June 24 was a happy day at Fox News. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision codifying a right to abortion, had been overturned by the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. On his evening program, Fox host Jesse Watters took a victory lap tinged with his trademark snark:
“Abortion is an emotional issue, and liberals are furious, and they want you to know that,” said Watters, who also alleged that “the Democrat politicians are scaring the heck out of them.”
A few weeks later, it was Watters who appeared scared. Roe’s demise, which tossed abortion policy to the states, had been implicated in the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who was seeking an abortion. It was just the sort of scenario that abortion advocates had predicted. Could Fox News handle it?
Details on the matter came from the Indianapolis Star, which reported on July 1 that a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio had traveled to Indiana to get an abortion. Following the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs, Ohio moved to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The newspaper attributed the story to Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist Caitlin Bernard, who said she was contacted by a child abuse doctor in Ohio.
The double victimization of a 10-year-old — who reportedly could have been impregnated at age 9 — shook the shoulders of a country that had lived for a half-century under Roe’s protections. “Imagine being that little girl,” President Biden said Friday as he signed an executive order on reproductive rights and care. “Just, I’m serious. Just imagine being that little girl.”
This was troubling stuff, so Watters got serious. He said on Monday night that his show had “decided to investigate this alleged child rape” and noted that Ohio authorities hadn’t launched a criminal investigation. “This doesn’t make any sense,” said Watters, who made reference to a Post Fact-Checker column by Glenn Kessler, which looked at sourcing — and sourcing challenges — for the IndyStar report that had gone viral. Though Watters held out the possibility that the story was true, he made clear his leanings:
So, where do we stand? If there’s a 10-year-old child abuser out there on the streets of Ohio, he needs to be brought to justice. And if so-called doctors are covering up child rape, they need to be prosecuted. But if this horrific story isn’t accurate, and the abortion doctor and the Indianapolis Star are misleading us and the mainstream media and the president of the United States seizing on another hoax, then this is absolutely shameful, and fits a pretty dangerous pattern of politically timed disinformation.
Fox News’s midday roundtable show “Outnumbered” tossed out whatever restraint Watters had sewn into his report. “There’s no shortage of 10-year-old rape victims,” panel member Emily Compagno said on Tuesday’s program. “There’s victims from infants through the elderly — both genders. There is more than you can count. There are so many monsters out there. So for me what I find so deeply offensive is that they had to make up a fake one. There’s actually so many, there are countless real ones that I would love for them to use as advocacy for law and order.”
Later on Tuesday, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson said, “Why did the Biden administration — speaking of lying — just repeat a story about a 10-year-old child who got pregnant and they got an abortion or was not allowed to get an abortion when it turns out the story’s not true?”
But there was no lie at all: The Columbus Dispatch reported on Wednesday that a Columbus man — 27-year-old Gerson Fuentes — had been charged with rape of a 10-year-old. The newspaper cited a police official as testifying that the girl had undergone a medical abortion on June 30 in Indianapolis. Ohio bans abortions after pregnancies reach six weeks, and the 10-year-old was six weeks and three days into her pregnancy when she was examined.
How did Watters filter the development? By attacking Bernard, the abortion provider at the center of the story.
Carlson (predictably) pivoted to a detail in the Dispatch’s story — namely, that Fuentes is “believed to be undocumented.” “10-YEAR-OLD’S RAPIST IS AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT” read a chyron adorning Carlson’s discussion of the case Wednesday night. There was no “allegedly” in the screen graphic to signal that Fuentes hasn’t been convicted — a tendency that Carlson displayed years ago as he hyped high-profile rape charges against immigrants in Rockville, Md. — charges that were later dropped.
Another Fox News talking point emerged Wednesday night in Watters’s monologue, when he said the girl had not needed to flee to Indiana for the abortion. For that bit of commentary, Watters was relying on an interview that he had aired Monday night with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. “Ohio’s heartbeat law has a medical emergency exception, broader than just the life of the mother,” Yost told Watters. “She — this young girl — if she exists, and if this horrible thing actually happened to her, breaks my heart to think about it — she did not have to leave Ohio to find treatment.”
Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate for state issues with the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, points out that the exception for medical emergency (see text here) doesn’t encompass the circumstances of the 10-year-old rape victim. “The medical emergency exception doesn’t include rape and incest,” Nash told the Erik Wemple Blog on Thursday. “It just doesn’t. It’s really disingenuous for [Yost] to have made this comment.”
Disingenuous, yes, as well as condescending and paternalistic: Who are Yost and Watters to second-guess the decisions of a family regarding medical care for their 10-year-old daughter who had been raped?
The tl;dr version of all this: Fox News has been playing an extraordinary amount of defense on this story — first by doubting its veracity and then by deflecting to the real issue at play here. It’s as if the network couldn’t countenance the realities behind a sea change in legal policy for which it had long advocated. Perhaps it had budgeted a few weeks to celebrate the Dobbs decision and hadn’t expected the ruling’s grim impact to intrude so quickly. The panic of Watters, Carlson & Co. suggests that they were more prone to ridicule, rather than listen to, warnings from pro-choice voices about the scenarios that would unfold in the absence of Roe.
“As much as they are panicked, it’s for political reasons more than caring about the patient,” says Nash.
As the Erik Wemple Blog noted on Twitter, this national story pivots on the work of regional and local newspapers in red states, which is precisely where nightmarish post-Roe stories will continue to emerge. Which is to say, exposing the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision will fall in large part to a hollowed-out sector of the American media. And Fox News will be there to throw cold water on the scoops that those overworked reporters churn out.