Two Tips of the Hat for Astute Analyses of Bias on Display in Media Coverage of Obama Mandate

By Dave Andrusko

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway

As we’ve discussed in story after story over the past week, the Obama administration has experienced some success at spinning its “revised” mandate compelling religiously-affiliated universities, hospitals, and charities to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization and contraception as an “accommodation.” Not as much as either Obama or his legion of  media allies would like (see “CNN Desperate to explain away the results of its own poll”), but some.

A huge part of the explanation is “framing”—the way this blatant assault on religious liberties is turned into a kind of referendum on contraception. The flipside of that same framing coin is the way media outlets such as ABC, NBC, and CBS “downplayed the religious freedom component to the story, casting it instead as a political dogfight between liberals and conservatives,” as Matthew Balan of the Media Research Center’s “Newsbusters” detailed yesterday.

Mr. Balan’s analysis (www.mrc.org/media-reality-check/big-three-spin-religious-liberty-scandal-political-firestorm) is extremely helpful because he quantifies the networks’ coverage (“MRC analysts studied all 36 stories, interview segments and mentions of the HHS mandate story on the Big Three broadcast networks from January 30 through February 15.”)  He makes three key points.

First, these three networks ignored the controversy for two weeks. Just guessing, but could they have been road-testing what slant might soften Obama’s strong-arm tactics?

Second, (just to use NBC as one example), the network brought no Catholic leadership onto their newscasts as guests, instead relying on their “in house radical feminist, Rachel Maddow, on the February 7 edition of the Today show, who blasted the legitimate resistance to the mandate as a ‘pretty far-right perspective’ and “an extension of anti-abortion politics.” (CBS was the only network to actually bring on Catholic clergy as guests.)

In some ways, most significantly, Balan writes that

“The Big Three networks initially glossed over the controversy between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration, after they handed down their mandate on January 20. Until February 5, there was only one news brief about the story on their newscasts. By contrast, the outlets devoted an astonishing 13 stories over 60 hours to the face-off between abortion giant Planned Parenthood and the Komen foundation between February 1 and February 3. Clearly, these left-leaning networks are more than willing to come to the aid of their ideological fellow travelers, such as the Obama White House. Their campaign is trying hard to spin the religious liberty scandal as just a ‘divisive’ issue in a presidential election year.”

Speaking of Komen, a second tip of the hat goes out to Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, media critic for “Get Religion” (www.getreligion.org/2012/02/in-hhs-flap-media-prefer-politics-to-religion.) She provided a stunningly brilliant critique yesterday, using a particularly helpful example of media navel-gazing, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” hosted by Howard Kurtz.

To his immense credit, Kurtz’s initial question illustrates that he “got it” (I am using the transcript Hemingway provides):

“KURTZ: The press pounced on the story when the Komen Foundation tried to defund Planned Parenthood. But when the White House ruled that even Catholic organizations had to offer birth control in health plans, not so much — that is until Catholic leaders and some commentators began sounding off …Why did it take news outlets a couple of weeks to catch up with the Catholic protests.”

Kurtz goes on to provide a key contrast—the speed and the ferocity—and to add additional context:

“Here’s the contrast I would draw. Komen Foundation moves to cut off Planned Parenthood. Twenty-four hours after it hit social networks, the media erupted with this. Why would you have to wait for Catholic leaders to speak out to say this is a pretty sensitive hot button controversy that we ought to cover as more than a one day history?”

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as Kurtz discusses this with Lauren Ashburn, former managing editor of USA Today, and Frank Sesno, a George Washington University professor of media, and formerly of CNN. Hemingway pounces on one comment Sesno makes:

“FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think what happened here is you started with policy and it became politics. And politics is always easier and more fiery. Policy is narrower. It’s sort of down in the weeds.”

To which Hemingway keenly observes,

“Isn’t that telling? When it was just a policy that violated, in its critics’ eyes, religious liberty, it wasn’t news. Once it became political and candidates started addressing it, then it was. There is truth to this. The media are political junkies of the horse race variety so much more than they are interested in Catholic moral reasoning or constitutional protections. I should also note, of course, that even after the bishops were taking dramatic steps in speaking out against it, it still wasn’t getting coverage” (emphasis mine).

The transcript further illustrates their unwillingness to do anything with the obvious—that the “mainstream media” is not exactly a hotbed of devout religious believers, as any number of surveys attest—and how this possible “tin ear” (Kurtz’s description) may have colored their coverage.

For her part Hemingway offers a series of insights which helps us to understand the bottom line which is “why so many stories accept the White House framework on this topic”? The answer?“They accept the framework in part because they agree with it.”

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