Misinformer of the Year: The Center for Medical Progress

A demonstrator displays a sign at a rally in New York City on September 29, 2015. Planned Parenthood has been fielded legislative attacks sparked by misleading documentaries by the Center for Medical Progress that falsely claimed that the medical provider sold the body parts of embryos for profit. (Photo via Shutterstock)A demonstrator displays a sign at a rally in New York City on September 29, 2015. Planned Parenthood has been fielding legislative attacks sparked by misleading documentaries by the Center for Medical Progress that falsely claim the medical provider sold the body parts of embryos for profit. (Photo: a katz / Shutterstock.com)

Conservative media figures and their right-wing political allies thought that this was the year they could finally achieve their decades-long goal of destroying Planned Parenthood’s reputation and ability to provide health care to millions of Americans.

Since July, the previously-unknown anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress has released a series of dishonestly edited videos that falsely accuse Planned Parenthood of illegally selling “baby parts.” Long-standing opponents of the organization’s mission used those deceptive videos to generate congressional hearings, state and federal investigations, and endless media chatter smearing the group over its alleged “illegal” activity and qualifications for federal funding.

Worse, amid this toxic media environment for Planned Parenthood, threats and violence against reproductive health providers spiked – culminating in the deadly November shooting attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood by a man who called himself a “warrior for the babies” trying to ensure that there were “no more baby parts.”

The latest campaign to damage Planned Parenthood has experienced setbacks, with multiple government investigations clearing the group of any wrongdoing and law enforcement agencies reacting to this uptick in anti-choice violence. But the saga is illustrative of the way dishonest activists with shady backers – in this case with ties to violent extremism – can utilize the power of the conservative echo chamber to try to advance their destructive politics.

Center for Medical Progress May Be New, but Its Backers Are Well-Known Anti-Choice Extremists

The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) began the year entirely unknown. But over the past five months, the anti-choice organization has become a prominent cog in the conservative machine thanks to its series of deceptively-edited smear videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood profiting from the illegal sale of fetal tissue. The videos prompted a Republican legislative attack on the group, drew criticism from major media figures, and inspired virulent anti-choice rhetoric that many have linked to recent violence against reproductive health care providers.

CMP bills itself as a non-profit “group of citizen journalists.” But behind these supposed “citizen journalists” are a variety of disreputable anti-choice actors. CMP founder David Daleiden has a long history with discredited conservative groups, including anti-choice group Live Action, where Daleiden worked as the director of research. Fittingly, Live Action has also deceptively edited undercover footage of reproductive health care clinics in an attempt to smear Planned Parenthood.

As the face of CMP, Daleiden has made numerous media appearances in which he baselessly accused Planned Parenthood of “harvesting and selling aborted baby parts” and committing an illegal abortion procedure of “partial-birth abortion.” The accusations are inflammatory and false, but have been repeated by various right-wing media figures. In the creation of CMP and its strategy, Daleiden took advice from the perpetrators of an earlier campaign against Planned Parenthood carried out by an older anti-choice group called “Life Dynamics,” which in the late 1990s also made wild allegations of illegal profiteering on fetal tissue in order to whip up anti-choice media coverage. These claims of illegal activity collapsed under closer scrutiny.

Troy Newman, a CMP board member and adviser to Daleiden, is an established figure in the extremist wing of the anti-choice movement. Newman has infamously argued that the killer of an abortion doctor should have been allowed to argue that the murder was a “justifiable defensive action,” and is the president of Operation Rescue – a group that consulted on CMP’s videos and has a violent background of its own. The group’s senior policy adviser, for example, was sentenced in 1988 for conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic, and was in communication with the murderer of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, helping the murderer track Tiller’s court dates.

Right-Wing Media Catnip: CMP’s “Investigative Journalism” Consists of Deceptively Edited Videos

CMP’s videos used undercover footage of actors’ conversations with Planned Parenthood officials and with staff members of private, for-profit biomedical procurement companies. The videos were heavily edited to cut out crucial parts of conversations to make it appear that Planned Parenthood officials were “sell[ing] the body parts of aborted fetuses,” and agreeing to alter abortion procedures to profit from the illegal sale of fetal tissue. But the more extensive footage released on CMP’s website routinely undermined the sensationalist claims of the edited versions, showing that Planned Parenthood officials were discussing routine and long-legal reimbursement for costs associated with tissue donation, not selling “baby parts.” The longer footage also featured officials reiterating that everything done is “for the safety of the patient,” and stating that they could not and would not modify or delay the procedure for the sake of fetal tissue donation, per Planned Parenthood and tissue donation guidelines. Some videos also relied on comments from third party sources that never worked for Planned Parenthood, and similarly did not implicate Planned Parenthood in any illegal activity.

In fact, while Planned Parenthood has been shown to have done nothing illegal, CMP currently finds itself in court unsuccessfully trying to hide its anonymous backers because it may have engaged in a criminal conspiracy to produce the videos in the first place.

Despite the flimsy nature of the allegations, right-wing media quickly seized on the videos, and Fox News led the charge. Fox host Bill O’Reilly called for an FBI investigation into Planned Parenthood, Megyn Kelly accused the organization of “celebrating its practice of harvesting the organs of aborted fetuses for money,” and network correspondent Peter Doocy asserted that he searched the organization’s website for “fetal baby part prices” but did not get results because the sale is a “well-kept secret.”

Other conservative media figures used CMP’s videos to compare Planned Parenthood to Nazis, likening abortion to genocide, and used the videos to call for completely defunding the women’s health care provider – even going so far as to support a government shutdown to do so.

While CMP’s smear campaign found a receptive audience among conservative figures, more responsible outlets condemned CMP after reviewing their claims, saying the videos took Planned Parenthood personnel’s words “grossly out of context” and showed “nothing illegal.” The New York Times editorial board called the videos a “campaign of deception” and said those who use the videos for political purposes care “nothing about the truth.”

Fetal Tissue Donation Was a Bipartisan Initiative That Is Now a Political Weapon Against Planned Parenthood

Fetal tissue donation and reimbursement for “reasonable expenses occasioned by the actual retrieval, storage, preparation, and transportation of the tissues” are both legal with informed consent, and were created in response to the advice of medical experts. Planned Parenthood has repeatedly explained that its clinics “help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research” with “the highest ethical and legal standards,” and receive “no financial benefit” from the arrangement aside from reimbursement of “actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue” – consistent with industry standards.

Legal fetal tissue donations support critical medical research and help cure diseases, and Planned Parenthood is only one of many groups that support this initiative (other groups that provide tissue donations include clinics associated with universities). Scientists have already noted the ramifications of CMP’s smears, explaining that they’ve seen a dramatic drop in the availability of tissue donations, threatening the “life-saving research” the donations enable. Planned Parenthood announced in October that it would no longer accept any reimbursement for expenses associated with its fetal tissue donation program.

Despite the fact that CMP’s fabrications have been thoroughly condemned and debunked, their false smears have nonetheless fueled Republican lawmakers’ latest attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, fundraise off the outrage, and bolster their presidential campaigns by proving their “anti-abortion bona fides,” as Salon’s Heather Digby Parton wrote.

Following the release of CMP’s first video, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) along with then-House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called for a congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood, which was launched by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. After the release of the second video, congressional Republicans introduced legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. Sen. Rand Paul introduced “an amendment to the tax code that would strip Planned Parenthood of the federal dollars it receives annually for a range of women’s health services.” Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) introduced the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, which called for “an immediate one-year moratorium on support” for the organization while it was being investigated by Congress. (The House Oversight Committee even used the heavily-edited footage to promote its hearing on Planned Parenthood.) Remarkably, after House Republicans voted to create a special committee solely to investigate Planned Parenthood, chair of the hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), admitted the committee had not uncovered any evidence that Planned Parenthood broke the law.

But that did not stop Republican presidential candidates from adopting CMP’s language into their own platforms. During the first Republican presidential primary debate, Carly Fiorina falsely claimed (and later repeated) that video taken inside a Planned Parenthood clinic showed a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Numerous media outlets quickly called Fiorina out for citing something that “does not exist.”

Later, Mike Huckabee falsely claimed that Planned Parenthood collaborates in “the selling of body parts.” Donald Trump said the videos showed “these people from Planned Parenthood talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Ted Cruz asserted “Planned Parenthood officials [participate in] callously, heartlessly bartering and selling the body parts of human beings.” Marco Rubio even suggested Planned Parenthood “pushe[s women] into abortions so that those [fetal] tissues can be harvested and sold for a profit.” And Chris Christie suggested that Planned Parenthood supports “”the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts in a way that maximizes their value for sale for profit.”

Violence Against Abortion Providers Has Long Been a Serious Domestic Terrorism Problem, and It’s Escalating

Countless media outlets have lambasted the GOP presidential candidates for using “lurid, violent imagery and rhetoric” to smear Planned Parenthood over the videos, saying the language could “inspire ‘troubled souls'” to commit violence against women’s health clinics. The Washington Posts Dana Milbank wrote that the GOP candidates’ calls for outrage against Planned Parenthood – and conservative media’s comparisons of Planned Parenthood to Nazis – could allow unhinged individuals to use this rhetoric as “justification to contemplate the unspeakable.”

Discussions about the link between CMP’s myths, the candidates’ rhetoric, and deadly violence became central to the national dialogue at the end of last month. On November 27, a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado, shooting and killing three people. The alleged gunman reportedly explained his actions by telling law enforcement “no more baby parts,” and later declared during a court appearance, “I am guilty. There will be no trial. I am a warrior for the babies.” The attack came at a time when law enforcement agencies have noted an uptick in violence against reproductive health care providers following the release of CMP’s videos. Three months into the group’s campaign of deception, an FBI Intelligence Assessment reportedly concluded, “it is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.” As Vox’s Emily Crockett pointed out, it is “clear that threats, vandalism, and violence against abortion providers and clinics have escalated since this summer, when anti-abortion activists released deceptively edited videos that accused Planned Parenthood of ‘selling baby parts.'”

At least five Planned Parenthood facilities have been attacked since the release of CMP’s first video in July (some reports indicate as many as nine criminal or suspicious activities targeting the group). Before Colorado, apparent terror attacks struck clinics in Thousand Oaks, CA; Pullman, WA; Aurora, IL; and New Orleans, LA.

There is no definitive evidence that the clinic attacks are the result of the vitriolic anti-Planned Parenthood fervor that has emerged following the release and conservative media hype of CMP’s deceptively-edited smear videos. But it is crucial to note that the incidents have occurred in the midst of the smear campaign.

Planned Parenthood regional CEO Karl Eastlund said the arson attacks are “unfortunately a predictable ripple effect from the false and incendiary attacks that fuel violence from extremists.” The Los Angeles Times pointed out that “as long as abortion has been legal in the US, abortion clinics throughout the country have been subject to arson and bombings” and “abortion providers have been murdered.” And according to RH Reality Check, “A report released in February found that threats of harassment, intimidation, and violence against women’s health clinics have doubled since 2010. Reproductive rights advocates have raised concerns that radical anti-choice activists have been emboldened by a wave of GOP legislative attacks on reproductive rights.”

While violence seems to have escalated this year, clinics and doctors that provide abortion services have been subject to terror attacks for decades. The Anti-Defamation League called anti-abortion violence “America’s forgotten terrorism,” explaining, “Anti-abortion violence has actually remained a consistent, if secondary, source of domestic terrorism and violence, manifesting itself most often in assaults and vandalism, with occasional arsons, bombings, drive-by shootings, and assassination attempts.” And according to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey, which polled 242 abortion providers throughout the country, “nearly 1 in 5” abortion clinics experience “severe violence.”

Misinformer of the Year

Rhetoric that began with an unknown organization and fact-free smear videos, thanks to heavy promotion from conservative media and shady support from movement extremists, found its way into Republican legislative priorities and presidential platforms, and may have helped inspire acts of violence against reproductive health care providers. While not a traditional media outlet itself, CMP produced its own content that it used to infiltrate a fractured media environment and receptive conservative echo chamber, creating a feeding frenzy to broadcast their deceptive message loud and clear. For these reasons, Media Matters recognizes the Center for Medical Progress as the 2015 Misinformer of the Year.

Past recipients include George Will (2014), CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O’Reilly (2004).