Analysis: Networks Wait Till after Shutdown Vote to Cover ObamaCare’s Many Flaws

GOP blamed health plan for budget fight, but ABC, CBS and NBC cover problems 4 times more after Republicans cave.
  • Let’s Cover It After Vote: For the 15 days during the government shutdown, that topic and blame for Republicans dominated the nightly newscasts. The network evening news shows spent much less time discussing the ObamaCare problems that top Republicans said were the reasons for the shutdown. In the 15 days following the shutdown, ABC, CBS and NBC spent more than 4 times as much of their broadcasts on the failures of ObamaCare than they did during the earlier period.

  • Networks Too Busy With Pet Obesity: At the same time the networks were spending a little more than a minute per night on average discussing ObamaCare flaws, they found eight minutes to lecture parents about the dangers of yelling at their teens, reveal “secret” bullying in the workplace and warn of the problem of pet obesity.


The October government shutdown was based on Republican opposition to ObamaCare. But ABC, CBS and NBC barely covered that issue during the 15-day shutdown – devoting on average slightly more than 1 minute on all three networks combined each day. However, after the shutdown ended leaving ObamaCare funding uncontested, the evening news shows spent 4 times as much time on the flaws of the failing health insurance initiative.

As the ObamaCare rollout began Oct. 1, Republicans called for Congress to discuss making changes to the law. Democrats refused, so the government came to an impasse and a partial shutdown occurred. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted that fighting the health insurance plan was at the heart of the GOP strategy. “I opposed the shutdown from day one. I think it was wrong that President Obama and Harry Reid forced the shutdown. They forced the shutdown because they wouldn’t compromise on ObamaCare,” he said Oct.11.

Fellow conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., agreed with Cruz’s assessment of the shutdown, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Oct. 6. “They’re the ones who are unwilling to compromise on any facet of ObamaCare,” he said of Democrats.

The media had been amply warned the ObamaCare rollout would be a disaster. Before the shutdown, conservatives and liberals both brought up concerns about the law, including mandate delays, congressional exemptions, electronic medical record privacy concerns, misplaced data, conflicts with religious rights and the increased financial costs ObamaCare would cause.

That didn’t make much impact on the coverage. From Oct. 1-15, the network evening newscasts covered the shutdown constantly. It was at the front and center. However, the actual reason for the shutdown received little attention.

During that time, the network evening shows cumulatively averaged just 1 minute 10 seconds per night total on ObamaCare’s problems and only the poorly functioning website. But once the shutdown was over and Republicans had failed to get any changes made to the law, network coverage shifted overnight. ABC, CBS and NBC gave more than 4 times the coverage to the flaws.

While Democrat politicians and supporters were given plenty of airtime on the evening news to demonize conservatives and the Tea Party for the shutdown, Republican politicians were not given the same room to explain why they called for the shutdown over ObamaCare problems.

Brian Williams lambasted the “determined core of GOP House members who are vehemently against ObamaCare and were willing to shut down the government because of it,” on NBC “Nightly News with Brian Williams” Oct. 14. But at least he was right that ObamaCare was the issue.

The next night, ABC’s Diane Sawyer reported that Republicans might lower the country’s financial rating. On “World News,” Oct. 15, she warned, “A major agency now threatening a downgrade, lowering America’s sterling financial status in the world, and all because hardline members of Congress have brought the U.S. to the brink.”

It was not just House Republicans who stated their concerns about the new healthcare law either. While the networks found plenty of people to criticize the shutdown, they ignored the fact that a majority of Americans agreed that there are deep problems with ObamaCare. Gallup, CBS and CNN polls showed most Americans thought the law would make their family’s health care situation worse rather than better.

During the 15-day shutdown, just 17 minutes and 37 seconds were devoted to ObamaCare concerns, primarily the problems people had signing up for the exchanges. That was just an average of 1 minute 10 seconds per night for all three evening news shows put together. (70.47 seconds)  The networks still found time to talk about the dangers of pet obesity, adult bullying and a “rent-a-spouse” service.

On Oct. 16, the GOP gave in and the coverage began to shift. From that date through Oct. 30, the evening news shows devoted 1 hour, 21 minutes, and 13 seconds talking just about ObamaCare problems. That was more than 4 times as much as the earlier coverage.

Ignoring the Heart of the Debate

The overwhelming majority of the evening newscasts, Oct. 1-15, were spent bemoaning the potential catastrophes that could occur due to the shutdown, and demonizing conservatives for ruining people’s lives. According to an MRC analysis, the network evening shows highlighted 127 examples of ways the shutdown was hurting Americans. In fact, 41 stories placed blame on Republicans or conservatives on the evening news shows.

After 15 days, the deal was reached to reopen the government without giving into any Republican demands for changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Suddenly, the evening news started to talk a lot about problems with the ACA. ABC included Democratic criticism of the website on Oct. 24, and Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl questioned the administration’s decision not to delay the deadline for the individual mandate.

ABC’s Senior Law and Justice Correspondent Jim Avila derided the poorly functioning website saying, “Today, put the Obama administration’s already sullied tech reputation on the line again, making a bold promise to fix the errant website by Nov. 30. Will Obamacare be the butt of more jokes come Dec. 1? Right now, website performance is improving but is still not signing up enough customers … As few as three in ten attempts are completed,” on “World News with Diane Sawyer” Oct. 25.

ABC was the worst, covering ObamaCare failures the least of all three networks – both during the shutdown and after. During the 15-day shutdown, ABC talked about problems with the health care law a mere 42 seconds. In the following 15 days, “World News” spent 9 minutes and 52 seconds on the flaws.

By contrast, NBC reported on ObamaCare problems 6 times more during the shutdown and still only mustered 4 minutes and 21 seconds.  CBS “Evening News” was the best of the three, covering the problems 12 minutes and 34 seconds during the shutdown, nearly 18 times more than the NBC total.

Once the shutdown was ended, both NBC and CBS significantly increased their coverage. NBC bumped up to 35 minutes 4 seconds and CBS again was top with 38 minutes 19 seconds.

Though reporters were reluctant to mention that Republicans had been raising these concerns all along, they did find a way to blame Republicans for the website problems, strangely enough.

On CBS “Evening News,” Oct. 24, reporter Wyatt Anderson helped point fingers at the GOP. “Democrats call it ironic for Republicans to work so hard on this website after all those months of trying to kill the law,” he explained.

It wasn’t the “Democrats” who actually said this, but a Democrat, namely President Obama. CBS admitted as much two days later when they played the video on “Evening News.” “It’s also interesting to see Republicans in Congress expressing so much concern that people are having trouble buying health insurance through the new website, especially considering they’ve spent the last few years so obsessed with denying those same people access to health insurance,” Obama was quoted saying on Oct. 26.

Only three stories after the shutdown ended discussed the non-website problems with ObamaCare. CBS’ “Evening News” Oct. 28 broadcast devoted an entire segment to the problems with the law itself.

Methodology: The Business and Media Institute analyzed the evening news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC from Oct. 1, 2013, the first day of the government shutdown and open enrollment for ObamaCare, through the evening of Oct. 15, the last day of the shutdown. The second date range to compare coverage was of the same shows from Oct. 16, the evening an agreement was reached, for the following 15 days, ending Oct. 30. 

— Kristine Marsh is Staff Writer for MRC Culture at the Media Research Center. Follow Kristine Marsh on Twitter.