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  • Wash. Post health care reporter has a history of spreading misinformation about abortion

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN & JULIE TULBERT

    On February 14, Washington Post health care reporter Paige Winfield Cunningham garnered significant attention for tweeting that it was “super weird how people are blaming their diminished sense of well-being on the Trump administration” when “personal events determine [her] quality of life; not who’s in the [White House].” Beyond this insensitive tweet, Winfield Cunningham also has a history of spreading right-wing misinformation about abortion and reproductive health in her reporting.

  • David Brooks gets everything wrong about abortion after 20 weeks

    ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

    After The New York Times published an op-ed by columnist David Brooks claiming Democrats need to support a 20-week abortion ban to remain electorally competitive, several media outlets and pro-choice groups wrote responses that called out Brooks’ inaccurate assumptions. These responses not only highlighted how 20-week bans are based on junk science, but also underscored how the reality of later abortions makes support for abortion access a winning issue for Democrats.

  • The most extreme right-wing reactions to Cecile Richards' departure from Planned Parenthood

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

    On January 24, BuzzFeed reported that Cecile Richards plans to step down as president of Planned Parenthood. Richards confirmed the news on January 26, saying she is departing the organization some time this year. Immediately, anti-abortion and right-wing media and groups took the opportunity to smear Richards and Planned Parenthood in a number of outlandish ways.

    • The Federalist inaccurately claimed that Richards was leaving “amid an ongoing federal investigation.” The story pointed as evidence to the Department of Justice’s procedural request to the Senate judiciary committee in December 2017 for documents related to the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) discredited videos, which purport to show Planned Parenthood engaged in illicit practices.
    • Anti-abortion outlet LifeSiteNews published a piece that quoted CMP’s founder David Daleiden who alleged that Richards was leaving because “the secret is out that Planned Parenthood is a taxpayer-sponsored crime syndicate of industrial-scale child killing."
    • On One America News’ Tipping Point with Liz Wheeler, host Liz Wheeler said that although some might refer to her as "a conspiracy theorist,” her previous segment “about the legacy of Cecile Richards” was “666 words exactly.” She made the same point on Twitter.
    • Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue’s Senior Vice President Cheryl Sullenger -- who served two years in prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic -- posted on social media a series of photoshopped images of Richards wearing an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell and used a variety of hashtags, such as #ReleaseTheMemo and #Qanon. Sullenger’s use of the hashtags was likely an attempt to connect Richards’ departure to the right-wing campaign against special counsel Robert Mueller and the conspiracy theory thread on 8chan message board, respectively.

    • The Stream, an outlet founded by televangelist James Robison, posted a story titled “Can Cecile Richards Live With All the Ghosts?”

    • The Daily Wire called Richards “Planned Parenthood’s chief maniacal ghoul” and stated that “we can only hope Cecile Richards returns swiftly to the obscurity of whichever cavern of Hell spawned her.” The image accompanying the article -- titled “3.5 Million People Are Dead Today Because Of Cecile Richards” -- depicted Richards with devil horns and tail, photoshopped on an ultrasound image of a fetus with a halo.

    • Fake news purveyor Conservative Tribune responded to news of Richards’ departure, commenting, “It takes a special kind of evil to go to sleep at night knowing babies are being killed under your watch.”
    • Catholic newspaper National Catholic Register published a blog post that asked, “Does Richards sleep well at night, or are sleeping pills required to stop the nightmares of babies’ souls that come to visit?”
    • After Hillary Clinton tweeted at Richards thanking her for her work, far-right blog The Gateway Pundit published a piece titled, “Hillary Clinton Thanks Planned Parenthood Pres Cecile Richards For Overseeing the Murder of Millions of Babies - Twitter Responds.”

  • The 5 worst takes from coverage of the 2018 March for Life

    How media outlets promoted problematic narratives and anti-abortion misinformation

    ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

    On January 19, the annual March for Life was held in Washington D.C. In covering both the anti-abortion protest and the lead-up to it, some media outlets promoted problematic narratives and anti-abortion misinformation.

  • Crisis pregnancy centers hurt people, and it's time the media noticed

    In 2018, the Supreme Court will hear a case about regulating the deceptive practices of crisis pregnancy centers

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In 2018, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a California law requiring crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) -- anti-abortion organizations that erroneously represent themselves as comprehensive reproductive care clinics -- to inform patients about their eligibility for low-cost reproductive health services, including abortion. If previous abortion-related cases are any indication, before the Supreme Court even hears oral arguments, media will be inundated with attempts by abortion opponents to downplay CPCs’ deceptive tactics and instead promote CPCs as harmless institutions simply trying to protect their freedom of speech.

    On November 13, the Supreme Court agreed to hear National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, a case that involves a California statute called the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act. Under California’s FACT Act, licensed CPCs are required to display a notice at their facility and in their advertising materials that states that California provides “immediate free or low-cost” reproductive services, which includes abortion. Unlicensed CPCs are required to post a notice that they are not a medical facility and do not have a medical professional doing on-site supervision. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) -- which represents both licensed and unlicensed CPCs in California -- challenged the law as a violation of their CPCs' free speech rights to not promote abortion or contraceptives. The lower courts ruled in favor of upholding the state law, and the case is now before the Supreme Court.

    Although the case will likely not be decided until summer 2018, right-wing media have already started to spin the California law as an attack on CPC’s free speech rights, as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson did during a November 15 segment of his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight. According to Carlson, California is “forcing” CPCs “to provide information on how to get a state-subsidized abortion.” Carlson also incorrectly implied that CPCs should not be regulated because they are “not hurting anybody.”

    CPCs are deceptive organizations that often rely on fearmongering, deceptive advertising, and medical misinformation to scare or persuade individuals into continuing pregnancies. As proceedings around NIFLA v. Becerra ramp up in 2018, here are some of the harmful tactics and impacts of CPCs that media should not ignore.

    The impact and tactics of crisis pregnancy centers

    CPCs have a significantly negative impact on access to comprehensive reproductive health care

    CPCs fail to provide comprehensive reproductive health services

    CPCs don’t address the health care needs of those most requiring low-cost service

    CPCs employ a variety of tactics meant to deceive individuals seeking abortion

    Deceptive advertising

    In-clinic misinformation and tactics

    Media manipulation and outreach

    CPCs have a significantly negative impact on access to comprehensive reproductive health care

    CPCs fail to provide comprehensive reproductive health services

    CPCs often position themselves as providing a full set of comprehensive reproductive health care services. For example, The Weekly Standard wrote that CPCs have such services as “pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and testing for sexually transmitted infections,” “onsite prenatal programs,” and “material assistance” for low-income individuals. Similarly, abortion opponents often advocate that Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health clinics are unnecessary because some CPCs provide identical or even better care for less money.

    In reality, many CPCs fail to provide the same range of services that Planned Parenthood and other clinics do -- and, yes, that list includes abortion. Broadly’s Callie Beusman detailed the services of one CPC in Hartford, CT, called Hartford Women’s Center, which provided “no STI testing, no well women exams, no prenatal care, no birth control,” although these were all services (in addition to abortion) available at the actual reproductive health clinic, Hartford GYN Center, next door. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) stated that CPCs “use deceptive practices to entice women into the center,” which “purposefully lead women to believe that they will receive comprehensive health information.” However, as NWLC’s explained:

    However, many of the over 4,000 CPCs in the United States have no licensed medical personnel and provide no referrals for birth control or abortion care. What is worse, they fail to disclose this to women who are seeking accurate and timely health information. Once women are in the door, CPCs then give misleading and false information about birth control, emergency contraception, and abortion care in order to stop women from using or obtaining these critical health care services. This undermines women’s ability to make informed decisions about their pregnancies.

    CPCs don’t address the health care needs of those most requiring low-cost services

    The inadequate care provided by CPCs exacerbates the lack of access to health services experienced by already vulnerable communities. This problem is compounded by the fact that some CPCs receive federal and state funding through both direct or indirect avenues, depriving programs dedicated to facilitating actual health care access of resources.

    As Reproaction’s Erin Matson and Pamela Merritt explained, “Not only do the individuals seeking information and services from crisis pregnancy centers suffer, communities as a whole pay the price.” As but one example, the authors pointed to Missouri where “funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are diverted to go toward the Alternatives to Abortion Program,” which allocates funding to CPCs. As they described, although Missouri “has the second-highest number of food-insecure residents in the country,” funds for TANF are instead diverted to the deceptive work of CPCs to the tune of $2 million in 2016 and at least $4.3 million in 2017. Missouri is not alone: When Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he signed a contract giving part of the funding for TANF to the state’s Real Alternatives CPC program.

    Perhaps the most illustrative example of how CPCs can take millions in state funding without providing any comprehensive reproductive services for low-income people can be seen in the failure of The Heidi Group in Texas. In 2016, Texas awarded a $1.6 million contract to The Heidi Group -- an anti-abortion organization run by serial misinformer Carol Everett -- for the purpose of providing low-cost reproductive health care. As Rewire reported, “The Heidi Group had never before provided health care services,” and had “focused predominantly on supporting anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.” Unsurprisingly, despite promising to improve health care access, The Heidi Group directed the funding to CPCs, which were unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge. In 2017, the Associated Press reported that the efforts of The Heidi Group were “quietly sputtering” and that the organization had “little to show for its work.” As the Dallas Morning News stated, the group had “no fresh initiative of social media outreach, no overhaul of outdated clinic websites, no public service announcements, no 1-800 hotline to help low-income women find affordable services in their communities.” As a result, in August 2017, Texas took back some of the money awarded to The Heidi Group.

    Low-income individuals who rely on a CPC for either health care needs or material support could find that such services stop once they reach a certain point in pregnancy. Elite Daily spoke with one abortion clinic provider in Connecticut who detailed the story of a woman who went to a CPC and was “promised money, baby clothes, and furniture,” but “once she got to her 24th week of pregnancy, the point at which abortion is illegal in Connecticut,” the CPC “discontinued contact with her.” According to the provider, this situation was not “a rare occasion.”

    Beyond CPCs’ inconsistent support for low-income patients, some of these centers go out of their way to target communities of color. In a 2013 report, NWLC identified that some national associations of CPCs emphasize outreach to black communities because “of the high rates of abortion in certain communities” -- a statistic that gets used by abortion opponents to suggest that abortion providers are engaged in so-called “black genocide.” As NWLC explained, high rates of abortion are due to high rates of unintended pregnancy which “reflect widespread disparities in health outcomes and access to health care which are in turn influenced by social factors such as income, education, employment and earnings, and neighborhoods” -- inequalities not addressed by CPCs.

    Access to reproductive services is already complicated by recent attacks on Planned Parenthood funding, as well as wider clinic closures that “leave low-income women with few alternatives for reproductive and preventive health care.” In addition, because the Hyde Amendment restricts Medicaid funding for abortions except under limited circumstances, many low-income people are left without a means to pay for abortions, which can reach staggering out-of-pocket costs. As Jessica Arons, the former president of Reproductive Health Technologies explained, “Women of color are particularly burdened by the Hyde Amendment, as they are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty, enrolled in Medicaid and at the highest risk for unintended pregnancy.”

    CPCs employ a variety of tactics meant to deceive individuals seeking abortion

    Deceptive advertising

    CPCs begin their deception before people ever step into their clinics, using deceptive advertising to imitate abortion clinics.

    On November 8, the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general about a CPC called Attleboro Women’s Health Center (AWHC), which the watchdog said “masquerades as an abortion clinic.” The complaint alleged that despite the AWHC not offering any abortion care, the website was full of misinformation suggesting otherwise:

    AWHC hosts a website, the home page of which includes tabs for “Abortion Pill” and “Surgical Abortion.” The site even lists costs for these services. Hidden in a different portion of the site is a disclaimer noting AWHC does not “offer, recommend, or refer for abortions or abortifacients.” In addition, the website is riddled with exaggerations and inaccuracies regarding abortion, listing psychological risks associated with abortion and advertising an abortion reversal option, all of which has been debunked by medical experts.

    As Rewire noted before the complaint was filed, AWHC’s website also contained “a near-verbatim repetition of the stated mission of the abortion clinic nearby: ‘to empower women to make informed decisions that support their privacy, dignity and self-respect.’” Later, AWHC deleted this passage and other misleading claims from its website.

    AWHC’s advertising and imitation tactics are, unfortunately, not an anomaly. In another striking example, the anti-abortion organization Human Coalition (which both supports and runs CPCs) centered its mission on using “internet search engine marketing” to target what it calls “abortion-determined” people in order to redirect them from abortion clinics to one of its CPCs. Human Coalition places ads on Google using “keywords” that people seeking abortions might use to locate a clinic, even though Human Coalition does not provide and will not refer anyone for an abortion. Those ads direct people to landing pages that have Human Coalition’s call center number, where Human Coalition employees then try to dissuade them from abortion. Although Human Coalition has become particularly adept at this tactic, Broadly detailed a similar practice used by Heartbeat International (HBI) -- a national association of CPCs. As Broadly found, in its “2014 annual report, HBI boasted that ‘a woman who makes a Google search such as “pregnant and scared” finds a local Heartbeat International affiliate or Option Line in her search,’” even though Heartbeat International’s CPCs do not perform or refer for abortions.

    Efforts to remove deceptive ads placed by CPCs have seen mixed results. A December 2017 investigation by Rewire found that in a Google search “for ‘abortion’ in 40 randomly selected mid-sized and major U.S. cities” there was “at least one anti-choice fake clinic ad nearly 40 percent of the time.” After Rewire reached out to Google with this information, “a Google spokesperson said it had taken down ads that violated its policy, but couldn’t say how many CPC ads it had removed.”

    Even if patients do find their way to an actual abortion clinic, some CPCs are still able to reach them with targeted advertising and misinformation. In 2016, it was reported that advertising firm Copley Advertising was using geofencing to target those on their phones at abortion clinics and send them ads for CPCs. (Geofences are technological "fenced-in" area that advertisers use to ping smartphones with ads when people enter those areas.) As Rewire explained, a national association of CPCs, RealOptions, hired Copley Advertising “to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room,” a tactic that “presents a serious threat to the privacy and safety of women exercising their right to choose, as well as to abortion providers and their staff.” In April 2017, Massachusetts reached a settlement with Copley Advertising that prohibited the company from geofencing around clinics, although, according to Rewire, Copley operates in other states as well, and it is unclear whether it is still using geo-fencing in those states.

    In-clinic misinformation and tactics

    Once patients seeking or thinking about abortion come to a CPC, staff then try to coerce, scare, or deceive them into carrying their pregnancies to term. Amanda Schwartz, who works at a reproductive justice non-profit in West Virginia, wrote in HuffPost that CPCs “offer ‘counseling,’ which essentially consists of an untrained volunteer asking probing questions and pressuring the person to carry their pregnancy to term.” Schwartz said that CPCs have “also been known to separate people from their clothes or personal belongings to make it more difficult for them to leave, tell people abortion causes breast cancer (it doesn’t), encourage people not to abort because the likelihood of miscarrying is so high (generally speaking, it isn’t), ‘schedule’ someone for an abortion to keep them from seeking real care and so much more.” Caitlin Bancroft, an intern for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, experienced this situation first-hand when she went undercover at a CPC. As Bancroft wrote for HuffPost, the “counseling” given to her at a CPC consisted largely consisted of probing questions designed to determine how to best dissuade her from seeking an abortion:

    As I sat there having my life probed, the purpose of the questions dawned on me. In case the test was positive, my “counselor” wanted to know which tactic to use to persuade me to continue the pregnancy — exactly where my resolve was the weakest. Was there a loving Christian boyfriend who would make a great dad? Did I have kind supportive parents who would be excited by the idea of a grandchild? I knew I wasn’t pregnant — knew exactly what she was doing — knew she wasn’t a doctor. But my body reacted instinctively to her questions with guilt and shame. It felt like a kick in the gut when she asked if I had told my brother about the baby, and I felt a creeping sense of selfishness as I imagined the door slamming on my shared apartment, my twenties, my life. Would my parents want me to have this child? Would it matter?

    Other CPCs may attempt to position themselves as legitimate, licensed medical centers. As journalist Meaghan Winter wrote for Cosmopolitan, when “confronted with criticism that they are running deceptive fake clinics, pregnancy center directors have begun acquiring medical equipment and affiliating with doctors and nurses who share their ideological message,” a trend Winter says pregnancy center counselors describe as “going medical.” This approach “allows centers to market themselves as a trusted source for health advice” about the alleged “health risks of abortion.” These types of CPCs, Winter explained, “often operate under the direction of unlicensed staff … and the license of a physician who doesn’t actually see clients at the center.” The centers also “generally … only offer ‘limited ultrasounds,’ meaning they can only confirm a pregnancy, not diagnose.”

    Beyond “going medical,” CPCs have increasingly attempted to rely on so-called “scientific” research in order to deter individuals from having an abortion. Human Coalition uses its CPCs “as laboratories to test everything from marketing techniques and counseling strategies to what color to paint the walls.” These efforts also included an experiment focused on “increasing a client’s perception of her baby as a unique person” by having pregnant patients listen to a muffled Adele song -- imitating how it might be heard in utero -- to help “establish this maternal-fetal bond.” Another anti-abortion organization the Vitae Foundation uses research to “help Vitae better understand the psychological dynamics that motivate women to feel the way they do about abortion” and “learn how to better communicate with those who may support abortion as a solution to an unwanted pregnancy and move them to a more life-affirming position.” Vitae Foundation shares the resulting data with CPCs “across the nation.”

    Media manipulation and outreach

    Beyond manipulating targeted digital advertisements, CPCs also engage in outreach through both traditional and new media platforms to bolster legitimacy for their claims of being “health care” providers.

    In early 2017, Human Coalition succeeded in placing two op-eds in The New York Times that espoused anti-abortion viewpoints. Media Matters found that Human Coalition had significantly increased its staff’s media appearances during 2016 before the op-eds were even published in the Times. In an August 2017 interview with Urban Family Talk’s Stacy on the Right, Human Coalition’s public relations manager Lauren Enriquez explained about how they’ve “kept up our media presence” after the The New York Times op-eds and “are still working with any paper that’s really willing to post our view.”

    CPCs also attempt to use “new media” for outreach by creating either their own platforms, outlets, or applications. In one example, Heartbeat International created its own media outlet, Pregnancy Help News, when its reliance on traditional publications proved insufficient for spreading the group’s misinformation. In another instance, California-based CPC chain Obria Medical Clinic created an app called “Obria Direct.” Obria’s founder Kathleen Eaton Bravo told Eternal World Television Network’s Pro-Life Weekly, a program created and sponsored by anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, that “abortion today is on the smartphone.” Bravo said she saw Obria as a “brand” that serves as “an alternative to Planned Parenthood.” Since Planned Parenthood already has an app for its California affiliates called “Planned Parenthood Direct,” Obria’s branding suggests its app is meant to emulate or replace legitimate reproductive care resources.

    CPCs will deceive and the media should remember that

    It should be noted that not every CPC engages in every one of these tactics. But regardless of how a CPC brands itself, one thing remains clear: CPCs do not perform or refer for abortions, and they will try a variety of tactics to deter individuals from obtaining one. Abortion is a personal choice, and should be treated as an essential option of comprehensive health care. As the Supreme Court debates and decides NIFLA v. Becerra in 2018, the media should call out CPCs when they use deceptive tactics, and resist promoting the inevitable right-wing spin that free speech of such organizations is being unduly impeded.

  • Right-wing media do the dirty work of anti-abortion groups by hyping attacks on Planned Parenthood

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It comes as little surprise that Fox News once again carried water for the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), this time returning to an old tactic of using advance copies of documents to validate already debunked claims from CMP’s smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.

    On December 7, Fox News reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had “launched a federal investigation into Planned Parenthood’s practices and the sale of fetal tissue.” As evidence, the article cited “a letter first obtained by Fox News” that “formally requested unredacted documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee” that were gathered in 2016 as part of an investigation into Planned Parenthood. The article concluded that the DOJ’s actions would “reopen the years-long debate on whether Planned Parenthood and other providers violated the law with the illegal sale of body parts.” 

    As Jezebel noted, the DOJ’s “letter is essentially a procedural document,” and it “remains unclear whether or not the DOJ plans to launch a full investigation or whether or not this is simply a political attempt to garner headlines like the one published at Fox News” claiming that Planned Parenthood is being investigated even though “there is no formal investigation.”

    Claims about the alleged “sale of body parts” emerged in July 2015, when David Daleiden and his discredited organization, Center for Medical Progress (CMP), released a series of deceptively edited smear videos attacking Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (NAF). Since then, multiple investigations have disproven Daleiden’s claims and, in fact, cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. In contrast, Daleiden is now subject to several legal actions -- during the most recent of which two of his attorneys were fined and held in contempt for violating a preliminary injunction by releasing materials that targeted individual abortion providers.

    In reality, both the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation and a parallel effort by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives were considered from their inception to be politically motivated attacks on abortion access and reproductive health more broadly. During its 10 months of operation, the House select panel found no substantiated evidence of wrongdoing, prompting numerous lawmakers to call for its disbandment. As Rewire explained, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s efforts were similarly unfruitful, and the final report merely echoed “allegations disproven by three Republican-led congressional committee investigations, 13 states, and a Texas grand jury.”

    Although right-wing and anti-abortion outlets love to frame Daleiden and his co-conspirators as “citizen journalists” conducting an “undercover investigation,” a federal judge and journalism experts have agreed: Daleiden and his ilk are not journalists. In contrast, as data from NAF demonstrates, since the release of the videos in July 2015, violence and harassment of abortion reporters has skyrocketed. Despite this -- and Daleiden’s litany of legal issues -- right-wing and anti-abortion media have not been deterred from carrying water for CMP’s deceptive claims.

    This is not the first time that Fox News has received exclusive information relating to the congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood. In May 2016, Fox News’ Shannon Bream touted "exclusively obtained" copies of letters that the House select panel sent to various entities at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This “exclusive” ran on May 31 -- a full day before the letters were publicly released or shared with Democratic members of the panel, in direct violation of congressional rules. More recently, right-wing and anti-abortion media circulated footage from CMP that was barred from release by a district judge. Even after CMP was forced to remove the footage from YouTube, anti-abortion media outlets that had promoted the footage reposted and shared it.

    Before its conclusion, the House select panel was notable for its function as a conduit through which anti-abortion groups consistently funneled information in order to give their attacks a veneer of legitimacy. And if, in fact, the DOJ’s inquiry does signal a formal investigation, the release of the December 7 letter to Fox News a full day before ranking Democratic members received it should be a warning sign about the impartiality of this investigation.

  • Fox News has a long history of pushing the Center for Medical Progress’ anti-abortion lies

    The network recently aired Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s repetition of CMP’s “baby body parts” lie

    ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

    After Twitter briefly prevented Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-TN) Senate campaign from promoting an ad on the platform featuring an “inflammatory” and inaccurate claim about Planned Parenthood, Blackburn made the rounds on Fox News to push the ad’s anti-abortion talking point about “baby body parts,” which came from the discredited Center for Medical Progress (CMP). This isn’t anything new: Fox News has a long history of promoting anti-abortion lies from both Blackburn and CMP.

  • How one Republican used a tactic from the anti-abortion media playbook to bully Twitter

    Rep. Marsha Blackburn has a long history of taking cues from anti-abortion groups to gin up right-wing support -- and her latest attack on Twitter is no different

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Anti-abortion groups and media outlets have a habit of claiming censorship in order to boost fundraising by ginning up outrage and support. Now this media manipulation tactic is being employed by a staunch anti-choice ally: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

    On October 5, Blackburn announced a run for retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) seat. As part of this announcement, Blackburn’s campaign tweeted a short video advertising her right-wing bonafides, including her work as chair of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which was created to conduct a politically motivated investigation of Planned Parenthood on the basis of deceptive videos from a discredited anti-abortion organization. Although the panel was regarded by many as merely “an expensive witch hunt,” Blackburn touted her role during the campaign video, claiming that she had “fought Planned Parenthood” and “stopped the sale of baby body parts.”

    Although Blackburn's campaign wanted to pay to promote the video on Twitter as an ad, the social media site initially objected, drawing widespread outrage among anti-abortion and right-wing outlets. According to an October 10 Associated Press report, Twitter found that Blackburn’s statement about “baby body parts” violated platform rules because it was “‘deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.’” Twitter allowed the video to remain up but not as promoted content, concluding that the campaign “would be allowed to run the rest of the video” as a paid ad if it ommitted the phrase.

    This stance did not last long, however. The next day, Twitter reversed its position and announced that it would allow Blackburn’s campaign to promote the ad, commenting to Politico, “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”

    Blackburn's campaign quickly seized on Twitter’s refusal as an act of censorship -- taking a page straight from the anti-abortion media playbook.

    As Media Matters has previously noted, anti-abortion extremists have increasingly employed the tactic of alleging “censorship” or claiming that inaccurate anti-choice content is being “shut down” to gin up fundraising support and rile up right-wing media allies. By reacting to perceived slights as instances of injustice or censorship, these groups can incite followers, increase fundraising, and appeal to an audience motivated by anti-elite sentiments but normally less attuned to the activities of the anti-abortion movement.

    In one example, anti-abortion extremist Lila Rose alleged that Twitter was censoring advertisements from her group Live Action by similarly prohibiting their promotion as sponsored content. After Rose appeared on the June 26 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss Twitter’s alleged bias, a banner was added to Live Action’s home page begging for donations to combat the act of censorship. By June 30, the organization had announced that it had reached its fundraising goal but nevertheless asked supporters to continue donating in order to “guarantee” Live Action could continue working “to expose the abortion industry.” Other anti-abortion organizations and right-wing outlets also came to Live Action’s defense, working to create even more support for claims of censorship and persecution.

    Emulating this tactic, the Blackburn campaign was quick to cry foul and turn the perceived slight into a fundraising opportunity. On October 9, the campaign’s Twitter account circulated a video inaccurately alleging that Blackburn was “banned by Twitter” and asking supporters to share the clip in order to “spread the word” that “Silicon Valley won’t stop our conservative movement with censorship.” The account also shared posts from anti-abortion groups and outlets alleging that Blackburn had been censored. The Blackburn campaign even sent an email to supporters asking for donations, warning that the “liberal elite wants to censor us at every opportunity.” Over the next 24 hours, Blackburn appeared multiple times on Fox News to repeat her claims of censorship and enjoyed a surge in media attention from outlets across the political spectrum. Twitter ultimately caved to the pressure and allowed the campaign to run Blackburn’s ad with the allegations against Planned Parenthood intact.

    The symbiotic relationship between Blackburn and various anti-abortion groups or media is hardly a secret. During Blackburn’s time as select panel chair, the committee held three hearings that utilized evidence sourced directly from anti-abortion groups as so-called “evidence” of wrongdoing by abortion providers and related organizations. Indeed, several anti-abortion groups, including (but likely not limited to) New Mexico Alliance for Life, Protest ABQ, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Medical Progress provided “documentation and materials” to the select panel. A member of Protest ABQ even bragged about having influence over the panel's investigators, stating that their research "finally paid off and turned into the panel investigating.” In addition to leveraging connections to anti-abortion groups, Blackburn also leaked an advanced copy of allegations from the panel to Fox News -- before sharing it with minority members -- and provided an exclusive interview inaccurately alleging that Planned Parenthood had operated in “direct violation of federal law.”

    Blackburn’s deployment of the censorship tactic elides the more fundamental issue with the ad itself: the fact that it was based on a falsehood. Contrary to Blackburn's claim, multiple state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, while the anti-choice activists responsible for the initial “baby parts” allegations are currently the subject of multiple lawsuits.

    Blackburn’s campaign took a page out of the anti-abortion playbook to garner a concession from Twitter. And as New York magazine's Margaret Hartmann noted, Blackburn’s success -- despite the falsity of her claims -- “has probably encouraged Republican midterm candidates to throw some unproven, inflammatory statements into the ads.” Indeed, Blackburn has already taken to calling Twitter's reversal "our first Senate conservative victory." 

  • Thanks to Fox's Tucker Carlson, pro-Trump Reddit is discovering anti-abortion extremism

    Fox News' Carlson has been hosting more anti-abortion extremists -- and members of a pro-Trump Reddit forum are taking notice 

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fox News’ Tucker Carlson had a night off on August 7, but that didn’t stop him from airing yet another interview with anti-choice extremist and spreading misinformation about Planned Parenthood. And Reddit’s “r/The_Donald” forum, where “alt-right” members supporting President Donald Trump congregate, is starting to take notice.

    During the August 7 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, guest host Laura Ingraham -- who has her own history of spreading misinformation about abortion -- aired a pre-taped interview in which Carlson hosted anti-choice activist Abby Johnson. Although posts about abortion don’t usually gain much traction in “r/The_Donald”, the August 7 segment sparked an unusual amount of interest from users.

    Since moving into a coveted primetime spot in the Fox News lineup, Carlson has seemingly made a habit of hosting anti-abortion activists and packaging their misinformation around the theme of “censorship.” Within the anti-abortion movement, alleging censorship has become a popular tactic, in which an anti-abortion group or outlet alleges it has been persecuted in order to rally followers and raise funds. Although Carlson positions his program to appeal to right-wing and “alt-right” extremists, as Media Matters noted in July, he has taken particular pains to manufacture outrage on behalf of anti-abortion guests by alleging that their misinformation has been censored by another outlet.

    In the pre-taped August 7 interview, Johnson expanded beyond the typical right-wing media attacks on Planned Parenthood that often allege the organization is not an essential health care provider. Johnson additionally argued that Planned Parenthood not only had so-called “abortion quotas” -- a claim that has been soundly debunked -- but also attempted to provide patients with birth control “with a high human error rate” so they would later schedule abortions, another falsehood that is most often repeated by only the most extreme anti-abortion activists.

    Pro-Trump Reddit users don’t often engage with topics related to abortion. For example, during Republicans’ unsuccessful attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a post on “r/The_Donald” about a provision of the repeal bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood generated only two comments. Similarly, a new smear video from the discredited anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) that was posted to “r/The_Donald” yielded only one comment; and a post promoting a Facebook Live event of another anti-abortion group (Students for Life of America) received zero comments. On other occasions, however, threads about Planned Parenthood on “r/The_Donald” did generate a greater number of comments, but even these topped out at around 200 replies.   

    In contrast, a post concerning the August 7 segment of Carlson’s show generated upwards of 700 comments from pro-Trump Reddit users on “r/The_Donald.” Most notably, a number of users described the segment as a “red pill” moment for them -- a pop culture term referring to an experience that supposedly shows reality to an individual -- or as evidence of so-called “censorship” and responded by making threats against Planned Parenthood employees.

    One poster wrote that “this may be the biggest redpill any of us have ever swallowed,” while another said that it was good because “we need a kick in the ass like this.” A third poster argued, “I've always said that abortion is the biggest red pill you can take. Glad to see [“r/The_Donald”] is taking it.”

    In another example, a user described the segment as “my final red pill on abortion.”

    Beyond expressing general outrage about what are, in reality, inaccurate allegations against Planned Parenthood, some users went a step further and posted threatening statements against the organization’s staff and board members. One poster wrote, “DEFUND THEN (sic) BURN THE BUILDINGS DOWN,” garnering a response from another user that someone should “salt the earth once the flames have died down.”

    Others argued that Planned Parenthood staff should “be imprisoned for life for first degree murder,” that “these demons are not of this earth” and that “every single person on the board of [Planned Parenthood] needs to be strung by the neck.”

    In instances where individuals didn’t call for attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics or staff, they seemingly endorsed acts of anti-choice violence committed by others. As one user wrote, “I used to think the people that attacked these clinics were nuts, but WOW.” Another wrote that they would “be okay if vigilantes started burning these places down in the night.”

    After white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, VA -- leaving one person dead and many injured -- the threat posed by radicalized online communities cannot be understated. Although Carlson may not be the originator of the anti-choice misinformation he spreads, he is specially packaging it for an audience rife with misogyny and primed for violence. And if pro-Trump Reddit’s reaction to Carlson’s segment with Johnson is any indication, these online communities are starting to take notice.

  • How anti-abortion groups are using Wash. Post to legitimize their attacks on Planned Parenthood 

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN & JULIE TULBERT

    On August 2, The Washington Post’s health care newsletter, The Health 202, featured an exclusive preview of an anti-Planned Parenthood report from the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) -- the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List. After the full report’s publication, anti-abortion groups and outlets pointed to the Post’s exclusive to legitimize the misinformation the report included or promoted the report themselves. 

  • What Iowa media can teach others about covering the consequences of defunding Planned Parenthood

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In the wake of one-third of the Planned Parenthood clinics closing in the state, Iowa newspapers have rejected right-wing media talking points in favor of fact-based analyses about the limited capacity of so-called alternatives to the shuttered facilities. Iowa’s print media outlets are not only emphasizing the dire consequences of losing Planned Parenthood in many communities, but they are also modeling how other local media should handle politically motivated attacks on essential reproductive health care. 

    On May 12, then-Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) signed a budget rejecting at least $3 million in federal Medicaid family planning funds in order to exclude Planned Parenthood from the state’s reproductive health program. Days later, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland announced that as a result of the measure, the organization would close four of its 12 clinics -- upending the primary health care system in the state.

    Anti-choice lawmakers, and the coalition of anti-abortion groups behind them, have celebrated these closures by repeating several anti-abortion myths. They’ve particularly highlighted the supposed existence of plentiful alternatives to Planned Parenthood and the defeat of the right-wing-media-fueled fever dream of “taxpayer-funded abortion.”

    A Media Matters analysis of three of the state’s largest circulation papers (The Des Moines Register, The Gazette, and Quad-City Times) found that Iowa print media are refusing to buy the myths right-wing media have been selling and thus providing a model for other media outlets in states whose essential reproductive health care will come under attack in the coming months. Already, Planned Parenthood has been forced to announce anticipated clinic closures in California, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

    Outside of Iowa, anti-choice lawmakers and right-wing media have argued that Planned Parenthood should be defunded in order to prevent taxpayer money from subsidizing abortion services. In reality, because of the Hyde Amendment, federal funds are expressly forbidden from supporting abortion care -- much to the detriment of low-income patients and those from marginalized communities. Although some anti-abortion advocates argue that the “fungibility” of money means any funds given to Planned Parenthood contribute to abortion, this logic is deeply flawed. As Slate’s Amanda Marcotte explained, “Since medical services are billed and funded individually, that's not actually how this works.”

    Instead, Planned Parenthood has long received reimbursements via Medicaid for non-abortion services provided to low-income patients. Nevertheless, anti-choice lawmakers have demanded that funds be shifted to “community health centers” (CHC), which they argue can absorb patient demand.

    Experts argue this is “a gross misrepresentation of what even the best community health centers in the country would be able to do.” In a May 17 report, Kinsey Hasstedt of the Guttmacher Institute explained that although CHCs and other “federally qualified health centers” (FQHC) play “an important part” in providing contraceptives and other essential care, “they cannot be expected to deliver contraceptive care to the large numbers of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood” and “to suggest otherwise willfully oversimplifies the considerable challenges FQHCs would face in doing so.”

    As Planned Parenthood comes under attack across the country, here’s what other media outlets can learn from The Des Moines Register, The Gazette, and the Quad-City Times.

    1. Demand specifics about clinics that can supposedly replace Planned Parenthood’s facilities

    Iowa papers have dismantled claims by anti-choice lawmakers about the availability of care without Planned Parenthood’s clinics and lambasted them for failing to provide a list of even potentially feasible alternatives in a transparent way.

    On May 26, the Quad-City Times editorial board mocked the lack of a publicly available list of alternatives, writing that while “Iowa’s GOP-run Legislature achieved its ultimate goal,” it “didn’t even try to fake it by rolling out some half-baked list of alleged alternatives.” The Times continued:

    The timing was especially astounding, as the lawmakers spent this year's session hacking and slashing to plug budgetary holes. Defunding Planned Parenthood will cost Iowa $3 million in federal funds this year. Another $3.3 million will be spent creating a state-run program to, feasibly, make up for the self-inflicted shortfall of women's health care providers.

    It's that yet-to-be drafted list that's at the heart of the matter. Four clinics across the state are closing. Many states that have tried similar attacks on a woman's access to health care at least attempted to compile other options. Not in Iowa. Lawmakers just did it blind and directed the state Health Department to force reality into their partisan narrative somewhere down the line.

    In January, the editorial board of Iowa’s Des Moines Register responded to the proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood with a warning that lawmakers should answer specific questions about alternative providers and the particular services they were equipped to deliver before eliminating support for the organization. 

    This is sound advice, and in fact, exemplifies the kind of reporting local outlets should be doing in response to threats to defund essential health care in their communities. Unsurprisingly, given this earlier push for accountability, the Register followed up with an investigation of so-called replacement clinics. In a May 27 piece, the Register’s editorial board modeled how local news outlets can easily debunk the myth that other clinics can fill in for the loss of Planned Parenthood’s clinics:

    Republicans said more than 200 clinics statewide could fill any void left if Planned Parenthood clinics closed. This number was apparently derived from information provided by the Iowa Department of Human Services.

    The Register editorial board obtained the list of 219 clinics from the agency on Monday.

    One "behavioral health center" in Leon filled 11 spots on the spreadsheet. We took the liberty of assuming that entity would not be offering cervical cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and other medical services provided by Planned Parenthood. So we eliminated that one.

    Then we decided to call three of the remaining 208, selecting providers in areas where Planned Parenthood clinics are closing.

    First up was Wayne Mercy Medical Clinic, which the list identified as being located in Sioux City. The woman who answered the phone said the clinic changed its name years ago, was not affiliated with Mercy and was not even located in Iowa; it's in Nebraska and about an hour’s drive from Sioux City.

    Next we called Mediapolis Clinic in West Burlington. It does not provide long-acting, reversible contraception, including birth control implants and IUDs, which are the method of choice for nearly 12 percent of contraceptive users nationally. Sutherland Mercy Medical Clinic in Sioux City said it did not provide those either.

    In fact, none of Mercy Health Network’s 108 family practice clinics across the state, including those on the list provided by DHS, will provide any type of long-acting birth control.

    [...]

    So now that four clinics that served nearly 15,000 patients over the last three years are closing, the Republicans who insisted there would be "more access" to family planning services should compile and distribute a reliable, accurate list of where women can go for those services.

    Building on this momentum, other local media did similar reporting, such as the Des Moines CBS affiliate, KCCI 8, which ran a story in which reporter Todd Magel tried to contact many of the so-called “other clinics” pointed to by state lawmakers. Magel found that few of the clinics referenced in the list of FQHCs provided “reproductive medical care and screenings” like Planned Parenthood does and that the lawmaker’s alternatives included a school “nurse’s office,” “a dentist’s office,” and “a homeless shelter.”

    2. Include statistics about the loss of coverage and highlight the disproportionate impact closures have on low-income communities

    Beyond emphasizing the lack of transparency from lawmakers, Iowa papers also relied on ample statistics to highlight exactly who was hurt by the closure of Planned Parenthood’s clinics in the state.

    For example, Chelsea Keenan of The Gazette began a May 19 article with the information that “more than 14,600 people” would be impacted once Planned Parenthood closed “one-third of its Iowa clinics.” She also wrote about the specific number and types of services people would lose without the essential health care provider:

    The budget discontinues a federal Medicaid waiver that, since its creation in 2006, has helped more than 80,000 Iowa women receive Pap smears, birth control and cancer screenings through the Iowa Family Planning Network, including more than 12,000 last year. The waiver helps extend reproductive health services to men and women who due to income often fall in the gap between private insurance and Medicaid eligibility.

    [...]

    Planned Parenthood — which said loss of funding through the Family Planning Network amounted to about $2 million — administered services to more than 30,000 Iowans last year, with nearly 50 percent of its patients at or below the federal poverty level.

    The Quad-City Times also lamented that “per usual, it is impoverished women who will pay more than their share of the bill.” The editorial board continued:

    Medicaid, mind you, provides health care for the poorest Iowans. It's already foundering in Iowa since last year's privatization. President Donald Trump has targeted Medicaid for deep cuts in his draft budget.

    [...]

    Yet, it's these patients to whom Planned Parenthood brought otherwise out-of-reach gynecological care. They're a population with an abnormally high risk for sexually transmitted diseases. They're less likely to receive regular gynecological exams. They're at substantially greater risk for unwanted pregnancy.

    Women across the socio-economic strata relied on Planned Parenthood. But, suddenly, those in the lower tiers are destined to have fewer options.

    To these women, Iowa just said, "Tough."

    3. Use empirical case studies about the consequences of losing Planned Parenthood

    Finally, several Iowa papers drew on empirical case studies from what happened in other states when anti-choice lawmakers sacrificed their constituents’ health in order to engage in political attacks on Planned Parenthood.

    As the Register’s William Petroski noted, Texas’ exclusion of Planned Parenthood from its reproductive health safety net “resulted in a significant increase in births among low-income women who lost access to birth control, according to a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine." 

    The Gazette’s Keenan also reported on the similarities between Texas’ ill-fated plan to replace Planned Parenthood and the beginning stages of the same situation in Iowa. She wrote:

    Starting in 2011, Texas took steps to bar abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood from participating in a program aimed at giving low-income women family planning services. It’s a move that, in the years following, research has shown hurt the state’s family planning safety net.

    The funding changes forced dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics there to close in 2012, according to researchers at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which studies the effects of family planning funding cuts and restrictions.

    Those that have remained open have reduced their hours, patient loads and available services.

    Research by the Guttmacher Institute shows that Texas’ family planning program in 2013 served less than one-quarter of the women it helped in 2011. And that care became more expensive when you take knowledgeable providers out of the network — the cost to the state to provide family planning care jumped from $206 per client to $240.

    The Gazette’s Lynda Waddington explained the negative effects of a similar decision in Indiana when then-Gov. Mike Pence eliminated funding for the provider:

    Former Indiana Gov. and current Vice President Mike Pence declared a 2015 public emergency in his state due to HIV outbreaks. The county at the epicenter of the problem had been without a testing center since 2013, when the local Planned Parenthood clinic closed.

    Just like three out of the four Iowa clinics now caught in the GOP’s defunding snare, the Indiana facility did not offer abortion services — none of the five Indiana clinics forced to close offered abortions, but they all provided HIV testing. Instead of being able to rely on ongoing prevention efforts provided by those local clinics, Indiana taxpayers took on the added cost burden of erecting pop-up clinics. Worst of all, Indiana residents needlessly suffered.

    As attacks on Planned Parenthood continue, media can look to Iowa’s local media as an example of how to interrogate lawmaker’s claims about so-called alternatives and make clear the consequences when communities lose access to essential health care.