In HHS flap, media prefer politics to religion

For the second time in as many weeks, I want to highlight a discussion on media criticism that was led by CNN Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz. I wish I could embed the video here but you'll have to click this link to watch it. It is about 10 minutes long but it's a fascinating discussion. I'm not saying I agree with everything in the discussion -- I don't -- but it's the type of conversation that will interest readers of GetReligion and give us some things to think on. Here's the transcript of the conversation, headlined "Media Miss Catholic Outrage."

KURTZ: The press pounced on the story when the Komen Foundation tried to defund Planned Parenthood. But when the White House ruled that even Catholic organizations had to offer birth control in health plans, not so much -- that is until Catholic leaders and some commentators began sounding off ...Why did it take news outlets a couple of weeks to catch up with the Catholic protests?

Kurtz explains that it wasn't big news at all when the Obama Administration issued its ruling requiring Catholic institutions to subsidize insurance plans that include coverage for things Catholic teaching opposes. Kurtz terms this "birth control" but it actually goes beyond that, of course. The Washington Post got it on page one, the New York Times on page 17 and the network newscasts didn't even touch it. (I should note that this was big news in conservative, Catholic and other media.)

A couple of weeks later, some media began covering it:

KURTZ: But it wasn't until this week that the controversy really reverb rated across the media landscape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: I'm going to say, it is a staggering, staggering decision by HHS.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: As today, a fiery debate took center stage about women, contraception, and a White House order that has the Catholic Church up in arms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Please note that Sawyer's description of the debate doesn't include any mention of the First Amendment or religious liberty, a continuing problem for some media types. Kurtz asks why, if the debate was so fiery, did it take the media so long to notice it. On the panel are Lauren Ashburn, former managing editor of USA Today, and Frank Sesno, a George Washington University professor of media.

KURTZ: Here's the contrast I would draw. Komen Foundation moves to cut off Planned Parenthood. Twenty-four hours after it hit social networks, the media erupted with this.

Why would you have to wait for Catholic leaders to speak out to say this is a pretty sensitive hot button controversy that we ought to cover as more than a one day history?

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think what happened here is you started with policy and it became politics. And politics is always easier and more fiery. Policy is narrower. It's sort of down in the weeds.

Isn't that telling? When it was just a policy that violated, in its critics eyes, religious liberty, it wasn't news. Once it became political and candidates started addressing it, then it was. There is truth to this. The media are political junkies of the horse race variety so much more than they are interested in Catholic moral reasoning or constitutional protections. I should also note, of course, that even after the bishops were taking dramatic steps in speaking out against it, it still wasn't getting coverage.

Kurtz gives props to the liberal Catholic commentators who raised the issue even though it attacked their own political cobelligerents.

The panel discusses another intriguing angle:

KURTZ: If there was a tin ear here initially, is it related to the fact that most journalists are not devoutly religious, whether they're Catholic or not?

SESNO: No.

ASHBURN: No, I think that --

KURTZ: You're saying because it wasn't a political flap. You're saying --

ASHBURN: I'm saying -- well, you know, I can't speak for how many -- I have no idea how many are religious or aren't, who are agnostic, who are Catholic, who are Jewish. So, I think that your question is --

KURTZ: Religion generally --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Religion generally doesn't get that much coverage.

ASHBURN: That's not true.

The relative vapidity of that portion of the discussion might be the most telling aspect of it.

Then they discuss the invented statistic that will not die that 98% of Catholic women use contraception. No one disputes that this is a White House talking point that the media never bothered to check before running it. Instead they discuss whether maybe the media took religious liberty concerns too seriously:

SESNO: I think you could argue, and you could attack the media for not looking. If you are going to talk about holding authority to account wherever that authority may be, there is a giant story within the Catholic Church over their attitudes towards these issues, and their disconnect with their followers. So, that's part of this, too.

ASHBURN: I think I disagree. I mean, I think that, yes, you call people cafeteria Catholics. And, yes, in the media we are hearing that 98 percent of women use birth control. I mean, that was one of the stories.

But does that mean that because of that that they are not Catholics and they're not concerned about religious freedom?

SESNO: Lauren, that's not the issue. The issue is the media's role and the media's responsibility in all this.

If the Catholic Church is, in effect, declaring war on the Obama administration over the availability of contraception for people who work for institutions that are not merely the Catholic Church, but institutions supported by this religion, and saying this is war on religion, and if there is a schism, there is a divide within the Catholic community, why is that not part of the story? Why is that not a big part of the story?

Who cares if that statistic isn't true? Certainly nobody in the media. Kudos to Ashburn for at least raising the journalistic question of what it has to do with religious liberty. As one commenter pointed out, nobody seems to suggest that just because men lust after women are Jesus' words on the matter "discounted" in the parlance of Sesno. But it is telling that journalists think that they should be. It says a lot about how they approach stories dealing with church teaching and does more than anything thus far to explain why so many stories accept the White House framework on this topic. They accept the framework in part because they agree with it.

Anyway, Kurtz ends by asking why the media needed no prodding in its rush to arms on behalf of Planned Parenthood but did need so much prodding to even cover what's happening to religious institutions. Sesno ends by reminding everyone of the invented statistic.

It's enough to make one quietly weep. Earlier today, the head of my church body did something that may be a first: testified before Congress. It may have happened before but I doubt it. We just don't believe the job of the church is to testify about a given bill or not. We're steadfastly bipartisan. We took no position on the health care bill that has yielded this situation. It was a pretty big day for Lutherans of my stripe. The Rev. Matthew C. Harrison testified (view/read) along with a Catholic bishop, an evangelical professor of moral philosophy, a rabbi and Torah scholar, and a Baptist professor. They were all united in their view that religious liberty is under threat. Precisely one of the witnesses has the same position as the Catholic Church on birth control, so it was clearly not a hearing on religious views of birth control.

Now, it certainly should be covered that one side of the dispute thinks that forcing people to provide insurance coverage for things they morally oppose, including sterilization, abortifacients and birth control, is a good thing. And that has been pretty well covered. But you can't pretend that there aren't people who are seriously concerned about the threat to religious liberty. But note the headlines. Here's Politico: "Carolyn Maloney, Eleanor Holmes Norton walk out of contraception hearing. ABC News: "Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception". CBS: "Dems decry all-male House panel on WH contraception rule."

ARGH! Yes, it's true, the Democrats were grandstanding and the Republicans were grandstanding. Please take a moment to get over your shock that politicians acted all political today.

And I realize that the media love the political story here. But could we at least try to cover the religion angle to this story? At all? Heck, it might even be nice to have differing sides on just the religious liberty question. Certainly you have a diverse group of Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, evangelical, Baptist and other religious bodies united here. But I'm sure there are other church bodies or legal scholars who disagree. Where are their voices? Or do all sides now have to throw a glitterbomb to get noticed?

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