Welcome to the first installment of GetGetReligion, an occasional look at GetReligion, the daily review of mainstream religion coverage that is dedicated to the proposition that "the press...just doesn't get religion." Written by Godbeat graybeard Terry Mattingly and a shifting cast of younger associates, GetReligion is bankrolled by conservative moneybags and Mattingly pal Roberta Ahmanson (a sometime MSM religion reporter herself). So while it loves finding missed religion angles and tosses the odd laurel along with the brickbats, the axe GetReligion perpetually grinds is that when it comes to religion, the press is guilty guilty guilty of secular liberal bias.
The question we ask here at GetGet is, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?--or, loosely translated, What's that damn dog barking about anyway? From time to time someone like Commonweal's Grant Gallicho will be sufficiently annoyed to administer a slap across the snout. The response is usually along the lines of: We're just pointing out the journalistic deficiencies, not spinning the story ourselves. Well, let's see.
Earlier this week, GetReligionista Mollie Ziegler was on deck with the latest in a series of critiques of coverage of the HHS contraception mandate story.
One of the ways the media have botched this story is by couching it as a debate over contraception as opposed to a debate over religious freedom. While it’s true that certain players in the battle do view it as a debate over contraception--and that is a legitimate and worthwhile avenue for coverage--it’s also true that other players in the battle (who may not even care about contraception or generally approve of it) view this as as a religious liberty debate. That side of the story has suffered from weaker coverage.
Given that over 1,300 stories mentioning "bishops" and "religious liberty" have appeared in the English-language media since January 1 (according to Lexis-Nexis Academic), I wouldn't say that the press has exactly ignored the story's religious liberty angle. But that's not been enough for Ziegler. As she puts it, "It has been a very, very, very frustrating experience for those of us who are expressing concern about the separation of church and state as it relates to the mandates of the massive health care legislation passed in 2010."
As sure as God made little green apples, there are parties to the debate who are terribly anxious to frame this as a religious liberty story. Whether the media should go along, however, is another question. Over at dotCommonweal, Peggy Steinfels is not so sure:
What are the U.S. Catholic bishops really arguing about with the Obama administration? Is it religious liberty, as they insist? Is it contraception and sterilization, as the headlines in my archdiocesan paper stress? Is it a desire, conscious or unconscious, to reassert their authority after the dog days of the sexual-abuse scandal? Is it simply anti-Obama prejudice? Maybe it’s all of the above, and then some: perhaps they just lack astute advisers.
And that's not to mention the possibiity that what underlies what some might call the grandstanding (a Ziegler bête noire) on religion liberty has been opposition to that massive health care legislation itself. Which legislation, according to Ziegler, "requires religious employers for the first time in history to fund insurance plans they morally oppose." Though actually, as Ziegler later seems to acknowledge, religious employers have been mandated to do this for some time by many states--21 one of them, to be exact. So why the big fuss about religious liberty now?
Ziegler professes unhappiness that no one covered a recent congressional hearing at which HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius confessed ignorance of the latest religious liberty court cases. She'd like the media to get down in the legal weeds and discuss the implications of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) for the constitutional future of the mandate. As someone who's been following RFRA since it was just a gleam in David Saperstein's eye, I would not disagree that the press could do a better job of informing America in general and the Catholic bishops in particular about just how Justice Scalia cut the legs out from under Free Exercise jurisprudence.
But that is a very old story. Hell, Bill Clinton criticized the press for not recognizing the significance of RFRA when he signed the thing into law. The bottom line here is that by pushing the contraception mandate story's religious liberty angle hard, GetReligion is playing the mandate opponents' game.