Debating access to religious liberty

Many weeks ago, we noticed that the discussion over the Obama Administration’s new rule (to force religious groups to fund things to which they’re doctrinally opposed) was being framed in two different ways. One side framed it as a religious liberty issue, since the federal government is telling religious groups to go against their religious teachings. The other side, because the Obama Administration is forcing religious groups to fund sterilization, abortifacients and contraception, framed it as an “access to contraception” issue.

In the intervening weeks, we’ve seen hundreds of stories framed around “contraception” or “access to contraception” or “war on contraception” or “war on women.”

I sent out repeated requests for news stories that ran just in the last week framed around the idea of religious liberty. In addition to the larger brouhaha over religious liberty, there was a major blow to the efforts of religious liberty advocates when an attempt (to restore protections that religious groups had before the HHS mandate) was thwarted by Senate Democrats. I asked here at GetReligion, on various Twitter accounts and even sent notes to particular reporters. We ended up with two links to early February stories from Jake Tapper, this Morning Call story Bobby found about a religious liberty panel discussion at DeSales University and this reader submission, a column from the Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel. In other words, there was basically nothing (there is no deadline for nominations, however!).

So this has been another huge media coup for the Church of Planned Parenthood and its followers.

I want to just make an important point here. The instigator of this story was the Obama Administration. No religious liberty advocate was suggesting any change to the status quo: contraceptives are available practically everywhere for cheap and the Catholic Church and other religious groups that operate colleges and hospitals and the like weren’t trying to change that at all.

What we see when we look at the progression of this story over a couple of months is that the mainstream media elided over the initial aggression into the response. Remember, there was basically no coverage — and literally no coverage in broadcast TV — of the HHS mandate when it came out right around the time of the March for Life. The media were very slow to cover the outrage — in response to the initial act of aggression — by bishops and other religious liberty advocates. But almost as soon as they did cover that response, they framed the response itself as an act of aggression — against “contraception” or against “women” or what have you. And all this even though the bishops and other religious liberty advocates were simply responding to state’s infringement on religious liberty (or so the aggrieved say).

Now, anyone familiar with how various political strategies work knows that the next step is to personalize the matter. And that’s the most likely way to explain the utter and complete freakout by the mainstream media over the last four days or so regarding Rush Limbaugh. (And the New York Times reports that CNN and MSNBC lingered on the story throughout the morning. They are out for blood and blood they are getting.

Just by way of comparison, you may recall that 181 Catholic bishops representing 100 percent of the dioceses of the U.S. have spoken out against the HHS mandate. This is a rare show of unity among the bishops. But you may not have heard the story story about how the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains responded to Archbishop Timothy Broglio’s letter by sending out a note to all chaplains telling them not to read it during Mass. First off, do you remember the front-page stories about this act of censorship? Do you remember the way it led all the nightly news? Oh you don’t? I wonder why that was. The Chaplains office, by the way, ended up backing off on its gag order … in a way. In the end, the “agreement” was that Broglio’s line “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law” not be read during Mass. OK, you remember that major media story about this right? No, you don’t. The media frenzy never happened.

So isn’t it interesting that when noted radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh said something incendiary regarding this HHS mandate, there was such an onslaught of media coverage? (Disclosure: even if I weren’t female, I wouldn’t like the use of the s- word, c- word, b- word, coarse and vulgar language, or the obsessed uterine speculation by various people. I don’t like it from liberal favorites such as Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schulz, Matt Taibbi and Andrew Sullivan, and I don’t like it from conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh.) Again, I’m not talking about folks who don’t like Limbaugh or simply don’t like what he said going after him. That’s to be expected and not anything that we’d bother talking about here. But what about the media response?

Just to show you some perspective, here’s a tweet from a reporter following Limbaugh’s apology for using crass language about one activist in favor of the HHS mandate:

I got an AP BREAKING NEWS alert on my phone that Rush apologized. Tornados in half the country yesterday? Nothin. #navelgazing

Priorities! Now, it’s not that the media generally care about insults directed toward women. People who call former Gov. Sarah Palin (or various other conservative women) the most vile of names rarely get much, if any, media scrutiny or outrage. One of them, who routinely calls female political opponents the c- word or the b-word, just donated $1 million to President Obama’s re-election effort and nobody has asked President Obama to speak to the matter or ask for the funds to be returned. Another, who is a broadcaster that called a political opponent the s-word, has been invited to the White House. No one asked the occupant of the White House to comment on the slur. And yet everyone was asked to comment on Rush. I’m not necessarily advocating for one model — toleration of misogyny or outrage-on-steroids — just pointing out the double standards.

Which brings us to the Sunday morning shows. Embedded above is a clip from David Gregory’s interview of Newt Gingrich. Let’s note Gregory’s questions:

  • Limbaugh issued an apology yesterday which many people may not know about …. How much damage has this done?
  • Can I just get to my question, do you think it was harmful that Limbaugh — certainly an influential voice in the conservative grassroots and you well know that — was it appropriate for him to apologize. Do you think he’s done damage to the debate you’re now getting into?
  • Well I’m going to continue with my question. So my question is you want the other side to appreciate your view that this is a religious liberty question at the heart of this access to contraception. Can you appreciate the view of those who disagree with you that this is an attack on women’s rights — that’s their view — reproductive rights, access to contraception, in the extreme that it’s some sort of war on women. Do you appreciate that view at all?
  • So it seems to me this in your view is actually a pretty fundamental issue, you just don’t like the framing of it but the fact that it gets raised is something that you think will certainly get you animated and you certainly think it will energize voters on both sides of the aisle.

Limbaugh Limbaugh Limbaugh Limbaugh! You might note it takes Gregory three minutes to even mention religious liberty — in order to dismiss it. And some might ask if, among religious liberty advocates, Limbauch is actually influential? But Newt responds to the questions with roughly a five-minute tirade against the media’s framing of this issue. He speaks about religious liberty and what he views as the false narrative pushed by “elite media” for the entire time, pointing out stories that he thought were more important. And he did the same thing in his appearance on Meet the Press, beginning around the seven-minute mark.

So let’s see how the Washington Post wrote up his Sunday morning:

Newt Gingrich: Rush Limbaugh was right to apologize to Sandra Fluke

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Sunday said conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was right to apologize to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who he called a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her defense of the Obama administration’s new rules regarding religious-affiliated institutions and contraception coverage.

We must push the narrative at all costs! Now, if I were writing up press releases for Planned Parenthood or a political opponent of Gingrich’s, that’s what I’d say the take-away from the interview was, too. If I were a reporter for the Washington Post, I don’t think I’d have it in me to give the impression that this was what Gingrich was saying about the media obsession with Limbaugh.

What do you think? Was this the most important thing Gingrich said in these interviews? Is that the headline you’d use? If so, why?

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  • Bill

    Rush Limbaugh is a political entertainer. He has no power to decree. He can rail, he can rally, he can fume, fuss and bloviate. But he cannot command. He cannot arrest, fine or imprison for failure to obey his mandates. The government can.

    To paraphrase Stalin, how many networks has Rush? How many newspapers has the pope? Now, how many journalists has the administration?

    Much of the press seems to agree with Paul Begala: “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kinda cool.”

  • mattk

    It all makes my head want to explode! I think I’m going to go to J-school and become a reporter just so I can cover stories fairly.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It’s bad enough that the liberal mainstream media spins stories completely out of shape to the point they are virtual lies. Now they so misreport stories that one can easily argue that they’ve moved onward and downward to actual lies.
    This is all clearly the forerunner of the further corruption of the mass media to protect Obama’s re-election.
    Apparently the president can do anything to trash any part of the Bill of Rights he wishes and the compliant media will find a way to protect him using the Obamacare coercive mandates current “coverage” as a model.–Ignore the real story by giving it limited attention. Then give it final burial under media created circus sideshows.
    I have seen only one story (instigated by Gingrich during his Gregory interview) about the negative effects the mandates will probably have on small Protestant enterprises and institutions. But Limbaugh gets virtually thousands of stories.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I think this post meshes well with the recent one on Santorum’s Catholicism. I also think the First Amendment may have been crafted to ensure that the Catholic Church in particular never could be able to have its way here, and that “religious freedom” means only “freedom to be something other than Catholic.” At any rate, that’s how it seems to be coming through in the media. The “war on women” is pure political jargon and not substantiated by any facts. As you say, contraceptives are cheap. Many are available generically through mail order, at like $15 for 90 days’ worth. And even if health insurance does not cover the pills and procedures, the doctors’ visits are covered. Contraception costing $3000 a year? What a fluke! (Pun intended.) All of the coverage and how many stories challenging Fluke’s assertions?

  • Mollie

    The same First Amendment that protects religious liberty also protects the Freedom of the Press. Just imagine, again, if a federal agency hadn’t mandated that religious organizations go against their conscience.

    Imagine, instead, that the federal government had decreed that media organizations do something that goes against theirs — say, print stories they know to be lies. Say it was for the purpose of advancing some goal of the administration — like going to war against someone.

    Do you think the media would have handled that story the same way?

  • Bill

    What would the coverage have been like if this had been a mandate of the Nixon administration?

  • Chris Bugbee

    Mollie’s “so’s your old man” effort to question media coverage of Limbaugh’s misogynistic ad hominem attack ignores Limbaugh’s unique position in the power structure. There is no equivalent to Rush Limbaugh on the left–no one to whom politicians must kowtow, no one who has ever been even rhetorically described as the leader of a movement or a major political party. There’s no one on the left end of the media spectrum who can single-handedly crush a piece of legislation, or a political career. That’s why Limbaugh’s actions warrant media attention.

  • Mollie


    Right. I just also condemn the remarks of those without access to any power, such as Keith Olbermann, who is on Vice President Al Gore’s network, and Bill Maher, who is Obama’s $1 million donor, White House guest Ed Schulz and so on and so forth.

  • Charlie

    Since, as the quote on the masthead says, “the press just doesn’t get religion,” I’m not at all surprised at the lack of coverage of the religious liberty angle on the HHS story. The lack of religious belief or even basic understanding in the modern newsroom is well-established. The media frames most cultural disagreements as political struggles between left and right, and it has taken the same easy road here. Hence the airplay given to Limbaugh’s comments and the lack of any interest in the opinions of Catholic Bishops or ordinary people of faith.

    The behavior of the press in this country is a herd phenomenon, after all. There isn’t much original thinking going on in newsrooms or editorial boards. The framing of the story along religious liberty grounds may be forced upon newsrooms if the HHS mandates are argued before the courts. Until then, I expect more of the same obtuseness.

  • Chris Bugbee

    Mollie: So you DO understand why media coverage follows Limbaugh in a way it doesn’t follow Olbermann, Maher, Schulz and other 2nd and 3rd stringers?

  • Mollie

    Like I said, Chris, I don’t like misogyny, whether it’s for men who control the entire universe and all its inhabitants in every way, such as Rush Limbaugh, or those men without any access to any media or political power, such as VP Al Gore’s TV host Keith Olbermann, White House guest/cable TV host Ed Schulz and Obama’s $1 million donor/cable host Bill Maher.

    I think we’re in agreement.

  • afghanchap

    The reason the Archbishop’s letter in the military was not more of a media frenzy is that the Army Chief of Chaplains is the senior Catholic Priest in the military and this was an internal matter within the Catholic Church.
    That being said, media has constantly allowed the HHS Bishops’ concerns to be reframed as a “War on Women.”

  • kentuckienne

    “One of them, who routinely calls female political opponents the c- word or the b-word, just donated $1 million to President Obama’s re-election effort and nobody has asked President Obama to speak to the matter or ask for the funds to be returned. Another, who is a broadcaster that called a political opponent the s-word, has been invited to the White House.”

    Are we supposed to know who these people are? Because I don’t.

  • MikeL

    It will be interesting to see how this story evolves when the Catholic bishops take their first concrete step. I think I can already guess.

  • Susan


    Here’s a story about the lawsuits state attorney generals have filed against the federal government’s violations of law with the mention of at least one state filing suit over the HHS mandate:

    snip: “…her state is working on 10 lawsuits, including one intended to shield religious liberty from Obama’s Feb. 10 birth control edict to religious groups.”

    Read more:

  • Mollie


    The former is Bill Maher, the latter is Ed Schultz.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I can’t provide a link (because I don’t know how; I’m a XX Century man unexpectedly finding himself in the XXI) but in the past few days a Washington Post columnist quoted an unnamed Republican strategist who was disappointed that Rush Limbaugh, in his original remarks, had framed the issue around contraception, which is the frame the Democrats want, rather than around religious liberty, the preferred GOP frame.

    Then on Sunday Charles Krauthammer’s column took Rick Santorum to task for blowing his opportunity in Michigan by chasing the wrong issues. On this topic he beat the candidate up for flogging a politically dead horse, contraception. Krauthammer also failed to frame the issue around religious liberty.

    Limbaugh and Krauthammer stand as articulate testimony to the power of the contraception/women’s-rights meme at least in the MSM, if not in the country at large, compared to that of the religious-liberty meme. MSM conspiracy to re-elect Obama is insufficient as an explanation; Limbaugh and Krauthammer certainly don’t want that. It’s which side has hold of the meme with legs — a contest the GOP is used to winning and the Dems in the past have lost.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Today I caught the tag end of Martin Bashir on a news channel and he told a list of lies one after the other–including that Santorum is campaigning to make contraception illegal.
    And where is the loud screaming media outcry that in the name of women Obama MUST return the million dollar contribution Maher gave him. Maher’s favorite word for women he doesn’t like, like Sarah Palin, is “c….” And where was the outcry by the media at that gift and acceptance a few weeks ago. The stories were mostly neutral to positive.

  • Dave

    Could someone please fill me in? Did these leftist media types use the c/b-words on the air (or in print) the way Limbaugh did? Or are these private utterances on the level of Jessie Jackson re: “Hymietown?”

  • Mollie


    We talked about Martin Bashir once here and I think it’s safe to say that this is just the British style of interviewing.

  • Mollie


    Yes, on air. Some, like Limbaugh, later apologized. Maher, at least, has not. In fact, he repeated some of his slurs this weekend. No one has asked the Obama campaign about this, much less to renounce it by returning the $1 million he gave the re-elect campaign last week.

    I don’t actually like such gotcha journalism or hope that the media would waste it’s time going after misogynists, but it would be nice to have one standard that is applied both to liberal and conservative men.

  • tioedong

    It says a lot that when CNN’s religion blog lists the country’s ten most influential Catholics, they didn’t mention EWTN/Mother Angelica, only a bunch of politicians.

    And is Andrew Sullivan a more influential “catholic” political commentator than Bill O’Reilly? Any stats on that?

  • Dave

    [...I]t would be nice to have one standard that is applied both to liberal and conservative men.


  • Trey

    Consistency is very needed. I’m so tired of the liberals receiving a pass and the conservatives crucified a thousand times over. Rush was wrong, but nothing whispered of the other side. Hypocrisy in the highest order is what we are seeing. Good job Mollie explaining the issues.

  • Jeff


    I once again commend your efforts, and especially so to the extent to which they have an audience among the MSM.

  • Will

    I can not resist quoting an edgy cartoon character: “By the power vested in me by mawkish ITV documentaries presented by Martin Bashir…”

  • MikeD

    It looks like Rush’s comments have almost completely shifted the meme to the “war on women’s healthcare” side. On the Today show this morning the panel of “Profesionals” claimed that Rush was attacking everyone’s daughters because he was criticizing Sandra Fluke for “taking contraception.” No mention of religious liberty or the Catholic values of Georgetown that Fluke wants violated. At one point in the segment, the advertising professional on the panel looked straight into the camera and called on all advertisers to pull their support from Limbaugh and “punish” people like him. Here is a link to the segment:

  • Julia

    Talking about meme shift. On that Today show video, when Matt Lauer brought up similar behavior from the liberal side, the panel immediately brushed it aside because it wasn’t “bullying down” – except for Howard Stern’s slam against college women athletes. “Bullying up” is OK – which lets Bill Maher, Chris Matthews & other liberals off the hook for sleezing women like Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingram. No mention of the dispicable treatment of Sarah’s daughter Bristol who didn’t become a public figure until the media started obsessing about her.

    The panel agreed that women and men were all outraged because they were thinking of their daughters getting slammed. Nobody mentioned that the Georgetown law student is 30 years old and has been an activist for years; unlike Bristol who was 18 years old.

  • northcoast

    There has been much discussion about Mr. Limbaugh’s power and about concerns over the effect that the HHS mandate would have on religious institutions. I am more concerned about the expanded power and size of the government and the ‘nanny state’ aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which few are mentioning.

  • Dave

    Julia, I thought that was Imuz, not Stern.

  • Cathy G.

    I thought this was a pretty good story in the Salt Lake Tribune about Mitt Romney’s take on the whole birth control/religious liberty deal:

  • Julia


    You’re right it was Imuz. I get those two mixed up.
    Imuz is the one with the cowboy hat; they both have a wild look in their eye.

  • Will

    But what Imus said simply WASN’T FUNNY. If he had been talking about Li’l Kim or someone, it would have had a point. But calling girls ___ for no discernible reason except that they are black doesn’t.

  • Karen H

    Has there been any follow-up on Fluke’s claims regarding birth control pills and women’s health? Because I was just reading what she said, and came upon this:

    “These denials of contraceptive coverage impact real people. In the worst cases, women who need this medication for other medical reasons suffer dire consequences. A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. ”

    Um, this is incorrect. Birth control pills DO NOT stop cysts from growing on ovaries. All they do is regulate the periods and suppress some surface symptoms. In addition, there is recent research that shows birth control pills make polycystic ovarian syndrome WORSE because the pills can exacerbate insulin resistance, which is the underlying cause of PCOS.

    I picked up on this because I’ve suffered from PCOS, and because I AM concerned with women’s reproductive health (particularly mine!), I’ve done a lot of research on how to help combat this syndrome. I had been on birth control pills for decades, and now in my 50s have type II diabetes. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

    The connection between birth control and insulin resistance wasn’t well known in my day, and the research on it was only beginning. But IMHO, there’s no excuse to disseminate this kind of wrong medical information when the research is now well known and doctors (specialists, mostly) know about the connection between birth control pills and insulin resistance.

    So Ms. Fluke makes a claim made regarding birth control pills being necessary to women’s health. In the case of PCOS–which she uses as an example– birth control pills are linked to _worsening_ women’s health.

    Here’s a study about the effects of birth control pills on PCOS/insulin resistance: