The Media on Stupak-Pitts: Theatrical, Not Factual


Was this weekend’s health-care vote a showdown
between powerful factions, a battle of spin and influence, a referendum on a
new leader and a test of political capital?

Or was it also a period during which legislators hammered out actual laws
potentially altering millions of Americans’ lives–and women’s in particular?

Judging from the presentation by much of the mainstream media, one would guess
only the former. In the midst of foaming at the mouth at the political give-and-take
involved in health care reform, many of our nation’s prominent pundits
neglected to properly inform the public that Stupak’s language allowed for a
major incursion into women’s rights. They may have even relished the loss
represented by Stupak-Pitts, because it made for a tense and gripping narrative
that tempered the progressive victory of the legislation’s passage.

The success of the vile Stupak-Pitts amendment can be attributed to several
causes, many of which are documented on this site.  But one important
factor in the problem is the stalwart refusal of our corporate-funded political
media to spend much energy analyzing the ramifications of policy on real
Americans, instead focusing on personalities, juicy ideological battles, and
so-called "political capital." Overarching all of those topics, the
media’s primary obsession is on certain repeated narratives of victory and
defeat, based on preconceived notions about liberals (weak, overly empathetic,
willing to compromise), conservatives (moral, pragmatic, staunch) and the way
politics works. To actually learn the details of the bill and various proposed
amendments last week, the public would have had to do some digging. But to find
out whether Nancy Pelosi seemed powerful and how Obama’s statement has affected
congress’s mood, just flip on any channel (except, of course, for MSNBC when
Rachel Maddow is on–she’s part of the exception, one of a few sane voices.)

Today’s reporting creed equates objectivity with a bizarre "balance":
giving two sides of a contentious issue equal space and not fact-checking
either. It’s a particularly noxious M.O. for coverage of abortion. Based on
media coverage alone, one could easily forget that abortion is a legal,
protected medical procedure undergone by a large percentage of American woman.
Instead, reporters treat it as the "political football" with which
Congressman Jerrod Nadler angrily accused
conservatives
of playing.
Pundits apply the same "football" mentality to issues like gay
rights, poverty and immigration, ignoring the human crises beneath the
rhetoric.

When I switched from C-SPAN to CNN on Saturday night, the network’s weekend anchors
looked somewhat bewildered and baffled as they narrated the vote that was
occurring. Not to pick on CNN’s Saturday-night team, but I immediately thought
they were confused because they’re not used to actually talking about the
details of policy. Instead, pundits are accustomed to parroting ridiculous
notions about which way the wind is
blowing
,creating a
powerful, self-satisfied echo chamber. Just last week, political journalists
were absolutely entranced by two gubernatorial elections as somehow
representing the tenor of the entire country. Much of the time spent on these
races could have been spent telling Americans what exactly was at stake in the
health care vote.

For this reason, many liberal-leaning and pro-choice TV watchers and newspaper
readers woke up on Sunday morning thinking that Stupak was no worse than Hyde.
They had been focused on the drama of the bill playing out in the media, and
therefore saw the anti-abortion amendment as a tough concession that didn’t
much alter the status quo. Only as more information, much of it coming from
feminists, began to circulate did media outlets begin to pick apart the actual
language of the bill, realizing too late that Stupak potentially goes much,
much further than Hyde. Oops.

Blogger Digby writes about how the blow
of the Stupak-Pitts amendment is part of a dominant narrative among the
Washington elite–a "village" of politicians, lobbyists, and media:

Any legislation
such as health care reform must therefore be tempered by a liberal sacrifice,
something real, a principle that will make them hate themselves and loathe each
other for having done it. It cannot be a clean victory, lest they come to
believe they can do more. In the end, the "moral" must always be that
you cannot go too far left.


In another post, Digby also calls Stupak-Pitts "an object lesson to
liberals, particularly women, for getting too uppity." She’s right:
another reason the still largely white, establishment and male Washington press
corps wasn’t appalled by Stupak-Pitts? They see women as a special-interest
group.

This weekend’s narrative of gain and loss by liberals makes for good,
theatrical storytelling. But more importantly, it placates a media which is
conservative with a small "c"–interested in keeping things just as
they are, interested in a Washington whose power balance they  understand.
And what they understand, as Digby said, is that liberals can’t just win and
"compromise" always comes in the form of a "bargaining-chip"
loss for a disenfranchised demographic who reliably votes Democratic.

If more people had known in advance about the dangers of Stupak Pitts, at the
very least, we might have had a less stunned public on Sunday morning. And if
the political media treated abortion as a medical procedure as well as a
political issue, we might not have gone down this road in the first place. Once
again, much of our media fell down on the job.

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  • emily-douglas

    Hi Sarah, this is really great–one thing I noticed consistently was media outlets referring to Stupak as a setback for “women’s rights advocates” instead of “women,” as if the bill could only be understood via political scorecard, not actual impact.