Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 24, 2011

HOW THE MEDIA COVERS HEALTH CARE RULINGS, CONT'D.... We talked a few weeks ago about the very different ways in which the media responds to court rulings on the Affordable Care Act. Those upholding the constitutionality of the health care law get very little attention, while conservative rulings against the law are literally treated as front-page news.

Now that there's a new federal court ruling -- Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in support of the law on Tuesday, becoming the fifth to rule on the merits -- let's take a moment to reevaluate this.

Three federal district courts have said the Affordable Care Act meets constitutional muster; two have reached the opposite conclusion. Here's how four major media outlets have covered the rulings, in the order in which the decisions came down:

Washington Post
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A2, 607 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page B5, 507 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1624 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1176 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): no article, zero words

New York Times
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A15, 416 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A24, 335 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1320 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1192 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A14, 488 words

Associated Press
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 474 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 375 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 915 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 1164 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 595 words

Politico
* Steeh ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 830 words
* Moon ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 535 words
* Hudson ruling (against the ACA): three pieces, 2734 words
* Vinson ruling (against the ACA): four pieces, 3437 words
* Kessler ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 702 words

[Update: here's this same data in chart form.]

To clarify a couple of things, it's true the Washington Post print edition published literally nothing on the Kessler ruling. Politico, meanwhile, did run a 702-word piece, but it was largely about the broader health care fight, and only briefly mentioned this week's Kessler ruling.

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 discrepancy is overwhelming. In every instance, conservative rulings get more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Ezra Klein wrote a few weeks ago about a possible explanation.

The two judges who ruled for the bill upheld the status quo. And they went first. So their rulings changed nothing. No one could accuse me of harboring an anti-ACA agenda, but I didn't give those rulings much coverage.

The two judges who ruled against the bill called for enormous changes to the status quo, and enormous changes to the status quo are almost the definition of what "news" is. These two rulings have genuinely called the bill's future into question, and that's a big story.

That strikes me as fair. Most sensible people have long considered the health reform law constitutional, so those first two rulings merely confirmed what everyone expected. It wasn't shocking, and it was easy for the media to be blase about it. The conservative rulings seemed more important, to a certain extent, because far-right judges did something shocking, so news outlets responded accordingly.

This doesn't quite explain why the Washington Post couldn't bother to run a single article -- not one -- about the Kessler ruling, even after it was decided in Washington, about a mile from the Post's office building, but Ezra's larger point is well taken.

I'd add, though, that there are implications associated with this. The news-consuming public doesn't necessarily follow the details of these legal developments, and Americans find important what the media tells them is important. With that in mind, it seems very likely the public has been left with the impression that the health care law is legally dubious and struggling badly in the courts because that's what news organizations have told them to believe.

Greg Sargent recently explained the broader implications.

You could argue that if the Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of the law in any case, it doesn't matter much if the public has a distorted picture of its legal predicament. But of course this does matter, because it's unfolding in a political context. If people have an exaggerated sense of the law's alleged unconstitutionality, it could contribute to the law's unpopularity, which could in turn make the push for partial repeal or defunding of the law easier. That in turn could make it more likely that the law's implementation could grow more chaotic. That could impact real people, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could impact the law's fate before the highest court.

Again, it's not hard to see why decisions against the Affordable Care Act are deemed more newsworthy. But it's still unfortunate that the public is being left with a highly-distorted impression of what's happening.


Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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Comments

Good score card!
Expect no change in editorial decisions!

Should this drama play itself out in my remaining life time, the news of single payer health care will be reported in Section G of the weekend supplement! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on February 24, 2011 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

So any clown can get airtime if they just strike a disingenuous position loudly while beating their chests calling out key talking points .

Shoshalism

Government Takeover

Voila ! We have a serious political contender here . All bow to the avatar , Joe the Plumber , known to his loving family as Samuel Wurzelbacher .

Create chaos then strip the public (the least able to defend themselves) from any protection from nature , or man , in the name of religion and patriotism , or any other skirt for the cowards to hide behind .
It is only cowards who call for the defenseless to be attacked .

Posted by: FRP on February 24, 2011 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

But does the American public get its distorted view from these sources?

The political wonks and Sunday gasbags may, and they are largely responsible for spreading the distortion. A more accurate take would probably be to see how much time the major networks spend on the rulings v the cable shows.

Posted by: martin on February 24, 2011 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

But, but; it's a LIBRAL media!

Posted by: DAY on February 24, 2011 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

Free Liberal Press. Bull Poo...

Posted by: stevio on February 24, 2011 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

And when the Roberts SC finally get around to their 5-4 vote declaring ACA unconstitutional, all the the Media will give it big coverage also, and point it out as another major Obama fail.

Posted by: T2 on February 24, 2011 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

The difference between our Corporate Media and that of the sycophantic imbecility of , for , and by Muammer Khadaffy is , umm , I know it will come to me .

Gone were the flowery niceties of democratic theory. Back again was the reality of brutal suppression. However, the terrible events of the past week do recall a line from the Green Book, written with perfect sangfroid by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi: “This is genuine democracy, but in reality the strong always rule.”

Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, is the author of “Modern Libya.”

Posted by: FRP on February 24, 2011 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

Very powerful data, Steve. Great work. I hope every editor in town reads this.

Posted by: massave on February 24, 2011 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

Still confused as to why the American public is so clueless about the world they live in and consistently vote against their own interests?

"What's the Matter with Kansas" by Thomas Frank does an incredible job of explaining this phenomenon.

I gave up reading the Washington Post after the way they handled the rush to war and their blatant bias towards conservatives. Though Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent still doing amazing work via their blogs.

Posted by: Kiweagle on February 24, 2011 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

From the stand point of "news" the decisions upholding the ACA are less significant that the decisions holding against it. We expect the courts to uphold the constitutionality of our statutes. There are a lot of issues in need of vetting out there, Steve, but except for the Posts failure to mention the Kessler decision at all, this isn't one of them

In a few weeks a nice article showing the split between district courts will be appropriate.

Posted by: Ron Byers on February 24, 2011 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

In every instance, conservative rulings get more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

That wacky liberal media!

Posted by: Gregory on February 24, 2011 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

Steve- the WaPo did indeed publish a blurb of the Kessler ruling yesterday in the Metro Section on page B4 (it reprinted parts of the AP writeup).

That pales in comparison to other articles, but it's not "literally nothing."

Posted by: John on February 24, 2011 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

And yet, the discrepancy is overwhelming. In every instance, conservative rulings get more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

You forget: The media is Lib/rul!

Posted by: TCinLA on February 24, 2011 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Man bites dog is news; dog bites man isn't. Thousands of airplanes land safely isn't news; plane crashes is. People often get an exaggerated notion of, say, the risks of air travel from this natural dynamic, which is unfortunate, and in this case the results may be politically unfortunate, but I'm not sure what the cure is.

Posted by: CJColucci on February 24, 2011 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

@CJColucci - That's easy, you include a little something called "context". As in "A plane crashed today, but flying is still the safest form of travel in the world".

Or "2 judges appointed by Republicans have ruled against ACA, but 3 judges appointed by Democrats have ruled in favor of it."

Posted by: Kiweagle on February 24, 2011 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

The Washington Post is blatantly and unapologetically political in their coverage - and it has been tilting sharply to the right for the last five years or so. The tilt has affected not just their editorial page but their general coverage as well. I dropped my subscription over this stuff. I just couldn't stand it any longer.

Burying a weak story in their weak (and thin) Metro section about the DC Circuit's ruling, which is composed from wire source boilerplate? That is a deliberately backhanded move, delivered a smirk from the Post's editors. This is not a "metro" story about parochial local happenings - like, a mugging on the Metro, or a school board squabble. It is national news, and the Post darn well knows it.

Another thing is that stories from the Metro section usually don't get syndicated. Whereas stories from the Post's main sections (and their editorials) get syndicated all over the nation.

So - the Post is smothering this story at its source.

Posted by: Bokonon on February 24, 2011 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

"Still confused as to why the American public is so clueless about the world they live in and consistently vote against their own interests?"

I'm not. A huge percentage of the American public doesn't know shit from shinola about anything. This percentage is very poorly educated and is automatically suspicious of anyone who is. Its philosophical worldview is formed by the unique American blend of jingoisn and evangelical "Christianity" and consequently is especially ignorant and distrustful of basic science, and is literally proud to know nothing about anybody else in the world. Limbaugh, Beck, and Fox News know this very well and play to it perfectly, telling these saps what they want to hear, 24/7/365.

Put it this way: when you've got close to half of the adult population doubting evolution, with many of those accepting the Biblical account of how old the earth is and enthusiastically believing the notion that Adam and Eve had dinosaurs for neighbors, the situation couldn't be any different from what it is.

Posted by: bluestatedon on February 24, 2011 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

@bluestatedon - Even if there's nothing else I ever achieve in life, I'll die a happy man if I can - or help someone else - figure out a way to properly educate the voting public about challenging their ideology and the information they absorb every day.

What's best for America? NOT what's best for either political party.

So far the best idea my friends and I have come up with is turning science into a religion about the pursuit of truth - just think of the tax breaks and constitutional protections!

Posted by: Kiweagle on February 24, 2011 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

As expected, Politico finishes last in fair and balanced coverage.

Posted by: max on February 24, 2011 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

So the press should provide the same coverage when a judge rules in a case brought by the American Center for Law and Justice as it does when a judge rules in a case brought by 26 states? Sorry, that doesn't even pass the smell test. If they did provide equal coverage, you would be complaining that the press is giving way to much attention to Pat Robertson.

Posted by: JM977 on February 25, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

postearon este articulo a traves de Facebook (un primo lo subio), voy a poner me gusta

Posted by: Heliodoro on March 2, 2011 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Antes siempre los comentaba pero han bajado un monton la calidad de los post

Posted by: Remo on March 2, 2011 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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