In their coverage of a supposed Republican backtrack on abortion, some in mainstream media consistently failed to look past the surface of changes made to GOP candidates' public-facing messaging, including websites and other campaign materials, to question whether these small language tweaks reflected an actual change of heart.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill proposing a 15-week national abortion ban in the Senate this week alongside Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser and other anti-abortion leaders. This extreme, restrictive ban is a complete contradiction of previous right-wing messaging — including from Graham himself — which asserted that overturning Roe v. Wade would simply return the issue of abortion to the states. This contradictory policy narrative can be seen among multiple GOP lawmakers who celebrated that states were able to decide the legality of abortion while simultaneously supporting a nationwide abortion ban similar to the one recently introduced by Graham.
Graham’s bill comes after several Republican candidates — including Arizona GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters — have backpedaled on harsh abortion messaging, apparently viewing the political backlash since the reversal of Roe as an electoral warning sign. However, mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post, Politico, CNN, and The Guardian are mostly taking these anti-abortion politicians at their word about their supposed changes of heart despite the litany of evidence that shows reporters why they shouldn’t.
The anti-abortion messaging may be gone from their campaigns, but the GOP’s attack on abortion rights continues
In previous weeks, much of mainstream reporting has zeroed in on the notion that Republicans running for office this November are backtracking on extreme abortion views to appeal to independent voters, especially following August’s overwhelming reproductive rights victory over an anti-abortion ballot referendum in the deeply conservative Kansas. A number of conservative politicians were found to have quickly scrubbed their campaign websites and other public-facing messaging, erasing aggressive language about being “100% pro-life” or affirming “the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death.”
Despite the frame adopted by some in mainstream media, the GOP attack on abortion rights is still continuing at full speed, underscoring the need for news outlets to apply more scrutiny to such stories. For example, recent analysis by The Washington Post’s The Fix highlighted a viral video of a South Carolina state legislator expressing his dismay over the effects of abortion restrictions he helped pass. The Post’s Aaron Blake wrote that the video showed “signs of potential buyer’s remorse creeping in” for GOP legislators reckoning with the damage they’ve inflicted through anti-abortion legislation. Less than a week later, that same lawmaker voted for even stricter abortion restrictions, and the Post failed to update its piece.
This tactic to soften messaging on abortion before the elections isn't new among GOP politicians. As noted by a Washington Post columnist, Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin spent his 2021 campaign avoiding direct references to abortion restrictions he may push for if elected. Now that he’s in office, Youngkin is pressuring the Virginia legislature to pass a 15-week abortion ban in light of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe.
Mainstream media have not provided pushback to the GOP's changing narrative on abortion
This pattern of GOP backtracking is increasingly evident, but mainstream media have not pushed back against Republicans' transparent effort to obscure their unpopular policy positions ahead of November.
In their coverage of this phenomenon, mainstream media reported on this new Republican softening strategy at face value, often failing to include the voices of abortion activists to provide their insight on this strategy’s impact on the fight for reproductive freedom across America:
- One edition of The Washington Post’s Health 202 newsletter echoed the notion that some Republicans are “backing away” from previously staunch anti-abortion views. The newsletter largely focused on harsh abortion policies’ unpopularity among voters, embraced political horse-race framing about “GOP infighting,” and provided no pushback to the idea that Republicans are actually changing their minds on abortion.
- A piece by Politico on changes made to GOP candidates’ abortion messaging failed to frame the narrative backslide with any skepticism, instead arguing that such candidates were simply trying to “avoid political fallout.” Politico provided weak pushback in only one small paragraph halfway into the article, citing a Planned Parenthood ad against New Mexico GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Ronchetti that stated “the real Ronchetti would take away a women’s right to control her own body.”
- In an article about Republicans backtracking on abortion, CNN repeated conservative framing that believing in the right to an abortion is “extreme” and “well outside the mainstream” and uncritically accepted Minnesota GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen altering his abortion messaging because “his previous comments about abortion were ‘clumsy.’” While the article did provide some pushback from a Democratic operative characterizing the GOP’s narrative shift as “trying to mislead voters,” it was buried 17 paragraphs into the piece.
- The Guardian gave weak pushback to Republicans “softening” on abortion, writing “not everyone is convinced” that GOP candidates are “genuine” about their new positions. The outlet also repeated misinformation from anti-abortion advocates without correcting the statement: Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s president claimed that Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters supports “a limit on abortions at a point by which the unborn child can feel excruciating pain.” In reality, Masters has voiced his support for both 15- and 20-week bans on abortion, well before the at least 24-25 week mark agreed upon by major medical organizations.
- An article for The Washington Post highlighted that this strategy of “tracking back to the political middle” on policy issues is common practice amongst candidates of both parties, but the current strategy deployed by Republicans is giving Democrats the chance to counter their opponents’ attempts to suppress their less popular views. While the article did offer perspective from Democratic candidates and leaders noticing this back-tracking, it did little to push back on why this has been an ineffective strategy; the closest it got is at the end of the article, citing a GOP communications consultant saying that Republicans risk looking insincere by staying mum on their views on abortion.
- In a recent edition of the Post’s The Fix column, Blake doubled down on credulously framing “the most telling GOP flip-flops and walk backs on abortion.” Blake wrote that Republicans are facing a “momentary political problem” now that the Supreme Court “no longer prevents them from banning abortion,” ignoring that GOP members in some state legislatures passed restrictions well before Roe was officially overturned. The column failed to include any pushback or skepticism of how Republican candidates such as Jensen have supposedly changed their mind on abortion limits.
Republican candidates’ public backtracking isn’t as effective as they had hoped, and it could cost them at the polls in November
New polling finds that 56% of voters say that abortion will be “very important” to them this fall, suggesting the “red wave” expected in 2022 midterms may not be as pronounced as previously expected due to the widespread outrage over the overturning of Roe and leading GOP pollsters to claim that Democrats have effectively closed the “enthusiasm gap” with Republicans.
Voters taking Republicans’ extreme anti-abortion views into consideration on their way to the polls are causing the GOP to go on the defensive against this progressive wave. While attempting to soften their public-facing views on abortion, Republicans have also been working to make it harder to pass ballot measures, which is a direct threat to abortion-rights advocates’ efforts to take issues directly to voters.
This defensive strategy, coupled with their scrubbing of their public-facing messaging, is showing a concerted effort to shift the public’s perspective of the GOP’s stances on abortion while also ensuring that efforts cannot be made to reverse the damage already done to reproductive rights for Americans. Mainstream media’s failure in accurately portraying this shift is aiding the GOP in rewriting the narrative around their extreme views.