Former President George W. Bush reinstated a policy in 2001 that restricted foreign countries using American dollars for abortions. CBS political consultant Craig Crawford called the action "red meat to the Bible Belt conservatives."
Just three days after taking office, President Barack Obama rescinded the Mexico City Policy, a policy set into place by Ronald Reagan that prohibited American funding for foreign abortions. Have the media called it red meat for liberals? No. They've mostly been silent.
Signing on the Sneak
Obama signed the executive order late on Jan. 23, the day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It was also Friday, a moment that TIME magazine's Amy Sullivan called, "a time traditionally reserved for the release of information an administration would like to bury." During the Clinton administration, Friday afternoon was the time for "document dumps," when the scandal-ridden White House released embarrassing pieces of its paper trail.
Even Hollywood recognizes the timing for what it is - a calculated strategy to avoid tough press. Characters in the liberal political drama "The West Wing" refer to such days as "take out the trash day." "The West Wing," by the way, is a show whose ultimate fantasy -- a young, Democratic congressman from nowhere becoming president --was fulfilled in Obama's election.
Sullivan reported that Obama "wants to turn down the heat on an issue that has defined and divided American politics for more than three decades" and based on the media coverage of his decision, it seems to have worked.
CBS and NBC barely mentioned the change in policy during the Jan. 23, 2009 Evening News and Nightly News broadcasts. On the Saturday "Early Show," CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier noted during a wrap-up of the president's first few days in office that "Mr. Obama also quietly stepped into the abortion debate" with his executive order that overturned the ban on funding for foreign abortions.
Only ABC acknowledged the controversial nature of Obama's decision, two days after the fact during World News Sunday. Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi noted that the president hoped "not to provoke anti-abortion groups" with the order, and that "it didn't work." Alfonsi also featured Tony Perkins, president of the pro-life Family Research Council, who said that Obama "does not have consensus and support from, from the majority of Americans" on social issues.
No networks reported the fact that in a 55-page "wish list" sent to the Obama-Biden transition team by abortion rights groups, reinstating American funding for foreign abortions topped the list with regard to international matters.
Bush "Pleased" the Right
What a difference from eight years ago. Then, Crawford wasn't the only person accusing Bush of playing politics.
Dan Rather, "CBS Evening News" anchor, introduced a Jan. 22, 2001 report on Bush's reinstatement of the policy by calling it "something to quickly please the right flank in his party." John Roberts, chief White House correspondent at CBS, noted "the president waded into controversy on this first day" and "in a nod to anti-abortion groups...announced he'll cut federal funding to organizations that provide family planning and abortion counseling overseas."
Roberts' report also featured criticism by Gloria Feldt, then-president of Planned Parenthood, "The fundamental human and civil right to make our own child-bearing choices is at greater threat than it has been anytime in the 28 years since Roe vs. Wade was decided." Feldt's comment re-aired during CBS' Jan. 23, 2001" The Early Show." CBS failed to provide a pro-life counterpoint to Feldt.
ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran said Bush's decision was "designed to appeal to anti-abortion conservatives" on the Jan. 22, 2001 "World News Tonight."
Newsweek's Howard Fineman told NBC's Matt Lauer during the Jan. 23, 2001 "Today" that with the executive order stopping the flow of American money to foreign abortion providers, "George W. Bush following a plan. Secure the base. The Christian right is fundamental to the Republican Party and to his presidency."
Later in the same broadcast, anchor Ann Curry ignored the pro-life support Bush enjoyed as a result of his executive order. She reported, "Abortion rights supporters are condemning the president's order Monday, restoring a Reagan-era ban on U.S. funding of overseas family planning groups that advocate abortion."
Explain and Inform
One thing remained constant in the network coverage from then until Obama's overturning of the Mexico City Policy: no explanation of the policy aside from as ABC's Chris Cuomo noted on the Jan. 23, 2009 Good Morning America, "the policy was put in place by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton overturned, but it was reinstituted by George W. Bush."
But the same day, Family Research Council's Tom McClusky succinctly explained the policy and what it means now that Obama has rescinded it:
In as little words as possible, the Mexico City policy halts U.S. family planning funds from going to foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that perform abortions or "actively promote" abortion as a method of family planning in other countries... The effect of President Obama rescinding the Mexico City Policy is that now millions ($461 million in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008) of dollars are taken away from family planning groups that do not promote abortion, and delivered into the hands of organizations that are the most militant in promoting abortion as a population-control method - especially in countries that find abortion objectionable on moral grounds.
ABC may not have covered the story immediately or explained the policy, but the network did recognize that allowing organizations to spend American dollars on abortion is not accepted by all. CBS and NBC failed the American public by not explaining what the policy does and also by not holding Obama to the same scrutiny they held Bush to back in 2001.