Coverage of Social Security in three major national print outlets relied on reporting figures in raw numbers devoid of relevant context -- such as previous years' figures -- that could provide a more accurate picture of the program's finances. These findings, calculated since July 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media's coverage of Social Security.
The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Phil Gramm and Mike Solon pushing "pro-growth tax reform" and criticizing "regulatory burden" and "antibusiness bias." The Journal did not disclose that the authors are partners of an anti-regulation lobbying firm, and that Solon is frequent business lobbyist.
Gramm is a former Republican Senator, and Solon worked as a Gramm Senate staffer for over a decade. They run Gramm Partners, a D.C. lobbying firm. The firm's website states that it works "on the issues that matter most to financial companies" and has "a track record of delivering major accomplishments -- and stopping bad deals in their tracks." The two also run US Policy Metrics, "an economic and public policy research firm serving asset managers, hedge funds and the investor community."
According to 2013 data (the most recent available), Solon has lobbied for a variety of clients including the "lobby giant" Akin Gump, Fidelity, American Express, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, Exxon Mobil, and US Chamber of Commerce. In addition to heading a lobbying firm, Gramm gained notoriety during the 2008 campaign because he co-chaired Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign and was also a "lobbyist for a Swiss bank at the center of the housing credit crisis." Gramm does not appear to have registered as a lobbyist since 2007. Gramm Partners' lobbyist registration form states it is lobbying on behalf of Akin Gump on issues that include budget and taxes.
The Journal's identification of Gramm and Solon simply states: "Mr. Gramm, a former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is senior partner of US Policy Metrics and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Solon was a policy adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and is a partner at US Policy Metrics."
Gramm and Solon's op-ed complains that Democrats won't lower tax rates and have a "misplaced perception of the importance of the inequality debate." They added: "A pro-growth tax reform will not undo this administration's doubling of the federal debt held by the public, its tax increases, increased regulatory burden or antibusiness bias. But it would be a major movement in the right direction."
Media Matters has documented how the Journal has repeatedly failed to disclose relevant ties about writers in its editorial page.
A Wall Street Journal article omitted the positive economic news in recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports, misleadingly framing the reports as having challenged and "chipped away" at White House economic policies.
In a February 19 post, the Wall Street Journal characterized two recent reports from the CBO on the economic effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a proposal to raise the minimum wage as the "biggest challenges to the Obama administration's economic policy in the past month," which the Journal claimed "chipped away at two pillars of President Barack Obama's economic policy." The Journal failed to report the positive aspects of the CBO findings or describe the reports' many nuances, and made no move to identify the CBO's "complex and layered projections" that supported its thesis beyond this general line:
The budget office calculated earlier this month that the health law would lead some people to leave their jobs or ratchet back their work hours, and it said this week that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 could lead 500,000 people to lose their jobs.
Yet the Journal's framing of the reports as 'chipping away' at Obama's economic policies is undermined by the CBO's actual determinations, which contained positive economic news.
In its study released this week on the effects of a minimum wage increase, the CBO determined that such an increase would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty, 16.5 million workers would see their wages increased, and notably, "Once the increases and decreases in income for all workers are taken into account, overall real income would rise by $2 billion." The New York Times offers some perspective:
Tuesday's report from the budget office, a federal nonpartisan agency, was almost entirely positive about the benefits of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016, as President Obama and Congressional Democrats have proposed.
More than 16 million low-wage workers, now making as little as $7.25 an hour, would directly benefit from the increase, the report said. Another eight million workers making slightly more than the minimum would probably also get raises, because of the upward "ripple effect" of an increase. That would add $31 billion to the paychecks of families ranging from poverty level to the middle class, significantly increasing their spending power and raising the nation's economic output and overall income.
In fact, the report said, 900,000 people would be lifted from poverty with a wage increase. The income of those below the poverty line would increase by a total of $5 billion, or 3 percent, at no cost to the federal budget.
And in its Budget and Economic Outlook for 2014-2024, the CBO found that the ACA could free 2.5 million workers from being forced to keep their current jobs because of a need to maintain employer-sponsored health coverage. While the Journal attempts to portray this as a negative, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) called it "an unambiguously good thing":
Not surprisingly, the CBO finds that, all else equal, people are less likely to work and will work fewer hours under the ACA. They find, and I quote, "The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in business' demand for labor" (page 117).
These are purely voluntary labor supply decisions, not people being laid off from jobs they'd rather keep, or people looking for work and being unable to find it. Working-age adults can now choose, without regard to their need to secure health insurance, whether they wish to supply labor and how much labor they wish to supply to the labor market. This is unabashedly a good thing for them.
Opponents of the ACA will try to paint these CBO estimates as evidence that the ACA has "killed jobs" or something like it. That's flat wrong. What the ACA has done is expand the menu of options available to Americans about how to obtain decent health insurance without having their income fall to poverty levels. That menu used to include one option--"go to work for a large employer." The fact that it's broader now is an unambiguously good thing.
What's more, the report suggested that the ACA could increase job opportunities for currently unemployed workers. The CBO pointed out that "[i]f changes in incentives lead some workers to reduce the amount of hours they want to work or to leave the labor force altogether, many unemployed workers will be available to take those jobs," and reported that the law will have the stimulative effect of "raising overall demand in the economy." In a congressional testimony following the report's release, CBO director Douglas Elmendorf noted that the ACA "would reduce unemployment over the next few years."
The New York Times improved its standards for budget reporting over the past four months, providing readers with more adequate context to understand the size and scope of federal programs, budget deficits, and policy proposals.
On October 18, 2013, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan issued a statement affirming the paper's commitment to improving its numbers-based reporting. Sullivan's comments came in response to mounting criticism over how print media's reliance on reporting large numbers devoid of context often confuses and unintentionally misleads readers.
Ongoing Media Matters analysis of print media budget reporting standards confirms that the Times has begun to address these concerns, and now leads two other prominent print outlets -- The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- in providing context when reporting numbers.
The Times was less likely than other selected outlets to rely on raw numbers for budget reporting from October 19, 2013 -- the day after Sullivan's statement -- to February 14, 2014. The paper was also more likely than the other newspapers analyzed to provide relevant context. Furthermore, the Times was the most likely to present figures in percentage terms relative to the size of the budget or the size of the economy.*
These results show a deviation from past practices. Media Matters research through the first half of 2013 revealed that the Times relied on out-of-context raw numbers for nearly 67 percent of its reporting concerning the federal budget, the debt and deficit, and spending programs. This reflected roughly the average style of reporting among the three outlets examined.
Despite recent improvement, the paper still relies on out-of-context figures for a majority of its coverage. Sullivan acknowledged in her October 18 statement that "[i]t won't be easy to make these changes happen consistently" across the newspaper's entire staff, but that change is coming "and the sooner, the better."
Hopefully other major outlets follow suit.
Image via Flickr user Frank Sheehan using a Creative Commons License.
Three major national print outlets were more likely to report economic figures in terms of raw numbers devoid of relevant and necessary context, such as previous years' numbers or monthly figures that would give readers an accurate depiction of the economy. These findings, calculated since halfway through 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media.
In the years since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- commonly referred to as the stimulus -- right-wing media outlets have engaged in a steady campaign of misinformation to claim that it didn't help the economy.
February 17 marked the five-year anniversary of the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a multi-billion economic stimulus package designed to spur economic growth and job creation during the Great Recession. The legislation increased infrastructure investments and implemented a variety of tax cuts for individuals and businesses, totaling approximately $831 billion over the 2009-2019 period.
Ever since the stimulus was signed into law, right-wing media figures have repeatedly pushed misinformation about its structure and alleged ill-effects. From forwarding false claims about the bill providing tax breaks for undocumented workers to baselessly linking it to Operation Fast and Furious, no myth has been too outrageous in the campaign to disparage the stimulus and President Obama.
The most frequently pushed myth about the stimulus, of course, is that it failed to increase economic growth or create jobs. The erroneous notion that the stimulus"failed" has appeared repeatedly in the right-wing media over the past five years, often being brought up to stymie any potential increases in government spending and investment.
The idea that increased government spending in the stimulus did not help the economy is patently false, and easily disproved by economists.
A 2010 Wall Street Journal poll of economists revealed that a majority of economists agree that the stimulus boosted growth, and according to a May 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, the stimulus created the equivalent of between 900,000 and 4.7 million jobs in 2010 and between 600,000 and 3.6 million jobs in 2011. Furthermore, a February 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities illustrates how GDP growth would have been slower had the stimulus not been enacted:
Despite the facts, multiple outlets -- including Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- are using the five-year anniversary of the stimulus' implementation to push the same tired myths. On February 18, one Fox host even went so far as to wonder whether or not it caused a recession, ignoring the fact that the economy has been growing steadily since the stimulus was implemented.
If recent history is any indication, right-wing media are unlikely to stop their campaign of misinformation around the bill, particularly if additional spending measures -- a policy recommended by economists -- are implemented.
Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto claimed that cases of "'sexual assault' on campus" that involve alcohol are really victimless crimes in which both parties are equally guilty.
In his February 10 WSJ column, Taranto baselessly argued that men are often unfairly accused in sexual assault cases on college campuses, particularly when both men and women involved in the case were drinking (emphasis added):
What is called the problem of "sexual assault" on campus is in large part a problem of reckless alcohol consumption, by men and women alike.
If two drunk drivers are in a collision, one doesn't determine fault on the basis of demographic details such as each driver's sex. But when two drunken college students "collide," the male one is almost always presumed to be at fault. His diminished capacity owing to alcohol is not a mitigating factor, but her diminished capacity is an aggravating factor for him.
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes, at some campuses the accuser's having had one drink is sufficient to establish the defendant's guilt ... In theory that means, as FIRE notes, that "if both parties are intoxicated during sex, they are both technically guilty of sexually assaulting each other." In practice it means that women, but not men, are absolved of responsibility by virtue of having consumed alcohol.
While it is true that reckless alcohol consumption can play a role in encouraging damaging behavior, and that male and female college students (particularly underage students) could probably benefit from learning to moderate their drinking for a variety of reasons, Taranto's accusation that women who drink -- and then are forced to have sex against their will -- are not only equally at fault for their assault but are guilty of an equivalent crime takes victim blaming to a new and dangerous low.
Taranto's victim-blaming approach furthers his attempts to disingenuously redefine the problem of sexual assault as a problem of alcohol. The problem of sexual assault on college campuses, as elsewhere, is entirely a problem of sexual assault, in which a victim does not consent to sexual relations with the aggressor. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption doesn't cause sexual assault, nor does it serve as a defense. According to a literature review from the National Institutes of Health:
The fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault.
[M]en are legally and morally responsible for acts of sexual assault they commit, regardless of whether or not they were intoxicated or felt that the woman had led them on previously. The fact that a woman's alcohol consumption may increase their likelihood of experiencing sexual assault does not make them responsible for the man's behavior, although such information may empower women when used in prevention programs.
The right-wing bubble seems impervious to both experts and fact-checkers when it comes to economic truth and the Affordable Care Act.
This week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its updated economic forecast for the years 2014 to 2024. Right-wing media quickly pounced on its projection that the supply of labor would voluntarily decline by about 2 million workers over the next three years due to the ACA, twisting the findings to accuse the ACA of destroying 2 million jobs. Such misinformation from the conservative bubble was predictable, as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) put it on February 4:
Opponents of the ACA will try to paint these CBO estimates as evidence that the ACA has "killed jobs" or something like it. That's flat wrong. What the ACA has done is expand the menu of options available to Americans about how to obtain decent health insurance without having their income fall to poverty levels. That menu used to include one option--"go to work for a large employer."
Indeed, subsequent fact-checkers and experts discredited the right-wing media's spin -- As The Washington Post's FactChecker plainly said, "No, CBO did not say Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs," echoing Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors Jason Furman who explained that "CBO's analysis itself is about the choices that workers are making in the face of new options afforded to them by the Affordable Care Act, not something about firms destroying jobs."
But it appears it will take more than facts and experts to penetrate the right-wing echo chamber.
Fox News doubled down on its misinformation on the February 6 edition of Fox & Friends, with an on-air graphic that framed the increased worker flexibility as "Obamacare to cut 2M jobs":
The Wall Street Journal editorial board claimed to "pars[e] this supply-of-labor reasoning" in a February 5 editorial by refusing to acknowledge the distinction between labor supply and job availability:
For years liberals have lamented the jobs crisis and underemployment to castigate Republicans as mean-spirited for opposing more "stimulus" and more weeks of unemployment benefits. But if pervasive joblessness is an economic and social scourge, why celebrate a program that is creating more of it?
Liberals are also trying to spin the CBO report as an endorsement of ObamaCare's alleged health security. Mr. Furman cited the phenomenon known as "job lock," in which people don't switch employers or start their own business to preserve fringe benefits. But job lock is really about employment flexibility, rather than the government extending subsidies so people don't need or want jobs.
A National Review editorial on February 6 characterized the fact-checks as "hilarious," claiming that the ACA was "taking a blowtorch to the work force" and creating a "crater" of lost economic value while mocking the administration:
But the administration still does not seem to be able to get its collective head around the fact that American workers are not just hungry mouths that have to be filled with paychecks: They are people who provide economically valuable goods and services. Those 2.5 million out of the work force may be happier at their leisure, but the economy as a whole will be substantially worse off without their contributions. We could, in theory, simply have the federal government deliver checks to every household and allow each and every one to follow his bliss as he sees fit, but the shelves of the grocery stores soon would be empty. The depth of the Obamacare crater in the labor force isn't some abstract unemployment rate, but the lost value of the work those Americans would have done.
Plugging their ears on the CBO's determination also blinded right-wing media to the CBO's suggestion that the projected changes in the labor supply would increase opportunity for unemployed workers:
If changes in incentives lead some workers to reduce the amount of hours they want to work or to leave the labor force altogether, many unemployed workers will be available to take those jobs--so the effect on overall employment of reductions in labor supply will be greatly dampened.
Right-wing media outlets are falsely claiming that workers voluntarily reducing hours due to provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is evidence that the law is harmful to the economy, ignoring economists' opinions about its role in reducing economic insecurity.
Right-wing media figures are baselessly stoking fears about calls to reduce inequality and expand opportunity to low-income Americans, claiming that these efforts are evidence of persecution of the rich and class warfare.
The Wall Street Journal endorsed billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins' inflammatory suggestion that a "[p]rogressive Kristallnacht" may be soon be directed against the rich and dubbed subsequent criticism of the Nazi comparison "Perkinsnacht."
In a January 24 letter to the editor, Perkins hyped a supposed "progressive war on the American one percent" and compared it to Nazi Germany's Kristallnacht, asking: "Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?" In the following days, Perkins' letter received widespread criticism.
A January 29 Journal editorial -- headlined "Perkinsnacht" -- dismissed criticism of Perkins' Nazi reference as "unfortunate, albeit provocative," and claimed that Perkins' critics had proved his point: "the vituperation is making our friend's point about liberal intolerance -- maybe better than he did."
The Wall Street Journal isn't the first right-wing media source to throw support behind Perkins. On January 29, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin characterized the reaction to Perkin's letter as evidence of a "bullying epidemic" and "wealth-shaming" by "the grievance industry." Fox Business contributor Charles Payne went further, arguing that Perkins "may be a couple of years ahead of the curve."
The Wall Street Journal misleadingly attacked President Obama's decision to boost the minimum wage for federally contracted workers as an "ostentatious display of President Obama's intention to end run lawmakers and even the law," ignoring the fact that previous presidents set precedent for this type of action.
In his January 28 State of the Union address, President Obama announced plans to issue an executive order that would require "federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour." As he said, "if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty."
The Wall Street Journal's editorial board responded to the president's announcement with the suggestion that Obama was acting like a "king" who "seems to think is a [sic] Democracy of One, or shall we say The One." The editorial attacked the president's plan as "the latest ostentatious display of President Obama's intention to end run lawmakers and even the law" and went on to deny the fact that increases in the minimum wage carry economic benefits or have any bearing on the "economy and efficiency" of the federal contracting process.
But the Journal ignored the fact that Obama isn't the first president to issue this type of order. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson took similar action to increase equal opportunity and nondiscrimination standards for federal workers. As The New York Times Taking Note blog reported:
Other presidents have used executive orders to upgrade labor standards for employees of federal contractors, including President Kennedy, who required federal contractors to have companywide equal employment opportunity plans, and President Johnson, who prohibited racial discrimination and other bias in hiring by federal contractors.
The non-partisan research center Demos has pointed to executive orders that "have mandated that companies working on behalf of the American people are upholding high standards of employment practices" and further detailed presidential precedent:
From the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act to Executive Order 11246 of 1965, and a host of other laws and executive actions, our laws have mandated that companies working on behalf of the American people are upholding high standards of employment practices. Yet as the nature and prevalence of federal contracting, lending and grant-making have changed, and some laws have been weakened, working people have fallen through the cracks.
In the past, presidents have used their authority to improve job opportunities for Americans working or seeking to work for federal contractors. For example, starting in 1941, successive administrations issued executive orders to fight employment discrimination in the contracting workforce. This effort culminated with President Lyndon Johnson's signing of Executive Order 11246, mandating equal employment opportunity and affirmative action for all individuals working for federal contractors. An executive order to raise and enforce workplace standards for contractors, grantees, and other private companies that do business with the federal government would follow this powerful and effective precedent.
Furthermore, the Journal's claim that a minimum wage increase would hurt businesses and doesn't affect the "economy and efficiency" of federal contracting flies in the face of the hundreds of economists around the country, including numerous Nobel Laureates, who have come out in support of such a plan.
Increases in the minimum wage have not been shown to significantly damage the job market. In fact, businesses that have chosen to boost employee wages have reaped economic benefits. As the Harvard Business Review found, "[i]n return for its generous wages and benefits, Costco gets one of the most loyal and productive workforces in all of retailing, and, probably not coincidentally, the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) figures in the industry [...] Costco's stable, productive workforce more than offsets its higher costs." According to the Economic Policies Institute:
[T]he weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market. Research suggests that a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front.
This past weekend on Meet the Press, David Gregory offered up a tough question for Rudy Giuliani after the former New York City mayor tried to deflect attention from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal by pointing to the now-deflated allegations that the IRS had mishandled the non-profit applications of conservative groups. "I think it's fair to point out that for those who have raised that issue, what they said is the culture was created by President Obama for this kind of abuse to have occurred," said Gregory of the IRS story. "That link has never been proven or established. But if that's your standard, then isn't Governor Christie accountable for creating a culture where this kind of abuse could've occurred and been ordered by top lieutenants?"
As Gregory noted, conservatives spent months claiming that while no evidence links President Obama or the White House to improper IRS actions, the president was nonetheless culpable because the agency's bureaucrats agents were subconsciously responding to Obama's anti-Tea Party rhetoric by going after his political enemies. This "Bureaucrat Whispering" theory never made much sense, and was largely rendered moot after the IRS "scandal" largely fell apart.
As Gregory points out, intellectual honesty should lead the proponents of the IRS Bureaucrat Whispering theory to grapple with the possibility that Christie, whose pattern of bullying and abuse of power is well-known, created a culture in which his top aides and appointees felt comfortable creating a four-day traffic jam as a means of political retribution. But that hasn't happened.
In reality, responses to the Christie scandal from the advocates of the Bureaucrat Whispering theory include Fox News contributor Erick Erickson minimizing the bridge story as "routine hardball politics" and claiming that the "only difference is that Christie's staff put it in emails, which was not smart." Meanwhile, Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin has pretended Christie's bullying reputation is an invention of the media.
And then there's Kimberley Strassel.
The Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member wrote at least three separate columns last year explaining how the White House was "involved in the IRS's targeting of conservatives" because President Obama's Tea Party criticisms created an "environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable." According to Strassel:
President Obama and Co. are in full deniability mode, noting that the IRS is an "independent" agency and that they knew nothing about its abuse. The media and Congress are sleuthing for some hint that Mr. Obama picked up the phone and sicced the tax dogs on his enemies.
But that's not how things work in post-Watergate Washington. Mr. Obama didn't need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he'd like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action.
After spending thousands of words discussing how President Obama's speeches trickled-down to IRS bureaucrats and impelled their actions, here's Strassel's sole mention at the Journal of Christie's aides ordering political retribution, from her January 16 column: "And now back to our previously scheduled outrage over the Chris Christie administration's abuse of traffic cones on the George Washington Bridge."
The comment came, of course, in the middle of a piece otherwise dedicated to trumping up a new IRS scandal.
Strassel addressed the Christie story in greater detail on the Journal's weekly Fox News program. But when Journal editorial editor Paul Gigot asked her on January 12 whether the story demonstrates "a culture of payback," in Christie's administration, she blamed the inherent corrupt political environment of the state, not the state's governor.
GIGOT: But, Kim, are there any lessons here we can take away about Gov. Christie's management style? Is there really possibly a culture of payback, a thin-skinned attitude on his staff? "You cross us, we're going to go after you"? And is that a message you want to take to a campaign in 2016?
STRASSEL: Look, New Jersey is a rough place to play politics. One of the things we haven't mentioned here is: Does it really surprise anybody that this happened in New Jersey? And, yes, there probably are members of his staff that come out of that New Jersey political environment and do have that approach. I think what voters, however, are going to look at is his argument that he is a straight shooter and he handles problems when they come up. And that's what he tried to do this week. And that's the message he'll take when he goes out.
Strassel isn't the only conservative running from the Bureaucrat Whispering charge now that it risks damaging one of their own. "That's a very, very ambiguous and amorphous charge that the culture created it. My goodness, you know, things go wrong in every administration," Giuliani explained on Meet The Press. "People would do things. They thought I wanted it. I didn't. I had to straighten it out. I'd have to say, 'I don't want it.'"
The Wall Street Journal applauded a court decision invalidating the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality regulations, spinning the rules as hampering innovation and benefitting only "the giants of Silicon Valley," despite experts who warned of the damaging impact such a ruling might have on the public's access to online content.
Just before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over a law designed to protect workers and patients at women's health clinics, the Wall Street Journal ignored the history of murder and violence women have faced at the hands of anti-choice activists, instead claiming that the law's "sole purpose" was to criminalize "peaceful" protests.
On January 15, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge which could invalidate a 2007 Massachusetts law that created 35-foot "buffer zones" around local reproductive health center entrances. The law was designed as a response to public safety concerns after patients and staff at Massachusetts clinics faced a pattern of intimidation, harassment, and extreme violence from protestors -- including a fatal shooting of two women.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board's January 14 preview of the Supreme Court arguments did not mention violence once. Instead, the editorial repeatedly characterized anti-choice protesters as "peaceful," framing the law as simply a "chance to advance free speech" and ignored the events leading up to the law's passage to claim that the "real purpose of the state's abortion buffer zones is to limit, and criminalize, peaceful political speech."
But as the Boston Globe's Renée Loth explained, the implementation of Massachusetts' buffer zones law has helped dramatically reduce the level of intimidation that patients entering the clinics are forced to endure (emphasis added):
I was struck by the contrast to the common scene outside the health center in past decades, when antiabortion zealots screamed, chanted, blocked the doors, grabbed at women trying to enter, and photographed license plates. It was a time when women's health centers offering abortions were routinely bombed, burned, or doused with butyric acid. When staffers received letters purporting to contain anthrax. When John Salvi shot and killed two women and injured five others at two women's health centers in Brookline.
What's changed, according to many advocates, is the adoption of the Massachusetts buffer zone law, which creates a protected area for patients and employees a fixed 35 feet from the entrances to health centers. The law achieves a delicate balance between the free speech rights of abortion protesters and the rights of women to safely access the center. "It's a very peaceful coexistence," said Martha Walz, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and a coauthor of the 2007 law. "We no longer have that in-your-face harassment. The tension levels are way down. The law is working for everybody."
The violence Loth cites included the infamous Brookline murders of 1994, when two receptionists were killed in a shooting by an anti-choice activist at a Boston-area clinic. The shooter was convicted on five additional counts of attempted murder "in the wounding of five other people."
Such public safety concerns remain a pressing issue nationwide. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called anti-choice violence "America's [f]orgotten [t]errorism" in 2012, emphasizing that buffer zones are necessary because patients and doctors at health facilities that offer abortion services remain targets of violent attacks "from murders to arsons to bombings."
As the First Circuit United States Court of Appeals noted during its previous consideration of the Massachusetts law, "the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter healthcare facilities cannot seriously be questioned." The court recognized that the law places some restrictions on speech by moving protestors away from the entrances and farther down the public sidewalk, but emphasized the fact that "a diminution in the amount of speech, in and of itself, does not translate into unconstitutionality":
This case does not come to us as a stranger. At the turn of the century, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that created fixed and floating buffer zones around abortion clinics. We rejected serial challenges to the constitutionality of that law.
The plaintiffs again appeal. They advance a salmagundi of arguments, old and new, some of which are couched in a creative recalibration of First Amendment principles.
Few subjects have proven more controversial in modern times than the issue of abortion. The nation is sharply divided about the morality of the practice and its place in a caring society. But the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter healthcare facilities cannot seriously be questioned. The Massachusetts statute at issue here is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others.
In the context of abortion-related demonstrations, the Supreme Court has specifically recognized the interest of clinic patients [in the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado] both "in avoiding unwanted communication" and "pass[ing] without obstruction." Consistent with this interest, the First Amendment does not compel prospective patients seeking to enter an abortion clinic to make any special effort to expose themselves to the cacophony of political protests. Nor does it guarantee to the plaintiffs the same quantum of communication that would exist in the total absence of regulation. A diminution in the amount of speech, in and of itself, does not translate into unconstitutionality. So long as adequate alternative means of communication exist, no more is constitutionally exigible.
The Supreme Court's decision on McCullen v. Coakley could have a significant impact on women's access to reproductive care nationwide, creating a ripple effect that could impede other states' efforts to maintain the safety of women seeking medical aid. At ThinkProgress, Robin Marty reported on the type of harassment that patients would increasingly face:
Without a buffer zone to protect patients, someone entering the clinic can be trailed from the moment a car door is opened to the moment the person enters the building. Just as bad, they can be followed closely from the moment they pass through the clinic doors until they are safely back inside the car.
Ultimately, if the Supreme Court strikes down the buffer zone in McCullen v. Coakley, every clinic sidewalk could potentially turn into the sidewalk in Louisville, where anti-abortion protesters can openly chase clinic patients, "exorcise" escorts, and block doors -- not with the metal or even human chains they used in the nineties, but with the emotional force of 100 bodies lining the street, shouting that you are a murderer.
That type of "freedom of speech" won't just be condoned; it will be actively encouraged at every clinic in every state in the country. The freedom to determine if you choose to carry a pregnancy to term, however? That could become a thing of the past.