Why ignoring religious liberty is bad journalism

So we’ve been chronicling a few of the problems with the media coverage of President Obama’s mandate that requires employers, including religious organizations, to purchase insurance that covers contraception, abortifacients and sterilization, even if one or more of those things violate their religious beliefs. Our January posts on the matter are here and here. Our February posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The March posts are here, here, here and here.

Early in February, tmatt identified some curiosities with how the story was being framed. As he put it:

The frame game continues, with a coalition of conservative religious groups — the traditionalist wings of most major religious groups — insisting that their battle with the Obama White House is not essentially about birth control, but about religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of course, says the battle is about birth control and quality health care.

It is of course very important to tell the perspective of the Obama administration and its supporters on this topic. And that side of the story has been told. What hasn’t been as strong, to put it so mildly as to possibly elicit laughter from some of you, is the side that insists this battle is about religious liberty. Or, if that story has been told, it’s been told as part of some political drama involving Republicans and Democrats (which fails to explain the depth and complexity and history of this battle).

Now that we’re approaching two months of lopsided coverage on the matter, and just after a couple of weeks of particularly histrionic “war on women” coverage, I wanted to point out a couple of stories as well as a couple of polls.

Last week, Karen Tumulty had a story in the Washington Post about how the contraception battle is supposedly devastating Republican candidates. The phrase “religious freedom” does appear in the story. Once. In the 30th paragraph. It includes such lines as “But many Republicans are beginning to wish they had never waded into what has become a heated conversation over contraception, who should have it and what it says about people who use it.” Yeah, that kind of story.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a somewhat bizarre story which required eight reporters to find five women who say that they may not vote or, if they do, they may not vote Republican. It includes frequent uses of the word “some” (and other marks of high precision) and lines such as this “The sudden return of the ‘culture wars’ over the rights of women and their place in society has resulted, the women said, in a distinct change in mood in the past several weeks.” Their place in society? Oh do simmer down, eight reporters for the New York Times. Check this paragraph out:

To what extent women feel alienated remains unclear: most interviews for this article were conducted from a randomly generated list of voters who had been surveyed in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, and their responses are anecdotal, not conclusive. But the latest comments from the Republican candidates and in the right-wing media, aimed at energizing the party’s conservative base, have been enraging to some women.

So the New York Times ran a push poll, essentially. And even then they weren’t that successful.

OK, so you know what you’re supposed to think, if you read the Washington Post and the New York Times: those ladies with their lady parts are taking to their fainting couches over the GOP’s war on women. And women don’t care about religious liberty or any other issue. They’re really motivated by hyped up stories about contraception.

So how devastated are the Republican candidates? How much of a bump is President Obama seeing in these polls? First, we’ll look at the Boston Globe, which writes about how Elizabeth “contraception” Warren isn’t faring as well as she’d hoped against Sen. Scott “religious liberty” Brown:

But, if several of the recent polls are correct, Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers.

Hmm. Maybe what the Post and New York Times claim about female voters is limited to the presidential race?

Well, the Washington Post has a new poll out that shows President Obama is losing support from both men and women. The only thing to suggest that the “war on women” meme was helpful to Obama is that when his support declined among women, it declined less than it did among men. (By the way, you simply must read the whole report linked here (“Obama Fares Worse Among Women after Month-Long Contraception Mandate Battle”) for details on how Tumulty’s original story was a bit overheated. It sounds like it changed dramatically after reporter John McCormack took her to task, although I don’t see her corrections and revisions indicated at the bottom of the story…)

And the New York Times just released a poll showing declining support for Obama:

At a time of rising gas prices, heightened talk of war with Iran and setbacks in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s approval rating dropped substantially in recent weeks, the poll found, with 41 percent of respondents expressing approval of the job he is doing and 47 percent saying they disapprove — a dangerous position for any incumbent seeking re-election.

Their story includes the line that Obama:

lost some support among women over the past month, even as the debate raged over birth control insurance coverage.

But how could that be? Why just the day prior the New York Times was telling us that (“some”) women were fleeing the GOP in (possible) droves to vote for Obama over the issue.

The story concludes with a brief mention of religious liberty:

In recent weeks, there has been much debate over the government’s role in guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception, including for those who work for religious organizations. The poll found that women were split as to whether health insurance plans should cover the costs of birth control and whether employers with religious objections should be able to opt out.

Guaranteeing? I guess that’s one way to describe a mandate such as this. I wonder what it means that women are “split” on this issue, but I am thankful that the New York Times is acknowledging that not all women march in lockstep on this issue. The questions asked by the New York Times were:

73. Do you think health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should employers be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections? (40 percent say “Cover birth control” and 51 percent say “Allowed to opt out”)

74. What about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university? Do you think their health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should they be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections? (36 percent say “Cover birth control” and 57 percent say “Allowed to opt out”)

Even though these questions neither mention that abortion drugs will be mandated by the plan nor that employers are currently allowed to opt out, these are much better questions than were asked in the Washington Post poll (e.g. “35. Do you think health insurance companies should or should not be required to cover the full cost of birth control for women?”) Another interesting question asks whether the respondent has ever personally used birth control and 35 percent answer that they have not.

Now, the reasons why the polls are showing what they’re showing are many, I’m sure, but considering the biggest story of the last couple of weeks was this contraceptive mandate, it’s certainly worth exploring what part it played. Perhaps if the Washington Post and New York Times had been a bit more sensitive to the religious liberty issue going into last week, they wouldn’t have written stories that aren’t backed up by their own polling.

Photo of reporter ignoring part of a story via Shutterstock.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I asked in the post what it meant that women “split” on the issue. Mickey Kaus answers:

    If the Times says women were “split,” you know that must mean they were actually narrowly against the NYT‘s preferred position. Sure enough, when asked, “Should health insurance plans for all employees have to cover the full cost of birth control for female employees or should employers be able to opt out for moral or religious reasons?” women favored opting out by a 46-44 margin. The margin increased to a decisive 53-38 for “religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university.”

  • Martha

    “Another interesting question asks whether the respondent has ever personally used birth control and 35 percent answer that they have not.”

    But – but – but how can this be? Given that “99% of American women use birth control”, as practically every media outlet never tired of telling the great unwashed public, now you are telling me that 35% of American women never used any? I’m so confused!

    They must be Catholic plants sent in undercover by the bishops to infilitrate and skew the poll. Yeah, that’s it!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is sad how corrupt (or ignorant about its own product ) the mainstream media has become in the way it spins news stories, uses polls that seem more designed to get the liberal mainstream media’s desired results than to report accurately on the way people are really thinking, and virtually censors out one side of an argument or debate while virtually propagandizing for the other side as it frames its coverage in a way that makes it look like the media has become nothing but a puppet and mouthpiece for the White House.
    Talking points from the White House frame it as a “War Against Women.” Then that becomes the media’s featured talking point headlined in print, graphics and by talking heads while phrases like “First Amendment,” “religious liberty,” and “religious rights,” get pushed aside and very quickly almost totally disappear.

  • Bill

    The continuing choice of WaPo and the NYT to frame this as a contraceptive issues indicates they don’t consider religious liberty an issue worth considering.

    The stories generally follow this narrative: “Despite what some contraceptive opponents claim is ambiguity in the polls, many experts believe that Republicans are secretly worried that huge numbers of voters, especially important women voters, are fleeing the GOP to join the Democrats over what most women regard as an attack on their health and safety. Leading the fight against contraceptive coverage under the guise of “religious liberty” is the Roman Catholic Church, whose all-male hierarchy is still reeling from the ongoing pedophilia scandal. Many women’s health advocates worry what will happen if the Catholic bishops and their supporters in other right-wing religious pressure groups are successful in their drive to deny women access to medicines which also are used to treat gynecological problems, which, as one expert says, “the bishops don’t suffer from and don’t care about.”

  • Chris Bugbee

    Of the three comments thus far that are not from Mollie, none raise or make a point about journalism, but simply rehash old complaints in a non-specific manner.

  • Jeff

    Chris Bugbee,

    You are the pot calling kettles black — except the kettles aren’t black, just the pot.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Chris when the White House and the Democratic Party send out talking points using the heading “War Against Women,” their politicians promote it, and the liberal mainstream media pick it up and use it almost exclusively when reporting on coercion of religious institutions and consciences–That is pretty specific, not just a generalized observation about the failings and bias endemic in the mainstream media.
    And when the wording of so many poll questions on a particular topic is clearly skewed so that any literate person can see the skew–That too is pretty specific, not just generalized.

  • Martha

    Chris, speaking as a non-Mollie commenter, I would have thought some of that famed investigative journalism for which American newspapers are so widely known just might possibly have kicked in when there was a discrepancy in their own poll about “35% of respondents never used contraception” and the message hammered home every ten minutes that 99% of women are using birth control (which again is different to saying they haveused birth control at least once in the past).

    Seems like a teeny-tiny bit of a contradiction there, but hey, you can prove anything with figures!

  • Ann

    Mollie said:

    Now, the reasons why the polls are showing what they’re showing are many, I’m sure, but considering the biggest story of the last couple of weeks was this contraceptive mandate, it’s certainly worth exploring what part it played.

    Polls, polls, many polls, many results. There is nothing in the sited polls or two other major polls listed below that demonstrate religious liberty/contraceptives has had any effect on Obama’s rating in numerous categories within the polls. In fact, each of the polls shows an increase for Obama over all of the Republican candidates.

    The referenced CBS News/New York Times Poll released March 12, 2012, which can be downloaded

    Is the Birth Control Coverage Issue More About?

    All Respondents
    Religious freedoms = 37%
    Women’s health and rights = 51%

    Which side of the debate one is on affects how one sees the issue: a slight majority of those who think employers should be able to opt out for religious or moral issues see the issue more in terms of religious freedoms, while three in four who think coverage should be mandatory see the issue as about women’s health and rights.

    Obama Favorable = 41%
    Newt Gingrich Favorable = 18%
    Mitt Romney favorable = 30%
    Rick Santorum favorable = 32%

    http://tinyurl.com/7xacb46

    Gallup disagrees with Mollie about the biggest story, March 12, 2012

    Obama’s Job Approval Rating Reaches 49% Over Weekend
    Increase occurs as economic confidence becomes sharply more positive … Obama’s current approval rating is the highest measured since early February, and before that the highest since June 2011.

    Men Approval = 46% – up 4%
    Women Approval = 51% – up 2%

    http://tinyurl.com/7t8oujt

    Obama Approval Rating 49%
    Rasmussen Poll, March 13
    http://tinyurl.com/5krqjz

    Rasmussen Poll, March 9

    President Obama now holds modest leads over Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in combined polling of key swing states Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. The numbers mark a shift from late February when Obama was tied with both candidates in the four states.

    http://tinyurl.com/72ry3ax

  • Ann

    Another new poll Mar 14, 2012

    Obama’s approval rating up to 50% percent: Reuters/Ipsos poll

    Obama’s rating has risen by 2 percentage points during the past month. The percentage of Americans who disapprove of the Democratic president was 48 percent, down from 49 percent in February.

    In a survey of registered voters, Obama led Romney 52 to 41 percent in a head-to-head match-up, nearly double the margin from February. Obama led Santorum 52 to 42 percent, and Gingrich 54 to 37 percent.

    Obama’s fortunes have been improved by a drum beat of positive economic news.

    http://tinyurl.com/87k66u5

  • Vikki

    Deacon John M. Bresnahanwhen says it best: “…the White House and the Democratic Party send out talking points using the heading “War Against Women,” their politicians promote it, and the liberal mainstream media pick it up and use it almost exclusively when reporting on coercion of religious institutions and consciences.”

    It’s working. My neighbor who is plugged into those talking points believes there is a war on access on contraception. So sad.

  • Ann

    Mollie said:

    Perhaps if the Washington Post and New York Times had been a bit more sensitive to the religious liberty issue going into last week, they wouldn’t have written stories that aren’t backed up by their own polling.

    Another poll that does not support the premise of Mollie’s argument.

    Pew Poll Released: March 14, 2012 very similar to Gallup, Reuters/Ipsos, and Rasmussen Polls

    http://tinyurl.com/82cdupo

    Obama:
    Total Approve 50 Disapprove 41
    Men Approve 48 Disapprove 44
    Women Approve 52 Disapprove 39

    All Voters Obama 54 Romney 42
    Total Women Obama 58 Romney 38
    Total Men Obama 49 Romney 46

    Total Catholic Obama 53 Romney 44

    Total Catholic Obama 56 Santorum 39

    Total Catholic 2008 Vote Obama 54 McCain 45

    http://tinyurl.com/6p8j6wz

  • Ann

    Another new poll that does not support the premise of Mollie’s argument.

    Bloomberg Released March 14, 2012

    Republicans Losing on Birth Control as 77% in Poll Spurn Debate

    Americans overwhelmingly regard the debate over President Barack Obama’s policy on employer-provided contraceptive coverage as a matter of women’s health, not religious freedom, rejecting Republicans’ rationale for opposing the rule. More than three-quarters say the topic shouldn’t even be a part of the U.S. political debate.

    More than six in 10 respondents to a Bloomberg National Poll — including almost 70 percent of women — say the issue involves health care and access to birth control, according to the survey taken March 8-11.

    Fire Rush Limbaugh

    More than half of those interviewed also say radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called a female law student testifying publicly in favor of birth-control coverage a “slut” and “prostitute,” should be fired based solely on those comments.

    http://tinyurl.com/7kyq7yk

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ann–has anyone in the media done a poll on liberal regular hate speech against women fountain Bill Maher???? Has anyone done a poll on whether Maher’s million dollar gift to President Obama should be sent back??? Has anyone done a poll about the balance of coverage between Limbaugh’s misogynist comments and Maher’s vile comments??? Has anyone done a poll on which is worse: Rush Limbaugh’s words from the English language dictionary or Maher’s words that can only be repeated in quotation marks as in: Sarah Palin is a “c…”???? Has anyone polled the public on whether they buy the argument of most Democrats that Maher deserve a “pass” to spout vile language against
    women because he is a comedian????

  • Ann

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan,

    You have no evidence for most Democrats think Maher deserves a “pass” because he is a comedian. I am not going to get into a tit for tat about who is worse Limbaugh vs. Maher, liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, etc. The point of including the poll results for Rush Limbaugh – he is one of several reasons that people see the contraception issue as a political issue rather than a religious liberty issue. Some of the other many reasons people see the issue as political includes Republicans (Congress & former governors) that have voted for contraceptive mandates, including Plan B, are all of a sudden against the contraceptive mandate; President Obama’s call to Sandra Fluke being made public; and Mollie/others continuing to make the following nonfactual statement:

    President Obama’s mandate that requires employers, including religious organizations, to purchase insurance that covers contraception, abortifacients and sterilization, even if one or more of those things violate their religious beliefs.

    Obama exempted all religious organizations with religious objections under the Affordable Health Care Law. The religious liberty issue is still determined by state laws, which Obama does not have the authority to override. I have provided some of the links in previous comments for the long and complicated legal battles for religious liberty. Obama was far from the first to propose a contraceptive mandate. Blaming Obama for a religious liberty issue that Catholics have lost at all levels of state courts (NY and CA, maybe others) and the US Supreme Court refused to hear is disingenuous. The precedent US Supreme Court used at the state level is Employment Division v Smith, 1990, opinion written by conservative Catholic Justice Scalia. The US Supreme court has ruled repeatedly against religious freedom since at least 1879, when the Justices rejected the claim that criminal laws against polygamy could not be constitutionally applied to those whose religion commanded the practice.
    http://tinyurl.com/27zp8c

    Mollie’s “No such thing as free contraception” was not supported by any facts. It was an attempt to continue the religious liberty issue by saying religious organizations will still be paying for contraceptives. In comments #9, 18, 38, and 47, I provided significant facts to prove her cost claims and her reference to Avik Roy at The Atlantic were not accurate.

    The missing media coverage is in my comments #9 and 47 about being able to charge co-pays for non-generic drugs to contain costs.

    Also missing from the Affordable Health Care media coverage is a comparison to the cost and coverage in Congress/federal employee health insurance plans (FEHB/FEHBP), which is the largest US employer. The cost figures in the above referenced #9 for generic birth control pills of $5 per month at a retail pharmacy and $0 for a 90 day from a mail order pharmacy is also the price for a large number of generic drugs for conditions such as depression, blood pressure, cholesterol, and more. The total cost for an individual under the GEHA insurance is $587.49 per month, which includes the portion paid by the government. The most popular FEHBP, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Service Benefit Plan Standard, that has coverage similar to GEHA cost $587.88 for an individual, which includes the portion paid by government. Anyone that has ever tried to buy health insurance on your own or have a lousy employer would know after reviewing the coverage provided for Blue Cross and GEHA health insurance that the quoted prices are a bargain. Using the FEHBP to cover non-federal employees has been proposed several times during the last several decades, including by Hillary Clinton and Pres. Obama. There were Democrats and Republicans that received large donations from the health care industry that prevented even more cost savings for everyone under the Affordable Care .

    http://tinyurl.com/7f6qz82

    Once again, politics is the reason the US does not have affordable health insurance, which results in unnecessary suffering, premature deaths, and the number one reason for individual bankruptcy filings. It is very sad that a country claiming to be a Christian nation cannot put aside left vs. right to do what is necessary to correct the situation and doing what is needed to keep those with the most money from controlling government officials.

  • JC

    Ann,

    You’ve lobbed a good 5-10 pages of grenades here and I don’t have time to try to put the pins back in all of them, so I’ll just try to deal with them as they pertain to the thesis of Molly’s post, which I’ll take the liberty of formulating as follows: given that that polling data consistently shows American women to be against the coercion embodied by the HHS mandate, the press’s continued framing of the story as a “War against Women” or as an attempted denial of “access to contraception” strikes a false note, and strongly evinces bias in a way that besmirches a noble profession. Both women and journalists have much to be upset about, here.

    Now, are right to point out that other polling data shows Obama’s approval rating to be soaring to such great heights as have not been seen in a long time (at 48 points for the first week of March, he was up 3 points from his February average). His popularity might well break 50 any day now! But all of this is besides the point that writing stories how the mandate debate is hurting Republicans among women when women are, however narrowly, on their side of the thing does not make a whole lot of sense. Even if the female split on the issue is too close to call, this story doesn’t work. Why write it?

    Lastly, I would like to point out that you’re right when you say that no one knows who in the democratic party is for or against the misogyny of Bill Maher and his ilk — we don’t! But we do know that the press and television media have shone a far greater spotlight on Rush Limbaugh’s foolishness than they did when Bill Maher, et al., said far worse. If you’re still puzzled about all the outrage at this in these parts, here’s a thought-exercise that might help clear things up. Pretend that after Maher said called Sarah Palin the single worst word in the english language, he had spent the next 1-2 weeks in the spotlight of the then all-consuming media circus surrounding Palin’s personal Cultus. Imagine that he’d received the same quantity and quality of withering criticism and condemnation, and that President Obama had therefore (or from the goodness of his heart) seen fit to return Bill Maher’s million dollars and call Sarah herself, expressing his deepest sympathies. How might the nation’s perception of Mrs. Palin been changed by all this? Might some compassion have been aroused on her behalf? And if she were identified with a specific cause, is it unthinkable that her cause would have won converts thanks to the unavoidable human tendency to equate bad people with their ideologies? It’s the perception that the press is doing exactly this in support of their favorite cause that rankles.

    For what it’s worth, I suspect the Obama had lost several points of NET support over the contracep-berty battle from the subpopulation of people who care about these matters, and that he’s since gained them back from among the subpopulation of people who are more worried about the economy. Not that it matters to me… either way, as a Catholic, I shouldn’t be faced with the decision to either give up my livelihood or live out my days in the knowledge that I’ve paid for drugs that take innocent lives because I was too cowardly to give it up. There has got to be a story in there, somewhere.