TV news missed an opportunity to report on unprecedented Senate health care legislation

Evening broadcast and cable news coverage since June 1 has largely neglected ongoing Republican deliberations in the Senate to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with major news networks devoting a fraction of their airtime to the prospective legislation. The sparse coverage also frequently overlooked the Republican Party’s unprecedented secrecy about its draft legislation, which Senate leaders plan to vote on before the end of the month without any input from outside experts, their Democratic colleagues, or the public.

Senate Republicans don’t plan to make health care bill public

Axios: Senate Republicans “have no plans to publicly release” health care bill before voting. On June 12, reports emerged that the group of Republican senators working on a draft version of health care reform legislation had no plans to make the bill public before putting it to a vote “before the July 4 recess.” From Axios (emphasis original):

Senate Republicans are working to finish their draft health care bill, but have no plans to publicly release it, according to two senior Senate GOP aides.

“We aren't stupid,” said one of the aides. One issue is that Senate Republicans plan to keep talking about it after the draft is done: “We are still in discussions about what will be in the final product so it is premature to release any draft absent further member conversations and consensus.”

Why it matters: Democratic senators are already slamming Republicans for the secrecy of their bill writing process, and this isn't going to help. Republicans are sure to release the bill at some point, but it's unclear when — and they want to vote on it in the next three weeks, before the July 4 recess. [Axios, 6/12/17]

The Hill: Republican secrecy is “a major departure from the standard Senate process.” According to a June 11 report in The Hill, Senate Republicans’ refusal to make their health care legislation available for public “committee hearings or markups” was “a major departure from the standard Senate process.” [The Hill, 6/11/17]

Broadcast and cable news gave health care discussion just minutes of airtime

Broadcast outlets dedicated a tiny fraction of their news coverage to health care deliberations. From June 1 through June 14, the flagship weekday news programs of the largest broadcast and cable networks devoted a small fraction of their news programming to the Senate’s health care deliberations, which will eventually affect tens of millions of Americans. The three major broadcast news programs -- ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS CBS Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News -- gave just over three minutes of airtime combined to health care over the two weeks despite airing 15 hours of weekday programming. Even the PBS NewsHour, which aired by far the most coverage on the topic, managed less than 10 minutes of airtime out of 10 hours of scheduled programming.

Cable news programs provided just slightly more coverage on health care than broadcast news. During the same two-week period, the largest cable news outlets also devoted only a fraction of their airtime to the ongoing health care policy debates. Out of 50 hours of scheduled programming from June 1 through June 14, MSNBC managed to dedicate just under 48 minutes to the health care deliberations, narrowly surpassing a mere 42 minutes of Fox News’ coverage of the issue. CNN lagged far behind its competitors; it gave just 22 minutes of airtime to the Senate's health care policy discussions.

Fox News and CNN discussed GOP’s unprecedented legislative secrecy the least. Just two of CNN’s nine segments on the Senate health care deliberations mentioned the unprecedented legislative process, which has been conducted behind closed doors and included input from only a small group of Republican senators. On Fox News, the disparity in coverage was even worse; the network brought up the lack of transparency in the health care deliberations just once in 16 segments. MSNBC aired 10 segments on the secret Senate health care debate, thereby leading all cable news channels. Much of Fox’s programming remained consistent with Republican priorities and focused on the supposed failures of the ACA and the apparent need for drastic overhauls of existing health care reforms.

Most of CNN’s health care coverage was in response to an offhand remark that Trump made. On June 13, The Associated Press reported that President Donald Trump characterized the health care bill passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives as being too “mean” during a meeting with Senate leadership. Trump’s reported demand that the Senate version be “more generous” spurred a flurry of news reports, including majority of CNN’s overall health care coverage. Six of the nine total segments CNN aired on health care were in direct response to Trump’s remark. A roughly 10-minute panel discussion on the June 13 edition of Anderson Cooper 360 accounted for almost half of CNN’s total airtime on the Senate’s health care agenda. [The Associated Press, 6/13/17]

Charts by Sarah Wasko


Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of broadcast evening news and cable prime-time (defined as 6 p.m. through 11 p.m.) weekday programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from June 1, 2017, through June 14, 2017. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: health care or healthcare or health reform or AHCA or Trumpcare or American Health Care Act or ACA or Obamacare or Affordable Care Act or CBO.

Media Matters conducted a video review of each segment to measure the total time spent discussing the Senate’s current legislative process on health care reform.