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MRC Study: Network TV Buries ObamaCare’s Bad News

Unquestionably, ObamaCare is the central political issue of 2014. As the midterm election campaign moves forward, liberal politicians will have to justify their support for a program that has cost millions of individuals their insurance; will raise premiums for most small businesses; imposes hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes; and will cost, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the equivalent of two million jobs over the next three years.

But so far this year, the three network evening newscasts have minimized, spun or ignored every negative development about ObamaCare, while at the same time touting staged pro-ObamaCare publicity stunts, such as the President’s appearance on a Web-based comedy show in March.

A new study from the Media Research Center finds that long before the saga of the missing Malaysian jet commandeered the airwaves, ABC, CBS and NBC had apparently decided that ObamaCare was not a worthy topic for their evening newscasts. MRC analysts reviewed each newscast (including weekends) from January 1 through March 24, 2014. The review found just 29 stories that mentioned ObamaCare; 12 of those were full reports, while the other 17 were short items (under 30 seconds in length) read by the news anchor, or passing references to the health care law in longer political stories.

During this time, the NBC Nightly News aired just a single full report on ObamaCare — a largely celebratory piece on January 1 about the start of what fill-in anchor Lester Holt called “a new era in health care in this country.” Including that piece, Nightly News has only offered five minutes and five seconds of coverage of the health care law so far this year. For context, the total time of all news stories on the NBC Nightly News during the same period (excluding teasers and promos) is more than 24 hours, meaning NBC has spent barely one-third of one percent of its available evening news airtime talking about the health care law.

The other broadcast evening networks have hardly been more thorough. ABC’s World News has devoted just 6 minutes, 58 seconds to ObamaCare so far this year, while the CBS Evening News gave viewers 19 minutes, 21 seconds of coverage. Combined, that adds up to 31 minutes, 20 seconds, or approximately 0.72% of the total time devoted to news on the three evening broadcasts.

Bad news, such as lackluster enrollment statistics or new delays in key elements of the law, were usually given just a few seconds of coverage, according to the MRC study. Not one of the evening newscasts bothered to cover polls — even their own — showing the law’s continued unpopularity. And only one report (on CBS) profiled someone victimized by ObamaCare’s new rules, something ABC and NBC viewers have yet to hear about in 2014.

Details of what TV news has covered and what’s been skipped this year:

■ More than one-third of this year’s coverage (11 minutes, 18 seconds) came in just the first three days of 2014, when both ABC and NBC ran stories touting the official start of the new law. On January 2, ABC’s Jon Karl relayed the story of Maggie Fernandez, saying how “for her, the dawn of ObamaCare means better health coverage, money saved, and a chance to make her first doctor’s appointment in nearly a year.” The previous day, NBC correspondent Tom Costello told viewers about a satisfied ObamaCare customer, David Shevlino, who enthused: “This means a lot to people like us, being self-employed, being able to have access to a good health care plan.”

On CBS, however, their New Year’s week coverage was dominated by the religious freedom case against ObamaCare brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, with full reports on both the January 1 and January 3 Evening News. And on January 2, then-CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson uniquely brought viewers a full report casting doubt on one of ObamaCare’s selling points, as she detailed a study that found previously-uninsured individuals actually used emergency rooms more once they were enrolled in Medicaid, and showed “no measurable improvement in physical health, such as blood pressure or cholesterol.”

■ On January 13, only the CBS Evening News bothered to note the pessimistic enrollment statistics released that day — and then, only in a 19-second anchor brief read by anchor Scott Pelley: “Young adults, 18 to 34-years old, make up only 24% of the total so far. The system needs to sign up more young, healthy people — closer to 40% — to subsidize older, sicker Americans.” ABC’s World News and NBC Nightly News never reported this news, nor did they tell viewers about equally disappointing enrollment data released in February and March.

■ On February 4, both CBS and ABC offered full reports on a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showing the health care law would cost the economy the equivalent of two million full-time jobs. CBS anchor Scott Pelley adopted White House spin in framing his network’s coverage: “We got a report today about ObamaCare that was both surprising and widely misunderstood....Those aren’t necessarily jobs being lost. They’re also workers choosing to work less.”

ABC’s Jon Karl adopted the same spin: “The report actually says two million fewer people will choose to work full time — their choice, not because of a lack of jobs.” On NBC, the coverage of this report was limited to a 21-second item read by anchor Brian Williams, who echoed his colleagues: “The White House is cautioning, for its part, that those departures are more a result of workers’ flexibility to leave their jobs and still have health insurance.”

Putting aside the issue of “choice,” none of the networks bothered to question whether a reduction of two million jobs would be bad for the overall economy, nor did they pursue the obvious implication that fewer taxpaying workers would ultimately have to carry the burden of millions more individuals benefitting from government subsidies.

■ On February 8, the Saturday edition of the CBS Evening News ran the (so far) sole report profiling individuals harmed by ObamaCare’s rules. CBS correspondent Carter Evans told viewers about a four-year-old girl sent to Seattle Children’s Hospital by her family doctor, only to be told later that the hospital has been deemed “out of network” by the ObamaCare policy. Evans included a soundbite from one of the hospital’s doctors: “We’re seeing denials of care, disruptions in care. We’re seeing a great deal of confusion and, at times, anger and frustration on the part of these families who bought insurance thinking that their children were going to be covered, and they’ve, in fact, found that it’s a false promise.”

That was the only time in 2014 that the CBS Evening News has mentioned victims of ObamaCare’s rules, and the report was shunted to a weekend when news audiences are smaller. Yet that’s still better than ABC and NBC, who have aired zero such stories so far this year.

■ On February 10, only CBS ran a full report after the Obama administration’s decision to delay until January 1, 2016 the requirement that businesses provide health insurance coverage to their employees or face penalties. Anchor Scott Pelley framed it as “an election-year concession,” while correspondent Major Garrett stated that “in a midterm election year, the White House simply did not need any more health care headaches.”

That night, ABC and NBC downplayed the news, each giving the delay less than 30 seconds of coverage. The networks also showed no interest in exploring the legal doubts surrounding Obama’s unilateral changes to congressionally-passed legislation. As the Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes pointed out the next evening on FNC’s Special Report with Bret Baier, “Can you imagine if this were George W. Bush? I mean, we would be talking about a constitutional crisis, front-page New York Times splashed above the fold, ‘George W. Bush: Dictator President.’ You’re seeing none of that.” Indeed, the broadcast evening newscasts never suggested there was anything improper about the administration re-writing the law on its own.

■ On February 19, CBS uniquely ran a story about the low percentage of Hispanics signing up for ObamaCare. “Health experts blame the language barrier, fears about immigration status, and access to a computer,” correspondent Ben Tracy explained. But he also found a Hispanic woman who was eagerly signing up. “I’ve been ready to make the payment since over a week ago,” Nora Castellano told the CBS reporter.

“Castellano got help enrolling at this clinic in Pasadena,” Tracy cheered. “Assistance efforts like this helped Covered California sign up 45,000 Latinos in January. Their goal is to enroll another 145,000 by March 31.” Neither ABC nor NBC made any mention on their evening newscasts about the problem of fewer-than-expected Hispanics enrolling in ObamaCare.

■ On March 5, ABC and NBC spent less than 30 seconds each on another unilateral administration re-write of the health care law, this time to permit individuals to keep policies that the White House once derided as “shoddy” insurance plans, i.e., those that failed to include the laundry list of new ObamaCare mandates. Over on CBS, the Evening News entirely skipped this development.

NBC’s Brian Williams framed it as Obama keeping a promise: “And about that promise by the President, ‘if you like your health care plan, you can keep it,’ the White House announced late today that some will now be able to keep their plans for another two years before they have to meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act.” Once again, none of the networks suggested there was any doubt about Obama’s legal authority to make such a change.

■ But on March 11, all three networks found time to cover the President’s pitch for ObamaCare delivered on a Web comedy show, Between Two Ferns, hosted by comic Zach Galifianakis, with full stories on both ABC and CBS and a brief on NBC. On ABC’s World News, anchor Diane Sawyer suggested a Profiles in Courage moment, calling the President’s appearance on the show a “bold move on the battle over ObamaCare,” with Obama putting his “dignity on the line.”

Both CBS and NBC hailed the interview as a success. CBS’s Scott Pelley said “it worked. The video became the number one reason people visited HealthCare.gov today,” while NBC’s Brian Williams marveled how “inquiries to the now-functional Web site spiked today.” ABC’s correspondent Jon Karl provided numbers that suggested a less-impressive result: “By midday, more than six million people had watched the video, and 19,000 of them had gone directly to HealthCare.gov,” or less than one-third of one percent of those who watched.

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The evening newscasts skipped other ObamaCare headlines this year. For example:

■ On February 21, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, issued a report predicting that 65% of small businesses would see their health insurance premiums rise under ObamaCare’s new rules. That bit of bad news was ignored by all three evening newscasts.

■ On February 26, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lashed out at victims who dared to criticize the law: “There’s plenty of horror stories being told. All of them are untrue. But those tales turned out to be just that. Tales. Stories made up from whole cloth. Lies distorted by Republicans to grab headlines or make political advertisements.” None of the networks mentioned Reid’s rant, let alone spent any time correcting his falsehoods.

■ Polls showing the continued opposition of the American people to this law were never once mentioned in 2014, even when they were conducted by the broadcast networks themselves. In early March, for example, NBC’s pollsters found 49% of adults opposed ObamaCare, vs. 35% who supported it. But NBC Nightly News would not even report on its own poll.

■ And on March 12, the evening after pro-ObamaCare Democrat Alex Sink lost a bellweather congressional election in Florida, none of the broadcast networks mentioned on their nightly newscasts. But a day earlier, before the results were known, CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes told her Evening News audience that “both parties see this race as a referendum on the President’s health care law.”

Four years ago, the broadcast networks cheered the passage of the health care law. Their philosophy now seems to be, if you can’t say anything good about ObamaCare, don’t say anything at all.

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.