Prophylactic News Coverage

In case you haven’t heard, the Catholic church is taking the Obama administration to court. That’s something you should have heard, given its rather extraordinary noteworthiness, but if you rely on the network news organization it might very well have escaped your attention.

When more than a dozen Catholic archbishops, the University of Notre Dame, Catholic University of America, Catholic Charities, and 40 other Catholic institutions filed a suit last week against the Department of Health and Human Services over a ruling that their insurance providers must cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, the three major over-the-air newscasters all but ignored the story. The eagle-eyed observers at the venerable Media Research Center found that ABC’s “World News” and NBC’s “Nightly News” made no mention of the story whatsoever, while CBS’ “Evening News” devoted all of 19 seconds to the matter. Although CBS deserves some credit for at least a brief mention of the lawsuit it report could hardly have done the story justice, as it takes much of 19 seconds just to say contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

News judgments are vexingly subjective, and always dependent on what else happened on a given day, but it’s hard to find any of the usual journalistic explanations for this omission. A legal conflict between one of the world’s major religions — that would be the Catholics, not the Obama administration — and a president is clearly of importance, and not just to the significant number of Americans who are Catholic. All people of faith, including the Rabbinical Council of America, have a stake in the case, and anyone who holds opinions contrary to those of the Obama administration does as well.

Nor can the networks convincingly argue that they had more important things to cover. On the day the lawsuit was filed NBC found time to cover a solar eclipse that was visible only in a few parts of the world, and would have no discernible effect on future events, and ABC devoted three minutes and 30 seconds to the sentencing of a Rutgers student who had spied on a homosexual roommate. If anything else of greater importance than the lawsuit had happened that day, we’ve already forgotten about it.

One possible explanation for the network’s decision to ignore the lawsuit, which will seem plausible enough to the rationally paranoid conservative, is that they are devoted to helping the president and don’t believe the story will improve his political fortunes. We believe they are correct in this assessment, and ardently hope so, but we don’t expect they’ll succeed in keeping a majority of the public in the dark about the lawsuit. The networks all covered the administration’s contraception mandate with great enthusiasm back when the Obama campaign thought it had a winning issue, and there’s bound to be some lingering public interest in how that story plays out.

— Bud Norman