The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

On August 1, 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued guidelines insisting health insurance plans provide coverage for sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception. While churches would be exempt, other religious-affiliated institutions (such as charities, hospitals and universities) would have to comply, even if it violated their religious beliefs.

On January 20, 2012, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reiterated the new rule, but postponed its implementation on religious-affiliated organizations for an additional year. Immediately, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the mandate, with New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan arguing that the church should not be forced “to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs.”

“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights,” Dolan added in a video statement.

An unprecedented attempt by the federal government to force religious institutions to violate their beliefs — in an election year, no less — would normally be big news, but ABC, CBS and NBC initially refused to publicize the outcry against this edict. It took CBS ten days to air one news brief about the mandate (on CBS This Morning on January 30), while ABC and NBC waited until their February 5 Sunday morning talk shows — 16 days — to acknowledge the controversy.

It was February 6 when the first broadcast evening newscast finally landed on the story — a brief discussion at the end of an NBC Nightly News report on the GOP primaries. The next night, February 7, ABC and CBS caught up, and all three newscasts filed full reports on the “fiery debate” (ABC), “political battle” (NBC) and “firestorm” (CBS) that had somehow eluded their notice for more than two weeks.

After two days of haphazard coverage (another full story and a passing mention on the NBC Nightly News; one more full story on the CBS Evening News; and nothing additional on ABC’s World News), the networks on Friday, February 10, all led their newscasts with news that President Obama had unilaterally “resolved” the issue with a “compromise” that amounted to a shell game: his administration would continue to insist on the full contraceptive coverage, but the cost would be shifted from the employer to the insurance company (who would, of course, still be paid by the employer).

CBS anchor Scott Pelley touted the decision as “one part Solomon, one part semantics.” ABC’s Jake Tapper heralded how “both the Catholic Health Association and abortion rights groups approved,” without noting that the CHA was an Obama administration ally during the ObamaCare fight. NBC’s Kristen Welker acted as if the President had made a significant concession: “Under fire from Catholic bishops, Republicans, and some members of his own party, President Obama today backtracked on his contraception mandate.”

That night, all three broadcasts noted an early statement from Archbishop Dolan that Obama’s move was “a first step in the right direction.” But later that same day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected Obama’s “compromise,” a fact that was eventually disclosed on weekend editions of the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News, but never mentioned on the NBC Nightly News.

“Roman Catholic bishops say President Obama’s revised policy on contraception coverage for employees, quote, ‘continues to involve needless government intrusion on the internal governance of religious institutions,’” CBS weekend anchor Elaine Quijano noted on February 11. “The bishops blasted the White House for needless government intrusion and threatening coercion of religious people,” ABC’s David Kerley noted on February 12.

After that, the continued opposition to Obama’s insurance mandate was never granted more than a passing mention on the evening newscasts, even as the Church, private institutions, state and local officials and religious activists continued to press the case for religious liberty:

■ On February 23, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas states filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, saying that the HHS regulations violated the First Amendment and were an “interference with religious liberty.” Coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC: Zero stories.

■ On May 21, more than 40 Catholic dioceses and organizations sued the Obama administration, the largest legal action ever undertaken to defend religious liberty in the United States. Coverage: Just 19 seconds on the CBS Evening News; nothing on the ABC and NBC evening newscasts.
■ On June 8, tens of thousands of Americans participated in 164 separate rallies for religious freedom, a grassroots expression of opposition to the ObamaCare mandate. Coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC: Zero stories.
■ On June 15, the Catholic Health Association, whose support of President Obama’s “compromise” was twice touted in February by ABC’s World News, withdrew their support for the HHS mandate. A statement from the CHA declared said the narrow exclusion for churches, but not other religious institutions, would create “a false dichotomy between the Catholic Church and the ministries through which the Church lives out the teachings of Jesus Christ.” Coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC: Zero stories.
■ On August 1, ObamaCare’s mandate for contraceptive coverage was triggered for most employers. The news was cheered on ABC, where anchor Diane Sawyer called it “an important day for women’s health.” She also incorrectly stated that “religious employers, like Catholic charities and hospitals, do not have to directly include free birth control under their health plans,” when, in fact, the exemption was only for one additional year.

That night, NBC’s coverage included a pair of soundbites from Republican members of Congress decrying the infringement of religious rights, while the CBS Evening News skipped the news altogether.

It is impossible to imagine any administration taking equivalent steps to circumscribe other First Amendment freedoms — such as free speech or freedom of the press —  without the media serving as a megaphone for opponents of such a move. On February 5, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested on NBC’s Meet the Press that media had ignored the story “because we’re too secular, but it’s out in pulpits. In Catholic and Protestant pulpits across America it’s a huge issue.”

Regardless of whether journalists’ judgments were dictated by their secular mindset, or their desire to shield the Obama administration from a potentially disastrous overreach, the networks’ lack of intensive coverage certainly served the interests of the President’s re-election team.