Political Animal


June 30, 2011 8:25 AM How health care rulings are covered

By Steve Benen

Regular readers may recall an item from February, in which I compared coverage of health care court rulings from several major media outlets. Given yesterday’s developments, it’s time to revisit the subject.

To briefly review, there were five major lower-court rulings that evaluated the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act on the merits, three sided with the Obama administration and two sided with ACA opponents. As I documented, rulings in support of the law generally received little to no attention from the Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, and the Associated Press, while rulings against the law were literally treated as front-page news.

Indeed, it wasn’t even close. In every instance, conservative rulings received more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Yesterday’s ruling was the most important to date — it was the first ruling from a federal appeals court bench — and even had the added hook of having Republican-appointed judges siding with the Obama administration. Surely this is front-page news, right?

Wrong. Here’s the tale of the tape, putting yesterday’s coverage in the larger context of the other cases:

Washington Post
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A5, 1053 words
* 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
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A15, 853 words
* 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
* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 832 words
* 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

* 6th Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 940 words
* 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

The discrepancy is overwhelming. There are, to be sure, some possible explanations for this, but they’re not especially persuasive.

One could argue that yesterday was a busy news day, and that the ruling got crowded out by other newsworthy developments. Perhaps. But if the 6th Circuit had gone the other way, would the NYT’s story by on page A15 or on page A1?

One could also argue that rulings upholding the law maintain the status quo, which almost by definition, makes them less noteworthy. This is more compelling, but 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 — rulings the right likes get trumpeted; rulings the left likes get downplayed.

Several months ago, Greg Sargent explained the broader implications of this very well.

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • HBY on June 30, 2011 8:37 AM:

    It looks like Politico is the worst offender. Much longer stories about rulings against the ACA than anyone else.

    We keep trying to tell you Steve. They're not a good group.

  • c u n d gulag on June 30, 2011 8:44 AM:

    "Sir, what typeface should we use on the front page when the next decision on ACA comes from a court?"

    "Well, you'd pull the same size as VE and VJ Day's, and the time we landed on the moon.
    But if it passes, we don't need to worry the size of the font on the front page because it'll be on page D8, right next to the mattress ads."

  • Todd for VT House on June 30, 2011 8:49 AM:

    Of course, one could make the argument (I am not) that it's a case of "dog bites man" vs "man bites dog"...

  • DAY on June 30, 2011 8:50 AM:

    "There are, to be sure, some possible explanations for this, but they’re not especially persuasive."

    Well, there IS one explanation, and I find it quite persuasive: Who owns (and therefore controls the content) "The Media".

  • joan on June 30, 2011 8:51 AM:

    Who is this Mark Halperin person who is calling the President a dick on Morning Joe???

  • FRP on June 30, 2011 8:53 AM:

    I want to see the evisceration of snooty liberal tribal attitudinizing by our irrepressible , ever so correct , and notable scolds . I feel so dirty when I cough politely into my satiny gloved hands about how understandable skewering of reality is a known flaw of absolute power , knowing B Somerby will be there to spank my naughty heiny into starched white correction .
    I don't ordinarily apolgise in advance but I know how delicate the sensibilities of the far and long seeing scolds can be . Wait for the hand wringing when R Maddow screws around with our drumbeating consumer reptile compartment to bask in luminously luscious scolding .
    Can I have scolding now ?

  • Texas Aggie on June 30, 2011 8:54 AM:

    Not long ago I saw an article lamenting the downgrading of news by the newspapers and their financial difficulties driving them to extinction. The premise was that they were the only source that gave a detailed and permanent record of what was happening. The article admitted that the newspapers primarily pushed the agenda of the powerful, but were at least truthful in what they said. The problem was that they neglected to investigate the news that ran counter to the agenda of the powerful. The example given was the NYT because that was where the author had worked, and he described several people who were let go because they insisted on shining the light on the transgressions of the government instead of focusing on the fluff. This bit with the legal decisions is a good example of that mindset in action.

  • kevo on June 30, 2011 9:34 AM:

    Has our press ever truly spoken truth to power? Maybe not!

    You provide a clear set of empirical evidence, Mr. Benen, and yet should we expect anything different from any enterprise trying to sell a product?

    Negation will always sell better than acclamation in a world where humor is often defined as how badly that other guy got hurt! -Kevo

  • T2 on June 30, 2011 9:35 AM:

    Media Control. Ask yourself, where would the Republican TeaParty be without it?
    I'll tell you where......completely out of office nationally and except for the Deep South, on the state level as well.

  • David in NY on June 30, 2011 10:29 AM:

    There's one possible rationalization for the disparity. Rulings against the constitutionality of ACA are "man bites dog," stories, so wildly outside the mainstream of our common understanding of Constitutional law that they deserve extra attention. Similarly, an affirmation of Constitutionality does not upset the status quo.

    It sure looks like, the GOP sought out sympathetic District Court judges to get the rulings they were hoping for, just as global warming deniers find "experts" who can cast doubt on the certainty of climate change.

  • knightphoenix2 on June 30, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Texas Aggie, could we please have a link to that article you cited above?

    It's sounds very interesting.

  • Ohioan on June 30, 2011 12:17 PM:

    "it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could impact the law’s fate before the highest court."

    Hmm... you know what, I think it is out of the realm. Justice Kennedy may have come up with some strange rulings in his life, but I doubt he will base his decision on a Politico word count.

  • eadie on June 30, 2011 1:58 PM:

    yYs, this is crap. OTOH, "New law not invalid" is not as newsworthy, because it doesn't lead to invalidating current law (status quo remains). More of a noteworthy mention in the other articles.

  • Zorro on June 30, 2011 2:02 PM:

    What bothers is is that the current SCOTUS has made it abundantly clear that precedent matters not a damn to them. Therefore, even if *every* lower court ruling finds in favor of the ACA, they're just as likely to find it unconstitutional when- not if- it makes it to that level.


  • stinger on June 30, 2011 11:18 PM:


    This, along with several later posts today, is a clear example of why I hope you are nominated for a Pulitzer.

    Actually, I've meant to make the same comment on several occasions!