It’s been nearly three weeks since President Obama faced a political backlash over his plan to force religious institutions to bow to government bureaucrats when it came to supplying birth control coverage to their employees. Since then, the liberal media — led by the broadcast networks — have helped re-script the story to suit the President’s political needs. Instead of a story about the overreach of big government and violation of religious freedom, the networks are now spinning the birth control story as one about out-of-control conservatives, to the point of ignoring broad and continuing opposition — including a lawsuit by seven state attorneys general — to the President’s power grab.
The MRC reviewed coverage from the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts starting with Obama’s February 10 declaration of a unilateral “compromise” meant to end the controversy. Our analysis shows how the networks re-framed the story from one that was damaging to Obama into one that reporters thought would hurt his opponents:
■ Selling Obama’s “Compromise.” The networks characterized the President’s February 10 statement as an “accommodation,” a “change of course” and a “compromise with Catholic leaders” even though there was no substantive difference between the administration’s old and new regulations other than a promise that religious institutions would not be separately charged for coverage for contraceptives, even though such insurance would continue to be mandatory — essentially, an accounting gimmick.
Obama’s decision was “one part Solomon, one part semantics,” CBS anchor Scott Pelley enthused on the February 10 Evening News. That night, CBS and NBC both ran soundbites from Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards applauding the President, which NBC matched with a quote from a liberal Democratic politician, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, representing NBC’s conclusion that “many Catholic women were also cheering the news.” For its part, ABC assured viewers that “both the Catholic Health Association and abortion rights groups approved” of the new rules.
That first night, all three broadcasts noted an early statement from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan that Obama’s move was “a first step in the right direction.” But late that same day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected Obama’s “compromise,” a fact that was eventually disclosed on weekend editions of the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News — but never once mentioned on the NBC Nightly News.
“Roman Catholic bishops say President Obama’s revised policy on contraception coverage for employees, quote, ‘continues to involve needless government intrusion on the internal governance of religious institutions,’” CBS weekend anchor Elaine Quijano noted on February 11. “The bishops blasted the White House for needless government intrusion and threatening coercion of religious people,” ABC’s David Kerley noted the next night, February 12.
After that, the Church’s continued opposition to Obama’s insurance mandate was never given more than a passing mention on the evening newscasts, and network reporters no longer portrayed the matter as a political liability for Obama’s re-election.
■ Lawsuits? What Lawsuits? Reaffirming the fact that the President’s February 10 statement was more a PR stunt than an actual compromise, Nebraska and six other states filed suit last Thursday, February 23, saying that the HHS regulations violated the First Amendment and were an “interference with religious liberty.” CNN and the Fox News Channel quickly reported the development, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interrupting The Situation Room for a “Just In” bulletin. (See video)
Yet in the five days since, ABC, CBS and NBC have yet to inform their viewers about the lawsuit, which was joined by Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Private Catholic organizations are also going to court, including Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University and the Eternal Word Television Network.
Ave Maria University is led by Jim Towey, who led the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in George W. Bush’s White House, a fact which would seem to raise the news value of his lawsuit. Towey blasted Obama in a February 21 conference call with reporters: “It is a sad day when an American citizen or organization has no choice but to sue its own government in order to exercise religious liberty rights guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution.”
But just as they have ignored the states’ lawsuit, the broadcast networks have failed to acknowledge any of the private lawsuits against the Obama administration’s attempt to impose its will on private religious institutions.
■ Beware of Conservative Extremists. While the broadcast networks quickly moved on from Obama’s use of government power to dictate birth control policy, the issue of contraception was still much in the news. Since mid-February, network reporters have pounced on statements from conservative candidate Rick Santorum talking about his own personal beliefs about birth control, falsely implying that a President Santorum would use his power to convert those beliefs into policy.
Pivoting off of a joke by one of Santorum’s financial supporters, ABC’s Jon Karl on February 16 cast the Senator as an extremist: “Santorum’s surge in the polls is also bringing fresh scrutiny to his own comments on contraception, which he has blamed for moral decline in America....That’s consistent with Santorum’s Catholic faith, but also a reminder of just how far to the right he is on social issues.”
Then on February 20, Karl reiterated: “Santorum has spent a lot of time lately talking about what people ought and ought not to do.”
“[Santorum] advocates abstinence over birth control,” CBS’s Dean Reynolds argued on the February 21 Evening News. But Reynolds undermined the notion Santorum would use government to meddle with those who disagreed, showing this exchange he had with the candidate: “As for secular organizations, do you have a problem with them covering contraception.” Santorum’s definitive answer: “No.”
■ Elevating Democratic Gimmickry. While a Republican presidential candidate was being roasted for his personal beliefs, NBC’s Nightly News twice elevated Democrats’ political gimmickry to the level of national news. On February 16, NBC devoted most of a story to Democrats crying foul over a House hearing into the HHS mandate, something ABC and CBS both thought unworthy of coverage.
Reporter Kelly O’Donnell took Democrats’ partisan claims at face value: “The politics of contraception provoked outrage today....This picture set off anger, when only men had a seat at the witness table during a hearing related to contraception....The Republican chairman invited only faith leaders, not advocates for women’s health.” Her story incorporated soundbites from liberal Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, vs. just one clip from the Republican chairman, Darrell Issa.
A week later, on February 23 O’Donnell followed up with a piece on Democrats’ staged hearing to keep hammering their side of the issue. This time, there were no clips from conservatives or religious leaders, just Pelosi and a Georgetown law student talking about “hardships for some women who don’t have insurance that covers birth control.”
Just as they bypassed the earlier claims of partisan outrage, neither CBS nor ABC thought this staged Democratic event warranted a spot on their evening newscasts.
The lesson from the past two weeks seems to be that journalists stand ready to extricate President Obama from the public relations damage created by his liberal policy decisions, while at the same time trying to punish conservatives for having personal religious beliefs that the media elite deem incorrect.
That’s a huge advantage to liberals this election year — worth more than all the super PACs put together.