Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 1, 2011

HOW THE MEDIA COVERS HEALTH CARE RULINGS.... Four federal district courts have heard challenges testing the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Two judges concluded the law is legally permissible, two came to the opposite conclusion.

But it occurs to me the public has heard quite a bit more about the latter than the former. Indeed, it seems as if the media largely ignored court rulings that bolstered the arguments of health care reform proponents, while making a very big deal about rulings celebrated by conservatives.

My perceptions, though, are just that -- personal observations, subject to opinions and reliant on memory. Let's go a little further, and quantify matters a bit.

Ruling #1

On October 7, Federal District Court Judge George C. Steeh of Michigan issued the first ruling testing the constitutionality of the reform law, and he sided with the Obama administration. Here's the media reception:

The Washington Post ran a story on page A2, which was 607 words.
The New York Times ran a story on page A15, which was 416 words.
The Associated Press ran a story, which was 474 words.
Politico ran a story, which was 830 words.

Ruling #2

On November 31, Federal District Court Judge Norman K. Moon of Virginia issued the second ruling testing the constitutionality of the reform law, and he too sided with the Obama administration. Here's the media reception:

The Washington Post ran a story on page B5, which was 507 words.
The New York Times ran a story on page A24, which was 335 words.
The Associated Press ran a story, which was 375 words.
Politico ran a story, which was 535 words.

Ruling #3

On December 13, Federal District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson issued the third ruling, siding with opponents of the law. Here's the media reception:

The Washington Post ran a story on page A1, which was 1624 words.
The New York Times ran a story on page A1, which was 1320 words.
The Associated Press ran a story, which was 915 words.
Politico ran three separate stories, which totaled 2734 words.

Ruling #4

On January 31 (yesterday), Federal District Court Judge Roger Vinson issued the fourth ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, also siding with opponents of the law. Here's the media reception:

The Washington Post ran a story on page A1, which was 1176 words.
The New York Times ran a story on page A1, which was 1192 words.
The Associated Press ran a story, which was 1164 words.
Politico ran four separate stories, which totaled 3437 words.

Keep in mind, as a legal matter, none of these ruling is more important than the other. They're all at the federal district level, they're all dealing with the same law, and they'll all be subjected to an appeal.

And yet, the coverage discrepancy is overwhelming. One of the two pro-reform rulings didn't even make the Washington Post's A section at all. In literally every instance, the Republican-friendly rulings generated more coverage, with better placement, and longer stories than the rulings preferred by Democrats.

If there's a sensible explanation for this, I'd love to hear it.

Update: Reader B.A. emails to suggest I group these by media outlet, instead of by ruling. I aim to please.

Washington Post
* Steeh ruling (pro-reform): A2, 607 words
* Moon ruling (pro-reform): B5, 507 words
* Hudson ruling (anti-reform): A1, 1624 words
* Vinson ruling (anti-reform): A1, 1176 words

New York Times
* Steeh ruling (pro-reform): A15, 416 words
* Moon ruling (pro-reform): A24, 335 words
* Hudson ruling (anti-reform): A1, 1320 words
* Vinson ruling (anti-reform): A1, 1192 words

Associated Press
* Steeh ruling (pro-reform): one story, 474 words
* Moon ruling (pro-reform): one story, 375 words
* Hudson ruling (anti-reform): one story, 915 words
* Vinson ruling (anti-reform): one story, 1164 words

Politico
* Steeh ruling (pro-reform): one story, 830 words
* Moon ruling (pro-reform): one story, 535 words
* Hudson ruling (anti-reform): three stories, 2734 words
* Vinson ruling (anti-reform): four stories, 3437 words

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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Comments

An easy explanation might be whether the status quo was overturned or not. Another might be the editors at the Post just like this story more, but mainly I think 'upholding' isn't 'news' like 'striking down' is.

Posted by: Interested Observer on February 1, 2011 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

It's the liberal media. Even when it clearly isn't, it's the liberal media, damn it!

Posted by: Steve on February 1, 2011 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

If there's a sensible explanation for this, I'd love to hear it.

Well, how about this.

I'm going to guess that a court ruling which upholds or confirms the constitutionality of an existing law isn't that big a deal, because it's merely bolstering the status quo.

Conversely, a ruling which overturns a law is a big deal, because it introduces uncertainty and confusion about how things will work going forward. And Vinson's ruling in particular is a big deal, since it voids the entire law, not just the individual mandate.

Is it possible there's reporting bias? Sure. And you've found a metric which supports a theory of reporting bias. But I'm not sure it's an open and shut case.

Posted by: David Bailey on February 1, 2011 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect the early rulings which supported the ACA were expected and given a certain column size based on that. The negative rulings came later and probably generated a lot more controversy including more critical coverage based on their logic and legal positions.

Posted by: CarlP on February 1, 2011 at 9:47 AM | PERMALINK

President Obama has to get more judges on the Court ASAP, regardless of level. He only raises his chances the law will be defended at the Court of Appeals level if he does so. If the Senate won't move quicker this year, he has to do dozens of recess appointments.

Posted by: Chris on February 1, 2011 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

Ummm - librul bias?

Posted by: zandru on February 1, 2011 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

While your observation is fair there is a more fundamental message to be learned here. The media in general does a very poor job of covering the law. With the exception of a few writers, Dahlia Lithwick, Linda Greenhouse, Anthony Lewis and others, legal decisions are neither explained nor adequately analyzed.

You couple that with a "man bites dog" news attitude and you get stories that look for the exception rather than the mainstream. In the health care debate there is also the fact that the opponents are out there trumpeting their arguments and trial court victories and you have a lot of the reason for the skewed coverage.

One area that I find most annoying in this discussion is the lack of discussion about what the anti- argument means. What will be the impact of a decision that declares the individual mandate unconstitutional. Could that meran that Social Security is also unconstitutional?

Posted by: Stuart Shiffman on February 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

I think the answer is quite simple: Isn't it always more newsworthy when a law is over-turned by the courts?

Posted by: Concerned on February 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

2nd ruling has a date of "November 31" (???) and the link is the same link from the first ruling. Correction please?

Posted by: James on February 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

yeah, but how of those papers had front page stories about La Palin that day? That's real news...

Posted by: Bruce on February 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

Because it only takes one ruling against (assuming it is eventually upheld) to overturn the law, regardless of how many rulings in favor there are.

Posted by: KenS on February 1, 2011 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with the sentiments.
ACA being constitutional is a dog bites man story.

Note that the Post and Time ran SHORTER stories for the second dissent despite the ruling by Vinson that the entire Act had to be annulled. A truly right-wing bias would explode like the Politico piece did.

Frankly, I almost find Politico's reaction more understandable. Nullifying the entire law is a bigger deal.

Explaining the consequences of the ACA getting shot down could very well require triple the length/ It seems a bit high, but I'd have to compare the texts.

BTW, wasn't it WaMo who said Republican congressmen were silly to proclaim laws bad simply because of their length? Do newspaper articles have arbitrary verbosity guidelines?

Yes they were long, but were they GOOD, Mr. Benen.
A GOP Congressman might accuse you of being lazy. (I wouldn't, but he has might hold a grudge.)

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on February 1, 2011 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

News loves conflict.

Agreeing with it provides no conflict and would someone who runs this site please tell me how the hell I can keep my info into the comments sections without having to re-enter it every time I come back?

The option to remember personal info doesn't work!!!!

Posted by: mikefromArlington on February 1, 2011 at 9:58 AM | PERMALINK

Without having read the stories, I suppose it could be that the stories reporting the rulings by Judges Hudson and Vinson were so much longer because the two rulings were such dramatic departures from legal precedent and because the reasoning behind the rulings were so bang-your-head-against-the-wall sloppy that it required extra space to explain how truly bad they were.

Nah. Were talk about the corporate-controlled media here.

Posted by: SteveT on February 1, 2011 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

Good points above. It's Journalism 101 -- man bites dog -- upholding a law at the district court level isn't seen as terribly newsworthy, but overturning it is. Not a liberal or conservative issue, it's a matter of conflict as viewed through journalism. Which doesn't mean it's logical -- or fair, to someone who supports the law.

Posted by: Bat of Moon on February 1, 2011 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

equal coverage is not necessary when the story isn't interesting.

OR

the law really IS unconstitutional, and playing that line over and over is truly the only thing that a journalist can do to speak truth to power.

Posted by: Chris on February 1, 2011 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know how sensible it is, but "Man bites dog" sums it up. "New statute upheld" --in the usual news judgment-- is simply a less compelling story than "new statute the passage of which redeemed the Administration's reputation for effectiveness is overturned."

Posted by: tom O'Neill on February 1, 2011 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

How about because yesterdays ruling was on a law suit that over 1/2 of the States signed on to?

Posted by: come on on February 1, 2011 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

What about the dozen or so challenges that have been thrown out?

Posted by: Todd for VT House on February 1, 2011 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not convinced "man bites dog" is really the reason. ACA was a signature achievement (flaws not withstanding) and there has been so much effort to destroy it that you'd think a compelling story line would be the clear judicial/constitutional support for it right out of the gate.

If this were Social Security or wiretapping, you'd hear: FDR's new program upheld; Bush's security measures bolstered.

Posted by: Todd for VT House on February 1, 2011 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not that surprised by the discrepancy in coverage. These rulings, pro and con, are like pre-season exhibition games. The big story here is how will the hyper-partisan right wing Supreme Court rule on this when it eventually gets to them. The negative rulings of Republicans is simply more newsworthy because it provides some hint as to how a likeminded Supreme Court might rule on this.

Posted by: Ted Frier on February 1, 2011 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Newspapers like controversy. It sells. If you let it bug you, you are being distracted.... Remember, memorize and repeat....

Health insurance companies want to pay doctors as little as possible and charge customers as much as possible while providing the minimum health care possible. This adversarial relationship hurts everyone but health co execs and the Republicans who support them. When the Republicans scream death panels, socialism or try to scare you with horror stories of malfeasance in government run health care systems, they are only protecting the Heath Insurance Execs excessive profits, Hermes handbags, and overpriced sports cars.

It has nothing to do anything else. Vinton is a tool of his corporate masters telling the public what they want the public to hear. Forget him. Forget what the gigantic corporations have to say. Focus on the goal... Getting the public to understand this basic message.

"There, could I have put it more plainly and fairly?"

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on February 1, 2011 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

"If there's a sensible explanation for this, I'd love to hear it." Normally, I'd remind Steve (who presumably knows such things but operates under a "literary conceit" of head-scratching Socratic stimulation) that the explanation is, corporate media owners want to advance or depress awareness based on their agendas. But here, the HC providers presumably want people to have to buy insurance (which, not all that ironically, should make the measure suspicious to progressives and not just "conservatives.") So I guess we have to dig deeper, into the weird psychology of the media and I don't have a pithy answer just yet except that rulings against X are more conflictively "sexy" than rulings in favor of.

Posted by: neil b on February 1, 2011 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

"If there's a sensible explanation for this, I'd love to hear it."

It has been decided that overturning and eliminating ACA is in the best interests of our wealthy and corporate interests, therefore our corporately owned media provide coverage that will promote the position that ACA is not legal or legitimate.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on February 1, 2011 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

If there's a sensible explanation for this, I'd love to hear it.

Easy! "Liberal media!" Oh, wait...


Posted by: Gregory on February 1, 2011 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

I read this same thing yesterday in the Washington Post's "Around the Town" section, but it wasn't so wordy.

Posted by: Perspecticus on February 1, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

It's not THAT surprising, honestly, and I wouldn't put too much spin on this. Upholding a law is really what could be expected. The last ruling is big only in that it at least theoretically could invalidate all the stuff that's in effect now among those states who took part. It won't happen, of course, but it's something to take notice of. Pensacola as a legal venue is just to the right of Atilla the Hun, so the ruling there is what should have been expected.

Posted by: Howard 70 on February 1, 2011 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

The only important people to today's media are the rich people. Basically to both anything that benefits the American people outside of their cliques is really really bad and evil.

Fighting for better wages, is bad.
Fighting for safer work places is bad.
Social Security is bad.
Unemployment benefits is bad.
Medicare is bad.
Medicaid is bad.
Healthcare reform is bad.
Net neutrality is bad.
Women having full say in their own health desicions is bad.
Gays getting married is bad.
Science is bad.
Education is bad.
Unions are bad.
Contracts for everyone but executives are bad.
Road maintenance is bad.
Maintaining infrastructure is bad.
High speed rail is bad.
Regulation of foods sources is bad.
Regulation of our financial industry is bad.
Environmental protection is bad.
Critizing corporations is bad.

Pretty much the media of today can be summed up, "If it kills and sickens lots of Americans while making the rich richer it's awesome."


Posted by: Silver Owl on February 1, 2011 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

I don't buy the argument that keeping the status quo is not as big a news story as overturning a law. Although that might be true in some instances, the bill itself in this case is so controversial that both arguments, for and against, deserve equal weight.

So, for me, there is not legitimate argument for treating them differently even though there are illegitimate reasons for the path the media have taken.

Posted by: CDW on February 1, 2011 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

I read this same thing yesterday in the Washington Post's "Around the Town" section, but it wasn't so wordy.
Posted by: Perspecticus

Could you give us a comparative word count on that, Pers? And about 500 words of "sensible explanation," if you don't mind?

Posted by: chi res on February 1, 2011 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Healthcare is bad, mkay?

The stupid burns like sulfuric acid on corneas..

Posted by: Trollop on February 1, 2011 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

The Hudson and Vinson cases have always had a higher profile because those suits were filed by states, rather than private entities. No one really cared that the Thomas More Law Center had filed a suit, but 20 state AGs made a bigger splash -- with everyone -- right off the bat. Certainly, any suit can produce an opinion, so maybe that way of prioritizing them was flawed or invalid, but the coverage has always been skewed toward the states' suits. It's not unique to the decisions.

Posted by: Sam on February 1, 2011 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

A related point: Radio coverage of the two defeats has been something like "Today a federal judge rulled Obama's health care reform unconstitutional" with maybe a few sentences more, but no context at all, such that other rulings have been in favor.

Posted by: Poster3 on February 1, 2011 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

One factor has been mentioned several times; affirming an existing law vs overturning an existing law.

I'd like to suggest another factor; familiarity with the legal respective legal premises of each case.

The leftward inclined mainstream media is familiar with the legal arguments that would grant the federal government the authority to institute the ACA. In general, the mainstream media thinks that greater federal authority is a good thing.

As a result, they don't perceive any need to provide any legal context. "Everybody knows" that the feds have the power.

Conversely, the same leftward inclined media are less familiar with the legal arguments that support overturning the ACA. Thus the longer stories are the result of their exploration of issues and arguments with which they lack an intimate knowledge. Just what is this "Constitutionally limited government" idea anyway???

As a reference, see Ezra Klein's recent lament about the Constitution being over 100 years old and therefore being unintelligible for modern legal purposes.

Having read decades worth of misreporting on guns and military issues where the media lack familiarity, the above is reasonably plausible, IMO.

Posted by: Dann on February 1, 2011 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Many thanks to steve Benen for this excellent research.

Posted by: colleen on February 1, 2011 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Like many others, I would point out the obvious: It is more newsworthy when a ruling goes against a settled law than when one goes for it. I work for a major news organization (not one of the ones analyzed in this post), and I can assure that that's the only thing behind the discrepancy. That the rulings are at the same federal level is irrelevant. I'm generally in agreement with Steve on most issues, but he's off here.

Posted by: Vineyarder on February 1, 2011 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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