Last week, the right achieved a goal it has worked toward for decades: the circumvention of reproductive rights enshrined under Roe v. Wade. Senate Bill 8, a devious and flagrantly unconstitutional Texas law that, among other things, allows citizens to collect $10,000 bounties for identifying people who “aid or abet” abortions, up to and including any Uber driver who might unwittingly provide transportation to or from a clinic. Strangely, the right-wing media is barely covering the news of this triumph at all. Fox News, the right’s most prominent organ, has scarcely devoted any attention to it, beyond dismissing and mocking those outraged by these events.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote earlier this week, there is a simple explanation for the muted response on the right: “Republicans are now the dog that caught the car, fearful of the political ramifications of their own victory.” For years, conservatives have undertaken a process in which Roe’s protections were slowly eroded; the more extreme efforts to go beyond administering yet another one of a thousand cuts to the law were typically blocked by the court. In this way, the political confrontation over abortion rights has slouched along as Republicans found quiet ways to weaken Roe that never galvanized a significant backlash. The Texas law, however, has accelerated the political clash—and in a way that is macabre even by the recent standards of the American right: In a time of extraordinary economic precarity, Texas citizens are effectively being encouraged to become abortion bounty hunters.
But the very fact that the right has offered this muted reaction has led to a problem with the way the Texas bill has been covered: The canny refusal to take a victory lap and the downplaying of the importance of S.B. 8 have left the press struggling to capture the significance of the Texas law and the Supreme Court’s actions. Abortion is still technically legal in Texas up until the sixth week of pregnancy (with no exceptions for rape or incest), but as most women do not find out about their pregnancies until after that point, the law, for all practical purposes, bans all abortions. Moreover, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pointed out, the way that the Roberts court gutted Roe using the so-called “shadow docket” allowed the right to decimate reproductive rights “without the headline ‘Roe v. Wade is overturned,’” and “without the shockwaves and convulsions it would cause if that happened.”
The mainstream press consistently struggles to cover significant stories if it can’t glom on to a partisan angle. In the case of the biggest story—by far—of the last month, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the partisan frame the press adopted is clear but profoundly misleading. Republicans have loudly criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of the exit from that war, with many demanding his resignation—a silly notion given that the withdrawal began under a Republican president and is wildly popular with the public. The media has nevertheless treated this as a serious political conflict because it neatly fits into a tidy Republicans-attack-Democrats-defend-midterms-loom narrative.
The impact of S.B. 8 has eluded this partisan frame. Democrats may have much to say about the anti-abortion movement’s biggest victory in decades, but the victorious Republicans refuse to defend their actions. The mainstream press thrives on conflict: two sides endlessly pushing back on one another. By staying mum and downplaying S.B. 8, the right is effectively preventing a larger conversation about the immediate implications of what Texas Republicans have wrought from ever getting started.
As Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop noted last week, Supreme Court reporters have been assiduously tracking Roe’s demise since Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. But the political press has struggled to communicate the implications of the high court’s decisions and their magnitude. Instead, it has gravitated toward stories where a slick partisan frame is more discernible: Afghanistan, Covid-19, the fate of the Democrats’ infrastructure and spending bills.
Some of this failure of down to timing—Roe’s demise happened during what has been the busiest news period of 2021. But there’s a lesson to be learned here, as well. The mainstream press has given itself a free hand to be fanatical in its criticism about the Afghanistan withdrawal; pro-war sentiments have been so pornographically abundant that it’s clear the media has little fear in taking a side. The media evinces a real squeamishness over abortion, however; here, it seems to view the taking of sides as a no-win situation, which only further muffles coverage.
And while you’ll often catch cable news filling hours of crisis news coverage with rampant speculation, there’s been a notable reluctance to delve into the hypotheticals posed by the Texas bill—which again, incentivize a heavily armed and zealous portion of the population to hunt down “aiders and abettors” of abortions for $10,000 checks. The implications of a law that deputizes private citizens to infringe on the constitutional rights of others for cash prizes, effectively bankrupting abortion providers and seekers alike, couldn’t be clearer. And yet these implications have received relatively scant attention despite their dystopian edge. It’s all worked out perfectly for the anti-abortion movement: It got to deal a potentially fatal blow to Roe under cover of darkness and unleash a new illiberal—and potentially violent—political force, without facing any real backlash.
As abortion becomes a bigger midterm issue—for Democrats, at least—it’s possible the tenor and scope of coverage of abortion will change. For now, the press has not treated the most significant anti-abortion victory since Roe with the attention it deserves, and for those victors, it has made all the difference.