The typical person speaking about reproductive rights on cable news is male, anti-choice, and a liar: That is the inescapable conclusion of an exhaustive new study conducted by Media Matters on the state of abortion coverage.
Using Nexis, researchers combed through 14 months of evening news coverage covering all of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 and found that both Fox News and CNN allowed discussion of reproductive rights to be dominated by male anti-choicers who frequently lied to demonize abortion and contraception. Only MSNBC strove to offer accurate information instead of misogynist scare-mongering to their audience.
Fox News was, unsurprisingly, the worst offender. Seventy percent of the people who spoke about reproductive rights on Fox were openly anti-choice and only 5% of the people who appeared on air were pro-choice. Men completely dominated the conversation on Fox, as well. Two-thirds of the people who spoke about reproductive health issues were male, and only one-third were female.
But the more surprising and upsetting discovery was that CNN, which tends to be regarded as more politically neutral than Fox News (which is conservative) or MSNBC (which is perceived as more liberal), nonetheless let people, mostly men, who object to giving women full reproductive rights absolutely dominate the conversation. Fifty-six percent of the people on CNN talking about reproductive rights were men and the network was three times as likely to host anti-choice guests as pro-choice guests.
In fact, CNN did not host a single reproductive rights activist until after a deadly shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs in November. That's right: Even though Planned Parenthood had been subject to a deluge of coverage after an anti-choice organization named the Center for Medical Progress released hoax videos falsely accusing the group of illegal behavior, CNN did not see fit to host anyone from Planned Parenthood or similar organizations like NARAL or the Center for Reproductive Rights. It took three dead people before CNN let pro-choice activists have a seat at the table.
This problem isn't just one of balance, either. The larger issue, in fact, is one of accuracy. The blunt fact of the matter is that the anti-choice movement is built on lies and that means there's a direct correlation between how many anti-choicers you have on air and how many lies get told to the public. It's just the nature of the beast: Anti-choicers lie, and so letting them on air means playing host to lies.
This is borne out by the numbers: Both Fox News and CNN had more anti-choicers than pro-choicers, and subsequently both networks had more misinformation than truths told on-air. Here's a handy table, courtesy of Media Matters:
The reason that MSNBC had more accurate information than misinformation is simple: They were the only network that featured more pro-choicers than anti-choicers on air.
Obviously, the easiest way for networks to prevent misinformation and outright lies from being broadcast is by not having anti-choice activists on air. The misinformation problem in the anti-choice movement is a structural one. There's no good arguments based in empirical evidence against reproductive rights, and so anti-choicers really can't make convincing arguments without lies. That's why they rely on lies so much.
But it's understandable why networks would hesitate to simply ban anti-choicers outright, even though they are almost guaranteed to lie if they get put in front of a microphone. Not having them on air at all courts accusations of "bias" from conservatives, and even though the bias would be a bias towards facts, instead of a political bias, audiences may not understand that.
In order to be fair, networks have to allow anti-choicers on to speak their piece. The solution to the misinformation problem, then, is simply to challenge anti-choicers when they lie. Unfortunately, as Media Matters found, cable hosts often were derelict in their duty to challenge misinformation.
Fox News was, again no surprise, the absolute worst. Eighty-two percent of the statements that researchers analyzed were false, and only 18% were found to be true.
But CNN had its own problems: Fifty-four statements on CNN shows about reproductive rights were false and only 43 were true. The only show where truths outnumbered false statements was "AC 360", which, as Anderson Cooper fans will tell you, is likely due to the fact that he's more willing than most cable news anchors to challenge conservative guests.
The researchers were tracking four bits of misinformation that were common in the 2015-2016 period studied:
1) Government funds given to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid are illegally used to pay for abortions;
2) Birth control acts as an abortifacient;
3) Planned Parenthood “harvests” or “sells” or is “profiting” from fetal tissue; and
4) The Center for Medical Progress’ work or videos are “journalism” or fair depictions.
Three of these are flat-out lies and the fourth, that CMP is performing "journalism" instead of agitprop that is constructed on misinformation, is more in the category of "bullshit". Either way, any journalist who allows a source to air these claims without correcting them is derelict in basic duties.
Due to the time period studied, it is no surprise that the biggest issue was anti-choice activists falsely claiming that Planned Parenthood is "harvesting" fetal tissue to sell illegally on the black market. Fox News went out of its way to push this lie, flooding the airwaves with it in clear hopes that people will start to believe it through sheer repetition. Media Matters has another useful chart.
Fox News was also the worst offender in pushing the lie that Planned Parenthood violates the law by spending federal money on abortion. They also had seven instances of people falsely claiming that birth control works by terminating pregnancies (it works by preventing them). Distressingly, MSNBC had four instances where a speaker told this lie and not once did the host correct them.
Sadly, there's not much that can be done about the Fox News situation. The channel is not really a news channel, but a propaganda network. Of course they are going to have a bunch of anti-choice men spouting lies meant to demonize basic reproductive health care.
But this study should be a sobering one for those out there doing real journalism. Anti-choicers have successfully hijacked journalistic discourse to spread misinformation about how reproductive health care works, in an effort to terminate women's basic rights. Networks need to be mindful of the fact that anti-choicers have a tendency to lie, and to be careful when booking them as guests. The best advice is to host anti-choice activists and politicians sparsely and, when they are on air, make sure the host is prepared with foreknowledge of the likely lies they are going to tell and the information necessary to correct them.