The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ruling or the leak? A battle to shape the media narrative on abortion.

As conservative media and politicians tried to deflect the spotlight to the Supreme Court leak, other outlets weighed the impact of the draft ruling. Yet the mystery still beckoned.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Michael Mccoy/Reuters)
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There was only one subject on the mind of reporters who clustered around Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. But as they tried to ask about the political and policy implications of a potentially looming overturn of Roe v. Wade — such as his thoughts on states that could prohibit even rape and incest victims from getting abortions — the Senate minority leader insisted they were coming at him with the wrong question.

“You need, it seems to me — excuse the lecture — to concentrate on what the news is today,” McConnell scolded. “Not a leaked draft, but the fact that the draft was leaked.”

The GOP leader’s testy media critique spoke to a larger tension playing out in the first 24 hours after the explosive Politico report based on a Supreme Court justice’s not-yet-public draft opinion — a real-time struggle to bend and shape the larger media narrative about the story’s significance.

On Fox News on Tuesday, anchor Sandra Smith interviewed Planned Parenthood spokesman Sam Lau, who bemoaned the possible impact of the draft ruling by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. But instead, Smith repeatedly pressed him about whether he condoned the fact that it had been leaked.

I have no idea how this got out. What I do know is that what it shows is that millions of people, nearly half the country, could soon lose access to abortion,” Lau replied. “I think that’s what most of your viewers are going to care about.”

“Most Americans care about the integrity of the court!” Smith snapped.

Across conservative media, there was strikingly little emphasis on what new restrictions on abortion might entail, should the ruling become official, or even whether it has the potential to create a backlash for the Republican politicians who long pushed for it. Fox News opinion host Laura Ingraham, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, set the tone for much of the coverage Monday night when she declared that the leak itself — “a shocking and unprecedented breach of the court’s confidentiality, which is sacrosanct” — was the most urgent concern. Jeanine Pirro, co-host of Fox’s “The Five,” demanded that the leaker should be charged with a crime. On much-lesser-watched competitor Newsmax, pro-Trump lawyer Victoria Toensing blamed the disclosure on Democrats and called for the FBI to polygraph justices’ law clerks. In fact, both the identity and the motives of the person who leaked the document remain unclear; Politico has not revealed any details about its source.

Historian and conservative media scholar Nicole Hemmer argued that there was a political strategy in the focus on the leak. “Talking constantly about Roe actually being overturned could be damaging for the Republican Party in this year’s midterms,” she said, considering that a majority of Americans support upholding Roe.

“It’s a strategic decision,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative former radio host and founder of the Bulwark. “A huge part of the art of spinning is deciding what to talk about and what to ignore.”

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the terms “leak” or “leaked” had been mentioned 213 times on Fox News programs, compared with 146 times on MSNBC and 86 times on CNN.

Politico scoop on Supreme Court draft opinion triggers media intrigue

News organizations that lean to the center or left were far more likely to focus on the impact of the Alito ruling. On MSNBC, correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reported from the Jackson, Miss., abortion clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case, discussing how women seeking services there would be affected.

“My concern is not being upset about a leak,” former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said in an interview on the network. “My concern is being upset that five justices on the Supreme Court have taken it upon themselves to end a constitutional right that women have had for nearly 50 years.”

Major daily newspapers dug into the question of what a Roe overturn could mean for individual citizens and the nation at large — the Boston Globe citing analysts who think the Alito ruling could open the door to a federal abortion ban, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune examining its impact on antiabortion legislation in Minnesota and neighboring states, the Los Angeles Times describing efforts to make California a “sanctuary” that would welcome abortion-seekers from across the country.

Yet even these kinds of news organizations found themselves drawn inexorably into the mystery of the Politico scoop — drawing fury from some critics who saw it as a distraction from the effect on reproductive rights. “The New York Times is failing this moment, radically,” charged Rolling Stone writer Tim Dickinson in a tweet commenting on a pileup of headlines on top of the Times website Tuesday: “Chief Justice Calls Leak an ‘Egregious Breach’ of Trust”; “Supreme Court in Disarray After Extraordinary Breach.”

But in a media economy that incentivizes newsiness, it was perhaps inevitable that the discussion of the leak would keep bobbing up to the surface, with algorithms continuing to reward the headlines that kept trickling out about it through Tuesday — from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s announcement that he would launch an investigation to outraged comments from McConnell and others.

The main headline on Wednesday’s Washington Post print edition: “Roberts directs investigation into leaked draft.”

Others within mainstream media defended the choice to focus on the dynamics of the leak. “The fact of the leak cannot be separated from its substance,” wrote Adam Liptak of the New York Times. The leak, he argued, was “raising questions about whether the court is capable of functioning in an orderly way.”

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