Contraception mandate: MSM stuck in “narrative capture”?

On retrieving my paper copy of the Wall Street Journal this morning, I saw the discouraging headline:

Obama Retreats on Contraception

My first thought was, “Surely the Journal knows better than this.  Why would they headline this story as if Obama had, in fact, backed off on the mandate?  What are they, USA Today?”


The headline doesn’t reflect reality.

As Ed Morrissey pointed out yesterday, Obama has merely shifted the basis for the mandate.  The insurance companies – I use that term loosely – will be required to provide “free” contraception services to the insured who work for Catholic employers.  This means that the premiums paid by Catholic employers will fund contraception services.  And the overall mandate to purchase the insurance will continue.

I expected better of WSJ.  I expect the editors to recognize the significance of distinctions like this, and refrain from using headlines that bolster a counterfactual narrative.  Obama has not retreated.  He has moved laterally and reset the defenses for the same strategic position.

And in fact, he has done more than that.  I referred above to using the term “insurance companies” loosely, because Obama has just made crystal clear that “insurance” is not what we will be paying for under ObamaCare.  With actual “insurance,” the insured cannot expect to line up for “free” goodies mandated – arbitrarily, and at any time – by the government.  An insurance contract is finite and specific.  The insured pays a premium; the insurer makes defined pay-outs in the case of a contingency.  In most cases, for the average person, the contingency is a major personal setback of some kind:  an auto accident, the house burning down, being diagnosed with cancer.


If the federal government can step in and arbitrarily require a company to provide things for “free” that were previously elective, premium-based services, then it is no longer an insurance company.  We are not buying insurance from it; we are simply participating in a mandatory government program whose features can be changed at any time, regardless of what we or the “insurers” want.  There is no contract.  There are only the one-sided decisions of bureaucrats and future presidents.

This Obama move is the opposite of a retreat.  It’s a decision to reveal the future to us, and to insist on remaining on course for it.

Yet on their news pages (as opposed to the opinion pages), the mainstream media are stuck in the old mode of interpreting political events in a single dimension, as if all other things remain equal, and a rhetorical “retreat” from a president means the same thing it usually has in the past.  We see this in numerous aspects of their coverage.  They keep putting out stories in the same old narrative ruts, as if we have a business-as-usual political situation.  The president’s people say he has changed his mind on the contraception mandate; in the shallowest of political terms, that can be seen as a “retreat”; and no care is taken to frame the overriding reality that Catholic employers will be required to pay for “insurance” programs that distribute contraception to their employees.


That is not a change of heart, it’s a significant broadening of the state’s control, undertaken at the drop of a hat – and we have a huge mainstream media apparatus that simply does not frame what’s going on in realistic terms.  The clear implications of the Obama decision were widely discussed across the conservative blogosphere yesterday, and even on some MSM opinion pages.  But in their news reporting, the MSM characterized what had happened – falsely – as a retreat by the president.

Are they idiots?  Are they all “in the tank” for Obama?  It may feel good to excoriate them in these terms, but I see it differently in the case of at least some of the MSM.  There is no doubt that a significant segment of the MSM has the same peculiar worldview as Obama and his advisors, and takes care to frame everything in the terms of that worldview.  But that doesn’t necessarily explain the behavior of the entire MSM.

Please note:  I am speaking here of how “straight news” is framed in the news pages or broadcasts.  Various opinions may be expressed on the editorial pages, but it matters greatly how the MSM attempt to reflect reality, which is what we all tacitly accept they are doing in “straight news” reporting.  This reporting comes, over time, to write the narratives in our heads about what is going on in the world.  And I have never seen reality so reflexively misinterpreted in the retailing of “news.”


What I perceive is a sort of “capture”: the MSM being stuck in a retrograde narrative about American political conditions that no longer obtains.  We are not in the old political conditions today.  We have not had a federal budget for more than 1,000 days.  That’s extremely abnormal.  The 2010 election was a large-scale repudiation of the sitting president and his policies, but the new Congress is gridlocked, unable to exercise its proper role in the separation of powers.  President Obama, besides presiding over a network of executive agencies larger and more powerful than any previous president had at his disposal, is a deliberate political “divider,” constantly – constantly – making divisive appeals to one constituency and rhetorically “flaming” another.  No president has behaved in anything close to this manner since FDR in the mid-1930s.

This president is not Bill Clinton, or even Jimmy Carter; he is not Lyndon Johnson or JFK.  He and his administration have broken with America’s trademark political mindset of gradualism and respect – however grudging at times – for the people.  So why is the narrative by which his administration’s actions are explained the same one the MSM has used for decades?  Why is this administration being interpreted on the same terms as its predecessors, when its actions and perspectives, in both domestic and foreign policy, are so very different?


I’m not sure I have an answer for that.  But the outcome is consistent.  The longer we go in this presidency, the less relation MSM headlines have to reality.  If you asked a random sample of journalists at WSJ what the practical effect of Obama’s “retreat” on the contraception mandate would be, I’m betting more than 50% of them would get it right.  The Catholics are still stuck with paying for contraception services.  But the misleading headlines march on of their own accord, even at WSJ.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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