Spoon-feeding partisan talking points

At the beginning of last month, tmatt highlighted the main framing device in the news and commentary in the battle over the Obama Administration’s mandate requiring employers to provide coverage for abortifacients, sterilization and contraception even if they have religious objections:

(1) The White House says this is a story about birth control and women’s health. Thus, this is a story about birth-control debates between a small number of traditional Catholics and the rest of the nation, including most Catholics.

(2) The nasty Catholic bishops and GOP candidates are attempting to frame this story as a battle over the First Amendment and religious liberty — but that’s just politics, not doctrine. In other words, that’s mere right-wing political spin.

(3) Thus, the vast majority of news reports are framing this as a birth-control battle, perhaps with a few conservative voices thrown into the mix. Many journalists, it seems, have decided that even mentioning “religious liberty” and related Constitutional issues is forbidden, since that would raise the issue of whether religious traditionalists in all faiths have a valid point worthy of fair and accurate coverage. The “religious liberty” nuts are sort of the flat-earth people in this scenario.

More than three weeks later, we can see that this is as true as ever. And after three weeks of being told that the HHS mandate forcing religious and other conscientious objectors to do something against their will is a “contraception battle,” it almost seems quaint to remind people that not everyone agrees with this.

So let’s look at the New York Times piece headlined, shockingly, “Senate Nears Showdown on Contraception Policy.” (Got it? Religious Liberty, abortifacients, sterilization contraception-contraception-contraception!)

The 2010 health care law requires most insurers to cover preventive services without co-payments or deductibles. Under the administration policy, most health plans must cover birth control for women — all contraceptive drugs and devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration — as well as sterilization procedures.

Church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities would not have to provide or pay for such coverage. Instead, the White House says, coverage for birth control could be offered to women directly by their employers’ insurance companies, “with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.”

Mr. Blunt said, “The president’s so-called compromise is nothing more than an accounting gimmick.”

Do you see the problem(s) with this portion? It is certainly true that the Obama administration has spun its HHS mandate in the way that the New York Times reports as fact: “Church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities would not have to provide or pay for such coverage.”

But beyond the issue of whether the so-called compromise ever made it into the mandate — I don’t see it in the published regulations, do you? — should this Obama spin be recorded as fact? If so, why?

Let’s look at the relevant line again:

Church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities would not have to provide or pay for such coverage.

Now, if you said that your father in no way provided for your college tuition because the college savings plan he set up with his own money paid for your college tuition, you would be laughed at, right? (Please tell this former econ student you would be laughed it.)

If you said that your mother didn’t pay for her own assisted living facility because the retirement plan she set up with her life savings paid for her assisted living facility, you would be laughed at, right?

But if you say that religious organizations don’t pay for sterilization, abortifacients and birth control because the insurance plan they purchased (which was forced to cover those things) provides such coverage, that’s worthy of the seal of approval from the paper of record? It insults the intelligence of New York Times readers, no?

Again, I get that it’s spin from the Obama Administration.

But note how Obama’s HHS argument is reported as fact while Blunt’s contention that it’s just an accounting gimmick is quoted but in no way explained. Why is it not explained? It certainly wouldn’t require much work, would it?

Over at Reason, Jacob Sullum points out many of these problems, and even goes through some of the arguments against the so-called “compromise,” before offering some sample language that the New York Times could use:

I don’t expect the Times to endorse these critiques. But it should at least clarify that the issue of whether church-affiliated organizations still have to pay for birth control coverage is contested, and maybe even explain why. Here is a short version:

The Obama administration says its new policy means church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities won’t have to provide or pay for such coverage. Blunt says “the president’s so-called compromise is nothing more than an accounting gimmick” because the cost of the coverage will be reflected in the premiums employers pay.

Here is an optional addition:

The administration says the contraceptive mandate won’t raise premiums because it will save insurers money by preventing pregnancies. Even if that’s true, critics say, church-affiliated organizations still have to pay for health plans that cover products and services they consider immoral.

Indeed, not difficult at all! I would only add that the above bolded line is just flat-out wrong as it relates to self-insured organizations, which includes many colleges and hospitals.

New York Times readers are not stupid. They don’t need to be spoon-fed partisan talking points and hidden from the actual nature of the disagreement in this religious liberty, er, I mean, contraception battle.

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  • Martha

    Also, will someone please explain to this ignorant person how contraceptives are “preventive health care”? What exactly is it that they prevent? (And before someone tells me “The oral contraceptive pill treats such conditions as polycystic ovarian syndrome”, that’s treatment for an existing condition and the medication does not prevent it developing).

    The only argument I’ve seen regarding the preventive health element is that “if sexually active people are contracepting, they cost their insurance provider less in the long run”, so if we’re arguing on economic grounds, why not make that clear and forget the obfuscation about “women’s health”? Be honest and argue that providing free contraception means you get young(ish), healthy (hopefully) people paying in to policies that they won’t be claiming on for decades, rather than having babies and then looking to claim the cost of natal care etc. Also, my cynical side (egged on by reading this precise argument online in comments debating the mandate) thinks that there is also a social element: by preventing the birth of children to the underclass, society will be saved the future expense of having to jail them and deal with their criminal careers (because unwanted children born to poor families are all going to turn out to be drug dealers and armed robbers, don’t you know?)

    (I assumed that by preventing pregnancy, and the associated costs of claiming for maternity treatment and treatment of babies/infants/children, this was why contraception was cheaper, but I forgot to factor in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, which would also lead people to claim for medical treatment and drugs. Though that causes me to think that the ‘preventive’ element there is like saying “By taking milk thistle to strengthen your liver, you can continue to knock back the booze yet prevent the development of cirrhosis!”)

    Taking a lutein supplement to prevent the development of age-related macular degeneration (when there is a hereditary risk of same or if recommended/prescribed to do so by an ophthalmologist) is preventive health care because you do not want to develop that eye condition; treating pregnancy as a disease to be avoided – I’m not so convinced.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I was just thinking … imagine if the government mandated that media companies print stories they objected to. Just imagine how the media would cover that mandate.

  • Bill

    …imagine if the government mandated that media companies print stories they objected to.

    But Mollie, that’s an issue of Freedom of the Press, which is important and protected under the 1st Amendment. The term “religious liberty” is not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and besides, it’s not an issue that’s relevant today. What is important is clearly shown by the testimony of the Georgetown Law School student who says cannot afford her birth control pills. Poor thing. It’s only fair that somebody else pay. So the story goes.

    The government decides you have a right to mandatory health insurance with no deductibles. The Church therefore has an mandatory right to pay. It’s the social contract. The greater good. The will of the majority. For a bishop to even question it is a violation of the separation of church and state.

    Thus, in the name of rights, the government decrees a social policy abhorrent to the Church, which the Church must pay for and administer.

    And so Americans sold their birthright for a bowl of condoms.

  • John Penta

    And I thought I was cynical.

  • Jeff

    RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.

    [Editor's note: appreciate the tribute to my tweet but I have to delete the portion that is not quite up to our commenting standards, even if it's my fault ...]

  • Thea

    I do disagree. I think the NY Times readers ARE stupid. They look for their talking points to validate their opinion that they’re the smart guys. Some of the stupidest remarks I’ve heard on this whole story have been uttered by friends on the Upper West Side.

  • Thea

    “I was just thinking … imagine if the government mandated that media companies print stories they objected to. Just imagine how the media would cover that mandate.”

    Apparently like Sheep. Jake Tapper recently asked Jay Carney about the WH using espionage law to punish whistleblowers and wondered about freedom of the press. The other reporters just looked down.

  • Jeff

    Mollie,

    How about FORGET YOU, NEW YORK TIMES?

    After all, it worked for Cee-Lo Green … ; )

  • michael

    I am finding that it is much easier on the blood pressure if, instead of expecting the Times to be interested in fairness or truth, one looks at this sort of thing a bit differently. It is quite useful to know what the Obama administration thinks about things, and the Times can be reliably counted on to tell us.

    We should be especially grateful in cases such as the recent story and editorial about the merger of Catholic and secular hospitals, when the Times is willing to say, in so many words, what the Administration thinks but will not say, namely, that the Catholic health care system, insofar as it remains distinctly Catholic, must be crushed.

  • Observer

    The header Spoon-feeding partisan talking points also applies to Mollie’s post.

    Just one example: You insinuate – without any references to case law – that there are serious constitutional issues, when the governing opinion was authored by that noted anti-Catholic and liberal activist, Justice Scalia.

    Counter-advocacy is still advocacy, and still blind.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Observer,

    Now, I don’t blame you for not realizing that there are huge constitutional issues in play — the media has steadfastly ignored all the arguments about just that — but the point is that mainstream news stories about this issue shouldn’t adopt one side’s framing or the other’s.

    This is a huge religious liberty issue, yes, but it would be wrong to ignore that the other side views it as an “access to free contraception” issue.

    It’s not the job of the New York Times to campaign for Democrats (or Republicans, if they would ever do that). It’s their job to present the arguments of those two sides as well as any other relevant perspectives.

    They more than fell down on the job with this story.

  • Elaine T

    i saw in the paper copy of the WSJ today (first section somewhere) a remarkably good article on the 28 states that have similar mandates and how they differ from the federal mandate. Included was a brief discussion of Catholic organizations that do or don’t comply with such mandates and how they got around them, or whatever. Given how short it was the article was particularly impressive. i haven’t seen such info elsewhere in news media, just blogs.

  • R9

    Seems to me the debate is how much liberty you get in the name of religion. Freedom to practise your faith? Or freedom to make decisions that affect others, that aren’t available to other people that don’t have religion as a reason?

    I mean this is about employers providing access to healthcare for their staff, right? And this is something regulated by the govnerment. Does religious liberty mean special exemptions? Some might say in a secular state, religious liberty doesn’t mean any sort of special treatment on religious grounds.

    If religious organisations get their liberty, then their employees lose out (compared to other employees). How do worker rights come into this? The right would say they can just go get a job somewhere else, others would say they shouldn’t have to.

    Maybe the discussion should be, should contraceptives be provided by employers *in general*?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Someone in some radio talk show had the temerity to say that since the Georgetown University female student being used as a shill by the Democrats is unmarried and is demanding Georgetown U. provide her contraceptives so she can be sexually active is thereby advertising that she is a whore and demanding that Georgetown be her pimp.
    Under the circumstances the words were strong, but, arguably, properly used.
    But over on one of the cable news channels (I can’t remember whether it was CNN or MSNBC) two women news people went ballistic at the very idea that a woman who bedhops is somehow not a paragon of virtue. Virtue??? What in heck is that???
    And, of course noone in the media mentions the rising floodtide of various venereal diseases in America. They also seem to have lost the word “abortificant” which the morning or week after pill really is.
    Maybe the problem in our media culture is noone speaks the truth lest one appear judgemental–so when the truth is finally honestly spoken some in the media can’t handle it.

  • Martha

    John, the older I get, the more I appreciate what the Psalm says: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”

  • Martha

    “Maybe the discussion should be, should contraceptives be provided by employers *in general*?”

    R9, that is a very good question and one I’d like to see answered. What I’d like even more to see answered is how exactly contraceptives are preventive health care, and what I’d most of all like to see is the media not being quite so enthusiastic to frame the story as “Oh, noes, the Catholic bishops want to deny YOU your sex life!” and more “Should goverment be permitted to decide what is and what is not a religious organisation?”

    Also, what I would really, really like to see is some statement from the insurance companies about how they’re going to work the free coverage – will they or won’t they be bringing in extra charges or increased premiums across the board to cover the cost? (Any bets on the answer to that one?)

    Regarding the Georgetown student – over here in Ireland, universities (even prestigious ones) don’t cover the cost of prescription medicine or hospitalisation, so you either have to apply for a medical card (which is means-tested) or purchase private health insurance coverage. So excuse me if I do not weep salt tears that a healthy young woman can get her antibiotics (should she fall ill) paid for by the school but she (or her boyfriend) will have to shell out for a box of condoms.

  • Matt

    Martha,

    Birth control pills have medical uses other than contraception -they are, for example, used to treat endometriosis, and have been shown to lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Bill

    “Maybe the discussion should be, should contraceptives be provided by employers *in general*?”

    And what of other necessities? Should employers provide housing? Would employees enjoy living in company housing? Would they like having to move whenever they changed jobs? What about food? Should all their meals be provided at a company cafeteria? Perhaps the USDA can mandate the menu.

    All these benefits are not free to the worker. They raise the cost of that worker substantially. When it is cheaper to buy machines or move production abroad, companies will do so. And the jobs and the benefits will be gone.

    To speak of workers’ rights in terms of employer sponsored condoms is beyond absurd. Refusing to pay for birth control is hardly sending men down a mine without a canary. And from which constitutional penumbra or emanation springs the notion that a student has a right university-sponsored birth control? Is nothing the responsibility of the individual?

  • Leslie

    I echo Elaine T.’s view that the NY Times is a impressive, and it is unjustified to insult NY Times readers. its a cheap shot to call something partisan talking points just because you might disagree with it.
    The NYT is trying to bring up the facts, that is if people really want to know the substance of issues. Sure, these days people have a selective appetite for their news with a heaping side order of spunky opinion. Yet as the rhetoric simmers down, its good some news organizations are trying to sort things out rationally. If you think about it, the religious liberty talk appears to be promoting Sharia law here in the US, which also prohibits birth control. This is indeed a religious liberty issue of whether an employer can impose their religious beliefs on employees. If the tables get turned and your company gets bought up by Saudi prince or Chinese tycoon, folks might start to understand the concerns of what spoon-feeding religious liberty might mean to them. I think NY Times readers might better perceive these shades of grey by reading all sides of the current arguments.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    This is a huge religious liberty issue, yes, but it would be wrong to ignore that the other side views it as an “access to free contraception” issue.

    Actually, all the left commenters use the term ‘womens’ health care’ or variations thereof.

  • Elaine T

    I echo Elaine T.’s view that the NY Times is a impressive, and it is unjustified to insult NY Times readers. its a cheap shot to call something partisan talking points just because you might disagree with it.

    I don’t know what comment you’re thinking of, but it isn’t mine. Aside from the fact that what you say has nothing to do with my one other post on this thread, I’ve been skeptical of the NYT for years: college publication analyzed NYT vs Pravda and concluded Pravda was more accurate as far as the real world went; Duranty; an election in the 1990s during which my husband and I discovered we could read aloud the opening sentence to a political article and tell if it was from the NYT from the obvious bias in the way things were framed in it.

    I appreciate good reporting when I find it, and I found it in the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) this morning. An article that actually dealt with claims that have been thrown around in the media about this whole issue, and pinned down how the federal mandate is different. IF the NYT or WAPO would do that sort of reporting they might get some customers back.

  • Jeff

    Leslie misread Elaine T.’s post.

    And if she thinks The New York Times is “impressive” — especially with regard to the matter at hand — then she’s also misread The New York Times.

  • Martha

    Matt, I knew that already (mainly to my gynaecologist telling me that if I wasn’t already perimenepausal, he’d prescribe me the Pill for my ailment). But they treat those conditions, they do not prevent them from arising in the first place, so how are they “preventive” (as in, this medication will prevent you from developing the condition)?

    The only thing they prevent is pregnancy (or STDs, in the case of barrier methods such as the male and female condoms).

  • Martha

    Seeing as we’ve all piled in on “The New York Times”, in holy charity let me give the other side of the story, as instanced by the jobbing journalist G.K. Chesterton in his piece “The Real Journalist”:

    “Our age which has boasted of realism will fail chiefly through lack of reality. Never, I fancy, has there been so grave and startling a divorce between the real way a thing is done and the look of it when it is done. I take the nearest and most topical instance to hand: a newspaper. Nothing looks more neat and regular than a newspaper, with its parallel columns, its mechanical printing, its detailed facts and figures, its responsible, polysyllabic leading articles. Nothing, as a matter of fact, goes every night through more agonies of adventure, more hairbreadth escapes, desperate expedients, crucial councils, random compromises, or barely averted catastrophes. Seen from the outside, it seems to come round as automatically as the clock and as silently as the dawn. Seen from the inside, it gives all its organisers a gasp of relief every morning to see that it has come out at all; that it has come out without the leading article upside down or the Pope congratulated on discovering the North Pole.”

  • Bill

    Bravo, Martha, for bringing up that nice Irish Catholic boy, Gilbert Chesterton. He also said that the Catholic Church was the only thing that kept him from the horrible fate of being a man of his times.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    Martha said

    Also, will someone please explain to this ignorant person how contraceptives are “preventive health care”? What exactly is it that they prevent? (And before someone tells me “The oral contraceptive pill treats such conditions as polycystic ovarian syndrome”, that’s treatment for an existing condition and the medication does not prevent it developing).

    Really Martha, oral contraceptives block cyst formation every month. Excruciatingly painful cysts. Don’t be so quick to throw another woman under the bus. It is also prescribed to save eggs for women undergoing cancer treatment. (I remember the Vatican Pharmaceutical Company manufacturing the pill for the purposes of regulating menstrual cycles and for acne back when I lived in Italy.)

  • Bern

    @ Deacon Bresnahan: you and Mr. Limbaugh both need a dictionary.

  • Julia

    Birth control pills have medical uses other than contraception -they are, for example, used to treat endometriosis, and have been shown to lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

    Then they aren’t “birth control pills”. It would be better to call them by their hormone compound’s name rather than describe them by their intended use.

    Code the purpose for the prescription of those hormones on the prescription and in the insurance coverage descriptions. The ingredients of “birth control pills” are not inherently
    evil or whatever. It’s their use to prevent pregnancy that is the problem. This part of the problem is fixable.