Catching up on an item from Friday night, the three broadcast evening newscasts aired virtually nothing on January 23 about President Obama’s executive order permitting federal funding of abortions, overturning orders signed by President Bush in his first week in office back in 2001. Both CBS and NBC’s White House reporters squeezed in a single sentence about Obama’s action during stories about the economic stimulus bill, while ABC’s World News said nothing about the orders on Friday.
But on Sunday’s World News, ABC’s Dan Harris highlighted conservative criticism of Obama’s abortion decision, arguing that it showed how “despite his desire to reach out to people who disagree with him, the new President may find that on some issues, it may be impossible to find common ground.” Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi also painted the President -- whom she said hoped “not to provoke” conservatives by banning photographs of the signing -- the victim of a “brutal” reaction from conservatives:
At churches across the country, the good will coming from the pulpit to the President seems to be wavering....On Friday, the President signed an executive order, reversing the ban on federal funding for international organizations that facilitate abortions in other countries. The President didn't allow cameras to film the signing, hoping not to provoke anti-abortion groups....It didn't work. Reaction was fast and brutal. Family groups accused Obama of plotting the infanticide of African children. And the Christian faithful say they're now losing faith in Obama.
Eight years ago, however, the burden was all on George W. Bush when he revoked Bill Clinton’s executive orders permitting federal funds to go to abortions. Highlights from the January 22, 2001 evening newscasts, which cast the news as a controversy needlessly instigated by Bush to appeal to his right-wing base (no one this week suggested Obama was appealing to his left-wing base with his abortion orders):
ABC’s Terry Moran: “One of the President’s first actions was designed to appeal to anti-abortion conservatives. The President signed an order re-instating a Reagan-era policy that prohibited federal funding of family planning groups that provided abortion counseling services overseas. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was peppered with questions about the order at his first daily briefing."
CBS’s John Roberts: “The President waded into controversy on his first day. In a nod to anti-abortion groups on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he announced he’ll cut federal funding to organizations that provide family planning and abortion counseling overseas. Abortion rights activists fear there’s more to come.”
NBC’s Tom Brokaw: “We’ll begin with the new President’s very active day, which started on a controversial note....”
Reporter David Gregory: "On his first day of official business Bush decides to send his strongest message on the issue of abortion. 28 years to the day since the Roe v Wade decision legalized abortion, Bush today issues an executive order banning federal funding for international groups that offer abortions or abortion counseling abroad, a ban President Clinton had lifted."
For more on how the networks handled Bush’s executive orders, and how their approach contrasted with their coverage of Bill Clinton in 1993, see the January 23, 2001 CyberAlert.
Here’s how CBS and NBC covered Obama’s abortion orders on their Friday, January 23 evening newscasts:
CBS’s Chip Reid: “Meanwhile, the president overturned yet another Bush administration policy today by executive order, this one on abortion, ending the ban on federal funding for international organizations that perform the procedure or do abortion counseling. But Mr. Obama continued another controversial Bush administration policy, allowing two missile strikes inside Pakistan that killed at least one al-Qaeda operative.”
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie: “One other note from here tonight, Brian, late this afternoon the president signed an order ending the ban on federal funding to international organizations that provide abortion services or abortion counseling. Brian, back to you.”
And while ABC’s World News failed to mention the abortion matter on Friday, World News Sunday offered an entire segment about how conservatives were lambasting Obama’s new policy:
DAN HARRIS: President Obama has another big fight on his hands, this one with social conservatives. Despite his desire to reach out to people who disagree with him, the new President may find that on some issues, it may be impossible to find common ground. Here's ABC's Sharyn Alfonsi.
SHARYN ALFONSI: At churches across the country, the good will coming from the pulpit to the President seems to be wavering.
LOS ANGELES ARCHBISHOP ROGER CARDINAL MAHONY: He is not on the same page as we are.
ALFONSI: The issue? Abortion. The Vatican condemned the President's policy today, calling it disappointing. On Friday, the President signed an executive order, reversing the ban on federal funding for international organizations that facilitate abortions in other countries. The President didn't allow cameras to film the signing, hoping not to provoke anti-abortion groups.
PROTESTERS: Pro-life remains a lie. You don't care if women die.
ALFONSI: It didn't work. Reaction was fast and brutal. Family groups accused Obama of plotting the infanticide of African children. And the Christian faithful say they're now losing faith in Obama.
TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I think that to the degree that the President and his administration departs from the focus on the economy and becomes entangled in these social policy issues, which he does not have consensus and support from, from the majority of Americans, I think he runs the risk of derailing his administration.
ALFONSI: Earlier this week, a decision by the FDA to approve the first human trials of embryonic stem cells intensified the divide. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. Some conservatives are angry Obama's economic stimulus plan contains funding for contraceptives.
POLITICAL ANALYST DOUG MUZZIO: The religious right is not going away. They're going, you know, the issues are abortion, stem cells, a whole series of issues. They are going to oppose a lot of what Obama said he wants to do.
ALFONSI: And the President may upset some more people in the days ahead. He is expected to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research as early as this week. And proving he's not afraid of a fight, the President told Republicans this week they should stop listening to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh or risk a new culture war with conservative voters. Dan?
HARRIS: I know there are those who would say the culture wars never ended. Sharyn Alfonsi, thank you very much.