[Posted by Karl]
So close, Melinda Henneberger… and yet so far:
The beauty of the current birth-control conversation for Democrats is that they not only have public opinion on their side but have cannily managed to make contraception a front-burner election-year campaign issue — by complaining that Republicans are making it front-burner election-year campaign issue.
The answer, in other words, to the many who are wondering why the Republicans would want to ride such a losing pony is: They don’t.
When I looked back at a tape of what Republicans have been saying on the topic, what’s striking is how reluctant they are to go there.
First, a nit to pick: public opinion on these issues depends very much on the question asked. A poll taken for Planned Parenthood by the Democratic firm PPP might not be entirely representative. But that’s not the striking thing about Henneberger’s piece.
No, the striking thing is that for a piece claiming that Democrats are pushing this issue, there are only two identified: Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards and Sen. Patty Murray. What’s more, their quotes only date to last weekend.
However, Henneberger also notes that the kerfuffle over an old, hackneyed birth control joke by Santorum supporter Foster Friess was ignited by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and fanned by CBS’s Charlie Rose.
Henneberger does not report that the issue made its first big splash in the campaign back in January, when George Stephanopoulos bizarrely pressed Mitt Romney on the Griswold case during a debate in New Hampshire. An ABC official denied Stephanopolous had a heads-up about Pres. Obama’s coming HHS mandate forcing Catholic employers to pay for birth control (including abortifacients and sterilization). It was noted for context that ABC’s Jake Tapper pressed Santorum on the question of state birth control regulation a few days before the New Hampshire debate. Tapper asserted that “Democrats say” that one of the reasons Santorum lost in 2006 was because he’s more conservative than mainstream America, citing his position on contraception as an example.
Of course, Tapper did not say which “Democrats say” that. I ran various Google searches, both for the month prior to Tapper’s question, and then dating back to August 2011. The results suggest birth control was not a Democrat line of attack. On December 29, 2011, a few days before Tapper’s question, the issue was raised with Santorum by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and repeated by MSNBC’s First Read and The Atlantic Wire, without reference to it being a Democratic criticism. Previously, Santorum’s views on contraception were a one-day wonder, covered by the HuffPo (theoretically a media outlet) and ThinkProgress (theoretically a nonpartisan group), back on October 19, 2011.
In short, the record shows that birth control was not made a front-burner issue by the Democrat apparat — at least not openly. Rather, the issue has been pushed to the forefront by high-profile employees of NBC, ABC and CBS. And in reporting that “[t]he narrative that it’s conservatives who won’t stop talking about pills, sponges and contraceptive foam is probably set in stone at this point,” Henneberger cites a story in the Washington P0st, which employs her and is one of the most powerful media outlets in the country.
Although most of the people reading this are probably thinking that this is typical for the establishment media, I would note that Henneberger has disputed the existence of this sort of liberal bias to me personally via Twitter. Indeed, she cited as a counter-example the 2000 campaign coverage of Al Gore. That is a narrative pushed by Media Matters and its alumni, but not shared by the general public, perhaps because the public can discern the difference between the occasional personal bias regarding a particular candidate’s personality and systemic ideological bias regarding issues and parties. Thus, it is no surprise to me that Henneberger failed to recognize who actually put birth control on the front burner in this cycle, even as she documented it. Indeed, if Henneberger reads this, she will likely juxtapose it with Joan Walsh’s “critique” (which only establishes Santorum has a position on birth control, not that the entire GOP field set out to make it a big issue) and conclude she has the fair and balanced take on the question.
However, hope springs eternal. Accordingly, in the event Henneberger has a Google Alert set for her name, perhaps she will ask herself now how this phony, pro-Democrat narrative got set in stone by an establishment media ostensibly dedicated to accuracy. Is incompetence really that pervasive among the national press corps? Or might a certain type of political groupthink be a factor?