Big Three Spin Religious Liberty Scandal as Political 'Firestorm'

Study: Only 10% of Soundbites on ABC, CBS and NBC Came from Catholic Church Officials

When ABC, CBS, and NBC finally got around to covering -- after two weeks of silence -- the controversy over the Obama administration's mandate that religious institutions provide health insurance for abortifacients, sterilization, and birth control, the networks downplayed the religious freedom component to the story, casting it instead as a political dogfight between liberals and conservatives.

MRC analysts studied all 36 stories, interview segments and mentions of the HHS mandate story on the Big Three broadcast networks from January 30 through February 15. Out of the 91 talking heads who appeared as soundbites on their morning or evening programs (or a small number of guests on the morning shows), politicians far outnumbered Church officials, by a margin of 60 to 9.

On February 6, correspondent Chuck Todd emphasized on NBC Nightly News how "all of the [Republican presidential] candidates are hitting the Obama administration's decision to require all health insurance plans to cover birth control." Todd's report set the tone for the following week of coverage on the Big Three networks. Overall, NBC had the most severe talking head imbalance, with 25 coming from politicians of all stripes and only three from Catholic Church clergy or institution officials (over an 8 to 1 margin). The network had 13 total reports, briefs, and mentions of the story.

Both NBC and ABC failed to bring Catholic leadership onto their newscasts as guests. Instead, NBC turned to their in-house radical feminist, Rachel Maddow, on the February 7 edition of the Today show, who blasted the legitimate resistance to the mandate as a "pretty far-right perspective" and "an extension of anti-abortion politics."

ABC also devoted the least amount of coverage to the controversy - seven total full stories and briefs. All four full reports, all filed by correspondent Jake Tapper, came on two days - February 7 and 10, the second day being the day President Obama handed down his "solution" to the dispute between Catholic institutions and the federal government. The network, however, had the lowest talking head imbalance - 10 politicians and two Church officials - but still, a 5 to 1 ratio.

CBS was the only network to actually bring on Catholic clergy as guests - Father Edward Beck, their faith and religion contributor, on the February 8 edition of CBS This Morning; and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was interviewed for over seven minutes the following morning. During their 15 reports, interviews, and mentions of the controversy, CBS had 25 talking heads to four Catholic Church clergy/officials, or just over a 6 to 1 imbalance.

However, CBS tried to give the misleading impression that most people at Catholic hospitals and colleges were in favor of the HHS mandate. On CBS Evening News on February 7, correspondent Wyatt Andrews played three soundbites from a student at Catholic University of America who supported the policy. Four days later, the evening newscast played two clips from a "nurse and mother of two" who works at a Catholic hospital who claimed that "paying the $30 a month out of pocket [for birth control] is an expense she feels her family can't afford." Both CBS, which gave the most coverage of the issue among the Big Three, and NBC, couldn't find opponents of the mandate at Catholic institutions. On the other hand, Tapper, on February 7's ABC World News, found two female supporters and foes each of the policy at Catholic University.

CBS also tried to boost their false impression with a poll released on February 14, claiming that 61 percent of Catholics favor "President Obama's contraception policy," as a chyron on the CBS Evening News that day spun the ObamaCare mandate. Their poll question, however, completely glossed over the religious liberty component to the issue. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll released on the same day, whose question mention the objection from "religiously-affiliated institutions," actually found that "55% of Catholics who have heard about the [mandate] support an exemption to it...[and] Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, 63% support an exemption."

The Big Three networks initially glossed over the controversy between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration, after they handed down their mandate on January 20. Until February 5, there was only one news brief about the story on their newscasts. By contrast, the outlets devoted an astonishing 13 stories over 60 hours to the face-off between abortion giant Planned Parenthood and the Komen foundation between February 1 and February 3. Clearly, these left-leaning networks are more than willing to come to the aid of their ideological fellow travelers, such as the Obama White House. Their campaign is trying hard to spin the religious liberty scandal as just a "divisive" issue in a presidential election year.