Early Wednesday, 52 headlines on CNN’s homepage covered everything from a special election in Georgia to “More ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ fallout.”
Not one mentioned the Senate’s health-care bill. Nothing shouted the distressing idea that 23 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance. Nothing screamed that the Senate will probably vote on — and approve — the legislation next week, even though it’s being worked on behind closed doors, hidden from the public, from experts and from Democratic lawmakers.
CNN is not alone. At 7 a.m. Wednesday, USA Today’s homepage covered this crucial topic only in an opinion piece; not in a single news story, and with nothing on the front page of its print edition. On Fox News Channel’s homepage, the health news section pondered, “Does Werewolf Syndrome really exist?” but there was no mention of the Senate bill.
And in the first two weeks of June, according to a study, the three broadcast news networks gave the subject a combined three minutes of attention.
It’s no surprise that a new CBS poll reported that 3 in 4 Americans don’t know what’s in the bill, and want to know a lot more.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants it that way. Under pressure to keep a promise to voters to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, he’s keeping the measure under tight wraps. A “discussion draft” may come this week, he has suggested, and a final vote next week.
And the news media — with some notable exceptions — is playing right into his hands.
TV news is particularly culpable, especially considering that most Americans, even in the digital age, still get their news on television.
“The secret strategy is working,” said Jeremy Slevin, an anti-poverty advocate with the Center for American Progress, who has been tracking the news coverage daily.
“It’s not that there’s zero coverage, but it tends to be buried.”
Slevin thinks that’s terrible — but he also understands why it’s happening. As a former cable news producer, he knows that the story doesn’t lend itself to visual coverage.
“There aren’t any images to show, so TV news particularly has nothing to cover,” Slevin told me. There are no hearings, no markups, no sound bites, and therefore nothing to focus on.
But Slevin thinks it’s “possible and necessary” for TV outlets to do stories anyway — it just takes more thought and creativity.
After weeks of extreme quiet, there are signs that TV news is waking to the challenge, although it may be too late.
Lester Holt led his Tuesday evening news broadcast, for example, with images that may have struck some as a stunt — Democratic lawmakers shown walking on Capitol Hill, supposedly in search of the elusive bill.
But stunt or not, it gave NBC’s reporting team an opportunity to report on what’s known of the bill and how quickly the vote is approaching.
One result of the lack of intense coverage is difficulty mobilizing citizen resistance to the measure, wrote congressional reporter Jeff Stein of Vox, who has been keeping the pressure on. In one recent story, he quoted a New Orleans organizer, Joyce Vansean, talking about the difficulty of getting people motivated when so little is known.
“It’s like trying to tackle a football player made of air,” Vansean said. “How do you do that without falling on your face?”
Among cable news outlets, MSNBC has paid the most attention to the secrecy around the bill.
Major print-based news organizations are tracking the bill regularly. The Washington Post and the New York Times both had front-page stories in Wednesday’s print editions and have covered the story almost daily. The Times’ story received only a tiny subheadline on the morning home page, despite its prominent print placement.
Outlets that specialize in government news, such as Politico and the Hill, have followed the story closely but their audiences tend to be inside the Beltway. (And later Wednesday, CNN added a homepage headline on the politics of the vote, pegged to the results of the special election in Georgia: “Republicans jittery about health care breathe sigh of relief.” The network did a fuller story early in the week.)
Vast swaths of American citizens, though, remain in the dark.
“I seriously doubt that most people know the Senate is planning on passing this next week, or what might be the effect on their lives,” Slevin told me.
He’s right. The first and largest share of blame goes to Senate leadership. But too much of the mainstream news media comes in a regrettable second.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan