As it emerges from the shadows, health care bill gets coverage it lacked

The Senate GOP health care bill explained
The Senate GOP health care bill explained

On Thursday, after Senate Republicans finally unveiled a health care bill that had been shrouded in secrecy, the legislation became something it hadn't been in weeks: a focus of the evening news.

ABC and NBC both led their nightly newscasts with coverage of the bill (CBS led with the latest news regarding President Trump's suggestion that he had tapes of his conversation with former FBI Director James Comey, but discussed health care later in the broadcast), ending a long period in which the issue was almost completely overshadowed.

The health care debate hadn't always been a peripheral story in Donald Trump's presidency.

From February through May, the nightly broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC devoted a total of 204 minutes to the effort in the House of Representatives to repeal and replace Obamacare, according to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the network news coverage. That was less time than the networks spent covering the alleged Russian election interference (238 minutes), but more time than given to the news of the investigation into and firing of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (135 minutes).

During those months when the networks were paying so much attention to Republicans' health care plans, public support for the GOP's proposals plummeted, support for Obamacare went up, and House Republicans suffered through a messy, embarrassing process conducted in full view of the public before finally passing their version of the legislation.

Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, appeared to learn a lesson from that, and took a different approach, crafting their version of the bill almost entirely behind closed doors. As they did so, network coverage of health care legislation dropped off precipitously. From May 8, four days after the House's bill passed, through June 16, there were just 10 minutes of coverage on the three nightly newscasts combined, according to Tyndall.

One explanation for the lack of coverage might simply be the incredible amount of other important news. The weeks following the House's passage of the health care bill brought a flurry of major stories -- chief among them Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey and the subsequent fallout, as well as further revelations regarding the investigation into Russia and the election.

Still, coming as it did during a general government trend away from transparency and accountability -- Trump's White House has cut back sharply on its on-camera press briefings, and even at times prohibited outlets from broadcasting audio of those briefings, for instance -- the drop-off in coverage has prompted a wave of media criticism and some questions within the press corps. If the government is keeping important business that once would have been public secret, how should the media respond? Does it have a responsibility to ensure that such issues don't fade from view?

Related: Why are these White House briefings heard but not seen?

"I do think the secrecy made it harder to cover, particularly for television," New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told CNN in an email. "Compare this to the coverage of the original health care legislation, where it seemed every detail, every nuance, every fact, was covered extensively and debated very openly. That's the way it is supposed to work, to my mind."

"But there are ways to combat it," he added. "The press can keep health care in the news by covering the debate in the states, talking to people who are lobbying on the Hill, and pushing hard to cover substantial issues that are playing out away from Congress."

A number of reporters from a wide variety of outlets, including the Times, the Washington Post, Axios, Politico, CNN, and others did break news on the substance of Senate Republicans' bill and the process behind it. But Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for the Washington Post, argues that the issue is as much about placement and focus, or the lack thereof, and believes that much of the news media is "playing right into [McConnell's] hands."

Sullivan wrote Wednesday that "TV news is particularly culpable" for the fact that, according to one recent poll, 76% of Americans say they haven't heard enough about the Senate GOP's health care plans. "The first and largest share of blame goes to Senate leadership," Sullivan said. "But too much of the mainstream news media comes in a regrettable second."

Brian Beutler, a writer for the liberal magazine New Republic, had a similar lament, writing that McConnell "didn't lock down the bill-writing process in order to block liberals from going over the bill with a fine-tooth comb."

"His chief insight was in recognizing a bias—not among liberals, but within the news industry—toward what you might call 'new news,'" Beutler wrote. "Things we didn't know before, but do know now."

Related: White House-media relations at breaking point as Spicer searches for replacement

But Christopher Isham, vice president and Washington bureau chief for CBS News, believes his network, for one, has covered the health care proceedings. In an interview with CNN, he noted that CBS News has run more than 40 pieces on health care this year on the evening and morning newscasts, and characterized the issue as "an ongoing debate."

"It's been a high priority for us going back to the Obama administration and continuing on to the current administration," Isham said. "That commitment remains robust."

Isham did acknowledge the difficulty of covering a bill being written in private, though.

"It obviously makes it harder for us, but we've continued to do reporting on it. We did a number of pieces on the process itself, raising questions about it. It's not the same as doing the reporting on the nuts and bolts of what's in the bill until it comes out. It's self-evident that it's more difficult to report on a bill if you don't know what's in it," he told CNN.

Like its broadcast counterparts, cable news has at times seen the amount of time it devoted to health care drop off amid the secrecy of the drafting process and the demands of other news.

A study conducted by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America found in the first two weeks of June, CNN's total coverage of the Senate health care deliberations in that time period (22 minutes and eight seconds) lagged well behind both Fox News (42 minutes and 15 seconds) and MSNBC (47 minutes and 53 seconds).

Baquet acknowledged that the murkiness of the bill-writing process has posed a problem to the Times, as well.

"I do think we have covered it pretty extensively," Baquet said. "But even our coverage has been hampered by the secrecy. It means fewer stories capturing the actual live debate. So yes, I think we would have published more and placed more on the front page if this was a public discussion."

Thursday provided another reminder of just how cramped the news cycle can get in the age of Trump. Early in the afternoon, coverage of the Senate health care bill gave way to a different development: Trump's declaration that he did not, despite his previous suggestions, have recordings of his conversations with Comey.

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