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Debating access to religious liberty

Many weeks ago, we noticed that the discussion over the Obama Administration's new rule (to force religious groups to fund things to which they're doctrinally opposed) was being framed in two different ways. One side framed it as a religious liberty issue, since the federal government is telling religious groups to go against their religious teachings. The other side, because the Obama Administration is forcing religious groups to fund sterilization, abortifacients and contraception, framed it as an "access to contraception" issue. In the intervening weeks, we've seen hundreds of stories framed around "contraception" or "access to contraception" or "war on contraception" or "war on women."

I sent out repeated requests for news stories that ran just in the last week framed around the idea of religious liberty. In addition to the larger brouhaha over religious liberty, there was a major blow to the efforts of religious liberty advocates when an attempt (to restore protections that religious groups had before the HHS mandate) was thwarted by Senate Democrats. I asked here at GetReligion, on various Twitter accounts and even sent notes to particular reporters. We ended up with two links to early February stories from Jake Tapper, this Morning Call story Bobby found about a religious liberty panel discussion at DeSales University and this reader submission, a column from the Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel. In other words, there was basically nothing (there is no deadline for nominations, however!).

So this has been another huge media coup for the Church of Planned Parenthood and its followers.

I want to just make an important point here. The instigator of this story was the Obama Administration. No religious liberty advocate was suggesting any change to the status quo: contraceptives are available practically everywhere for cheap and the Catholic Church and other religious groups that operate colleges and hospitals and the like weren't trying to change that at all.

What we see when we look at the progression of this story over a couple of months is that the mainstream media elided over the initial aggression into the response. Remember, there was basically no coverage -- and literally no coverage in broadcast TV -- of the HHS mandate when it came out right around the time of the March for Life. The media were very slow to cover the outrage -- in response to the initial act of aggression -- by bishops and other religious liberty advocates. But almost as soon as they did cover that response, they framed the response itself as an act of aggression -- against "contraception" or against "women" or what have you. And all this even though the bishops and other religious liberty advocates were simply responding to state's infringement on religious liberty (or so the aggrieved say).

Now, anyone familiar with how various political strategies work knows that the next step is to personalize the matter. And that's the most likely way to explain the utter and complete freakout by the mainstream media over the last four days or so regarding Rush Limbaugh. (And the New York Times reports that CNN and MSNBC lingered on the story throughout the morning. They are out for blood and blood they are getting.

Just by way of comparison, you may recall that 181 Catholic bishops representing 100 percent of the dioceses of the U.S. have spoken out against the HHS mandate. This is a rare show of unity among the bishops. But you may not have heard the story story about how the Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains responded to Archbishop Timothy Broglio's letter by sending out a note to all chaplains telling them not to read it during Mass. First off, do you remember the front-page stories about this act of censorship? Do you remember the way it led all the nightly news? Oh you don't? I wonder why that was. The Chaplains office, by the way, ended up backing off on its gag order ... in a way. In the end, the "agreement" was that Broglio's line "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law" not be read during Mass. OK, you remember that major media story about this right? No, you don't. The media frenzy never happened.

So isn't it interesting that when noted radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh said something incendiary regarding this HHS mandate, there was such an onslaught of media coverage? (Disclosure: even if I weren't female, I wouldn't like the use of the s- word, c- word, b- word, coarse and vulgar language, or the obsessed uterine speculation by various people. I don't like it from liberal favorites such as Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schulz, Matt Taibbi and Andrew Sullivan, and I don't like it from conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh.) Again, I'm not talking about folks who don't like Limbaugh or simply don't like what he said going after him. That's to be expected and not anything that we'd bother talking about here. But what about the media response?

Just to show you some perspective, here's a tweet from a reporter following Limbaugh's apology for using crass language about one activist in favor of the HHS mandate:

I got an AP BREAKING NEWS alert on my phone that Rush apologized. Tornados in half the country yesterday? Nothin. #navelgazing

Priorities! Now, it's not that the media generally care about insults directed toward women. People who call former Gov. Sarah Palin (or various other conservative women) the most vile of names rarely get much, if any, media scrutiny or outrage. One of them, who routinely calls female political opponents the c- word or the b-word, just donated $1 million to President Obama's re-election effort and nobody has asked President Obama to speak to the matter or ask for the funds to be returned. Another, who is a broadcaster that called a political opponent the s-word, has been invited to the White House. No one asked the occupant of the White House to comment on the slur. And yet everyone was asked to comment on Rush. I'm not necessarily advocating for one model -- toleration of misogyny or outrage-on-steroids -- just pointing out the double standards.

Which brings us to the Sunday morning shows. Embedded above is a clip from David Gregory's interview of Newt Gingrich. Let's note Gregory's questions:

  • Limbaugh issued an apology yesterday which many people may not know about .... How much damage has this done?
  • Can I just get to my question, do you think it was harmful that Limbaugh -- certainly an influential voice in the conservative grassroots and you well know that -- was it appropriate for him to apologize. Do you think he's done damage to the debate you're now getting into?
  • Well I'm going to continue with my question. So my question is you want the other side to appreciate your view that this is a religious liberty question at the heart of this access to contraception. Can you appreciate the view of those who disagree with you that this is an attack on women's rights -- that's their view -- reproductive rights, access to contraception, in the extreme that it's some sort of war on women. Do you appreciate that view at all?
  • So it seems to me this in your view is actually a pretty fundamental issue, you just don't like the framing of it but the fact that it gets raised is something that you think will certainly get you animated and you certainly think it will energize voters on both sides of the aisle.

Limbaugh Limbaugh Limbaugh Limbaugh! You might note it takes Gregory three minutes to even mention religious liberty -- in order to dismiss it. And some might ask if, among religious liberty advocates, Limbauch is actually influential? But Newt responds to the questions with roughly a five-minute tirade against the media's framing of this issue. He speaks about religious liberty and what he views as the false narrative pushed by "elite media" for the entire time, pointing out stories that he thought were more important. And he did the same thing in his appearance on Meet the Press, beginning around the seven-minute mark.

So let's see how the Washington Post wrote up his Sunday morning:

Newt Gingrich: Rush Limbaugh was right to apologize to Sandra Fluke

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Sunday said conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was right to apologize to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who he called a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her defense of the Obama administration’s new rules regarding religious-affiliated institutions and contraception coverage.

We must push the narrative at all costs! Now, if I were writing up press releases for Planned Parenthood or a political opponent of Gingrich's, that's what I'd say the take-away from the interview was, too. If I were a reporter for the Washington Post, I don't think I'd have it in me to give the impression that this was what Gingrich was saying about the media obsession with Limbaugh.

What do you think? Was this the most important thing Gingrich said in these interviews? Is that the headline you'd use? If so, why?

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