In HHS flap, media prefer politics to religion

For the second time in as many weeks, I want to highlight a discussion on media criticism that was led by CNN Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz. I wish I could embed the video here but you’ll have to click this link to watch it. It is about 10 minutes long but it’s a fascinating discussion. I’m not saying I agree with everything in the discussion — I don’t — but it’s the type of conversation that will interest readers of GetReligion and give us some things to think on.

Here’s the transcript of the conversation, headlined “Media Miss Catholic Outrage.”

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 explains that it wasn’t big news at all when the Obama Administration issued its ruling requiring Catholic institutions to subsidize insurance plans that include coverage for things Catholic teaching opposes. Kurtz terms this “birth control” but it actually goes beyond that, of course. The Washington Post got it on page one, the New York Times on page 17 and the network newscasts didn’t even touch it. (I should note that this was big news in conservative, Catholic and other media.)

A couple of weeks later, some media began covering it:

KURTZ: But it wasn’t until this week that the controversy really reverb rated across the media landscape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: I’m going to say, it is a staggering, staggering decision by HHS.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: As today, a fiery debate took center stage about women, contraception, and a White House order that has the Catholic Church up in arms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Please note that Sawyer’s description of the debate doesn’t include any mention of the First Amendment or religious liberty, a continuing problem for some media types. Kurtz asks why, if the debate was so fiery, did it take the media so long to notice it. On the panel are Lauren Ashburn, former managing editor of USA Today, and Frank Sesno, a George Washington University professor of media.

KURTZ: 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?

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.

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.

Kurtz gives props to the liberal Catholic commentators who raised the issue even though it attacked their own political cobelligerents.

The panel discusses another intriguing angle:

KURTZ: If there was a tin ear here initially, is it related to the fact that most journalists are not devoutly religious, whether they’re Catholic or not?

SESNO: No.

ASHBURN: No, I think that –

KURTZ: You’re saying because it wasn’t a political flap. You’re saying –

ASHBURN: I’m saying — well, you know, I can’t speak for how many — I have no idea how many are religious or aren’t, who are agnostic, who are Catholic, who are Jewish. So, I think that your question is –

KURTZ: Religion generally –

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Religion generally doesn’t get that much coverage.

ASHBURN: That’s not true.

The relative vapidity of that portion of the discussion might be the most telling aspect of it.

Then they discuss the invented statistic that will not die that 98% of Catholic women use contraception. No one disputes that this is a White House talking point that the media never bothered to check before running it. Instead they discuss whether maybe the media took religious liberty concerns too seriously:

SESNO: I think you could argue, and you could attack the media for not looking. If you are going to talk about holding authority to account wherever that authority may be, there is a giant story within the Catholic Church over their attitudes towards these issues, and their disconnect with their followers. So, that’s part of this, too.

ASHBURN: I think I disagree. I mean, I think that, yes, you call people cafeteria Catholics. And, yes, in the media we are hearing that 98 percent of women use birth control. I mean, that was one of the stories.

But does that mean that because of that that they are not Catholics and they’re not concerned about religious freedom?

SESNO: Lauren, that’s not the issue. The issue is the media’s role and the media’s responsibility in all this.

If the Catholic Church is, in effect, declaring war on the Obama administration over the availability of contraception for people who work for institutions that are not merely the Catholic Church, but institutions supported by this religion, and saying this is war on religion, and if there is a schism, there is a divide within the Catholic community, why is that not part of the story? Why is that not a big part of the story?

Who cares if that statistic isn’t true? Certainly nobody in the media. Kudos to Ashburn for at least raising the journalistic question of what it has to do with religious liberty. As one commenter pointed out, nobody seems to suggest that just because men lust after women are Jesus’ words on the matter “discounted” in the parlance of Sesno. But it is telling that journalists think that they should be. It says a lot about how they approach stories dealing with church teaching and does more than anything thus far to explain why so many stories accept the White House framework on this topic. They accept the framework in part because they agree with it.

Anyway, Kurtz ends by asking why the media needed no prodding in its rush to arms on behalf of Planned Parenthood but did need so much prodding to even cover what’s happening to religious institutions. Sesno ends by reminding everyone of the invented statistic.

It’s enough to make one quietly weep. Earlier today, the head of my church body did something that may be a first: testified before Congress. It may have happened before but I doubt it. We just don’t believe the job of the church is to testify about a given bill or not. We’re steadfastly bipartisan. We took no position on the health care bill that has yielded this situation. It was a pretty big day for Lutherans of my stripe. The Rev. Matthew C. Harrison testified (view/read) along with a Catholic bishop, an evangelical professor of moral philosophy, a rabbi and Torah scholar, and a Baptist professor. They were all united in their view that religious liberty is under threat. Precisely one of the witnesses has the same position as the Catholic Church on birth control, so it was clearly not a hearing on religious views of birth control.

Now, it certainly should be covered that one side of the dispute thinks that forcing people to provide insurance coverage for things they morally oppose, including sterilization, abortifacients and birth control, is a good thing. And that has been pretty well covered. But you can’t pretend that there aren’t people who are seriously concerned about the threat to religious liberty. But note the headlines. Here’s Politico: “Carolyn Maloney, Eleanor Holmes Norton walk out of contraception hearing. ABC News: “Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception”. CBS: “Dems decry all-male House panel on WH contraception rule.”

ARGH! Yes, it’s true, the Democrats were grandstanding and the Republicans were grandstanding. Please take a moment to get over your shock that politicians acted all political today.

And I realize that the media love the political story here. But could we at least try to cover the religion angle to this story? At all? Heck, it might even be nice to have differing sides on just the religious liberty question. Certainly you have a diverse group of Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, evangelical, Baptist and other religious bodies united here. But I’m sure there are other church bodies or legal scholars who disagree. Where are their voices? Or do all sides now have to throw a glitterbomb to get noticed?

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  • Jeff

    “It’s enough to make one quietly weep.”

    Rather than weep, it’s enough to have made quite a few of us — and more and more of us every day — simply stop granting patronage and legitimacy to the very poor product too often retailed by the MSM.

    We don’t owe any deference to the MSM.

    The MSM owes it to us to do a good job, and it hardly ever does where religion is concerned — let alone where religion conflicts with the MSM’s own partisan views.

  • Martha

    “They were all united in their view that religious liberty is a threat.”

    Mollie, I think you mean that religious liberty is under b>under threat :-)

    And an atheist takes a look at that 98% figure – she even gives a shout-out to GetReligion!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Thanks, Martha! Fixed.

  • June

    Outrage is quite vogue, isn’t it, and its what the media thrives on. The media uses outrage to generate ratings for advertising dollars, and the further the political horse races. Kurtz wanted to get our attention with the contention that the “Media Miss(ed) Catholic Outrage” even we got plenty of it. Beyond the headline, the discussion that followed seemed to agree that it was all political grandstanding veiled in religion.

    Religious liberty is neither a threat or under threat (a revealing Freudian slip, no doubt). This outrage is all media driven and its all political. Fortunately the public is getting wise to the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of these patriarchal deviations of what religious liberty really means.

  • Jeff

    Religious liberty *is* a threat — it’s a threat to tyrants, to totalitarians, and to collaborators with both.

  • Ann

    “They were all united in their view that religious liberty is a threat.”

    Why is there a religious liberty question after Pres. Obama exempted all religious organizations on February 10, 2012?

    “I’m sure there are other church bodies or legal scholars who disagree. Where are their voices?”

    Good question since there are many religious organizations that support the contraceptive mandate, which increased substantially after Pres. Obama exempted all religious organizations on February 10, 2012.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is truly astonishing how the mainstream
    media can finally run so many stories on the Obamacare insurance mandate issue and make almost all solely a contraception vs. the Catholic bishops issue.
    Leaving out even mention of the First Amendment and not
    even mentioning the names of other religions that are backing the Catholic position, and not even mentioning other religions that have been told they will be left off the government hook (like the Amish and the Moslems) sure makes it look like the liberal media is in the Obama protection racket again.
    And Jeff makes an excellent point that I have seen no columnists or reporters in the media bring up–tyrant’s fear of independent minded churches and how it is the churches that they first try to neutralize or get control of.

    a tyrant’s worst enemy is frequently the Church or Church leaders

  • Bill

    The 98% and all the other statistics, real or imagined, are really just a distraction. Popularity has to do with this. The First Amendment wasn’t meant to protect only popular religious doctrine any more than it was meant to protect only popular political opinions.

    Much of the press seems to forget that the first settlers came to these shores so they could practice their religion, living their everyday lives according to their faith. Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals were founded as part of Catholic teaching. To say that the HHS mandate doesn’t interfere with Catholics living their faith is nonsense. A lot of reporters don’t get that. Other religious groups with differing views on contraception and abortion are solidly with the bishops on this precisely because they recognize the threat it poses to religious liberty, even if the talking heads do not.

    BTW, contrary to the headlines, the Catholic Church is not denying employees access to contraception. It just won’t agree to pay for it. Employees can get all they want on their own dime. (Have you checked out the price of generic BC pills at CVS, Walgreen’s and WalMart? It’s a lot cheaper than coffee at Starbuck’s.) Applying the same logic that the HHS supporters espouse, the RC Church is denying its employees their Second Amendment rights because they don’t buy them new shotguns.

  • Bill

    Oops! Screwed up the italics again. Sorry.

  • susie

    And Mollie, I don’t know whether a head of LCMS has actually testified before but they have, in fact, supported other religious liberty cases in the past – at least filing briefs on behalf of other denominations and faiths.

    I am happy to see that “we” are represented well there. This is not about contraception at all but it doesn’t serve the media’s purposes to emphasize that there are (to my knowledge) no other denominations or faiths besides the Catholic Church that believes all contraception to be a sin but there are many standing with the Catholic Church in its right to free exercise.

    Mostly there is no real journalism today – only editorials.

  • revaggie

    Mollie, you missed the absolutely wretched CNN article
    http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/16/politics/women-lawmakers-hearing/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

    You would have thought that none of the clergy were present and that only the grandstanding politicos were there.

  • June

    This whole religious liberty fixation is being sustained by a flabbergasted media uprooted by the politics of these volatile primaries. I appreciate that some in the media are bringing facts about this mockery of our religious freedom (http://www.latimes.com/health/la-na-gop-contraceptives-20120216,0,3392996.story), like pointing out Governors like Huckabee and Romney rushed to mandate contraceptive coverage a few years back, without stirring up a ‘religious liberty’ hornet’s nest. That was back when Bob Dole was pitching Viagra and there was a ‘gold rush’ to make certain Viagra was covered, without exception or the least bit of protest.
    Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave how his beloved ‘religious freedom’ has been so hijacked and twisted. Jefferson saw religious freedom as protecting individual citizens from religious intrusion, particularly from the totalitarian religious institutions of his days, like a state church wholly owned by the British monarch or that other major colonial church that was still supporting the Spanish Inquisition. Jefferson would be appalled to see the notion of ‘religious liberty’ being used to attempt to defend religious intrusion into Americans’ lives and our public policy by what Jefferson called the “priestcraft”.
    Its getting to be almost epic comedy that just gets better, and the media is doing the best it can to cover the mass hysteria awash in the gullible. The current lively, dishonest reactionary discourse is unsustainable and will fail, as people realize the extreme hypocrisy going on in the nasty political arena, which is all that this is about.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The press is still framing this as an issue of women and contraceptions. If the people objecting were stating “this is bad policy” then that would be a fair argument. However, the claim of those who reject this policy is that it is as much a violoation of religious freedom to force a Catholic employer to pay for contraceptive coverage as it is to force Amish parents to send their children to high school. RFRA makes it so that in a case like this, the governement has to show the couse chosen is the least restrictive.

    The questions boil down to 1- does a given employer reject a procedure based on his or her religion. If the answer to point 1 is yes, than the issue becomes, does the government have a compelling interest to force this violation of a person’s religious beliefs, and if so is the the method used the least restrictive method.

    Views on the need to have contraceptions might make this a compelling intesest. However, since the media narrative has been to try and ignore or reject the religious concerns, there is no sense that there is an argument for a compelling interest. It is more like a positing that anyone who does not embrace contraceptives is out of touch with modern science.

  • susie

    June, state government, for better or worse, are not Congress. The US Constitution has nothing to say about the state legislatures and governors – only the federal government – so it’s still poor “journalism” for the media or anyone else to attempt to apply the sames rules to a state.

    Perhaps the mainstream media should spend some time delving into the differences between apples and oranges but I doubt they will. Our culture, including the media, seems to have forgotten that the federal government actually has limitations.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: June

    Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave how his beloved ‘religious freedom’ has been so hijacked and twisted. Jefferson saw religious freedom as protecting individual citizens from religious intrusion, particularly from the totalitarian religious institutions of his days, like a state church wholly owned by the British monarch or that other major colonial church that was still supporting the Spanish Inquisition. Jefferson would be appalled to see the notion of ‘religious liberty’ being used to attempt to defend religious intrusion into Americans’ lives and our public policy by what Jefferson called the “priestcraft”.

    I think that’s relevant to the journalism question, but it’s not the only relevant question. Another factor for journalism is that time moves on, and yesterday’s enemy of the religious liberty of individuals might have become a friend.

    Would Jefferson still think religious institutions were a threat to personal religious freedom? Or would he think that the increasing attempts to allow personal religious freedom to be anything more than individualistic – to increasingly interfere in the practices of religious groups of persons might have become the new threat?

    Would Jefferson see that personal religious freedom is being preserved if the federal government increasingly wants to neutralise the substantial autonomy of groups – resulting in a situation, much like Europe, of where the relationship between the individual and the State is basically the only important public sphere relationship?

    I can see that argument go both ways in terms of Jefferson’s legacy. And I think both sides of that argument need journalistic coverage. I would be a little bit surprised to find any evidence that Jefferson thought that Church social arms should be required to fund dispensing contraception and abortificants to their employees when the State thought that was in people’s best interests.

    Classifying the side you don’t agree with with a bunch of negative labels (in this case “fixation”, “mockery”, “hijacked”, “twisted”) just shows that it is a partisan position on the substantial content that is driving your view on the journalism question. You seem to think that it is simply impossible for a reasonable, educated person to think that this is genuinely a religious liberty issue in terms of America’s tradition.

    It’s not good journalism for journalists to accept such an extreme and narrow position on whether this other side can even be reported when it seems that there’s a number of constitutional experts who see this move by the Administration as unprecedented in terms of America’s history. They could be wrong. But they aren’t stupid or uneducated, and so both sides need to reported.

  • Martha

    For anyone wondering where the figures came from in the Guttmacher Institute study, the invaluable Mike Flynn has dug up the survey which they based their report on – the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), conducted by HHS-CDC. (To be fair to Guttmacher, they are up-front about where they got the data – thanks to Leah Libresco for this link to their study).

    What, to me, is the fascinating result is here in Table 15 – reasons why women stopped using a particular method of contraception (out of four methods – Pill, injectable, condom, patch). I’ll just ask you all to guess what percentage of respondents stopped using contraception for “Too expensive” and “Insurance did not cover it”. Okay, give an estimate, then I’ll tell you what the survey found.

    No peeking until you guess.

    I mean it – no scrolling down!

    Ready? Fine, for “Too expensive” – around 3% (this is averaging out) and for “Insurance didn’t cover it”, again, about 3% (hey, if the trained media professionals can be sloppy with figures, I get leeway!) Greatest reason for stopping? “You had side effects” (except for condoms, which was “Your partner didn’t like it”).

    So, if 64% of women stopping using the Pill because of side effects versus 3% stopped for reasons of cost, explain to me how mandating coverage for increased access to the Pill is helping women’s health? What with the health concerns of side effects, I mean. But I’m just an ignorant Catholic who’s led around by the nose by the bishops, so what do I know?

  • sari

    Martha,
    It’s clear that the Guttmacher report skewed (almost fell over) to one side. On the other hand, there must have been some public complaint about affordable access to contraception or it would not have become an issue in the first place. Perhaps the biggest complainants are members of the middle class, who feel that health insurance should cover all medical expenses, including OTC drugs. The health issue is a little clearer. Side effects may be deadly, like my allergies to certain meds, or they may be uncomfortable. What’s what appears to have fallen outside the purview of this study. One cannot infer health consequences from the data presented.

    Mark, you said:

    Would Jefferson still think religious institutions were a threat to personal religious freedom? Or would he think that the increasing attempts to allow personal religious freedom to be anything more than individualistic – to increasingly interfere in the practices of religious groups of persons might have become the new threat?

    Jefferson is like Einstein. Everyone appropriates him to validate their cause.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Jefferson is like Einstein. Everyone appropriates him to validate their cause.

    I love it. I should get a t-shirt that says something like:

    Thomas Jefferson doesn’t have anything to do with my position. And I’m okay with that.

  • Rachel K

    The WaPo Fact Checker actually took down the 98% stat today. They’ve been known to fall down on the job (to put it mildly), but this was a breath of fresh air.

  • Jason

    What I can’t wrap my head around is why the MSM doesn’t see a threat to their own industry. I mean if the HHS mandate is at all precedent setting, what if the mandate doesn’t have a big “D” for democrat labeled on it but a big “R” for republican.

    Whatever power you invest into the office is used by both parties. So what happens if a republican uses his cabinet to mandate MSM to run all their stories by the White House communications office? Why not cover that angle? Why not cover the misuse of presidential authority?


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