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Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC have each aired 15 segments on the contract
News reports have raised numerous questions about the $300 million contract that Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) awarded to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a relatively inexperienced then-two-person firm based in Montana, to rebuild power lines in Puerto Rico. Members of Congress from both parties have called for investigations into the contract. Mainstream media outlets, including MSNBC and CNN, have given the story widespread coverage, but as of midday on October 27, Fox News had yet to even mention the Whitefish contract.
E&E News first reported on Whitefish Energy Holdings’ contract with PREPA in stories on October 6 and October 9. E&E News revealed that PREPA decided not to take advantage of a mutual aid program among 1,100 electric companies that could have helped to quickly restore power on the island, where about 75 percent of residents still have no electricity. Instead, PREPA awarded a contract to the Montana-based firm, which at the time had only two full-time staffers. From the October 6 article:
The American Public Power Association, based in Washington, confirmed today that the troubled Puerto Rico public utility that serves more than 3 million people on the island has decided not to request assistance from the group of 1,100 U.S. electricity companies standing ready to help.
The association coordinates mutual aid disaster assistance for U.S. public power companies, which include the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). "The request for help was not activated," said group spokeswoman Meena Dayak. "We do have people who are ready to help."
Nearly 90 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity customers remain without power. Instead of activating a mutual aid arrangement that might have speeded up recovery time, the utility turned to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small contractor based in Montana, to coordinate outside help. The utility has given no explanation for that decision.
In the following days, Utility Dive, The Weather Channel, and Montana Public Radio also published stories on Whitefish’s questionable contract. On October 19, Whitefish put out a press release announcing that the contract was worth $300 million, which was followed by additional reports by The Associated Press and The Washington Post. The contract, which is nearly 300 times larger than Whitefish’s next-largest project and the largest restoration contract in Puerto Rico, granted Whitefish an initial payment of $3.7 million for “mobilization of personnel and equipment” and allows Whitefish to charge hourly rates for workers' time that NPR described as "eye-popping."
A leaked copy of the contract also revealed that it bars government agencies from auditing or reviewing “cost and profit elements” of the deal and prevents PREPA from making "any claim against Contractor related to delayed completion of work."
The Post reported on October 23 that Whitefish Energy is based in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, that Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski know one another, and that Zinke’s son worked for the company during one summer. Post reporters wrote that “Zinke’s office said he had no role in Whitefish securing the contract for work in Puerto Rico” and “Techmanski also said Zinke was not involved,” but they also reported that Techmanski had reached out to Zinke’s office after procuring the contract.
On October 24, Buzzfeed reported that Joe Colonnetta, the head of HBC Investments, one of Whitefish Energy’s major funding sources, had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, but stated, “It’s unclear whether Colonnetta, who did not respond to a request for comment, has specific connections to Whitefish, or whether his stake in Whitefish Energy is simply a business investment.”
The revelations about PREPA’s contract have attracted widespread media coverage, as have a Twitter spat between the company and the mayor of San Juan, and the connections between Whitefish and Zinke. In the wake of this press coverage, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called for investigations into the contract.
Yet Fox News has remained silent about the controversial contract, even as the other major cable news networks have covered it extensively.
Media Matters reviewed cable news coverage of the Whitefish story from October 6, the date of the initial report on Whitefish’s contract, to noon ET of October 27 and found that Fox News had not aired a single segment on the story.
During that period, the Fox Business Network aired just two segments on the story. The network first mentioned the contract during a headline rundown on the October 25 episode of FBN:am, in which the hosts expressed surprise that a company of Whitefish’s size received such a large contract.
The second segment was on the October 27 episode of Mornings with Maria. Guest host Megan McDowell, Fox News correspondent Lea Gabrielle, and Republican strategist and former Trump surrogate Erin Elmore interviewed Whitefish spokesman Ken Luce. The five-and-a-half-minute interview included softball questions such as: “What do you say to these investigations? Are they warranted?”, “When did the company hire you?”, “What are the facts that you think aren’t being reported?”, and “How well and how is Whitefish financed for this?”
Fox News’ lack of coverage stands in stark contrast to the other major cable networks’ extensive coverage of the controversial contract. Between October 6 and noon ET of October 27, CNN and MSNBC aired a combined 30 segments on the Whitefish story.
MSNBC aired 15 segments on Whitefish’s contract with PREPA, including an interview with Luce on the October 27 episode of MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruhle that was much more hard-hitting than Fox Business' interview with Luce. Unlike the Fox Business hosts, anchor Ruhle asked Luce how Whitefish won the contract, as well as how Whitefish justifies contract provisions that bar government audits and that prohibit PREPA from making claims for delayed work, adding, “How does that serve the people of Puerto Rico and the American people?”
MSNBC also aired a segment on the October 24 episode of MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson that featured one of the authors of the October 23 Washington Post story, Aaron Davis, who explained, “Whitefish Energy … has never done anything quite on this scale, or even remotely close to this scale. And now they have, according to the company yesterday, 280 employees and subcontractors working in Puerto Rico. Now compare that to the day after Hurricane Irma came through Florida, and there were 16,000 utility workers who were at the border of Florida waiting to come in under a mutual aid agreement. We don’t think it could have been that many waiting on a boat ready to get into Puerto Rico, but there could have been, according to many people we talked to, thousands. And there wasn’t.”
CNN also aired 15 segments that mentioned Whitefish's contract, including a report on the October 25 episode of CNN Newsroom in which correspondent Rene Marsh discussed the details of the contract and noted similarities between statements issued by Whitefish and Zinke’s office.
CNN also ran an on-the-ground report by correspondent Bill Weir that first aired on the October 19 episode The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer -- and was aired on the network seven additional times -- that featured a brief interview in which Weir asked Techmanski how his company won the contract and who initiated the contact between Whitefish and PREPA.
UPDATE: After the original timeframe of the study and publication, Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier aired a brief report on the Whitefish story on October 27 that focused on the White House and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's claims to have had "nothing to do with" Whitefish being awarded the contract to help rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. Fox News Tonight also aired a segment on the story late the same night.
Methodology: Media Matters searched SnapStream for mentions of “Whitefish” or “white fish” in coverage (4 a.m. to midnight ET) on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Fox Business Network from October 6, the date of the initial story on Whitefish’s contract, to noon of October 27. The interview that first aired on CNN’s Situation Room was subsequently aired seven more times and was counted as eight segments.
Even when the NFL story was old and the fire story was new, Fox still gave more coverage to the Trump-triggered NFL narrative
Prime-time cable news shows devoted more than three and a half times as much coverage to the NFL controversy that President Donald Trump stirred up as they did to historic wildfires in California, Media Matters found in an analysis of coverage the week after each incident began. Even when the NFL controversy was weeks old and the wildfires were at their peak, Fox News still devoted more than twice as much coverage to the Trump-sparked NFL story as to the fires.
On September 22, Trump kicked off a national controversy when he criticized NFL players who kneeled during pre-game national anthems to protest racism and police brutality. During a campaign rally in Alabama, Trump mused, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” NFL players, coaches, and owners responded by staging more protests, and in subsequent days and weeks, Trump added fuel to the controversy by doubling down on his initial criticism and threatening to revoke the NFL’s non-profit status over the protests (even though the NFL had given up that non-profit status in 2015).
Just over two weeks after Trump's initial comments about the protests, California experienced the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history. Beginning on October 8, wildfires spread across Northern California in what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) dubbed the October Fire Siege. According to CAL FIRE, "there were 21 major wildfires that ... burned over 245,000 acres, ... forced 100,000 to evacuate, destroyed an estimated 6,900 structures," and killed 42 people. Estimates of the fires’ damage are as high as $6 billion, making them likely to rank among the most expensive natural disasters in California history.
Though the fires were both deadly and economically devastating, the major cable news networks devoted three and a half times as much coverage to the Trump-triggered NFL controversy as they did to the wildfires on their prime-time, weekday shows during the week after each incident began. Media Matters analyzed the first full week of coverage after the NFL controversy kicked off and the first full week of coverage after the California wildfires began burning.
From September 25 to September 29, prime-time cable news shows aired a combined 136 segments about the NFL controversy, with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News airing 62, 28, and 46 segments, respectively.
By comparison, prime-time cable news shows devoted significantly less coverage to the California wildfires during the first week of coverage of the October Fire Siege. From October 9 to October 13, the prime-time cable shows aired a combined 38 segments on the fires, with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News airing 19, nine, and 10 segments, respectively. The NFL controversy got 358 percent more coverage -- more than three and a half times as much.
Media Matters also compared coverage of the two different stories during the same week, October 9-13, starting one day after the wildfires began and 17 days after Trump’s first NFL comments. Even during this period, when the wildfires were most destructive and the NFL controversy was more than two weeks old, Fox News’ prime-time shows still devoted more than twice as many segments to the NFL controversy as they did to the fires -- 22 versus 10. CNN and MSNBC, however, both aired more segments about the wildfires during this week.
Cable news’ tendency to focus on Trump's controversial comments and tweets rather than other news that directly affects viewers' lives is unfortunately nothing new (The NFL players’ protests raise important concerns about racism and police brutality, but Trump’s outbursts did not help address those issues.). Cable news networks have been more than willing to sacrifice substantive news stories for anything Trump-related because coverage of the president and his contentious statements has brought them record profits and viewership numbers. But the fact that coverage of a Trump-triggered controversy going into its third week can still compete with and even exceed coverage of historically devastating wildfires puts a fine point on just how bad the problem is.
Zachary Pleat, Alex Morash, and Rebecca Damante contributed research to this report. Charts by Sarah Wasko.
Media Matters searched Nexis for transcripts of segments about the controversy around NFL protests and the October Fire Siege in California. To identify segments about the NFL controversy, we used the search term (NFL OR anthem OR kneel! OR pledge OR kaepernick OR stand! OR allegiance). To identify segments about the California wildfires, we used the search term (wildfire OR fire) AND (sonoma OR napa OR mendicino OR north bay OR california OR yuba OR solano OR butte OR lake county).
We analyzed the prime-time, weekday news shows on the three major cable news networks, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. For CNN, we reviewed shows that air from 5 p.m. to midnight. For MSNBC and and Fox News, we reviewed shows that air from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. (MSNBC’s 11 p.m. show, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, is not indexed in Nexis and so was excluded; Fox News airs a re-run of Tucker Carlson Tonight at 11 p.m., and our study did not count repeat airings of the show). Our time frame for analyzing coverage of the NFL controversy was September 25, three days after Trump’s initial comments, to September 29. Our time frame for analyzing coverage of the California wildfires was October 9, one day after the fires started, to October 13.
We defined “segments” as instances where more than one individual discussed either topic during a panel discussion, or when a host or correspondent mentioned either topic as part of a news brief or headline rundown. Our analysis excluded teasers and passing mentions where a speaker mentioned either the NFL controversy or the California wildfires without any other speaker in the segment engaging.
A Media Matters analysis of Hurricane Harvey broadcast coverage from August 23 to September 7 found that neither ABC nor NBC aired a single segment on their morning, evening, or Sunday news shows that mentioned the link between climate change and hurricanes like Harvey, while CBS and PBS NewsHour each aired three. A review of prime-time coverage of Harvey on the three major cable news networks found that Fox aired six segments that mentioned climate change, but most of them dismissed the link between climate change and hurricanes, while CNN and MSNBC each aired five segments that legitimately discussed the link.
Several times over the past week, cable news hosts reported that Republicans had rejected invitations to appear on their shows to defend or discuss President Donald Trump and his reaction to the August 12 violence in Charlottesville, VA. The president failed to initially condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis responsible for the violence, and later in the week he insisted that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Pruitt shares the Trump administration’s preference for Fox News and right-wing media
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has appeared on Fox News twice as often as on other cable and broadcast networks combined, and he has frequently granted interviews to right-wing talk radio shows and other climate-denying outlets, Media Matters has found.
Pruitt’s media strategy is right in line with that of his boss. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump eschewed mainstream media outlets; it's a pattern his administration has continued since the election, favoring conservative and right-wing media outlets that are friendly to President Trump's agenda. By following the same approach, Pruitt has been able to push misinformation, avoid tough questioning, and appeal to the president’s political base.
Scott Pruitt has been a guest on Fox News a total of 12 times since his confirmation. From February 17, when he was sworn in, to August 14, Pruitt made twice as many appearances on Fox News (12) as he did on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC combined (6).* With the exception of two appearances on Fox News Sunday, Pruitt rarely faced tough questions on Fox News and was able to use the network as a platform for pushing misleading talking points without rebuttal. Pruitt appeared most frequently on Fox & Friends, Trump’s favorite show, which some journalists have criticized as “state TV” and “a daily infomercial for the Trump presidency” for its sycophantic coverage of the president and his administration. Pruitt made the following appearances on Fox News:
By comparison, Pruitt made only six appearances on the other major cable and broadcast television networks combined. From the time Pruitt took the helm at the EPA through August 14, he was a guest just six times total on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and NBC, and he made no appearances at all on CBS. On each of these non-Fox programs, Pruitt faced questions either about whether Trump still believes climate change is a hoax or about Pruitt's own views on climate change. In response, Pruitt either avoided answering the question or repeated his “lukewarmer” stance that climate change is happening but we don’t know how much is human-caused. In all but one of these appearances, Pruitt repeated false or misleading talking points about the Paris climate agreement. Here are Pruitt's guest appearances on cable news and broadcast networks other than Fox:
*Pruitt’s appearance on Meet the Press aired on both NBC and MSNBC, but for the purposes of this study, we only counted it as an NBC appearance.
Pruitt has also been a frequent guest on nationally broadcast right-wing talk radio shows since his confirmation, Media Matters found. We examined the top 10 shows listed on Talkers.com's Top Talk Audiences list, as well as numerous shows broadcast on the SiriusXM Patriot channel, and found the following:
All of these hosts or outlets have denied climate change:
Pruitt’s right-wing radio appearances have extended beyond nationally broadcast shows. E&E News reported in May that Pruitt appeared on “the local morning talk radio show of a North Dakota blogger who described the Obama administration's EPA as an enemy to the well-being of his state.” ThinkProgress noted that during a “state listening tour” in North Dakota earlier this month, “Pruitt stopped by the conservative talk radio show What’s On Your Mind to share his thoughts on a number of EPA-related issues.” During that conversation, Pruitt referred to the “so-called settled science” of climate change.
And on August 10, Pruitt appeared on a Texas radio show, Politico reported, where he said his staff will assess the "accuracy" of a major federal climate report that's been drafted by scientists from 13 agencies. “Frankly this report ought to be subjected to peer-reviewed, objective-reviewed methodology and evaluation,” he said, ignoring the fact that the report has already undergone extensive peer review. Pruitt also used his appearance on the show to cast doubt on climate science in general.
In addition to his June interview on Breitbart’s radio show, Pruitt granted the Breitbart website an interview in March.
Pruitt also sat for a lengthy video interview in July with the fossil fuel-funded Daily Caller, another denialist online outlet. And he gave an interview in May to The Daily Signal, an online news outlet run by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that casts doubt on climate change.
Besides his appearances on cable news shows, Pruitt also went on cable business shows and networks that serve as platforms for climate denial -- most notably CNBC’s Squawk Box, where he told climate-denying host Joe Kernen that he did not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming. Pruitt has also frequently given interviews on Fox Business Network, which mirrors Fox News’ denialist stance on global warming. Pruitt made the following appearances on the Fox Business Network:
Scott Waldman of E&E News reported that after “weeks of blowback” from Pruitt’s appearance on Squawk Box, the EPA chief “shifted his media appearances to friendlier venues,” a move that “allowed him to tee off on a favorite series of talking points: Obama's energy policy was ‘America second,’ energy industry innovations have reduced the U.S. carbon footprint, the so-called war on coal is now over, EPA's job is to encourage business growth in concert with the environment, and the era of punitive action against energy companies is over.” Waldman also noted that Pruitt’s “courting of conservative media is on an entirely different level” from previous EPA administrators. From Waldman’s article:
To be sure, all administrations seek out friendly press. President Obama talked about health care on the "Between Two Ferns" comedy program with Zach Galifianakis, which Republicans criticized as undignified. And former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy granted exclusive interviews to left-leaning outlets like Mother Jones and Grist.
But critics say Pruitt's courting of conservative media is on an entirely different level.
Liz Purchia, a former EPA spokeswoman under the Obama administration, said it's extremely unusual to place an administrator only on partisan outlets. She noted that McCarthy regularly interacted with reporters from outlets that produced coverage EPA officials did not appreciate.
"Only talking to far right-wing media outlets, they are only talking to a small group of Americans that regularly follow them, and they are intentionally going to reporters who will only ask them questions they want to hear and aren't speaking to the broader American people about their actions," Purchia said.
In Mother Jones, Rebecca Leber also reported that “since taking office, Pruitt has almost exclusively relied on a small number of conservative media outlets to tell an upbeat version of his leadership at the EPA, with occasional detours into the Sunday news shows,” creating “an echo chamber cheerleading the EPA’s regulatory rollbacks, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and its newfound anti-science denial.”
Leber also quoted Purchia remarking on how Pruitt’s approach to media interviews “isolates him from most Americans and instead plays to Trump’s base”:
Liz Purchia, an Obama-era EPA communications staffer, says the EPA’s attention to right-wing audiences resembles Trump’s tactics at the White House. “They’re tightly controlling [Pruitt’s] public events and interviews, which isolates him from most Americans and instead plays to Trump’s base,” Purchia said in an email. “They’re not trying to use communications tactics to reach a broad audience.”
Charts by Sarah Wasko
Media Matters searched the following terms in Nexis, iQ Media, and TVEyes to find Scott Pruitt's on-air TV appearances from the date of his swearing in as EPA Administrator on February 17 to August 14: “Pruitt,” "EPA administrator," "E.P.A. administrator," "EPA chief," "E.P.A. chief," "EPA head," "E.P.A. head," "head of the EPA," "head of the E.P.A.," "head of the Environmental Protection Agency," "Environmental Protection Agency Administrator," or "Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency." We did not count instances of networks airing Pruitt’s appearance at the White House’s June 2 press briefing.
For radio appearances, Matters Matters searched the same terms in Veritone for the top 10 programs in Talkers.com's Top Talk Audiences list and the following programs that air on SiriusXM Patriot: Breitbart News Daily, David Webb Show, Brian Kilmeade Show, and The Wilkow Majority.
A 12-month-long Media Matters study of evening cable news programs and broadcast morning shows and nightly newscasts found that discussions of voting rights and issues related to voting featured misinformation pushed by Republican lawmakers and were dominated by President Donald Trump’s false claims about voter fraud and noncitizen voting. Additionally, coverage also lacked discussions of gerrymandering, the impact of voter suppression on the 2016 election, and laws on the state level to curb voting rights.
During last week’s health care “vote-a-rama,” prime-time cable news coverage largely neglected the voices of activists, despite their crucial role in helping to block Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Media Matters reviewed four nights of cable news coverage -- from 5 to 11 p.m. -- between when the “motion to proceed” was passed (which opened debate on possible plans to overturn the ACA) and the GOP “skinny repeal” bill was defeated in the Senate. During those four nights of coverage, cable news programs largely failed to include the perspectives of activists, and both CNN and Fox News disregarded these voices altogether:
CNN and Fox News did not host a single activist over four nights of health care coverage
MSNBC hosted five activists during the same time period, but they accounted for less than 10 percent of its prime-time guests included in discussions about health care.
Throughout Republican efforts to overturn the ACA, cable news repeatedly failed to offer diverse voices. Guests in conversations about health care were predominately white male pundits, while African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and women -- all of whom stand to lose disproportionately if the ACA is overturned -- received far less screen time.
Additionally, cable news programs often ignored the personal stories of those that would be most affected by Republican health care policies, choosing to focus on the legislative process, at the expense of the human cost of the GOP’s repeated actions to undo the ACA. As Senate Republicans searched for a way to overturn former President Barack Obama’s signature health care act last week, cable coverage continued to erase the voices of those most intimately involved in the health care debate. CNN and Fox News failed to include a single activist amongst the combined 97 guest appearances on the channels during discussions of health care, and while MSNBC did host five activists, they made up less than 10 percent of the network's total guests hosted during prime-time to discuss health care.
While this isn't the first time cable news failed to seek out the voices of activists, their disregard for activists' voices is shocking considering the influential role they have played throughout the health care battle. Employees and volunteers for organizations like MoveOn, ADAPT, and Planned Parenthood organized health care rallies across the country, and helped organize tens of thousands of calls to House and Senate offices on behalf of the ACA. Activists also kept constant pressure on elected officials, staging all-night protests in lawmakers' offices, and showing up to elected officials’ town hall meetings and other public appearances. Activists played a crucial role in pressuring Senators to vote no on repeal and replace bills, and in keeping public attention on health care in midst of numerous distractions, like the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Activists deserve credit for their role in the health care battle, and comprehensive news coverage needs to include their voices.
Media Matters searched Nexis for mentions of “health care,” “the Affordable Care Act,” “Obamacare,” “Republican health,” “GOP health,” “the Better Care Reconciliation Act,” or “BRCA” on prime-time cable news between July 25 (after the Senate passed the motion to proceed to debate) and July 28 (after the failure of “skinny repeal”). Segments were coded if they included a significant discussion of the Republican health care bill. “Significant discussion” was defined as at least two speakers in the segment engaging on the topic with one another. Guests that partook in discussions that included a “significant discussion” about health care were included in this study. Guests were considered “activists” if they were affiliated with a group actively working against GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Prime-time cable news refers to CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC weekday programming between 5 and 11 p.m.
Immediately after Senate Republicans unveiled a new draft of their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), cable and broadcast newscasts framed reports about the bill around the challenges it faces in the legislative process, including vote counts and optics, rather than personal stories from those who would be most affected by the bill. However, the programs did use the opportunity to cover key changes to and consequences of the bill.
Senate Republicans on July 13 introduced a new draft of their bill to repeal and replace the ACA, which includes key changes surrounding health savings accounts and ways for insurers to offer more bare-bones policies. While the bill has changed a bit, the media coverage has largely stayed the same. Once again, media are continuing to focus on the process surrounding the bill and largely ignoring personal stories from those most affected. Unlike with previous coverage, cable and broadcast news did focus on the new changes in the bill and their potential consequences for Americans. MSNBC in particular provided more context and information about the bill than other networks.
During the July 13 newscasts, just hours after the new draft plan was introduced, broadcast news shows framed their coverage around the legislative process and optics of the bill. NBC’s Lester Holt introduced a report on the bill on NBC Nightly News by noting that “Republicans face a crucial battle for votes in their own party” over the bill. CBS’ Anthony Mason said the bill was “already in critical condition” on CBS Evening News because of the lack of Republican support. And ABC’s Mary Bruce framed her report on the new bill by pointing out that it faces “the same old problem: Can it get the votes to pass?”
Like previous coverage, broadcast newscasts largely neglected to offer personal anecdotes from people who would be most affected by the bill. One exception was CBS Evening News, which followed its coverage of the bill with a segment on how Kentuckians would be “hard hit” by its Medicaid cuts.
Network newscasts did do an exemplary job of highlighting the consequences of and new changes in this newest draft of the bill, however, including provisions that would allow “the return of skimpy junk insurance policies and discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions,” according to HuffPost, and expand the use of health savings accounts, which have been found to “primarily benefit the wealthy, the healthy, and the educated.”
Like broadcast newscasts, the 6 p.m. hour of cable news coverage framed the unveiling of the bill largely around vote counting and optics. Fox News’ Bret Baier introduced a panel discussion of the bill on Special Report by explaining that the GOP “can only afford to lose one more vote” to pass the bill. Earlier in the program, Baier set up a report on the bill by highlighting “the continued internal dissent” surrounding the bill. MSNBC’s Ali Velshi framed his discussion of the bill on MSNBC Live by saying that it “is hanging by a thread” in terms of votes. CNN’s Jim Acosta opened a segment on the bill by stating that Republicans are “increasingly optimistic about its prospects.” Acosta even conducted an interview with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and asked only about the prospects the bill would pass, not the actual policies it contains.
Like broadcast newscasts, cable coverage was also largely devoid of personal stories from those most affected. However, cable coverage did highlight several changes that are included in this draft of the bill and the consequences of the provisions. MSNBC, especially, excelled in this area, hosting Dr. Kavita Patel, medical director of Sibley Primary Care in Washington, D.C., who noted that this bill “does cause a death spiral … by allowing for insurance plans to sell … catastrophic insurance.”
MSNBC also hosted Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who pointed out that the bill negatively impacts state budgets, like in Virginia.
When Republicans’ Senate health care bill looked like it was hurtling toward a vote two weeks ago, prime-time cable news largely neglected to cover several negative consequences of the bill and instead spent a disproportionate amount of time on the political process surrounding the legislation.
Media Matters reviewed the two nights of cable news coverage -- from 5 to 11 p.m. -- between the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) score of the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2016 (BCRA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) announcement that the bill would be temporarily tabled until after congressional recess. We analyzed Nexis transcripts for individual statements -- defined as a single sentence -- about a wide range of reported negative impacts of the bill (including cuts to Medicaid funding, potential cuts to essential health benefits (EHBs), and a one-year freeze in federal funding for Planned Parenthood) and compared those to statements about the process surrounding the potential vote on the bill. We also reviewed coverage to see whether it included personal stories about people who would be impacted by the bill.
During those two nights of coverage -- when media outlets were under the impression the bill was imminently coming up for a vote and potentially taking a major step toward becoming law -- process overwhelmed policy:
CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News made more than four times as many statements about process as they did about the negative impacts of the bill.
There were over 33 times more statements about process than personal stories of those who would be most affected by the law.
None of the three networks featured statements about potential cuts to mental health benefits, special education programs, or the negative impact of the proposed legislation on people with HIV.
While the process surrounding the bill is a crucial part of the discussion (McConnell intentionally kept the drafting process secret and has been trying to rush the bill through the Senate), the extent to which process discussion eclipsed coverage of the impacts of the bill was staggering. On Fox News, the ratio between statements about process and statements about the negative impact of the bill was roughly 10-to-1, while on MSNBC and CNN, that ratio was nearly 5-to-1.
Over the two-day period, prime-time cable news made 1,835 statements about the process of passing the bill through the Senate. CNN made 792, Fox News made 274, and MSNBC made 769.
CNBC reported that out of approximately 11.2 million children in the U.S. who have special needs, “nearly 5 million rely on coverage from Medicaid and its Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.” The BCRA’s cuts to Medicaid, made by phasing out the ACA’s Medicaid expansion program, threaten the funding for this program. The Washington Post noted trepidation among school districts that say that in order “to fill the hole they anticipate would be left by the Republican push to restructure Medicaid, they would either have to cut those services or downsize general education programs that serve all students.” There were no statements made about these cuts on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.
Cuts to Medicaid and a rollback on essential health benefits (EHBs) means that people with mental illness would be receiving “less coverage for more money,” according to HuffPost. As the Center for American Progress (CAP) noted, “The CBO’s prediction matches the reality of the pre-ACA insurance market,” when “a significant number of people did not have coverage for … mental health services.” There were no statements about these cuts on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.
The GOP Senate bill called for freezing federal funds to Planned Parenthood for one year, blocking access to family planning and related women’s health services that the clinics offer to millions of Americans. Defunding Planned Parenthood on a state level has had detrimental effects on public health. When Indiana shuttered five Planned Parenthood facilities -- at least one of which did not offer abortion services -- in 2015, the state experienced “an unprecedented HIV epidemic caused by intravenous drug use” due to a lack of access to preventative and testing measures. In Texas, after cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, fewer women “received contraceptive services, fewer use highly effective methods, some have had unintended pregnancies, and some have had abortions they would not have had if not for these policies." There were nine statements about this freeze on CNN and two on Fox News. There were no statements about it on MSNBC.
Three members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) resigned in the wake of the proposed Senate bill. One of the former members, Scott Schoettes, told BuzzFeed News that the bill will “kill people” and force more Americans into bankruptcy due to high medical emergency costs. The National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) condemned the bill, calling it “catastrophic for our nation’s health care system,” specifically by causing people living with or at risk of HIV and STDs to suffer and by impeding efforts to end the HIV and STD epidemics. There was no statement made about this impact on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.
As CBS reported, the CBO found that “for low-income people ... ‘the premium for a silver plan would typically be a relatively high percent of income,’ while the deductible for a bronze plan ‘would be a significantly higher percentage of income. As a result, despite being eligible for premium tax credits, few low-income people would purchase any plan.’” Vox noted that this would result in “making poor people pay more for less health insurance.” Additionally, The Washington Post pointed out that “by adjusting subsidy numbers and implementing policies that are projected to increase premiums, low-income people by and large end up with higher health-care costs.” There were seven statements made about these increases on CNN, one on Fox News, and five on MSNBC.
The Senate bill “allows states to use a waiver to opt out of covering the essential health benefits package” that was put in place by the ACA, The Washington Post reported. The ACA provision requires insurers to cover things such as ambulatory care, hospital visits, and maternity care. Vox explained that in order for a state to opt out of a certain essential health benefit requirement under the ACA, it “has to show that its alternative plan would allow it to cover as many people, with coverage as generous, without increasing federal spending.” But the Senate bill “removes the guardrails that ensured state-based alternatives would offer strong coverage.” Without these standards, many patients “are likely to drop their coverage,” which, as one health care expert noted, would not serve to reduce costs because cost burden would shift entirely to the individuals who need the coverage. CNN made two statements about these cuts, and Fox News and MSNBC made zero.
As The Atlantic pointed out, decreasing the requirements that a state must meet to waive coverage for essential health benefits would create a “backdoor way” to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Los Angeles Times columnist Jon Healey wrote that, while the bill does not “directly” remove coverage for pre-existing conditions, it “would leave” those with pre-existing conditions “open to indirect attack by state officials eager to cut insurance premiums the easy way: by allowing insurers to cater to the customers they really want to serve, which are the ones who don’t need healthcare.” As CAP’s Topher Spiro summed up, under the Senate bill, “coverage would be eviscerated for millions of people with preexisting conditions.” There was one statement about these impacts on CNN and one on Fox News, and there were seven on MSNBC.
Time reported that if the Senate bill’s proposed changes to state essential health benefits waivers were implemented, “insurers may not continue to cover … out or inpatient substance use disorder services.” And while the BCRA “offer[s] $2 billion in funding to help combat the ongoing opioid epidemic,” lawmakers and activists for addressing substance use disorders have said that “much more money is needed”; one health economics professor told Mother Jones that the opioid epidemic funding allocation is merely “a joke.” Mother Jones also pointed out that slashes to Medicaid, which is “the largest payer for addiction services across the country,” would be “crippling,” particularly “for many of the communities that voted Trump into office.” CNN made 13 statements about these cuts, and MSNBC made nine. Fox made none.
PBS reported that under the Senate bill, the wealthiest Americans will receive an average annual tax cut of nearly $52,000, according to analysis by the Tax Policy Center. The bill would repeal the Obama-era tax on wealthy investors, as well as repeal a Medicare payroll tax on high-income families. There were 20 statements about these tax cuts on CNN, two on Fox News, and 22 on MSNBC.
NPR reported that the Senate bill “could even bring back lifetime caps on how much an insurer would pay for such services for a particular patient.” According to an estimate by CAP, “About 20 million people with employer-based coverage would face lifetime limits on coverage.” There was one statement about these caps made on CNN and there were five on MSNBC. There were no statements made on Fox News.
The CBO report projected that the Senate health care bill would cut $772 billion in federal money from Medicaid over a 10-year period. Between 14 and 15 million people would reportedly lose their health insurance under this drastic cut. According to CAP, under the Senate bill, “many states would face serious funding shortages for their Medicaid programs.” There were 58 statements about these cuts on CNN, four on Fox News, and 54 on MSNBC.
According to the CBO report, under the Senate bill, the number of people without health insurance would increase by 22 million over the next 10 years. There were 66 statements made about the increase in uninsured people on CNN, 15 on Fox News, and 67 on MSNBC.
Media Matters searched news transcripts in the Nexis database on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the following programs: CNN’s The Situation Room, Erin Burnett Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, and the 10 p.m. hour of CNN Tonight; Fox News’ The Fox News Specialists, Special Report with Bret Baier, The Story with Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Five, and Hannity; and MSNBC’s Meet the Press Daily, For the Record with Greta Van Susteren, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. We searched for any of the following terms in the body of the text: health care, Better Care Reconciliation Act, BCRA, Senate health, GOP health, Republican health, Affordable Care Act, ACA, Obama care, or Obamacare.
Segments were included in the study if the Better Care Reconciliation Act was the stated topic of discussion or if two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the BCRA with one another. If a speaker mentioned the BCRA in a multitopic segment and no other speaker in that segment engaged with the comment, then it was excluded from the analysis as a passing mention. All teasers of upcoming segments about the BCRA were also excluded from the analysis.
For each segment we included in the study, two researchers independently coded the number of statements -- defined as a single sentence -- that included:
Mentions of a personal narrative that contextualized how the BCRA would impact the subject of the narrative.
Mentions of the process, e.g., how the bill would pass, how members of the Senate would or would not vote, how Senators would negotiate for votes, the optics of the bill, and anything that could influence a Senator’s vote for or against the BCRA.
Mentions of the following negative impacts of the BCRA:
Mentions of cuts to Medicaid.
Mentions of the increase in premiums or out-of-pocket costs for low-income Americans.
Mentions of the potential elimination of essential health benefits.
Mentions of the impact of persons with pre-existing conditions.
Mentions of potential cuts to mental health care.
Mentions of cuts to substance abuse treatment.
Mentions of how cuts to Medicaid would impact special education programs in schools.
Mentions of cuts to Planned Parenthood.
Mentions of the impact of the BCRA on persons with HIV.
Mentions that the BCRA would provide significate tax cuts to wealthy or high-income Americans.
Mentions that the BCRA would allow insurers to reinstate lifetime caps.
Mentions of the reduction of the total number of insured Americans.
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Fake News Purveyors Joined Conservatives In Lauding Comey's Firing
Right-wing media praised the Trump administration’s egregious decision to fire FBI director James Comey. Conservatives trumpeted the move as long overdue, while other media outlets lamented Trump’s move as “obstruction” and called his rationale for the firing “implausible.”