Senate Republicans clearly knew what they were doing when they were extremely secretive about their health care bill, which was released Thursday.
My colleague Brian Resnick and I wrote that they leveraged several human biases to keep our attention off the hugely unpopular bill. And the New Republic’s Brian Beutler wrote that their tactic took advantage of the media’s tendency to cover only new things.
The trend of less coverage is certainly true. The media covered the health care bill less in the past few weeks than it did when the bill was in the House and generating tidbits of news throughout the process.
We can see this trend in TV coverage:
And in online coverage:
But there’s some nuance to be had here: Not everyone took their eye off the ball.
On right-wing news sites, coverage of the health bill stayed steady — and their message was one that would give cover to Senate Republicans who need to find a way to pass this popular legislation without getting too much flack.
And they got their cover in the form of a simple, but powerful, message: This bill isn’t about the poor and the rich, but rather about Obamacare failing, and needing to do something, anything, about that.
But let’s be clear: Obamacare is not “failing” in the way Republicans are letting on. Rather, my colleague Sarah Kliff has written about how the instability is caused by the Trump administration and their lack of clarity about the future. And an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office showed that, if left alone, Obamacare would keep uninsured rates at about the same level as they are now. It is not in a spiral, and it is not collapsing.
Right-wing media kept their eye on the ball
The period in question is the seven weeks between the House passing their health bill and Thursday, when the Senate released their bill.
We used the service TrendKite to track how 100 right-wing media sites covered the Obamacare repeal bill, compared with all other sites, which serves as a proxy for “mainstream media.”
What we found was that, compared to previous low points in coverage in 2017, mainstream media covered Obamacare repeal even less. I drew a yellow bar to let you compare how the recent volume of coverage compares with other low points in the past year:
You can see a clear dip after the House passed the American Health Care Act, likely because the media was covering the Trump-Russia saga and Congressional hearings with former FBI Director James Comey.
But on right-wing sites, the coverage didn’t dip nearly as much, and stayed within the lower bounds of previous coverage levels:
In short, right-wing media kept Obamacare repeal on the back burner — and their coverage tended obscure portions of the legislation that make it unpopular, and push the message that Obamacare is collapsing.
The right-wing message that gives cover to Senate Republicans includes obscuring the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich
Senate Republicans tweaked the House bill, but the core structure stayed the same. Ultimately, it is still a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
It phases out Medicaid expansion, which covers the poor, and it makes coverage more expensive for many poor people — and in addition gives them worse coverage for their money. Meanwhile, it uses that money to cut taxes for the rich.
This transfer of wealth is something mainstream media didn’t do a great job talking about, but right-wing media did a far worse job. Instead, according to our analysis using TrendKite, they focused on Obamacare failing:
Now, here’s the catch: Mainstream media also focused on storylines about Obamacare failing, likely because it was something Republican policymakers repeated time and again. In both mainstream and right-wing media, about one in five stories talked about Obamacare failing.
The difference is that in mainstream media, a third of the stories mentioned Medicaid. This is important because a big part of Obamacare was Medicaid expansion, which gave states the option to allow poor people to enroll in free coverage. The Republican bill, first in the House and now the Senate, is about repealing that expansion, and using the money saved to give tax cuts to the wealthy.
In the vacuum of coverage, the message that Obamacare is failing won out
Senate Republicans outsmarted the media, my colleague Jeff Guo writes.
But it wasn’t just about keeping the attention off the bill and its ramifications. In the absence of those details, they were able to push the rhetoric that was so successful for them during Obama’s presidency — and so successful during the 2016 campaign.
It’s the idea that Obamacare is failing, and that it needs to be repealed, regardless of what’s put in its place. It’s a narrative that Senate Republicans might be able to repeat to themselves and their constituents, time and again, and obscure the actual contents of the bill, which snatches away coverage from people who are poor and gives it to people who are rich.