CNN's shockingly misleading Planned Parenthood debate: Why is a White House official throwing fuel on this (phony) fire?

Watch as CNN's Chris Cuomo and Obama's press secretary engage in wrongheaded moralistic handwringing

Published August 4, 2015 4:01PM (EDT)

It's bad enough the Republicans are taking advice from Erick Erickson of all people, who suggested recently that the congressional GOP threaten to shut down the government if President Obama doesn't sign a bill de-funding Planned Parenthood. It's bad enough that on Monday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal suspended the use of Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood, even though there aren't any Planned Parenthood facilities that currently provide abortion services in his state. Worse yet, this whole thing was precipitated by a video that was selectively edited to convey the false notion that the medical nonprofit is engaged in illegal activities involving fetal tissues. All of these things are bad enough.

Then, on top of everything else, cable news outlets continue to either treat the videos as if they're legitimate, or they're couching every discussion in the possibility that the tapes might be legitimate. Along those lines, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on CNN yesterday with Chris Cuomo, and the same thing happened again. Neither Earnest nor Cuomo were particularly helpful in underscoring the utter mendacity of the Center for Medical Progress's series of ludicrous "sting" videos. In fact, both men left enough of an opening to lead casual viewers to believe the videos might be on-the-level -- even though they are demonstrably not.

Cuomo began the segment with a big chunk of red meat for anti-choice viewers:

"Is this a moment in time to take a look at what Planned Parenthood does and say 'selling fetal baby parts for science or for whatever reason is not good'?" [Emphasis added]

To be fair, however, Cuomo added the fine print at the end with a cursory, "Because that's what the other side is saying." Although the segment was under the aegis of CNN, this is actually a well-worn Fox News Channel tactic -- to express a specific point of view with the preface "some are saying," giving the appearance of a legitimate debate when the reality couldn't be farther from the truth. But the fact remains that, no matter what hedges Cuomo deploys, whenever someone on television says the words "selling fetal baby parts," it perpetuates the false accusation that this is really happening, that Planned Parenthood actually might be participating in the black-market organ trade -- instead of, you know, making donations to life-saving medical research.

Why else ask that kind of question, other than to deliberately re-inject this false claim into the bloodstream of the discourse? If countless fact-checks, as well as two state-wide investigations in Indiana and Massachusetts, have turned up zero evidence whatsoever indicating that Planned Parenthood is breaking the law, why the hell should we "take a look at" something that is objectively not happening?

Instead of repeating something similar to what I just wrote, Earnest, who represents the White House, replied:

Chris, I don’t have a whole lot of insight into the specific policies and procedures that Planned Parenthood follows. But what they say, they say they follow the highest ethical standards in the industry.

First of all, "the industry?" It's a nonprofit organization, and the word "industry" screams out "abortion factory." And it's not just about what Planned Parenthood says or doesn't say. It's now a matter of, again, numerous fact-checks and two state-level probes into the organization's practices, both of which indicate the videos are egregious misrepresentations; there's no evidence other than a series of doctored James O'Keefe-style videos to prove anything approaching wrongdoing, much less resembling illegal activity.

Cuomo continued:

You saw the videos though, Josh. You saw the videos. No high ethical standards at play there. Base stuff, ugly stuff.

So, we're to understand that a doctor discussing a legal medical procedure over lunch is literally unethical? Honestly, I thought the optics of the salad, the wine and the description of an abortion were questionable in terms of taste. But a couple of things bear pointing out here: (1) The doctor had no idea the entire country would be hearing it. People can be guilty of poor phrasing without automatically becoming black-market desperadoes. And (2) there's simply nothing unethical about what the doctor is describing. Certainly, the details of the process aren't unethical, especially knowing that pregnant women are voluntarily undergoing these procedures and authorizing the donation of the resulting fetal tissue to research facilities.

By the way, regarding the "base stuff, ugly stuff" that Cuomo describes, let's talk for a second about CNN. Is the privately related description of a legal medical procedure any more or less ethical, ugly or base than wall-to-wall coverage of a grisly plane crash in which hundreds of people were killed? More relevant still, is it more or less ethical, ugly and base than fueling the effort to de-fund an organization that saves millions of lives and, yes, prevents hundreds of thousands of abortions every year? How ugly or ethical is it to secretly record a conversation, then to selectively edit it and release it into the world for the express purpose of smearing a vital provider of medical services? While he's busily scolding people, has Cuomo condemned the makers of the video yet?

To all of this handwringing, Earnest added:

"I haven’t seen the videos, but even based on the news coverage, the videos are shocking."

Oy, oy, oy. Please remember that the shock value is almost entirely artificial. With the exception of the description of the abortion process, there's nothing else in the videos that ought to be shocking for a centered, chronological adult.

More from Earnest:

"Those who have taken a look at the videos have raised concerns about whether or not those videos are authentic, about whether or not they have been selectively edited in a way to misconstrue or even distort or mislead about whats it that Planned Parenthood does. I haven’t seen the videos. I can’t render my own judgment on that. People who have looked at the video have raised significant concerns about that, and I think anybody would question the source. I think that’s legitimate."

No, not "whether or not." The fact-checkers who debunked the videos didn't raise concerns, they made statements of fact. Again, Earnest spoke in a way that provided wiggle room for those who are inclined to mistakenly believe the videos are authentic representations of Planned Parenthood's tissue donations. The Center for Medical Progress absolutely doctored the videos. There's no gray area or room for equivocation. It happened. Fact.

If the congressional Republicans are somehow successful in shutting down Planned Parenthood, cable news should get partial credit for deliberately fumbling its duty to factually report the news. We shouldn't expect such a thing from Fox News Channel, but when it comes to CNN or MSNBC, there's no excuse for botching this story when the facts are readily available and incontrovertible. Frankly, this whole thing is beginning to smell like the lead-up to the Iraq War, with false information and an increasingly deafening news media drumbeat.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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Chris Cuomo Cnn Josh Earnest Media Criticism Planned Parenthood White House