Earlier in February, The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen argued that while court decisions on health care reform were roughly equal--two federal judges had struck down the requirement in President Obama's health care law that most Americans obtain health insurance and two had upheld the provision's constitutionality--you might not realize that from reading the news. "It seems," he said, "as if the media largely ignored court rulings that bolstered the arguments of health care reform proponents, while making a very big deal about rulings celebrated by conservatives."
To test his theory, Benen compared the number of words that four major media outlets--The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and Politico--used in covering each of the four rulings, and found that each source had devoted substantially more ink (or pixels) to those rulings that deemed health care reform unconstitutional.
Well, on Tuesday evening, Gladys Kessler in Washington, D.C. became the third federal judge to reject a constitutional challenge to Obama's Affordable Care Act, once again raising the question of media attention. Ezra Klein noted, for example, that the Kessler ruling isn't appearing on the homepages of major newspapers on Wednesday. What if we apply Benen's word-count test? We've broken down Benen's numbers for the first four rulings and the Wire's calculation for the Kessler case (in bold) below. A note on the numbers: The Washington Post appears to be running the AP's coverage of the ruling, while the Politico article we counted makes only a passing reference to the Kessler decision as part of a broader discussion about how the Supreme Court will ultimately decide health care reform's constitutionality in 2012.
The numbers appear to bolster Benen's thesis. But, of course, there are numerous ways to challenge Benen's methodology. Did he pick representative sources? Is word count the best measure of media attention? How has the news cycle--big stories like the Middle East uprisings, for instance, or slow news days--affected coverage of the rulings? Furthermore, in an age in which a news outlet's coverage of a story is scattered across its website rather than encapsulated in one definitive print news story, what constitutes coverage? (For example, should we be counting Ben Smith's blog post about the ruling on Politico website, or Klein's post on the Post's website?)
And then there's the larger question: If there is indeed a discrepancy in coverage, is the media displaying an ideological bias? Or is it simply responding to the fact that challenging an existing law is more newsworthy than upholding it?
Klein thinks we can attribute the discrepancy to newsworthiness, but he says it's still a "gift to the opponents of the legislation" because "a typical consumer of news probably does not realize that the balance of the courts, at this point, have ruled the law constitutional."
In a response to Benen's initial analysis, the Post's Greg Sargent took Klein's argument one step further:
If people have an exaggerated sense of the law's alleged unconstitutionality, it could contribute to the law's unpopularity, which could in turn make the push for partial repeal or defunding of the law easier. That in turn could make it more likely that the law's implementation could grow more chaotic. That could impact real people, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that it could impact the law's fate before the highest court.