MRC Study: Utah Newspapers Pound Mike Lee for Leading Anti-ObamaCare Fight

Since the end of the partial government shutdown last month, national newspapers have zeroed in on conservative Utah Senator Mike Lee as a potential political casualty due to his leadership in developing the strategy of using the federal government’s October 1 funding deadline as a way to stop ObamaCare.

An October 23 front-page item by the Wall Street Journal’s Neil King, Jr., told readers how “the freshman Senator has found a cold shoulder since returning to one of the reddest states in the country.” That same morning, the Washington Post also put Lee’s supposed woes on its front page: “After a 16-day government shutdown, it’s Lee who faces a revolt within his own party,” the Post’s Philip Rucker assessed.

But for a statewide politician like Mike Lee (who doesn’t face the voters again until 2016), the reviews that truly matter are those of his home state’s media. Thus, Media Research Center analysts reviewed coverage from Utah’s two largest newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, analyzing all 116 news stories, editorials and opinion columns that talked about Lee’s role in the shutdown. Our study included all stories from September 17 through October 31 — a period beginning two weeks before the start of the shutdown and ending two weeks after the shutdown concluded.

The results show Lee faced voluminous, and largely hostile, local coverage of his role in the shutdown. By a margin of 33-to-1, editorial opinion at both newspapers was harshly against the strategy of linking ObamaCare’s fate to government funding. Coverage in the news pages was scarcely more balanced, with 32 news stories tilting against the conservatives’ strategy, vs. just three in favor and 13 conveying a balanced debate.

As for assessments of Lee himself, editorial opinion was heavily negative — by a margin of 25-to-1 — while news pages tilted in favor of Lee’s critics by a greater than three-to-one margin (17 negative stories vs. five positive ones, with 14 rated as balanced).

[METHODOLOGY: MRC analysts tallied all statements from journalists and quoted sources that explicitly provided an opinion — pro or con — about the strategy of linking ObamaCare to the government funding bill, and/or offered a personal assessment of Senator Mike Lee. If the total number of opinions in a story was tilted in either direction by a greater than three-to-two margin, then the story was scored as either “positive” or “negative” for that topic. If the margin was narrower than three-to-two, the story was scored as providing a “balanced” discussion.]

The two newspapers were not equal in their antagonism, however. While both were obviously opposed to the anti-ObamaCare strategy, the Deseret News ran significantly fewer negative stories than the Salt Lake Tribune (24 vs. 41). And the Deseret News was kinder to Lee himself, running more positive and balanced stories (13) than negative attacks on the Senator (10), even as the Tribune was heavily lopsided against Lee (34 negative stories, vs. three positive and seven balanced).

During the two weeks prior to the shutdown, news coverage was dominated by those who disagreed with the confrontational strategy espoused by Lee and Texas conservative Senator Ted Cruz. “Many within his own party believe Lee and his allies are making a strategic blunder,” the Tribune’s Matt Canham told readers on September 19.

Eight days later (September 27), Canham and his colleague Thomas Burr led off their story with news of more anti-Lee sniping, as “fellow senators [wondered] if Lee and Tea Party buddy Ted Cruz (R-Texas) were putting their own publicity ahead of the country.”

The tone of coverage in the Deseret News was less strident, but its news pages also tilted in opposition to Lee’s strategy. “Lee has been at the forefront of what many in the party see as a futile effort,” Deseret’s Lisa Riley Roche wrote on September 27.

Prior to the shutdown, the Deseret News ran only one editorial suggesting a better course would be to let “a flawed law run its course to ruin.” The Tribune ran eight pieces, all much fiercer. “The drive to defund ObamaCare is daft, cruel and damaging to America in innumerable ways,” a September 21 editorial declared. “And a Utahn is at the head of it.”

Nine days later, the Tribune scorned: “The idea that ObamaCare is such a threat that it would be worth a government shutdown...borders on the insane.”

After the shutdown began October 1, the anti-Lee coverage continued. The Tribune gave considerable attention to an “open letter” from an ex-GOP spokeswoman, Angie Welling, attacking Lee over his opposition to ObamaCare. As Tribune reporter Kirsten Stewart summarized in an October 2 story devoted entirely to the anti-Lee missive: “Welling takes the senator and ‘his ilk’ to task for acting like ‘schoolyard bullies’ and their ‘Stop ObamaCare at All Costs mantra,’ which she says ‘is hurting real people’ like her mom,” a cancer patient.

The next day, the same anecdote made it into a second Tribune story about how the shutdown is “frustrating” those trying to enroll in ObamaCare. “Angie Welling blames Lee, Utah’s junior senator, for helping to create a lot of the confusion,” the Tribune reported before recycling Welling’s criticisms of Lee.

On the opinion pages, columnist Paul Rolly went personal, contrasting “the smirking arrogance of Sen. Mike Lee [and] his self-righteous and destructive mission to stop ObamaCare” with memories of Lee’s father, Rex.

“It’s hard to imagine that the gallant, accomplished, compassionate public servant, Rex Lee, produced this demagogue,” Rolly sneered in an October 6 column.

For its part, on October 9 the Deseret News publicized a BYU poll showing falling approval ratings for Lee. The story quoted BYU political scientist Quin Monson warning that “the majority of Utah voters are looking for him to compromise, and if he fails to do so, he could face electoral consequences.”

The next day, the Deseret News ran a second full story, this one about how Lee wasn’t going to comment on the polls. Reporter Lisa Riley Roche cast Lee’s camp as defensive as she spent 22 paragraphs detailing his office’s refusal to provide her with a quote from the Senator: “‘We’re not going to walk into a buzz saw,’ Lee’s communications director, Brian Phillips, said Thursday....”

This Deseret News story even drew notice in the pages of the rival Tribune, as columnist Paul Rolly snarked in an October 14 column: “Lee appears to be cracking from the pressure of the mounting anger toward him.”

The end of the shutdown switched the conversation to post-mortems over what it accomplished. An October 17 Tribune editorial was characteristically caustic in its condemnations: “What did Sen. Mike Lee and his friends get for their obstructionist antics? Not one damn thing....Mike Lee’s foolish dream was America’s nightmare.”

On October 28, the Tribune’s Washington-based reporters Matt Canham and Thomas Burr filed a long and balanced review that included friendly quotes toward Lee alongside the typical shin-kicking. “Mike has been essential in showing people around the country that there are some people in Washington that are standing up for the things they believe in,” former Senator Jim DeMint told the paper.

On the other side, the reporters also quoted a critical Utah Republican state senator: “[Todd Weiler] met Lee when they were law students at Brigham Young University [but] didn’t support his friend in the 2010 party primary, partly because of Lee’s rigid rhetoric. ‘I respect his political ideology,’ the GOP state senator said, ‘but at some point there has to be a dose of reality.’”

In what turned out to be a positive story on the anti-ObamaCare strategy, Deseret News reporter Lisa Riley Roche on October 17 quoted all six members of Utah’s congressional delegation, but gave most of the ink to Lee’s reflections on the shutdown. “I think time will tell whether or not this effort was worth it, whether or not the amount of effort we put into this was justified. I think it was, and I think time will prove that,” Lee told the newspaper.

An October 26 piece by Deseret’s Jonathan Boldt also put Lee’s stance in a more positive light. “Knowing there was an uphill fight and little chance of winning didn’t deter Lee from what he calls a sacred obligation to keep his oath to the people of Utah and the Constitution,” Boldt wrote.

There’s no question that Lee and his approach of targeting ObamaCare had numerous critics, including the editorial pages of both of these newspapers. But our review found that, instead of featuring a robust and balanced debate about the Senator’s strategy, the papers’ supposedly objective news pages reflected the same hostility as could be found on their opinion pages.

According to MRC research, the national media used the government shutdown as an opportunity to blame Republicans and conservatives for their supposedly confrontational tactics even as President Obama and Senate Leader Harry Reid were refusing to even negotiate.

This review shows the national media’s liberal spin is also reflected in local coverage of local politicians, even in a reliably red state such as Utah — more documentation of the uphill battle conservatives face as they try to fight the advance of big government in the age of Obama.

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.