Hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade Friday, Tucker Carlson took to the airwaves to protest companies that would pay for employee abortion travel costs. “They’re against families,” the Fox News host said of the companies in “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
But while Carlson offered his commentary, an image from his show actually served an entirely different purpose: raising money for groups that facilitate abortion.
Anonymous online bidders in the digital space known as web3 last year offered thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency for an NFT taken from a screenshot of Carlson on the show, advocating for body autonomy on coronavirus vaccines. The NFT was said to be selling for 12 eth Saturday — about $14,500 — with its creator, Jenny Holzer, saying she will donate the money she makes from the sale to groups including Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the op. DC based advocacy group PAI.
(An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a digital image uniquely stamped after its creator. Eth is the name for a popular cryptocurrency linked to the ethereal blockchain on which many NFTs live.)
The move underscores the freewheeling nature of web3, in which wild cash injections mingle with loose standards of creative ownership. It also makes for one of the weirder acts of unintentional philanthropy — activists outraged by the overthrow by the Court of Roe raising money on the back of someone who vigorously attacked the 1973 ruling. Last week, Carlson called Roe “the most embarrassing court decision of the last century” and a “widely recognized joke”.
However, on his May 11, 2021 program, Carlson spoke with Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., about Johnson’s decision not to get a coronavirus vaccine. As Carlson agreed with Johnson — “Of course; it’s your body, your choice, as we’ve been hearing for almost 50 years,” the Fox News host said — a chyron conveyed the message about body autonomy. “Making an informed choice regarding your own body should not be controversial,” read the text at the bottom of the screen.
Planned Parenthood in Florida soon noticed the chyron’s parallels with abortion rights. Those echoes also struck a Washington, DC-based communications strategist named Gillian Branstetter, who also noted some similarities to Holzer’s work. Holzer, an accomplished artist, is known for combining texts and images to make political points. In the 1970s, she created the “Truisms” series, which made art out of messages like “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise,” which she then broadcast in lights over Times Square.
Shortly after, Branstetter filmed the image of Carlson, Johnson and the chyron, adding the message, “This is like a Jenny Holzer installation or something isn’t it?” and tweeted it to her tens of thousands of followers. Holzer then had the idea of making an NFT out of Branstetter’s tweet and, after news of the court’s draft opinion quashing Roe this spring broke, he decided to sell it when the ruling came.
“I will confess a lot of ignorance about NFTs in general, but was happy to authorize this work to help raise much-needed funds for abortion access,” Branstetter told The Washington Post on Monday via a Twitter DM. Branstetter is a communications strategist at the ACLU, but emphasizes that she took this action as a private individual independent of her employer. Branstetter’s deal with Holzer will give her 15% of the money the artist receives from the sale, all of which she will donate to the DC Abortion Fund.
In a telephone interview, Branstetter said she was somewhat surprised at how digital commentary could be turned into significant fundraising so efficiently.
“Don’t ask me to explain how my Tweet became nearly $15,000 for abortion rights,” she said.
Holzer did not immediately respond to a request for comment made by The Post through her studio. In a statement announcing the sale, she explained her rationale for the NFT. “While the headline was intended to be read as a comment against vaccines, the words could also be a pro-choice statement,” she wrote of the chyron.
A Fox News spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the network and Carlson.
Holzer auctioned off the NFT around 12:30 p.m. Friday, just after the decision was made in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. She quoted it at half an eth, or about $600. Within six hours, a quartet of bidders had raised the price to nearly $13,000, before the winning bid was released around noon on Saturday.
The sale on the Foundation NFT site listed an anonymous cryptocurrency address as the buyer. The Post found a Twitter account that last November said it owned the address; that account, which tweeted about the Holzer auction Friday, says it’s affiliated with a group called PleasrDAO, which calls itself “a collective of DeFi leaders, early NFT collectors and digital artists who have built a formidable yet benevolent reputation for acquiring culturally significant pieces with a charitable twist.” (DeFi refers to decentralized finance, the term used for financial transactions in web3.)
Despite the sale, who actually owns the NFT is a complicated question, say lawyers. The NFT was created by Holzer from a screen shot of Branstetter, but the image is of Carlson as he appeared on a Fox show.
“I think it comes down to a fair-use argument, and both Fox and the NFT creators could make a case,” said Darren Heitner, a Florida-based intellectual property attorney with a lot of experience in this new digital space. “But I would probably lean to the Fox side that this is not a fair use due to the fact that the NFT is not really transformative and is definitely a commercial use,” he said, citing two of the legal criteria that would prohibit use .
He said an interesting question from NFTs, which are often resold, would be whether Fox could theoretically win an injunction to prevent the Carlson NFT from being resold. “This is a very new area of law and I don’t think we have worked out many details yet,” he said.
In the meantime, those behind the NFT were less eager to get caught up in those details and more eager to spread their message about abortion rights.
“Body autonomy and self-determination can be fraught, but privacy and health are pillars of the women’s reproductive rights movement,” Holzer wrote on Instagram. “Social health is the goal. We need to protect the rights of the individual who protect the health of society.”
Jeremy B. Merrill of the Washington Post contributed to this report.