Running the White House spin on HHS regulations

If news is ever going to break on your beat, it will break on Friday afternoon, a few hours before you planned to enjoy your weekend. I don't know why it's always true, but it's always true. Or at least, that's how it works for me. On Friday, the White House announced that there'd be another change to its rule requiring groups to provide insurance plans that cover abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization even if they have religious objections. On Twitter, Godbeat pros immediately started complaining about this change happening on a Friday afternoon -- like all the other news related to this ruling had happened on Friday afternoons.

Why is this significant? Well, you have an extremely limited time to compose a story and people who might react to the story have a very short time to think through their reaction to this story. Some were able to power through the mandate revisions and respond, but some wanted to take their time and reflect before reacting. Do they have any idea how frustrating this is to a reporter on deadline?

I simply must share Sam Rocha's hilarious post from elsewhere on Patheos, headlined "BREAKING NEWS: USCCB to Think About HHS Amendment Sanely and Without the Advice of Drudge, Huff Post, or Alike." Here's how it begins (though the whole thing is funny):

In a shocking press release, United States Conference of Bishops made several unexpected moves in response to the Obama administration’s proposed modifications to the HHS mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, known by many as Obamacare. In a brief three-sentence memo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan implied a number of cryptic, esoteric, and ridiculous things. Two of the three sentences were particularly disconcerting to American Catholics:

We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.

American journalists and politicians are outraged. An MSNBFOX reporter writing on condition of anonymity e-mailed,

WTF! Seriously? The USCCB is going to READ the whole document before they comment? What is this, the stone age? Clearly the Bishops are again showing how out of touch they are with the times. We reported on this story before we were sure it was real. That’s what we do: we make things real, even if they’re not. And if they are, we sometimes make them unreal by ignoring them. How naive and trite of them to act like this is their role. Ridiculous, really. Know your role, Bishops.

Obviously I love daily journalism, but I'll take a chance to ruminate on a story any day. So I was impressed with how some reporters were able to get the details out quickly, including some reaction from the affected groups who claim they care about something they call "religious liberty." (I think that's how we're supposed to characterize the parties suing the federal government.) Here's Christianity Today, for instance.

The White House is claiming that they've compromised. Some folks need time to react to the changes and others are already saying that the changes are not a compromise. A lot of what's been said in response to the mandate changes sounds like spin, too. So should media outlets just run with White House spin?

The libertarian magazine Reason critiques some of the coverage:

The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama administration has compromised on the thorny issue of requiring under ObamaCare that religious institutions buy insurance that covers contraception for their employees. Really? The Post Wonkblog notes:

Under this proposal, objecting nonprofits will be allowed to offer employees a plan that does not cover contraceptives. Their health insurer will then automatically enroll employees in a separate individual policy, which only covers contraceptives, at no cost. This policy would stand apart from the employer’s larger benefit package.

The faith-based employer would not “have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.”

Say what? Is it really credible that health insurers won't simply boost the prices of their non-contraceptive policies to cover the "no-cost" contraception coverage? Does the Obama administration really think that believers can be that easily duped?

The New York Times went with the White House spin. The online version has the headline:

Birth Control Rule Altered to Allay Religious Objections

The print version of the story had the headline:

Compromise Idea For the Insuring Of Birth Control

The new regulations literally claim that no one will be paying for contraception coverage -- not the employer, not the employee, not the insurer. Honest.

The White House says that this is a compromise. They say they're doing this to allay religious objections. Now, it's fine to repeat the spin of a given group and put it in the headline. Particularly if you're putting out a press release from the White House or if you're a partisan outlet that sees it's job as supporting the White House. It's not the most even-handed approach, though. Yes, these stories that break on Friday afternoons are tough to write and tough to get good reaction or balance to, but we can probably do a tad better than this.

Heck, maybe just read the regulations and find an interesting angle that no one's spinning.

Image of a journalist carrying the government's water via Shutterstock.

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