party’s “barbaric abortion agenda” and said, “If Democrats get their way, well, third-trimester abortion, including infanticide during and after birth -- well, that would be perfectly legal and readily available. Sadly, they’re fighting for that. They would protect infanticide seemingly above all else.” To further his point, he also displayed this on-screen graphic:
Anti-abortion groups and other conservative figures signal-boosted right-wing media’s claims about the alleged “extremism” of O’Rourke’s position (and by extension, the Democratic Party’s). For example, American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp presented the comments as part of Democrats’ efforts to allow so-called “post-birth abortion.” Anti-abortion group Live Action claimed O’Rourke “barbarically defends abortion until birth." Kristan Hawkins, president of anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, tweeted:
Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List even sent supporters a fundraising appeal citing O’Rourke’s comment, saying the organization needed followers to make “a pro-life contribution” to help the group “fight back in the name of saving ALL babies and to STOP Beto O’Rourke’s extreme pro-abortion and pro-infanticide agenda.”
Outlets outside of the right-wing media ecosystem have also adopted this framing at times without offering pushback. Newsweek published Weaver’s question to O’Rourke (but identified her as “a crowd member”) and O’Rourke’s response, but did not provide adequate context about what support for abortions later in pregnancy means or dispute the flawed premise of Weaver’s question. The Hill also reported on O’Rourke’s responses to Weaver and to the Washington Examiner, but focused on his “fundraising status” and "national prominence” without noting the flawed basis of the questioning itself.
During a Fox News town hall event, candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was also asked an inaccurate question based on anti-abortion misinformation. Notably, Fox News is attempting to leverage Democratic candidate town halls to sanitize the network’s image, which is currently suffering as companies become less willing to associate with its toxic commentary. During Sanders’ town hall, anchor Martha MacCallum -- who works on Fox’s “news” side but has a history of pushing anti-abortion lies -- asked Sanders, “With regard to abortion, do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”
Sanders’ answer that abortion in the third-trimester "happens very rarely” and “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician” predictably evoked the ire of right-wing and anti-abortion media, with one headline proclaiming “Bernie Sanders Supports Abortions Up to Birth, Okay to Kill Babies Up to Birth Because ‘It’s Rare.’” During the April 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said of Sanders’ comments, “Like 10 years ago, that would be considered like an extreme position. Today, it's the moderate position in the Democratic Party. Some are defending ‘infanticide’ just flat-out. Safe, legal, and rare. No. That's not at all the position today. It should be free, frequent, and horrifying.” Anti-abortion advocate Lila Rose similarly (and inaccurately) summarized Sanders’ response:
In March, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) received a question about the so-called “Born Alive” bill when someone in a crowd shouted at her, “What about the babies that survive abortion? How come they can’t have health care?” Warren replied that “infanticide is illegal everywhere in America” and moved on. Despite Warren’s accurate characterization of the bill, right-wing outlets spun the answer as Warren defending her “abortion extremism” or intentionally avoiding answering the question.
In April, candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said people have started to ask him if he voted for a bill that allows “us to kill babies when they’re born.” Booker responded by saying, “That is a felony” and explaining that the bill (meaning the “Born Alive” bill) was “put forth to try to create schisms and differences between us.” Predictably, anti-abortion and right-wing media claimed Booker was “defending voting for infanticide.”
Right-wing and anti-abortion media utilized comments from South Bend, IN, Mayor and candidate Pete Buttigieg about abortion and reproductive rights to push misinformation -- with at least one outlet outside of right-wing media circles falling for this false premise in subsequent coverage.
Following comments from Buttigieg in March that he supported measures introduced to protect abortion access in Virginia and New York, National Review’s David French argued that Buttigieg “has zero appeal to religious conservatives so long as he holds to the Democratic party line on the right of a woman to hire a doctor to kill a viable, living unborn baby.” During Buttigieg’s candidacy announcement speech, he said that “women’s equality is freedom, because you’re not free if your reproductive health choices are dictated by male politicians or bosses.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham argued during the April 15 edition of her show that Buttigieg’s vision of “reproductive freedom” apparently does not include “the unborn child in the womb or, for that matter, the child born ... after a botched abortion in this new Democrat Party. I don't see the freedom there.”
This framing spread beyond the right-wing media echo chamber on the April 18 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. During the segment, co-host Willie Geist asked Buttigieg about third-trimester abortions, and, after Buttigieg noted that it can be an “incredibly painful set of decisions in these horrifying medical cases,” Geist said, “But to people who would criticize that, they’d say, ‘Actually there is a pretty easy answer -- that’s a fundamental child in the third term … of pregnancy, that is a human being who could be born alive and have a great and full life,’ and so it is a pretty easy question to people who would criticize your answer.” Geist’s question relied on right-wing framing and anti-abortion misinformation that he and the other hosts did not refute. The back-and-forth was picked up by right-wing and anti-abortion outlets, which spread further misinformation about Buttigieg’s answer, with LifeNews.com tweeting that Buttigieg “is perfectly fine with killing defenseless unborn babies in abortions right up to birth.”
In each instance, right-wing media relied on either inaccurately framed questions or dishonest spin to generate outrage and drive additional news cycles about alleged Democratic extremism on abortion.
Beyond peppering Democratic candidates with incendiary and inaccurately framed questions about abortion, right-wing media have also attempted to propagate the idea that there is “grassroots” opposition to supporting abortion access. Following the introduction of Virginia and New York’s recent measures, right-wing media heavily promoted the narrative that Democrats are pushing an “extreme” position on abortion that is not supported by their base. This is an approach that the Republican Party -- including Trump himself -- has adopted as part of a 2020 election strategy at both the federal and the state level. Right-wing media and Republicans previously deployed this strategy during the ultimately failed 2017 special election for U.S. Senate in Alabama.
Right-wing media have also attempted to extrapolate about voters’ probable opposition to a candidate’s position on abortion based on polling about specific abortion policies or viewpoints. Most frequently, right-wing media have touted polls claiming to represent likely voters’ support for bans on abortion after 20 weeks -- which would include procedures performed in both the second and the third trimester. While some polls have suggested that support for abortion access decreases as a pregnancy advances, polls that provide adequate context about the specific circumstances surrounding why a person would choose to have an abortion after 20 weeks don’t show the same results. In fact, as experts have explained, these polls better reflect the reality of abortion later in pregnancy and thus show that people support maintaining this health care option.
To prove allegations of so-called Democratic extremism, right-wing media have cherry-picked examples of people opposing abortion and presented these views as being widely held. For example, after O’Rourke responded to Infowars' question, Fox & Friends First aired two segments that shared the thoughts of random Twitter users who disliked his answer:
On Fox News’ Hannity, Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones was sent to Texas to ask voters about O’Rourke’s alleged position on abortion, with many in the resulting segment claiming he was problematically extreme.
Some right-wing media also specifically noted when questions came from non-media participants in an effort to imply that those questioners represented the views of many voters. For example, on One America News’ The Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler applauded a “student who asked a question” about abortion, saying “professional reporters” wouldn’t do it “because Beto’s a Democrat, and the mainstream media wants to protect the left.” Conversely, many right-wing media outlets failed to note that Weaver, who asked O’Rourke if he would “protect the lives of third-trimester babies,” works for Infowars. The Daily Caller, Fox News, TheBlaze, Washington Free Beacon, and National Review credited either an “attendee” or “a woman” at the event for the question.
Right-wing media have also pointed to imprecise polling on abortion and a supposed lack of public support for the health care staple in discussions of candidates' answers. Townhall’s Lauretta Brown wrote that O’Rourke’s answer about abortion to Infowars “marks a significant departure from public opinion and state laws.” CBN News said the Democratic presidential candidates “are out of step with the public.” After candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) answered a question on abortion during MSNBC’s Morning Joe by saying “the reality of it is that you got to protect the woman’s right to choose,” Townhall’s Guy Benson tweeted that Ryan was “pandering to” a supposedly extreme position that he claimed was only “shared by roughly one-fifth of the electorate.” The Washington Free Beacon also wrote that Booker had cast votes against anti-abortion legislation “despite popular public opinion” supporting them.
These assertions are largely based on polling that asks generic questions about abortion. However, polling that puts into context why someone would have an abortion after 20 weeks shows a different result. There’s a drastic drop in support for 20-week bans when people realize that abortions in later stages of pregnancy are often undertaken out of medical necessity or for particular personal circumstances. For example, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that when asked in the abstract about later abortion, “less than a quarter of people (23%) believe women should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks.” However, that flipped when people were asked about access to a later abortion when a pregnant person had been infected with the Zika virus -- with results showing “a majority of Americans (59%) believe a woman should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks” in that situation. In other words, as Hart Research Associates found, “once voters consider the range of circumstances in which abortions would be made illegal under most 20-week abortion ban proposals, a majority of Americans oppose them.”
In each instance, right-wing media have relied on selective samples of public opinion and opinion polling to give the appearance of widespread opposition to Democratic support for abortion access. In reality, right-wing media have been intentionally fearmongering about so-called Democratic extremism on abortion as part of a 2020 strategy being pushed by Trump and other members of his administration.
Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media have also tried spinning non-abortion comments from candidates to fit anti-abortion groups' stereotypes about Democrats. Right-wing media relied on this approach to spread misinformation and stigma before, employing similar spin to try to connect abortion to the Parkland school shooting, the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and Christine Blasey Ford’s report that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.
At a CNN town hall, when Warren said her “favorite Bible verse” includes the lesson that “there is value in every single human being,” the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America asked, “But only the ones that are wanted? What about the ones who survive an abortion?” Warren repeated this comment on her Twitter account, prompting The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh to claim that her comment proved Democrats “will actually jump on any opportunity to extol the virtue of human life and the value of human life,” but “you would think they would avoid talking about that because they know 60 million babies have been slaughtered in the womb and they are perfectly OK with that.” He also asserted:
Even though the Democratic Party is the party of Satan, and even though it has embraced satanism and it has embraced infanticide and all of these forms of just the most -- the darkest, most debauched, evil you can imagine, even in spite of all that, still most Democrats feel the need to pretend to be Christian.
In response to a tweet from candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) explaining her belief that “housing is a basic human right,” anti-abortion activist Lila Rose replied, “If housing is a basic human right, then I imagine you’re even more passionate about the right for a child to be born?” Following comments from Buttigieg about Trump’s religion, Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy dismissed his criticism because Buttigieg “is a guy who is on the record as a supporter of late-term abortion.” Tucker Carlson said on his show of Buttigieg, “This is a guy telling us what a great Christian he is, who’s for abortion up until birth and for sex-selection. Spare me your Christian talk, please. It's absurd.”
Similarly, when candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called Trump “a coward,” right-wing radio host Stacy Washington replied, “You believe in abortion up to birth, gun confiscation, open borders and limp-wristed governance. You have no room to call anyone a coward.” When Gillibrand later tweeted about legislation she introduced that would “limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to 7 days,” Fox News’ Brit Hume replied with an inaccurate comparison between her comments and the idea that abortion should be between a patient and a doctor. He wasn’t the only one to make this inaccurate “joke.”
Anti-abortion activist Alveda King wrote a piece for Newsmax claiming that “Booker is touting a new reparations bill for African Americans while secretly supporting an agenda of genocide and infanticide by abortion of millions of black babies.” After comments from candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) that the “number one cause of death for a black child in America today is gun violence,” LifeNews.com tweeted, “Actually @ericswalwell the #1 killer of black children is abortion.”
Right-wing media regularly dominate the conversation about abortion -- so it is unsurprising that these outlets are working overtime to drive an inaccurate narrative in advance of the 2020 election. Trump and the GOP have emphasized anti-abortion misinformation as a core part of their electoral strategies, and right-wing media have already shown their willingness to manufacture or signal boost these attacks. It is crucial for other media outlets to recognize these tactics and provide important context, rather than repeating lies and misinformation from these sources.
Graphics by Melissa Joskow
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President Donald Trump used his 2019 State of the Union address to promote right-wing media lies about state measures protecting abortion access. While media outlets struggled at times to properly contextualize and refute Trump’s misinformation, some outlets held Trump accountable by debunking his false, anti-choice statements and providing their audiences with accurate information about abortion.
Joe Scarborough inaccurately claims Democrats “do not understand how out of step with American they are” on abortion
The morning after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, MSNBC’s Morning Joe not only promoted his misleading comments about abortion procedures, but the hosts also echoed weeks of sensationalized and inaccurate right-wing media coverage about support for state measures to protect abortion access.
During his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump repeated talking points from a scandal manufactured by right-wing media alleging that Democrats support state bills supposedly legalizing “infanticide” or abortions “up to moment of birth.” In his speech, Trump said that a law in New York "would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth" and that a Virginia bill would allow providers to "execute a baby after birth." He called on Congress "to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children." In reality, Democratic legislators in New York recently passed legislation to codify abortion protections from Roe v. Wade at the state level, and Virginia Democrats introduced a bill to remove unnecessary burdens to abortion access, which has since been tabled. In response, right-wing media have spent much of the past few weeks fearmongering about abortion procedures and spreading misinformation that Democrats are extreme for protecting abortion access.
Although this misinformation has been primarily pushed by right-wing media, the February 6 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe was an example of a program repeating these inaccurate talking points to a broader audience. In discussing Trump's address, co-host Joe Scarborough said, “Democrats have a blind spot. They do not understand how out of step with America they are” for “passing extreme late-term abortion legislation,” and he further claimed that it “will cost them votes in states they will need in 2020 if they don't recognize it as a national party.” Co-host Willie Geist agreed, pointing to a June 2018 Gallup poll he said showed a lack of support for so-called “late-term abortion.”
By repeating these anti-choice talking points, Morning Joe amplified right-wing misinformation to an audience beyond Fox News. For example, “late-term abortion” is a medically inaccurate term used to suggest that abortions that happen later in pregnancy are too “extreme,” as Scarborough claimed. In reality, abortions that take place later in pregnancy are extremely rare and often performed for medical necessity or due to access barriers created by anti-choice politicians. Some media outlets’ characterization of these abortion procedures as happening “at birth” -- or in some cases, allegedly after -- is simply wrong; according to medical professionals, such a scenario “does not occur.” Treating abortions later in pregnancy as an “extreme” procedure is stigmatizing to patients and glosses over the specifics of their experiences. As a number of later abortion patients explained in an open letter, “The stories we hear being told about later abortion in this national discussion are not our stories. They do not reflect our choices or experiences. These hypothetical patients don’t sound like us or the other patients we know.”
Morning Joe similarly misinformed viewers about polls showing support for abortions that happen later in pregnancy. Although right-wing media often claim that supporting abortion rights is harmful to the Democratic Party's electoral chances, this is an oversimplification. Polling on abortion-related issues is notoriously complicated, requiring clear questions and language that accurately reflects the realities of abortion access and procedures. Support for abortions later in pregnancy increases when people are provided context explaining that abortions at this stage are often undertaken out of medical necessity or in response to complex personal circumstances.
This isn’t even the first time that Morning Joe has uncritically adopted inaccurate abortion-related talking points from Republicans and right-wing media. During Sen. Doug Jones's (D-AL) special election in Alabama, a Morning Joe panel similarly attempted to make the case that Jones’ “extreme” stance on abortions after 20 weeks would ensure his defeat -- based, in part, on polling about support for abortion restrictions. They were wrong.
From the February 6 edition of Morning Joe:
JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): I do want to just say for Democrats, because it hasn't been mentioned much in the mainstream media, and I’m glad you brought up the late-term abortion legislation passed in New York and Virginia. This is such a blind spot for Democrats, just like NRA actions after Sandy Hook, the video games and, again, refusing to pass any reasonable, rational legislation, painted Republicans as extremists. Democrats have a blind spot. They do not understand how out of step with America they are. Not only passing extreme late-term abortion legislation, but then celebrating it. It's a real blind spot for Democrats that will cost them votes in states they will need in 2020 if they don't recognize it as a national party.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): Couple of other blind spots we’re going to get to.
WILLIE GEIST (CO-HOST): The most recent reliable polling comes from last June from Gallup shows that 13 percent of Americans support late-term abortion -- 13 percent. By the way, that includes only 18 percent of Democrats --
SCARBOROUGH: Which --
GEIST: -- to your point.
SCARBOROUGH: -- by the way, guess what, that's about the same number that are opposed to background checks for terrorists and domestic abusers and all the others.
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In a 6-hour period, CNN and MSNBC each spent nearly an hour discussing the op-ed
CNN and MSNBC spent a large portion of the first non-holiday day of 2019 talking about … Sen.-elect Mitt Romney (R-UT). Between 6 a.m. and noon on January 2, CNN and MSNBC each spent nearly an hour discussing Romney’s Washington Post op-ed criticizing President Donald Trump's character, while Fox News spent about 25 minutes on the subject. For those hoping the media would focus on the important issues facing Americans in 2019, the oversaturation of Romney coverage shows that getting their priorities straight might be a bigger hurdle for cable news than they expected.
On January 1, the Post published an anti-Trump op-ed in which Romney noted that “on balance, [Trump’s] conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
The cable morning news shows -- on CNN and MSNBC especially -- were quick to jump on the topic the following day. CNN’s New Day and MSNBC’s Morning Joe each spent just over half an hour discussing Romney’s op-ed -- one-sixth of their total three-hour airtime (without even accounting for commercial breaks). Fox & Friends spent 12 minutes on the topic.
In total, CNN spent roughly 57 minutes discussing Romney’s op-ed, MSNBC spent almost 51 minutes, and Fox News spent approximately 25 minutes on the topic during the six-hour period Media Matters examined.
That is an exceeding amount of coverage for an op-ed from an incoming senator, even when that senator is Mitt Romney. This isn’t to say that the op-ed isn’t newsworthy at all, but given that Romney and Trump have been squabbling back and forth for years, it’s not particularly notable. And if Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is any indication, being a Republican senator critical of Trump oftentimes amounts to a lot of talk and no action. As 2019 begins and coverage ramps up for the 2020 presidential election, it’s important that cable news re-examines its priorities and focuses on the issues and policy topics that matter to Americans -- not the insults and meaningless fights between politicians vying for their attention.
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Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
Lazy conventional wisdom is running abound in horse race coverage of the upcoming midterm elections.
The October 22 broadcast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe devoted a lengthy segment to claims that the Democratic Party has no messaging or, if it does, the message is packaged incorrectly. This evaluation of Democratic Party election efforts is evidence-free -- Democrats have largely coalesced around the issue of health care -- and it is also a gift to the Republican Party, as it plays into the argument that Democrats have no principles or plan for governance.
Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski opened the discussion by saying, “Donald Trump is talking about trade, crime, immigration, and judges. What are the Democratic issues that pack the same kind of inspiring emotional punch? Democrats can still win these midterms, but with time running out, the message and the momentum appears to be on Donald Trump’s side.”
Brzezinski's claim that Democrats have no response to Trump’s midterm rhetoric probably says more about the beltway press -- which tends to cover Trump's every move, at the expense of other topics -- than about reality.
What is happening on the ground tells a different story. Although it is important to note that the idea that a party needs a singular national message to be successful in elections is itself largely empty conventional wisdom, Democrats have unified to a great extent around the issue of health care in their messaging. Wesleyan Media Project -- an initiative that tracks and analyzes all broadcast election ads -- found in a September analysis that “Pro-Democratic messaging in federal races is concentrated primarily on healthcare, with 44 percent of airings in U.S. House races and 50 percent of airings in U.S. Senate races featuring the topic.” An October 18 report from the project stated, “It’s official: the 2018 midterms are about health care.” The “typical” message, according to an analysis by Vox, is that “the Republicans voted to take away people’s health care and end Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions.”
The media, however, have largely not been interested in covering health care policy, which could explain the perception that Democrats have no message on the issue. An October 19 Media Matters analysis found that broadcast nightly news shows did not air a single substantive segment about health care policy between January 1 and October 18
Despite Brzezinski's suggestion that Democrat messaging is inept, polling suggests that what the Democrats are doing is working. According to Morning Consult, a survey research company, the “strategy” to focus on health care “is paying off” because it is a high priority issue for voters and “voters who say health care is their top priority favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 28 points.”
Republicans have also been clearly put on the defensive by this messaging strategy. As The New York Times reported on October 16, “For months, Democratic candidates have been running hard on health care, while Republicans have said little about it. In a sign of the issue’s potency, Republicans are now playing defense, releasing a wave of ads promising they will preserve protections for Americans with pre-existing health conditions.” (It should be noted that these ads include false claims -- many of the Republicans running them have clear voting records of supporting legislation that would threaten mandatory coverage of pre-existing conditions.)
After Brzezinski’s opening, co-host Joe Scarborough and frequent show panelist Mike Barnicle offered a factually incorrect analysis of Democrats’ communication strategy around health care. They both essentially attacked Democrats for not effectively messaging on the issue, even though Democrats are actually messaging in the ways that Scarborough and Barincle said they should be.
Scarborough said, “So, if the Republican issue that they’re going to lean on is immigration, the Democratic issue is health care. I haven’t heard a compelling argument about health care.” He then claimed, “All they would have to say is the same exact thing that [then-President] Bill Clinton said [in 1996] for the next two weeks and they’d win a landslide and it’s this: Republicans are coming for your Medicare to pay for their tax cuts for the rich. … All they have to say is Republicans are coming after your Social Security and your Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Boom. They can’t put a sentence together like that. They are incapable.”
But that is largely what Democrats are saying. According to the Wesleyan analysis, ads supporting Democrats running for House seats are mentioning health care 44 percent of the time, Medicare 18 percent of the time, Social Security 17 percent of the time, and taxes 14 percent of the time. So what Scarborough says Democrats are incapable of talking about are actually the four top issues that they are messaging on:
And in the Senate, Democrats are mentioning health care in 50 percent of ads and prescription drugs in 16 percent of ads.
Barnicle went a step further, saying of Democrats running for House seats: “All they talk about is impeaching the president, when all they would have to do, as Joe just referenced, is go to the country and say, ‘If you have a child who is sick, you better pray that the Republicans don’t take control again because your child will be in severe danger of losing health care.’” But as the Weslayan analysis showed, in the House, Democrats are running on health care, not impeachment.
Another example of lazy horse race coverage occurred during the October 22 broadcast of CNN’s New Day when David Gregory said: “It’s also disturbing -- I mean, if you look at both parties, what they are really selling their supporters is anger and fear. That’s the vision for the country, which is pretty ugly during an ugly time following an ugly political episode with the confirmation of Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh.”
There is really no comparison between Republicans and Democrats engaging in fearmongering as an election tactic. For weeks, Trump, the GOP, and its conservative media allies have argued without evidence that the Republican supporters are in danger of being killed by angry mobs of Democrats. And now Trump and his allies are coalescing on racist messaging that a caravan of migrants from Central America is poised to invade the U.S. While examples of divisive Democratic messaging can certainly be found, two of the party’s most high-profile candidates -- Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum -- have made aspirational messaging about healing political divides in the U.S. a primary argument of their candidacies.
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) October 22, 2018
Horse race punditry is often shallow on election coverage, but analysis should not be so poor that it is clearly at odds with reality.
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A segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe covering Serena Williams’ loss in the U.S. Open final included commentary by three white pundits, who all criticized Williams, and a sole Black commentator, who defended her actions and argued that she set a good example for young women. The segment was a stark example of why newsroom diversity matters, and what happens when the dominant voices in the media are white ones.
During the match, chair umpire Carlos Ramos repeatedly penalized Williams. Many in the media and on social media platforms have noted the gendered and racist nature of the violations against Williams. Some pointed out that male players have rarely been penalized for similar actions or for showing emotion on the court.
The three white commentators on Morning Joe seemed largely unmoved by these arguments. Mike Lupica, a sports journalist, argued that Williams was “was out of line” and claimed that she had “priors at this event,” referring to past instances where Williams reacted strongly at the tournament. He also attempted to disconnect the umpire’s decisions from Williams’ race, suggesting that the violations could not have been rooted in racism because Williams’ opponent Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian descent. Co-host Joe Scarborough attempted to dismiss arguments of sexism, denying that the extreme, and often unpenalized, rants of former men's tennis player John McEnroe demonstrate that Williams was treated differently because of her gender. Instead he claimed that Williams was penalized because “the codes, a lot of the standards were changed to stop the sort of verbal abuse that John McEnroe heaped on umps.” His co-host Mika Brzezinski claimed that Williams’ behavior is not “becoming whether a man does it or a woman does it.”
The only commentator who defended Williams’ actions was Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, who also happened to be the only Black person included in the segment. Glaude noted that the umpire’s decision was akin to “throwing Lebron James out in Game 7.” He said he understood “exactly her emotion, her anger” and argued that Williams was “absolutely justified in standing up for herself” and “point[ing] out the very gendered way in which she was responded to.” He also suggested that, “every young girl in this country who saw it should look up to her in that moment and stand up for themselves and not be disciplined by how they're supposed to behave in those moments.”
From the September 10 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
Glaude’s empathy for Williams, as compared to Lupica, Scarborough, and Brzezinski’s apathy, is evidence of the importance of cable programs having diverse voices, especially while discussing issues of race and gender. But, while the systemic racism and overwhelming whiteness of media is a problem for many reasons, it's also an accuracy problem:
The absence of people of color in newsrooms and on television allows the biases of white journalists and commentators to go unchecked, resulting in reporting that often overlooks important angles, privileges one side of a story, and fails to provide necessary context to understand news events.
Media diversity isn't a luxury good that can be jettisoned for the sake of convenience. White newsrooms are broken newsrooms.