On May 2, Politico reported on a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court allegedly authored by Justice Samuel Alito, revealing that after years of signaling intentions to overturn Roe v. Wade and eviscerate a federally protected right to abortion, the conservative majority bloc is likely to do just that. The draft opinion is not yet in effect -- and won’t be until the court officially issues it, or another opinion, likely in June. Yet, the 98-page screed leaves little doubt as to the desires of the court’s unelected and arguably unduly appointed conservative majority.
For those in politics and media who self-servingly amplified, or, even more mind-bogglingly, claimed to believe obviously insincere pledges from the recent spate of Trump-appointed justices that Roe was “settled law,” this series of events may come as a surprise. For those who have consistently warned of this outcome, the validation of being correct is far eclipsed by the knowledge of the magnitude of needless suffering a final decision of this design will bring.
Many media figures and outlets -- right-wing and otherwise -- were quick to focus on the political spectacle of the leak. And in a way, this fixation on a perceived violation of procedural norms is a fitting example of the synergy between right-wing media and their both-sides-obsessed enablers in the mainstream press.
Make no mistake, this moment is not merely the culmination of years of right-wing machinations. It is also the result of just as many years of mainstream media persistently ignoring or downplaying the likelihood that this moment would come — in some cases, even trivializing concerns or warnings as an overreaction. And this is despite the fact that in recent years, increasing numbers of people in the United States are already living in a post-Roe America, a trend that’s been accelerating as more states have moved to restrict abortion.
This moment is the result of years of former Fox host Bill O’Reilly taunting abortion provider George Tiller until someone took matters into their own hands and killed him -- and years of Fox’s current reigning demagogue, Tucker Carlson, and his colleagues stoking anti-abortion violence and harassment with reckless abandon.
But this moment is also the result of several outlets repeatedly platforming anti-abortion extremists, as well as laundering their and right-wing media talking points to give misinformation a veneer of ill-earned credibility.
This moment comes from right-wing figures like Fox’s Mike Huckabee celebrating the potential end of federal abortion rights and claiming, like so many before him, that the loss of Roe will not “end abortion” and instead that it will simply put “it in the hands of the American people through their elected representatives, where it should have been all along.”
But it also comes from years of mainstream media repeating this facile and inaccurate talking point, ignoring that even if this argument were true, the sheer costs of traveling to a different state in terms of time, money, child care, and other resources make it already prohibitive for many. And it will only grow harder as over 23 states have laws that could be used to restrict or ban abortion after Roe falls.
It also comes from years of mainstream media both-sidesing abortion as a mere difference of opinion (even if it were, the majority of Americans when polled accurately support abortion remaining “legal in all or most cases”). It comes from the endless fixation on treating abortion like a political football -- rather than as a form of health care that saves lives and should be both legal and accessible to anyone who wants one.
It results from years of failure by cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC to rebut inaccurate and increasingly harmful abortion-related rhetoric from Fox News -- choosing instead to ignore or even echo these talking points. For three consecutive years between 2015 and early 2018, anti-abortions talking points largely dominated evening cable news programs, regardless of whether the channel was Fox, CNN, or even MSNBC. In the last year, in particular, Fox News was the loudest and least accurate, while CNN and MSNBC either adopted its talking points or left a void of silence for Fox and its anti-abortion allies to fill.
The decision comes from years of right-wing media dismissing concerns or warnings that this outcome was the goal when former President Donald Trump nominated not one, but three Supreme Court justices who he specifically promised would seek to overturn Roe. It is the work of every person who accepted, printed, or uncritically repeated the idea that someone saying Roe was settled law -- transparently for their own political gain -- meant anything by it.
The votes could change before June, and until then abortion remains legal -- although just as inaccessible in many places as before. But mainstream media, which have played just as much of a role in creating this moment as their right-wing counterparts, are facing an inflection point.
Outlets must end their false equivalence and trivialization once and for all, or else fall in lockstep with right-wing media once again as 50 years of precedent are potentially reversed.