"Real consequences for real people."
Since October 1, when the government shutdown began, the media have run dozens upon dozens of stories about victims of the shutdown. Over the same period of time, the media have run virtually no stories about businesses suffering thanks to Obamacare, low-income people victimized by the new Obamacare tax, and economic chaos thanks to the impact of Obamacare. That’s particularly ridiculous given that with the furloughed federal workers soon to be back at their desks and paid for their furloughed time, the number of people seriously hurt by the government shutdown is minute, as opposed to the widespread damage from Obamacare.
The Washington Post was a key offender in its bias. Between October 1 and October 16, the Washington Post website published over 220 stories both from its own writers and the wires focusing on the supposedly horrible effects of the government shutdown. Most obviously, the Post ran a story declaring, simply, “Government shutdown generates stories of misery around the country.” But when it came to the implementation of Obamacare, though the Post ran more than 80 stories, many of them on failures of the Obamacare website, it apparently ran a grand total of 3 that focused mainly on the individuals and small businesses victimized by Obamacare itself.
The three articles openly criticizing Obamacare by focusing on victims included one about a veterinarian paying more for equipment thanks to the medical device tax, one about a local utility saying that coverage would be dropped, and one quoting a “Rush Limbaugh fan.” That was it.
There were a few occasional pieces pointing out structural flaws in Obamacare (generally the call from the Post was to rectify those flaws by extending more federal dollars), but those were few and far between. There were several op-eds against Obamacare, but the Post ran more pieces about the potential glories of Obamacare: “The myth about job-killing Obamacare,” “Obamacare saved my family from financial ruin,” a piece about a person happy to sit for hours at the failed Obamacare website to purchase insurance, young people looking forward to the exchanges, and op-eds proclaiming that the American people are dying for Obamacare.
The forty or so articles about the Obamacare rollout were generally negative – that is, except for the fact that the rollout was largely faulty, according to multiple articles in the Post, thanks to overdemand, and once fixed, buying Obamacare would be “pretty easy!” And, hey, in the end, “Google will make you immortal (and Obamacare will pay for it),” the Post reported. As for small business concerns, those were based on myths.
The Post was not nearly as sanguine about the shutdown. The Post made sure to cover that alleged misery in gory detail. There were dozens of stories lamenting the fate of furloughed federal workers. They came in all shapes and sizes, including stories about
- how to keep federal workers engaged once they get back on the job;
- how federal workers should dress while looking for other jobs;
- a local NASA drama club was keeping furloughed workers entertained by participating in a production of Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods (this topic drew a video and a writeup);
- furloughed employees searching for sherry and soap on Google, as well as local happy hours;
- furloughed workers attending free knitting classes to pass the time;
- furloughed workers being tempted to use their federally-issued BlackBerrys;
- furloughed workers attending comedy shows;
- a furlough café.
The most amusing piece was certainly one from spouses of federal workers asking for the government to take them back to get them out of the house (“Take them back – please!”).
There were myriad generalized stories about how the shutdown would inevitably doom the American economy. The economy of Washington D.C. came in for heavy coverage; small business, too, was said to be on the rocks thanks to the shutdown (including auto sales, crab fishermen, pawn shops, Silicon Valley start-ups, craft brewers, and food trucks). Ford’s Theater took it on the chin. National parks closed. Contractors were suddenly victims, as opposed to the more usual representatives of the military industrial complex. Education fell victim to the shutdown. So, of course, did veterans and tourists. Even lottery winners had to wait for their winnings, the Post reported. The White House’s magical organic garden, too, became a victim of the shutdown (“Weeds have sprouted. Sweet potatoes are unpicked,” the Post lamented). Museums closed. Children couldn’t go to the Zoo. The weather was even affected. But, the Post reported, the stink bug remained at the mercy of the neutered federal government.
There were several pictorial depictions of the utter misery of the American population over the government shutdown. There were old people being screwed out of their Social Security; investigations into plane accidents and the deaths of civil rights leaders being abandoned; court cases going unprocessed; operas going unsung. Youth lacrosse faced the chopping block, as did some charities. Cancer patients faced death thanks to the shutdown, reported the Post. Weddings faced location changes.
Just in case readers didn’t get the point, the Post ran explanatory articles illustrating “8 immoral ways the government shutdown is hurting the needy,” “15 ways the Federal shutdown is hampering the National Weather Service,” “Nine ways the shutdown is only going to get worse,” “10 ways the shutdown is dangerous,” “Nine painful effects of a shutdown,” “10 ways the shutdown will affect your daily life,” and “The government shutdown – in 9 images.” There were how-to articles on what to do with free time during the shutdown, feeding your family during a furlough, hooking up on Craigslist during a shutdown, and, of course, shutdown shopping.
There were personal accounts of losing Head Start and being furloughed and moving from the White House to bartending; the government shutdown was “told in food”; somehow, even a frozen eagle became the subject of a shutdown story.
So, how did The New York Times stack up in its coverage of victims of the government shutdown versus victims of Obamacare? It ran well over 80 stories about victims of the government shutdown, ranging from general takes on the economic situation to lamentations about a new FEMA employee losing her job; from automakers taking a hit to Native Americans suffering; from foreign policy to restaurants; from a Tyrannosaurus Rex not entering a museum to furloughed employees having shutdown parties.
The Times ran zero stories about those negatively affected by Obamacare itself. It ran a story on old people being confused by the Obamacare exchanges; it ran several stories on its technological drawbacks; it ran a few stories on drafting errors (to be expected, and generally correctible, said the Times). But the Times ran a slew of Paul Krugman odes to Obamacare, several pieces talking about how small business benefitted from Obamacare, or at least had little impact on jobs.
The story was the same on television. From October 1 to October 15, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer spent approximately 21 minutes over the course of eight broadcasts covering stories of the shutdown and its effects on victims. Over the course of the same period, ABC News covered Obamacare twice, and then only to point out website difficulties quickly but praise Obamacare overall. On October 1, for example, a reporter stated, “When Vanessa previously shopped around for her family of four, she was quoted $2,000 a month. Today she found a plan for just $427!” That same night, ABC News quoted different Americans complaining about the shutdown: “I live from paycheck to paycheck unfortunately.” “These are real people's lives being affected and ruined.” “I'm getting tired of feeling like a ping-pong ball.”
There were no stories of victims of Obamacare in that entire period.
Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News was no better. From October 1 to October 16, the program spent over 30 minutes discussing victims of the government shutdown. Victims included a former Navy diver (“if it wasn't for the check, we'd lose everything”), furloughed federal workers (“yeah, that will put us behind, it will put us very behind as far as trying to catch up with bills”), and local restaurant workers near federal centers (“it was rough, last week was rough, I had a day where I made like $9 total”). All Obamacare coverage was relegated to discussion of website glitches, but no actual victims of Obamacare were shown (all victims were people in need of healthcare whom Obamacare would help once the glitches were ironed out).
How about CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley? Aside from segments about the Obamacare glitches (which, again, underscored the idea that people need Obamacare but were having trouble obtaining it, and took about nine minutes of total airtime), there were no stories about victims of Obamacare. There was a two minute segment about evil Republican governors who hadn’t expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, however.
CBS rolled out approximately 27 minutes worth of stories on government shutdown victims, including frustrated federal workers complaining about not being paid, lack of military death benefits (“New casualties of this battle, the families of Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice”), and even the owner of a Joshua Tree store suffering from the parks shutdown (“closing the parks now would be like closing the malls at Christmas”).
“Real consequences for real people,” intoned anchor Pelley on October 7.
Overall, the Washington Post and New York Times covered victims of the government shutdown over victims of Obamacare by a margin of 100 to 1; ABC, NBC, and CBS News all covered victims of the government shutdown over victims of Obamacare by a margin of over 78 minutes to zero.
Jeremy Boreing, Paul Bois, and Yehuda Remer contributed to this piece.