Sean Hannity: Even if Trump did order Cohen to lie to Congress, it doesn't matter because Democrats are hypocrites
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Anti-abortion group Students for Life of America (SFLA) released a new poll ahead of the 2019 March for Life protest alleging that millennials now overwhelming support anti-choice positions. Right-wing media have hyped the poll, but they have failed to note the extent to which SFLA set up the survey to present a favorable outcome. In fact, the poll demonstrates just how much misinformation the anti-choice movement has to present in order to get most millennials to agree with anti-abortion views.
SFLA, which oversees student chapters of anti-abortion groups across the country, released a poll on January 13 claiming to represent millennials’ “views on abortion, Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood.” SFLA’s poll focused on millennials, who it defined as 18-34 years old, because they are both “the largest voting bloc in America” and allegedly “the target market of abortion vendors.”
Polling on abortion has always been notoriously complicated, and support for both abortion rights and anti-choice restrictions has frequently been shown to depend heavily on how certain questions are asked. As Tresa Undem, founder and partner at the public opinion research firm PerryUndem, wrote for Vox, most “standard measures used to report the public’s views on abortion ... don’t capture how people really think” about the issue, but rather measure a binary viewpoint of right or wrong, legal or illegal. Conducting accurate polling on abortion requires asking questions “in a more real and accurate way” that takes into account “how people actually experience abortion.” When polls use real-life examples, audiences report greater support for abortion access, and new polling from PerryUndem (albeit from a broader audience than just millennials) shows “voters' support for abortion rights is as high as we have seen in years: 73% of voters do not want Roe v. Wade overturned and 67% say abortion should be legal in ‘all’ or ‘most’ cases.”
SFLA’s poll not only lacks consideration of real-life scenarios, but it explicitly inserted anti-abortion misinformation with the goal of influencing respondents’ opinions. In a memo released alongside the poll, SFLA explained that questions originated with the group’s “own experience and conversations on campuses” and were intended to influence and measure “changes in attitude on subjects such as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood both before and after participants were provided the real facts.” As a result, the poll attempted to measure views on these topics by first asking a baseline question about respondents’ views on Roe and Planned Parenthood, and then asking their views again “after learning” a series of right-wing talking points about abortion and Planned Parenthood, which SFLA calls “real facts.” In other words, SFLA measured how much anti-abortion misinformation respondents had to be presented with before they adopted more anti-choice views on abortion and Planned Parenthood.
Given that SFLA’s poll promotes many right-wing myths as “real facts,” it’s unsurprising that right-wing outlets ran with the results. Breitbart News proclaimed that the poll “found that 70 percent of millennials support limits on abortion” while The Washington Examiner said in its daily health care newsletter that the poll “found that only 7 percent of those polled supported both allowing abortion without any exceptions and using government funding to pay for them” -- a position which The Gateway Pundit erroneously characterized as “the Democratic Party platform.” The College Fix similarly claimed “a plurality of millennials supports the full reversal of Supreme Court decisions that enshrined abortion on demand until fetal viability” once “survey participants were told exactly what Roe v. Wade” supposedly allows. SFLA President Kristan Hawkins later went on Eternal World Television Network’s News Nightly to talk about the poll and make the skewed claim that millennials “lean politically liberal on almost every issue out there -- except abortion” because they “see abortion as violence.”
Other anti-abortion groups quickly began promoting the SFLA poll, with Susan B. Anthony List, the March for Life, and the Family Research Council all tweeting about it. Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins wrote about the poll for The Daily Signal, claiming that “7 in 10 support restrictions on abortion, with 42 percent opposing abortion ‘broadly.’ That’ll come as a shock to the Democrats’ system, which is betting most of its credibility on a surprisingly pro-life age group.”
Right-wing media and anti-abortion groups are going to keep spreading this deceptive poll, so here are five things to know about it:
SFLA released this poll during the week of the 2019 March for Life, the annual anti-abortion march against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Anti-abortion groups and media outlets often use deceptive polling to argue that anti-choice positions have overwhelming popular support. For example, as Media Matters reported during last year’s march, several media outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. SFLA’s poll, with its leading language and anti-choice misinformation, appears to be another attempt to drive inaccurate media coverage. Hawkins, in particular, has already used the dubious top lines from the poll to place op-eds in The Washington Times and USA Today.
SFLA claimed that its poll accurately measured respondents’ views of Roe v. Wade. However, during baseline questioning the poll found that 40 percent of respondents supported the Roe decision and only 12 percent opposed it. After pollsters posed a series of misleading statements that SFLA calls “real facts,” support for the decision dropped to 35 percent and opposition rose to 41 percent. To influence this shift, the poll’s questions relied on the anti-abortion movement’s favorite right-wing media talking points about Roe.
For example, one statement claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, companion Supreme Court cases, allow for abortions to be performed in all nine (9) months of pregnancy, up until the moment of birth.” This is an inaccurate description of both cases. So-called abortion “up until the moment of birth” is a common right-wing myth (sometimes used interchangeably with “abortion on demand” or the nonexistent practice of “partial-birth abortion”) meant to fearmonger about legal later abortion. In reality, later abortions are extremely rare and people have them for a variety of personal and medical reasons.
Another misleading statement from SFLA’s poll claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton have been used to justify sending your tax dollars to be used to perform abortions or off-set other expenses of abortion providers.” Despite what this statement implies, under the Hyde Amendment, taxpayer money is prohibited from funding abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the pregnant person is at risk -- a harmful policy that primarily hurts low-income individuals who cannot pay out of pocket for abortion care. Similarly, claiming that money is “off-set” for abortion providers is just another way to repeat the common anti-abortion argument that taxpayer money is “fungible,” implying that federal funds indirectly support abortions through Planned Parenthood. Such an argument demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about how federal money is used to support health care organizations like Planned Parenthood, which receive it as reimbursement when serving Medicaid patients.
Another statement in the SFLA poll claimed: “Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton allow for abortions to be performed simply because the mother doesn’t like the sex of the baby or the mother wants to use abortion as a form of contraception.” So-called “sex-selective” abortions are a concept used by anti-choice legislators to justify restricting abortion access, even though these bans have no basis in scientific research or the medical practices of abortion providers and are instead frequently used to vilify Asian-Americans seeking abortions.
Given that it included such stigmatizing and inaccurate language, SFLA’s poll can hardly be considered representative of a wider audience’s support for Roe.
In an one-off question that was not about Roe or Planned Parenthood, SFLA’s poll asked:
Today, about one-third of abortions take place using the drug RU-486. RU-486 can be deadly to women who don't know they are later in pregnancy than they really are, or who are experiencing an ectopic pregnancy. While surgical abortions require an exam by an physician, abortion advocates are asking that RU-486 be sold to women on-line, without a doctor's exam. Do you support/oppose these abortion pills being widely available on-line and sold to women without a doctor's exam?
Though the ability to end a pregnancy at home can be an empowering choice, SFLA’s question omits that the calls for the abortion pill (also known as RU-486) to be available online or over-the-counter were necessitated because the anti-abortion movement pushed to further restrict abortion access, as well as by the potential of a Supreme Court with Justice Brett Kavanaugh overturning Roe. Although SFLA suggested that medication abortions are unsafe, both medication and surgical abortion are actually extremely safe. In fact, medication abortion is safer that alternative procedures since it takes place earlier in the pregnancy and has minimal risks.
Beyond a set of questions about Planned Parenthood’s favorability, SFLA’s poll also asked respondents to choose between Planned Parenthood and federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), asking which “is more deserving of our tax payer dollars.”
Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media frequently cite the number of FQHCs to suggest that Planned Parenthood is not an essential health care provider. But despite outnumbering Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States, FQHCs would not be able to handle the influx of patients if Planned Parenthood was stripped of federal funding and low-income patients were forced to go to FQHCs. In addition, the Guttmacher Institute found in 2015 that Planned Parenthood is the only “safety-net health center” able to provide publicly subsidized contraceptive services in 103 U.S. counties. Planned Parenthood’s focus on reproductive health care -- including abortion, which is not provided at FQHCs -- makes it uniquely positioned to provide irreplaceable services in the health care field.
Beyond SFLA’s involvement in shaping the questions, the organization commissioned a potentially biased firm to actually conduct the poll. The Polling Company Inc./WomanTrend was founded in 1995 by now-White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. As Rewire.News’ Ally Boguhn explained, Conway “spent nearly two decades as a conservative talking head pushing her anti-choice claims under the guise of credibility offered by her work as a pollster,” with her firm advising anti-abortion politicians and “working on behalf of anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the Heritage Foundation, and Focus on the Family.” The National Catholic Register wrote that anti-abortion activist David Daleiden hired Conway’s firm in 2015 to “conduct two focus groups in Colorado,” helping to “craft the message” around the now-discredited claim that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue. The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List has recently used Conway’s firm to conduct polling in support of the organization’s various anti-choice initiatives. A Republican public relations firm acquired The Polling Company in 2017.
Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media will spend this year’s March for Life claiming that SFLA’s poll proves that millennials are overwhelmingly “pro-life.” Instead, it proves just how much right-wing misinformation these groups have to push before people will support their extreme anti-choice agenda.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute is one such group, trying to push its anti-abortion activism as impartial research
Anti-abortion groups will gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life protest on January 18 under this year’s theme, “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” which claims that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause.” This framing is an attempt by the anti-abortion movement to allege that scientific consensus supports anti-choice policies -- an effort shepherded in large part by the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List). Although CLI and SBA List attempt to portray the organization’s members as impartial scientific experts, media outlets should be wary when citing them given the explicit mission of both organizations to oppose abortion.
For years, the anti-abortion movement and its allies in right-wing media have erroneously and frequently claimed that anti-choice arguments are supported by science. In fact, CLI was created as part of one such effort to frame anti-abortion research as impartial. Though other anti-choice groups often portray CLI as an independent nonprofit similar to the Guttmacher Institute (which was founded as an official arm of Planned Parenthood before becoming entirely independent), CLI is actually still operated as part of SBA List. CLI filed its federal 990 tax forms as the “Susan B Anthony List Education Fund” and even ran Facebook ads for SBA List during the 2018 midterm elections. CLI reported that its anti-abortion work involves putting “expert testimony before legislatures across the U.S.” by dispatching its associate scholars, as well as helping anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers with research to maximize the “outreach and effectiveness” of these fake health clinics.
Most recently, SBA List and CLI attempted to push their anti-science agenda during a congressional oversight committee hearing on fetal tissue research. Although both of the witnesses called by Republicans were CLI representatives, only one of these affiliations was disclosed during the hearing. As the communications director for the committee’s ranking Democrat told ThinkProgress, "While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank," and Politico called the move “irregular … as lawmakers usually try to demonstrate broad support for a policy.”
Despite being branded as the “research arm” of the anti-abortion movement, CLI “has so far produced little in the way of original research and data-gathering and has instead published more commentaries and analyses of others’ research that support its agenda on abortion and end-of-life issues," Rewire.News wrote in 2014. Little has changed since then. In 2018, CLI’s vice president published a study challenging the methodology of previous research showing recent increases in Texas’ maternal mortality rate. Another 2018 study by CLI’s vice president claimed that “Planned Parenthood has had a long-term and accelerating inflationary effect on the incidence and prevalence of abortion in the US.” SBA List summarized the research in a press release claiming that Planned Parenthood was “responsible for 3 Million+ ‘extra’ abortions” because Planned Parenthood’s rate of abortions hasn’t followed the same trend as other abortion providers. The rate CLI and SBA List identified likely has more to do with the rapid closure of independent abortion clinics than with Planned Parenthood performing “extra” abortions. Additionally, right-wing media outlets often publish pieces in which CLI associate scholars who lack backgrounds in scientific research claim to offer scientific analyses of reproductive rights issues.
Despite CLI's obvious bias, mainstream media coverage in the past has presented the organization as a legitimate research institution. Before the 2018 March for Life, The Atlantic published a piece downplaying the group’s involvement with SBA List, describing CLI as “a relatively new D.C. think tank ... which employs a number of doctors and scholars on its staff” and merely “shares an office with Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life advocacy organization.” As a result of this whitewashing of CLI, Rewire.News listed the Atlantic article in its 2018 “Hall of Shame” for reporting on reproductive rights because it was “aiding in the deception” of the anti-abortion movement’s attempts to gain legitimacy. Other outlets have cited CLI without disclosing its role as an anti-abortion group -- a CNN story about the recent committee hearing offered no description of the organization, while The Birmingham News merely described it as “a Washington DC health think-tank.”
Other recent media coverage has also given CLI a platform to present scientifically unsupported views on various abortion-related issues. For example, as part of the debate over the Trump administration’s push to end fetal tissue research, outlets such as ABC News, The Hill, and NPR each quoted CLI officials who claimed that fetal tissue research is obsolete or unnecessary when, in fact, such a view is unsupported by the larger scientific community. In another example, The Washington Post allowed CLI President Chuck Donovan to claim that the rate of abortions performed in the United States is declining in part because “pro-life views are more prevalent.” Donovan’s claim is unsupported by the actual research cited in the story.
Groups like CLI and SBA List often point to media coverage like this as a way of validating their anti-choice viewpoints, further perpetuating the ruse that CLI members are impartial scientific experts worthy of citation. With the anti-abortion movement using this year’s March for Life to allege that “science” supports various anti-choice policies, media outlets have a responsibility to interrogate the qualifications and associations of their sources.
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Every year in January, anti-abortion groups and individuals gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life -- a series of events protesting the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion in the United States. This year, the January 18 march will celebrate the theme “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.” That theme echoes a common argument from anti-abortion groups that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause” including “that life begins at fertilization, or day one.”
Last year, media coverage of the March for Life demonstrated that some outlets were unable to handle the necessary fact-checking or provide the needed context about the extreme history of many anti-abortion groups, the deceptive science behind many of their claims, and the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies. This year, media can learn from these mistakes before the annual protest kicks off.
During the 2018 March for Life, there were several examples of outlets whitewashing anti-abortion groups and spokespeople by downplaying these organization’s long histories of extreme rhetoric and activism.
For example, leading up to the 2018 event, NPR highlighted two anti-abortion leaders -- Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, and Abby Johnson of And Then There Were None. In both reports, NPR failed to provide critical context about these anti-choice activists and the efforts of their organizations to oppose abortion access. In one piece, NPR asked Hawkins to comment on the status of various anti-choice movement priorities but failed to mention her long history of extreme comments about abortion, contraceptives, and more. These comments include her statement that certain forms of birth control should be illegal or are “carcinogenic” or “abortion-inducing,” as well as her claim that being an "abortion abolitionist" is "just like the slavery abolitionists." Similarly, NPR’s profile of Johnson and her organization focused on the group’s effort to “persuade as many [abortion clinic] workers as possible to leave the field.” Although NPR did note that the circumstances of Johnson’s departure from her own job at a clinic have been disputed by Planned Parenthood, the outlet did not substantively explain the details, which suggest there’s more to Johnson’s “conversion” story than meets the eye. NPR also didn’t explore the full spectrum of misinformation that Johnson regularly spreads about her former employer -- including the inaccurate claim that Planned Parenthood performs abortions on people who aren’t pregnant.
Johnson is scheduled to speak during this year’s March for Life rally -- giving outlets ample opportunity to fact-check her inaccurate claims. In addition to Johnson, outlets must also avoid downplaying the extremism of other right-wing media and anti-abortion figures scheduled to speak during the event. These figures include Fox News commentator Alveda King and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, who will be recording an episode of his podcast before speaking at the rally on January 18.
During last year’s March for Life, outlets legitimized the false narrative of scientific support for anti-abortion policies by repeating unsubstantiated claims and manipulative terminology and by promoting so-called “scientific experts” without disclosing their ties to anti-choice organizations. For example, The Atlantic published an article the day before the 2018 March for Life quoting several representatives of the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) without noting that the group was founded by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) specifically to produce research supporting the anti-choice movement. Perhaps more concerning than CLI’s origins, the group is still operated as part of SBA List -- filing federal 990 tax forms as “The Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund.” The Atlantic’s failure to identify CLI’s ties to the wider anti-abortion movement earned the outlet a place in Rewire.News’ 2018 “Hall of Shame” for inaccurate or deceptive reporting on reproductive rights. Other outlets such as CNN and The Birmingham News have also made the mistake of either downplaying or omitting CLI’s affiliations when citing the anti-abortion group in reporting.
Beyond failing to identify CLI’s anti-abortion affiliations in reporting, outlets have also continued to reiterate anti-abortion talking points and signal-boost partisan science. In March, The Associated Press published an article that repeated the discredited claim that there is a pathological link between having an abortion and developing “depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders.” In April, The Washington Post reported on a study that purported to show the effectiveness of a junk science anti-abortion procedure referred to as “abortion pill reversal,” but the journal that published the study was later forced to withdraw it after widely reported methodological concerns.
The consequences of allowing anti-abortion junk science to go unchecked can already be seen in several states’ anti-choice laws. The unscientific concept of fetal pain was influential in passing an anti-abortion bill in Missouri, even though many medical experts have disputed the validity of the studies and claims used to support such laws. In other states like Ohio and Iowa, anti-abortion lawmakers are promoting bans on abortion as early as six weeks (before many people know they’re pregnant), on the grounds that abortion should be illegal if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat. Already in 2019, Kentucky lawmakers have proposed a similar ban -- despite previous arguments from doctors that such policies actually do more harm than good.
Given the theme of this year’s march, media have a responsibility to accurately report on reproductive science and not to elevate pseudoscientific talking points from anti-abortion organizations without providing necessary context and pushback. In particular, media should:
During the 2018 March for Life, several outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. For example, in an article about the anti-abortion policies promoted by President Donald Trump’s administration, Politico shared a poll commissioned by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus to support the anti-choice argument that Americans want greater restrictions on abortion access. However, as MSNBC’s Irin Carmon has previous explained of the Knights of Columbus poll, a simple shift in phrasing or question style could substantially alter the findings:
You could ask Americans if they want Roe v. Wade overturned, as the Pew Research Center did in 2013, and learn that 63 percent want to see it stand. Or you could ask Americans to choose between two vague statements, like the recent poll the Marist Institute for Public Opinion conducted for the Knights of Columbus, a group that opposes abortion. Asked to pick between “it is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn; or two, it is necessary for laws to choose to protect one and not the other,” 77 percent said it was possible to do everything. The policy implications of the first statement are unclear.
Further examining this phenomenon, Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained that “the public has diverse views on abortion” that cannot neatly be categorized or assessed. In another piece for Vox, Tresa Undem, co-founder and partner at a public-opinion research firm, thoroughly explored how much of “the current polling fails at accurately measuring opinion on this complex issue.” For example, Undem wrote, even those “who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases” when polled about the legality of abortion expressed a higher level of support for abortion access when questioned about their “‘real life’ views on the issue”:
Among people who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases, 71 percent said they would give support to a close friend or family member who had an abortion, 69 percent said they want the experience of having an abortion to be nonjudgmental, 66 percent said they want the experience to be supportive, 64 percent want the experience to be affordable, and 59 percent want the experience to be without added burdens.
Additional polling by Undem’s firm, PerryUndem, has also found that most people believe that the decision to have an abortion should be made by a patient and their doctor (and, to a lesser extent, the larger medical community) -- and not by politicians.
There will be no shortage of claims during this year’s March for Life about the supposed popularity of anti-abortion positions. Given the theme of this year’s march, media should be prepared to provide audiences with the necessary context about polls, organizations, and anti-abortion media personalities included in their reporting about the march. Media must avoid oversimplifying public opinion polling or repeating inaccurate talking points in ways that uplift anti-choice misinformation.
The pundit class vigorously defends its own First Amendment rights while other free-speech threats go overlooked
"Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech." The text of the First Amendment is quite plain; no one's free speech, no matter who they are, should be threatened by the government.
In practice, though, public discourse around the First Amendment often focuses on the free speech of people who speak the most -- pundits, journalists, politicians, academics. We see free speech as the prerogative of the chattering class. The result is that some of the people who most need their speech rights protected are silenced.
One of the more recent media panics about free speech centered on CNN reporter Jim Acosta, whose White House press credentials were revoked in early November. Weeks later, and after his credentials were returned, Acosta's plight was still generating free-speech think pieces (like this one). And last April, conservative writer Kevin Williamson was hired and then quickly fired by The Atlantic because he said women should be hanged for getting abortions. The action unleashed a media firestorm. The Atlantic is not the government, and firing Williamson obviously did not violate the First Amendment. Nonetheless, as the New York Times said, the controversy “fell squarely into a burgeoning culture war over free speech,” with commentators insisting that his firing demonstrated “a crisis of free speech.” Bret Stephens in the Times said calls to fire Williamson were “illiberal,” and Williamson himself wrote multiple think pieces about how horribly silenced he was.
Suggesting free speech is threatened because The Atlantic fired a columnist for saying ugly and inflammatory things is silly. But the White House retaliating against journalists is genuinely dangerous and worthy of outrage. Experts at the United Nations have warned that Trump’s attacks on reporters -- including encouraging chants of “CNN sucks” at rallies -- could lead to violence against reporters. The accused pipe bomber who sent explosives to Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and other critics of Donald Trump also appears to have targeted CNN. The threat to journalists is why, when Jim Acosta lost his press credentials, even right-wing, pro-Trump Fox News expressed its support for the CNN reporter. (Though Fox personalities attacked him.)
Chattering-class free speech can be important. But it's telling that these controversies receive huge amounts of media attention, while threats to the free speech of people with smaller platforms -- and therefore more need for speech -- are given considerably less coverage. Threats to Jim Acosta and Kevin Williamson rally the class of people who are friends and colleagues with Jim Acosta and Kevin Williamson. Threats to people who do not have such friends and colleagues generate less attention and less outrage.
For example, the media response to the Trump administration's decision to prosecute nearly 200 people arrested at the J20 Inauguration Day protest in 2017 -- including several journalists -- was muted. If taking away one reporter's press credentials is bad, then threatening journalists and dozens of protestors with decades in prison seems like it would have to be worse. Moreover, while Acosta's credentials were restored in less than three weeks, the J20 prosecutions dragged on for 18 months before all charges were dismissed.
Yet mainstream pundits who cover free speech issues and were vocal about the first were oddly quiet about the second. CNN's weekly Reliable Sources program, which covers media and press issues, discussed Jim Acosta at length for three shows in a row in November. It provided no major coverage of the J20 prosecutions, even though the legal proceedings dragged on for a year and a half. And the show’s year-end wrapup of highs and lows for media in 2017 completely ignored the Trump administration’s prosecution of protestors, including journalists.The Atlantic followed the Jim Acosta story doggedly. In contrast, its only coverage of the J20 protests was a couple of articles about the government accessing IP addresses which mentioned the prosecution of participants in passing.
Or consider the passage of SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) last April, around the same time that the Kevin Williamson firing touched off a frenzy of free-speech hand-wringing. SESTA makes websites legally responsible for hosting ads for sex work on their platforms, creating a hole in internet safe harbor laws. The law claimed to be directed against sex trafficking, but in fact its (predictable) effect has been to force consensual sex workers off platform after platform. Craigslist shut down its personals section; Reddit removed sex-worker-related subreddits. Sex-worker-run blog Tits and Sass shared anecdotal reports that pimps were taking advantage of the shuttering of online ad platforms to harass and exploit women who could no longer use the internet to vet clients. This is congruent with research showing that homicide rates for women drop when sex workers can find and suss out clients online.
SESTA is an example of a restriction on free speech that literally gets people killed. But again, many mainstream pundits who write regularly about free speech issues didn't discuss it at all. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote a 4,000-word piece about the dangerous precedent of firing Kevin Williamson, hasn't written about SESTA.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the way free speech concerns center the speaking class is the obsession with speech on college campuses. Even minor campus community conflicts involving professors quickly turn into national media feeding frenzies. As just one example, in summer of 2017, biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to Evergreen State College’s Day of Absence -- an event in which white students were asked to leave campus in a show of anti-racist solidarity. After confrontations with students, Weinstein went on Tucker Carlson’s far-right Fox News show, and the conflict metastasized. The New York Times’ Bari Weiss published an opinion piece on the incident, it was part of the evidence in a House subcommittee investigation of limitations on campus free speech, and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt devoted substantial space to it in their book about creeping campus intolerance, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
Compare this outpouring of interest to the response to a recent controversy at Stateville Prison in Illinois. In March 2018, a prison debate club presented a demonstration debate about “parole opportunities for prisoners with lengthy or life sentences” to a number of state legislators. After that, the debate club was arbitrarily suspended, and the debate coach, Katrina Burlet, was barred from the prison. After one prisoner, Eugene Ross, spoke by phone to reporters at a press conference about the debate club, he was taken into solitary confinement as punishment, he said, and he was released only after journalists and others advocated on his behalf. The New York Times did not cover this story; there have as yet been no congressional hearings.
Of course, many people argue that colleges are important venues for the cultivation of ideas, and that intolerance at Evergreen is therefore a story with national resonance. But prisons are also national institutions, and government silencing of speech inside them has broad implications for police power and law enforcement policy, and for what “liberty” actually means in the country with the largest imprisoned population on earth. Inmates who try to talk about conditions in prisons can be threatened with solitary confinement, as Washington State prisoner Arthur Longworth was after he published a novel criticizing prison facilities. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow are banned from many prisons. Even if you think college campuses are very important, it’s hard to argue that the free speech rights of heterodox professors are really under more serious assault than the free speech rights of prisoners.
So why is the chattering class so fascinated with the free speech of the chattering class, rather than with the free speech of everyone else? The question is its own answer. People with power and large platforms tend to identify with other people with power and large platforms. Pundits are more likely to speak on college campuses than they are to be imprisoned. Therefore they worry more about free speech on college campuses than about free speech behind bars. You could call this chattering class solidarity -- the voiceful tend to stick together. Efforts to silence pundits and brand-name reporters and college professors are very serious. Efforts to silence everyone else matter less.
At the foundation of chattering class solidarity is the idea that free speech is mainly important because it allows the chattering class to chatter. Free speech discussions about Kevin Williamson, or Jim Acosta, or Bret Weinstein are centered on the idea that we need free speech so that we can have a vibrant marketplace of ideas in which important, smart people express important, smart thoughts, or report on the important doings of the powerful to which only they have access. “The great strength of American liberalism is its permeability, its openness to evidence and diverse perspectives,” Jonathan Chait argues. He is concerned about restrictions of free speech on campus, in particular, because the strength of liberalism is in its flowering of multiple ideas. Speech is free so that professors and lecturers can lecture and profess, reaching together toward a multifarious truth.
But if you take your eyes off the chattering class, free speech is less about opining and more about claiming the right to exist. For sex workers, being allowed to speak and advertise on the internet is the difference between a reasonably safe living and the constant threat of violence. When prisoners' free speech is restricted (as it generally is) they have no way to describe the conditions they live under, or the abuses they suffer. When ICE arrests immigration activists, they aren't able to criticize the government policies that target them. Jim Acosta was briefly barred from the White House, but without free speech, marginalized people often disappear altogether.
The chattering class needs free speech. But if we view free speech only as it relates to the chattering class, we miss the most important and damaging threats to speech. It's people with the least access who need solidarity the most. When we defend free speech only for the chattering class, the most important speech is left unprotected.
Noah Berlatsky is a guest contributor to Media Matters. He is the author of Chattering Class War.
Anti-abortion figures and right-wing media continued to push misinformation about reproductive health in 2018 and tried to insert abortion into nearly every major news story -- no matter how tenuous the connection. The past year also included ample efforts by anti-choice groups to influence federal policy under President Donald Trump, as well as several anti-abortion acts of harassment and violence. Here are some lowlights of anti-abortion extremism this year:
As the Trump presidency entered its second year, right-wing and anti-abortion media attempted to deflect from the administration’s various crises by drawing ridiculous comparisons to reproductive rights or blaming abortion.
Parkland shooting and the gun-control debate
At 330,000 aborted babies a year Planned Parenthood, how many classrooms full of children have you killed in senseless violence? https://t.co/JHx0WSHXCF
— Steven Ertelt (@StevenErtelt) February 21, 2018
Family separation policy
Democrats brought mothers & babies into Horowitz hearing to demonstrate against separating moms from their babies. But the most brutal & final separation of mom & baby is ABORTION!
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) June 19, 2018
Confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court
Christine Blasey Ford: The Abortion Pimp's Tale? https://t.co/LmILFHx4sR
— Operation Rescue (@operationrescue) September 24, 2018
Harassment, extremism, and violence are not new tactics to the anti-abortion movement. But 2018 featured some particularly notable instances when anti-abortion groups and right-wing media engaged in perpetuating harmful misinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme narratives about abortion, or fueled anti-abortion harassment:
Fake health clinics (also known as anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers) engage in deception and manipulation in their advertising and interactions with clients with the goal of stopping that person from accessing an abortion. This year, fake health clinics were front and center at the Supreme Court in a case called National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the NIFLA, stopping the implementation of a California law designed to deter some of the manipulative practices of these fake health clinics. Right-wing media celebrated the decision as a “win” for free speech:
The NIFLA case was not primarily about abortion. It was about free speech. That we have four Supreme Court justices who care more about the manufactured right to an abortion than preeminent rights is disgraceful.
— Alexandra DeSanctis (@xan_desanctis) June 26, 2018
Anti-abortion groups continued to promote misinformation on reproductive rights and to use claims that they were being censored by social media companies and news outlets as a tactic to rally support and raise money:
Last year, Media Matters documented how Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was filled with appointees promoting anti-choice “alternative science” about contraception and abortion. While some of those people have moved to other areas of the administration or just moved on, Trump’s HHS has continued to employ and promote the work of anti-abortion movement darlings in 2018:
Every year, the National Abortion Federation releases a report documenting the previous years’ incidents of anti-abortion harassment and violence against providers, patients, and clinics. This year’s report found that “trespassing more than tripled, death threats/threats of harm nearly doubled, and incidents of obstruction rose from 580 in 2016 to more than 1,700 in 2017. We also continued to see an increase in targeted hate mail/harassing phone calls, and clinic invasions, and had the first attempted bombing in many years.” The harassment of abortion providers, clinics, and supporters continued in 2018:
The commission recently recommended arming teachers, a policy favored by the NRA
National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch purported to share nonpublic information about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to bolster her argument that teachers should be armed. Loesch, who made the claim on her non-NRA affiliated radio show, said that she was given the information by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs a Republican-appointed school safety commission created after the February 14 mass shooting in Parkland, FL.
The commission recently released a draft report that recommends arming teachers who receive training and undergo a background check. This finding is contrary to analyses by experts that conclude arming teachers would actually increase danger to teachers and students. A final report from the commission will be sent to Florida’s governor and state legislature by January 1.
While discussing the commission’s recommendation to arm teachers during the December 18 broadcast of her radio show, Loesch purported to share information about the shooting she received from Gualtieri that “was released to the commission, but wasn’t released publicly.” According to Loesch, CCTV footage from inside the school showed that the gunman took seven to 10 seconds to reload, a longer time compared to “an adequately trained person” who “can reload in a second.” Loesch continued:
It took him seven to 10 seconds, enough for apparently a half a classroom to walk across the hallway while he was trying to reload and get to safety. Imagine if the teacher that was walking out with them was armed. Even adequately trained was better than [the gunman’s] lack of training. Would have taken him out.
It’s true that the time period when a mass shooter has to reload is an opportunity to stop the attack. A common argument in favor of banning high-capacity ammunition magazines is that these pauses in shooting are more frequent when the gunman is forced to reload more often, creating more opportunities for intervention.
But there is no evidence that guns carried by civilians are the best way to intervene. For example, the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, AZ, where then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) was shot was stopped by unarmed bystanders who tackled the gunman as he attempted to reload. In fact, a man carrying a concealed handgun during the Tucson shooting drew his weapon and was about to fire, only to realize that he was about to shoot a person who had wrestled the gunman’s firearm away from him. An FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000-2013 found that just four incidents were stopped by armed security guards and only one was stopped by a licensed and armed citizen -- compared to 21 incidents stopped by unarmed citizens.
Gualtieri and another member of the commission, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, have worked in concert with the NRA’s media operation NRATV to push the idea of arming teachers. Gualtieri appeared on Loesch’s NRATV show in August to push for more guns in schools, and Judd has appeared on NRATV at least six times to push for arming teachers -- including one appearance where he discussed that Gualtieri was initially skeptical of the idea, but was convinced to adopt the view.
Flynn’s admission that he was not entrapped by FBI investigators annihilated a popular right-wing talking point
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan tore into President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn in a Washington, D.C., courtroom on December 18 and all but destroyed nearly a week’s worth of right-wing talking points in the process, but viewers wouldn’t know it from watching Fox & Friends. According to a Media Matters review of the December 19 edition of Fox & Friends, Fox News’ flagship morning program only briefly mentioned Flynn’s sentencing hearing to attack the judge in the case during three hours of programming.
A popular right-wing talking point pushed extensively on Fox News has argued that Flynn was entrapped by the FBI when they questioned him in January 2017, and that the actions for which he was in legal trouble were minor and overblown. But according to a CNN report on the sentencing hearing, “the judge threw a series of questions at him that highlighted how unusual Flynn's case is and how consequential his actions may be.” Later in the hearing, according to ABC News, Sullivan asked “if Flynn believed he had been entrapped by the FBI,” but “his attorneys replied ‘no your honor.’” Though Sullivan eventually decided to postpone the sentencing hearing, he did so only after shredding Flynn’s defense and mulling the prospect of ignoring the prosecution’s sentencing suggestion that Flynn receive no jail time as a result of his cooperation.
A Media Matters review found Fox & Friends covered Flynn’s devastating first sentencing hearing, which thoroughly debunked their main talking point, for less than five minutes in its three hour program. Aside from a brief mention of the sentencing hearing during an interview with counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s favorite morning propaganda program only discussed Flynn in one segment with Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich; in each discussion, which lasted a combined 4 minutes and 35 seconds, the hosts and guests used their platform to downplay the severity of Flynn’s guilty pleas and to attack Sullivan -- the same judge that Trump’s propagandists praised just days earlier. Most of the discussion focused on attacking the judge, saying Sullivan went “off the deep end” and accusing him of “winging it.”
Fox & Friends has dutifully played its public relations role for the Trump White House for nearly two years, and it continues fighting that losing battle even in the face of Flynn’s sentencing hearing -- just like it has with nearly every other damning report about the conduct of the Trump campaign, transition, and administration.
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The vice president of an anti-abortion organization didn't disclose his position in a congressional hearing over fetal tissue research
The House oversight subcommittee on health care held a hearing on December 13 about “Alternatives to Fetal Tissue Research” that was largely driven by allegations from anti-abortion groups. The hearing not only recycled anti-choice misinformation and right-wing lies, but also failed to disclose the anti-choice ties of several key witnesses -- a fact that was magnified on social media by various anti-abortion organizations promoting the hearing.
Though it is often treated as an impartial research organization by other anti-choice groups, the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is actually operated by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. CLI was created by SBA List in 2011 and has remained part of the organization -- filing its federal 990 tax forms as the “Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund” and running Facebook ads for SBA List during the 2018 midterm elections. CLI’s anti-abortion work involves putting “expert testimony before legislatures across the U.S. on the reality of pain in the unborn” and helping anti-abortion fake health clinics with research to maximize their “outreach and effectiveness.”
During the December 13 hearing, two of the three witnesses represented CLI -- but only one disclosed this anti-choice affiliation. While Tara Sander Lee was correctly identified as an associate scholar at CLI, her colleague David Prentice was not -- despite serving as the vice president and research director of CLI since 2015. This fact was omitted from panel testimony, Republican member questioning, and even social media promotion of the panel by CLI and its allies. During the hearing, Prentice was instead introduced and referred to as an advisory board member at the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center. SBA List's press release about the panel also omits Prentice's CLI affiliation, and regarding his advisory board member position it includes the disclaimer "Title is for identification purposes only." However, in an email to supporters about the hearing, SBA List wrote that the organization was "proud" to have had "two exceptional scholars from our research arm, Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI)" speak.
There is no scientific necessity for the continued taxpayer funding of fresh fetal tissue, organs, and body parts from induced abortion. Taxpayer funding should go to successful, patient-focused alternatives.
- Dr. David Prentice, Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center
— Susan B. Anthony List (@SBAList) December 13, 2018
Although neither SBA List nor CLI disclosed Prentice’s affiliation on social media during the December 13 hearing, both organizations have previously done so for other presentations and media appearances. For example, during a November panel on fetal tissue research hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, SBA List tweeted a link to the discussion and identified Prentice as representing CLI. In October, CLI promoted a media appearance by Prentice, identifying him as “Our VP.” In 2016, SBA List promoted a media appearance by Prentice and correctly identified him as being affiliated with CLI. As the communications director for the ranking Democrat of the committee told ThinkProgress, "While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank."
The polio vaccine was developed using cell lines derived from fetal tissue - NOT fresh fetal tissue - @LozierInstitute's Dr. David Prentice points out an important difference at today's @Heritage event on fetal tissue research
Watch LIVE here: https://t.co/Oso5lHd8tc
— Susan B. Anthony List (@SBAList) November 27, 2018
Beyond the lack of disclosure around Prentice’s role with CLI, the December 13 hearing also recycled misinformation from a previous congressional hearing driven by a discredited anti-abortion organization. During a 2016 hearing by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) introduced a consent form used by Planned Parenthood for the donation of fetal tissue for research. Hartzler focused on the form’s phrasing that researchers had found cures for certain diseases using fetal tissue to claim that the form was misleading and ultimately coerced people to donate by exerting “undue influence.” But her claim was based on an inaccurate reading of research guidelines.
Prentice reintroduced the debunked consent form during his December 13 testimony, arguing that it was “misleading” to donors because it makes them “think there have been great strides made with fetal tissue.” This claim was repeated in a tweet by SBA List which credited the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress for obtaining the document.
Dr. David Prentice enters into the record a Planned Parenthood consent form provided to mothers of aborted babies, falsely claiming that fetal tissue has been used to find cures for diabetes, cancer, AIDS & more
— Susan B. Anthony List (@SBAList) December 13, 2018
Unfortunately, the House oversight hearing provided only the latest example of what some experts have identified as “alternative science” sourced directly from right-wing media and anti-abortion extremists. President Donald Trump recently appointed CLI associate scholar Maureen Condic to serve a six-year term on the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation that provides scientific support to Congress and the president. Condic has repeatedly testified to lawmakers in favor of 20-week abortion bans by inaccurately arguing that there is scientific evidence showing a fetus feels pain starting at eight weeks. After her appointment, researchers speculated that Condic was appointed specifically because of her work on the right-wing myth of fetal pain.
Other anti-abortion groups have continued to push for legislation based on junk science and right-wing media lies -- like 20-week bans -- to restrict access to abortion and wider reproductive health care. Anti-abortion groups at the state and federal level have pushed for so-called “heartbeat” bills that would ban abortion around the six-week mark, before most people even know that they are pregnant. According to HuffPost, such bills “fundamentally misunderstand fetal development” in terms of what the heartbeat means for fetal viability. Anti-abortion groups also use faulty scientific justifications to advocate placing burdensome requirements on abortion providers to shut clinics down -- even after the Supreme Court ruled against some of those requirements in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
Anti-abortion extremists have found ample footholds in the Trump administration, and the December 13 hearing showed that Congress is no different. Although it’s unsurprising that CLI members would continue to push their anti-abortion views while purporting to offer impartial scientific testimonies, they should at least be expected to fully disclose their roles with the organization to Congress and the public -- especially when the health care policies that they promote have such dire consequences.