Study: Big Three Spin Religious Liberty Scandal as Political 'Firestorm'

February 16th, 2012 3:38 PM

When ABC, CBS, and NBC finally got around to covering -- after two weeks of silence -- the controversy over the Obama administration's mandate that religious institutions provide health insurance for abortifacients, sterilization, and birth control, the networks downplayed the religious freedom component to the story, casting it instead as a political dogfight between liberals and conservatives.

MRC analysts studied all 36 stories, interview segments and mentions of the HHS mandate story on the Big Three broadcast networks from January 30 through February 15. Out of the 91 talking heads who appeared as soundbites on their morning or evening programs (or a small number of guests on the morning shows), politicians far outnumbered Church officials, by a margin of 60 to 9.

On February 6, correspondent Chuck Todd emphasized on NBC Nightly News how "all of the [Republican presidential] candidates are hitting the Obama administration's decision to require all health insurance plans to cover birth control." Todd's report set the tone for the following week of coverage on the Big Three networks. Overall, NBC had the most severe talking head imbalance, with 25 coming from politicians of all stripes and only three from Catholic Church clergy or institution officials (over an 8 to 1 margin). The network had 13 total reports, briefs, and mentions of the story.

Both NBC and ABC failed to bring Catholic leadership onto their newscasts as guests. Instead, NBC turned to their in-house radical feminist, Rachel Maddow, on the February 7 edition of the Today show, who blasted the legitimate resistance to the mandate as a "pretty far-right perspective" and "an extension of anti-abortion politics." ABC also devoted the least amount of coverage to the controversy - seven total full stories and briefs. The network, however, had the lowest talking head imbalance - 10 politicians and two Church officials - but still, a 5 to 1 ratio.

Scott Pelley, CBS News Anchor | NewsBusters.orgCBS was the only network to actually bring on Catholic clergy as guests - Father Edward Beck, their faith and religion contributor, on the February 8 edition of CBS This Morning; and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was interviewed for over seven minutes the following morning. During their 15 reports, interviews, and mentions of the controversy, CBS had 25 talking heads to four Catholic Church clergy/officials, or just over a 6 to 1 imbalance.

The Big Three networks initially glossed over the controversy between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration, after they handed down their mandate on January 20. Until February 5, there was only one news brief about the story on their newscasts. By contrast, the outlets devoted an astonishing 13 stories over 60 hours to the face-off between abortion giant Planned Parenthood and the Komen foundation between February 1 and February 3. Clearly, these left-leaning networks are more than willing to come to the aid of their ideological fellow travelers, such as the Obama White House. Their campaign is trying hard to spin the religious liberty scandal as just a "divisive" issue in a presidential election year.

For the full Media Reality Check, visit