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November 09, 2011 8:35 AM How health care rulings are covered

By Steve Benen

Regular readers may recall an ongoing feature in which I compare 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 scant 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 hasn’t even been close. In every instance, conservative rulings received more coverage, longer articles, and better placement.

Now we have three federal appeals courts that have considered cases on the merits: the 6th Circuit ruled in support of the health care law in June; the 11th Circuit ruled against it in August; and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit backing the law yesterday. Keep in mind, yesterday’s ruling even offered an added hook: not only was this ruling seen as a precursor to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it also featured one of the federal judiciary’s most far-right judges siding with the Obama administration.

With that in mind, once again, let’s put the media coverage in context:

Washington Post
* DC Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A4, 758 words
* 11th Circuit ruling (against the ACA): article on page A1, 1059 words
* 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
* DC Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): article on page A14, 754 words
* 11th Circuit ruling (against the ACA): article on page A11, 615 words
* 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
* DC Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 469 words
* 11th Circuit ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 1354 words
* 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

Politico
* DC Circuit ruling (upholding the ACA): one piece, 710 words
* 11th Circuit ruling (against the ACA): one piece, 1099 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 trend, in other words, continues: conservative rulings receive more coverage, longer articles, and better placement, regardless of merit. The Washington Post continues to be the most one-sided — the three conservative rulings were all treated as front-page news, while the five rulings in support of the law were either buried or ignored.

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

One could argue, for example, that yesterday was a busy news day. That’s true, but it doesn’t explain the overall trend.

The better argument is that rulings upholding the law maintain the status quo, which almost by definition, makes them less noteworthy. This is not without merit, 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.

Comments

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  • c u n d gulag on November 09, 2011 8:45 AM:

    Our "Liberal" MSM!

    Getting played, as usual, by Conservatives.

    And isn't it a shame what's happened to the Washington Post?
    It wasn't too long ago that it was a "go-to" newspaper like the NY Times - which has its own problems.

    Now, the WaPo's getting down there with the Washington Times, the WSJ Op-ed pages, and the NY Post.

    It's still better than those papers, but it's rapidly heading to where it's not fit to wrap a dead fish in, because it's an insult to the intelligence of the dead fish.

    So, good job, Fred Hiatt!!!
    I mean that literally.
    I'm sure you're doing a good job for your Galtian keepers.

    This is why we can't have nice things.

  • EM on November 09, 2011 8:59 AM:

    What I find more amazing is that I was just on this site like 20 minutes ago reading a fresh post fron Benen. I come back here and he has this insanely intricate post up already. Is Benen human? Seriuosy, is there a better blogger anywhere? I don't know how he does it.

  • stormskies on November 09, 2011 9:01 AM:

    Gosh Steve you are not suggesting that their is a corporate agenda behind this are you ?

  • Danp on November 09, 2011 9:06 AM:

    ...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. - Greg Sargent

    This is my single biggest complaint about modern journalism. There is so much focus on polls of uninformed people, and vague discussions of congressional maneuvers, that the actual issues seldom get fully explained. With all due respect to Greg, who I read daily, he's more part of the problem than the solution. PA and Steve B, on the other hand, deserve great credit for offering depth to the issues.

  • Danp on November 09, 2011 9:08 AM:

    ...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. - Greg Sargent

    This is my single biggest complaint about modern journalism. There is so much focus on polls of uninformed people, and vague discussions of congressional maneuvers, that the actual issues seldom get fully explained. With all due respect to Greg, who I read daily, he's more part of the problem than the solution. PA and Steve B, on the other hand, deserve great credit for offering depth to the issues.

  • jim filyaw on November 09, 2011 9:10 AM:

    even more egregious was the hit piece on social security in the wapo last week. the weekly standard would have been embarrassed to run it. in case you've missed it, the wapo, that once eminent institution has quietly become the print version of fox news.

  • rikyrah on November 09, 2011 9:16 AM:

    please keep up with this. I appreciate you gathering the numbers like this.

  • T2 on November 09, 2011 9:27 AM:

    Certainly coverage is planned to slant the thing. If the SC overturns ACA, it will be Banner Headlines all around. But the game is being set so that if the SC upholds, nary a sound will be heard. This will be important for two reasons...the chances are increasing that it will be upheld, and the decision may come before the presidential election. IF those hold true, the Right will try as hard as they can to keep a lid on it so Obama won't benefit.

  • SadOldVet on November 09, 2011 9:34 AM:

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

    On the contrary, there is one extremely persuavive explanation.

    The Corporately Owned Media are continuing to perform their assigned roles as message amplifiers and echo chambers for repuknican messages!

    The Corporately Owned Washington Post has consistently provided platforms for repuke hacks supporting repuke politicians and denigrating The Obomination.

    The Corporately Owned NY Times forfeited any claims to objectivity when they became a lead cheerleader for Bush's wars.

    The Corporately Owned Associated Press has become another cheerleader of repuke positions and lead chastiser of democrap positions.

    When did Politico ever give the appearance of other that a promoter of the wealthy wing of the repuke party?

  • Kathryn on November 09, 2011 9:36 AM:

    Great post Steve, you should submit to editors of Washington Post. I just sent a letter protesting their prominent display of an inflammatory quote from a retired military voter in Virginia senate races. To quote " I think (Pres. Obama) is a rampant socialist, if not a communist. Everything he does is against America.". this was in italics on page 8 of WaPo.

    Will be surprised if letter is published but I had to try. As my son who served in Army in Iraq says, there is no more socialist organization than the United States Army, which was the point I made.

  • bob h on November 09, 2011 9:53 AM:

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

    The obvious explanation is the smug intra-Beltway political culture of the affluent punditry.

  • SW on November 09, 2011 9:54 AM:

    Dontcha know, it is news when a man bites a dog but not news when a dog bites a man.

    They learned that in journalismalism skool.

  • Redshift on November 09, 2011 9:58 AM:

    The better argument is that rulings upholding the law maintain the status quo, which almost by definition, makes them less noteworthy.

    This might have been a plausible explanation at one point, but it no longer is. Once there have been several rulings against the law, the status quo is no longer just "the law is in force," but "the law is disputed." In that context, rulings upholding the law now do challenge the status quo, and should receive equal coverage.

  • square1 on November 09, 2011 10:03 AM:

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

    Actually, there is an extremely plausible explanation for the discrepancy that has nothing to do with partisanship or ideology: Court decisions upholding laws are less newsworthy than court decisions striking down laws as unconstitutional.

    In fact, the less that you believe that a legal argument has merit -- and Benen has called these lawsuits "frivolous", though I question whether he understands what that means in a legal sense -- the more that a decision in favor of the plaintiffs is "man bites dog".

    This doesn't mean that the media doesn't have biases, partisan, ideological or something else. But it does mean that Benen's simplistic metric of measuring bias by column inches and placement is worthless in this case because you are comparing apples and oranges.

    Let me give you a fairly realistic hypothetical. Orly Taitz represented both herself and several other parties in multiple legal actions regarding the birther issue. She lost. Repeatedly. She was sanctioned by the court. Repeatedly. Taitz repeatedly made legitimately "frivolous" legal and factual claims.

    Although the media did cover the issue, the coverage was relatively minimal.

    Now if Taitz had actually won one of her cases, or even one of her motions, it would have been big news. But is anyone going to seriously argue that if a judge had insanely granted an injuction against the deployment of an army officer, on the ground that Obama had failed to prove that he was a natural-born citizen, that the media would have been biased in giving it front-page coverage and more column inches? Really?

  • jamie_2002 on November 09, 2011 10:07 AM:


    The problem is that the news organizations are burying the lede when the ACA isn't upheld.

    The story should be about politically motivated judges subverting the constitution, not the actual ruling. That is newsworthy, and should be on the front page.

  • Rich on November 09, 2011 10:08 AM:

    In faiurness, the Times gave the DC decision a more prominent web placement than the Post which buried it on their already too busy "front page".

  • Sanchit Kumar on November 09, 2011 2:05 PM:

    One could argue that most media actors believe there is little legal basis for the repeal of the PPACA, so a court ruling in favor of the ACA is 'expected' or 'straightforward' and is therefore not worthy of reporting, whereas a ruling against requires more explanation, as it requires a deeper understanding of the basis for the ruling. This may or may not explain why rulings against the ACA make it to the front page.

    This sort of resonates with what square1 says. I like to believe that the media is conscientious of how to deliver news that is valuable to their readers, and that they occasionally make mistakes. Judging by the other comments though, it would seem like most people lack trust in the editorial standards of these organizations.

  • Anonymous on November 09, 2011 3:24 PM:

    Quote: . "The Washington Post continues to be the most one-sided — the three conservative rulings were all treated as front-page news, while the five rulings in support of the law were either buried or ignored."

    The reality is they have to, if they want to sell papers in Virginia.

  • WordtypistWordtypist on November 09, 2011 8:03 PM:

    This continues the trend of the WP's move to the right.

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