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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Pitifully taught

Most Americans know absolutely nothing about the <em>Hobby Lobby</em> case

Pitifully taught

Demonstrators who do understand the case celebrate the <i>Hobby Lobby</i> decision (Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

I knew, right after hearing the first details of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision on June 30, that the issues were nuanced enough to need some careful explaining. So just how confused might the American public be? And would the mainstream media offer genuine help on that front—or would they just make matters worse?

To find out, I decided to pull out my favorite research tool—a visit to the sidewalk in front of my local Walmart. My wife reminded me that, with no Hobby Lobby store here in Asheville, I might end up with a lot of blank stares. Folks simply wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I hoped for a little more civic interest and engagement.

My wife, though, was right. Only four of the first 20 people I asked had a clue what I meant when I asked: “What would you say was the main issue in the Hobby Lobby case that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on earlier this week?” Of those four, none was close to getting things right. Instead, all four answered by asking something like: “Was that the decision where the government said contraceptives are illegal?”

I’ll admit that asking all these random shoppers for a detailed analysis of a complex court case might be expecting a bit much. And maybe the sight of a white-haired septuagenarian quizzing Thursday morning Walmart shoppers about contraceptives was a little off-putting.

But I wasn’t pursuing a carefully researched legal brief. Just get the topic approximately right, I asked. Yet 80 percent of my sample couldn’t even discuss the matter; and the other 20 percent got it all wrong. I have no reason to think a national survey, including thousands of respondents, would be any more encouraging.

For the record, here’s what I was looking for: The Hobby Lobby decision held basically that the government cannot require a closely held private business to provide specified aspects of healthcare for its employees if such provision violates the company’s religious conscience, so long as those specific aspects of care remain otherwise available to the employees. And the court specifically based its decision not on the First Amendment of the Constitution’s “Bill of Rights” but on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

But the nation’s media provided precious little help to the American public in reaching a clear understanding of the decision. When President Obama (through his press secretary), presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all blasted the Hobby Lobby decision as an expression of conservatives’ continuing “War on Women,” most of the networks, the newspapers, and the magazines gave such spokesmen free rein. No challenging questions, few follow-ups. Here and there, a minor exception—like the liberal Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who cautioned his colleagues that the Hobby Lobby decision was “not as radical” as some of them were saying. But Tribe was almost alone in his media quarters, flashing such an amber caution light.

Much more typical was the claim, and this assertion was aired in only slightly varied form at least half a dozen times on MSNBC and PBS, that “this ruling allows bosses to force their personal beliefs on employees.” Or try the colorful conclusion that after such a decision, we can expect next to see the court carving out special permission for Amish farmers to sell unpasteurized milk. Scare language was everywhere.

All of which is why the random gathering of people in front of Walmart last week tended to be so tongue-tied. The nation’s media, whose duty it is to provide thoughtful information, had instead served up a steady diet of misinformation. And having been so pitifully taught, the people were now quite unprepared to identify something so simple as the main issue defining the Hobby Lobby case. Sadly, the few who got close still tended to get it very wrong.

It’s a pretty rare thing that when teachers get things terribly wrong, their students do any better. I’ll try to remember that the next time I head out for a Walmart opinion poll.

Email jbelz@wng.org

Comments

  • Soapbxn's picture
    Soapbxn
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    Dulsinaya  - I'm not sure that sampling in the vicinity of a Starbucks would make any difference other than the number of people who had read anything about it and were able to give an opinion might increase.  Most people, regardless of demographics, who read or watch the news, get that news from a major local paper or network.  Most of those report from a progressive post-modern world view, feeding an agenda to reader/viewers.  Mainstream media is pretty well controlled across the board from a liberal/progressive position or world view.  People only know what they are fed and most don't seek to expand on the choices.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    And if, in time, that turns out to be true it should be reported.  But right now, as the ruling stands and as the actual practice at Hobby Lobby is...the reporting was not true.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    Pitifully led and fed for sure, but mostly bad choices made at the all you can eat buffet of news sources. Most Americans are only concerned with what affects their own little world, especially who likes what on their Facebook page. 

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    "I heard the misinformation broadcast at an ABC news break on our local talk radio station just last week.  They said "The Supreme Court ruling allows Hobby Lobby not to provide birth control to its employees".   Not true."That may in fact be true.  Time will tell how the logic in the Hobby Lobby decision will impact other ongoing federal cases.  Some legal theorists argue it will help the efforts of other employers who, unlike Hobby Lobby, want to refrain from covering all forms of birth control instead of just the ones that can prevent implantation.If the ruling ends up making it possible for employers (in general) to opt out of covering contraception altogether then it would be accurate to say that, "The Supreme Court ruling allows Hobby Lobby to not provide birth control to its employees."Even if Hobby Lobby still covers most forms of contraception the ruling would have made it legally possible for Hobby Lobby to cover none of them if it so chose.

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    Hasn't what Joel Belz describes concerning the media been true for a long time? Who owns the media if not mega-rich private corporations with a propagandistic rather than a truth-searching point of view? Orwell's 1980 is now. Are we not yet convinced that "the powers of this dark world and...the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" operate the media? Hasn't this been true from the beginning of television?

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    I heard the misinformation broadcast at an ABC news break on our local talk radio station just last week.  They said "The Supreme Court ruling allows Hobby Lobby not to provide birth control to its employees".   Not true.

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    Most people, in general, know next to nothing about most issues.  People <i>may</i> be uniquely ignorant about the Hobby Lobby decision, but, if so, we can't conclude that from the impromptu Wal-Mart survey.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    I find it interesting that many feminists fly into a rage whenever they are told to by their leaders.  They reveal the contents of their heart with their language and all for no purpose because they don't understand the issue.  How difficult would it be for the news media to clarify it, as was done in the article, but they do not wish to waste a good tantrum.  

  • Gil
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn compared what was happening in America to the Soviets during his childhood. When someone asked what was happening to their country, his grandparents replied "we have turned our back on God". Our leaders and educational institutions  have "turned our backs on God" and we are sliding down the slippery slope

  • Dulsinaya
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:56 pm

    While I understand that this method is not scientific, I would like to see the results of this same approach at some upscale store (or coffee shop) in the same area, to see if there is a difference when the demographics change. Still sad to see the lack of honest media coverage or interest in the majority of these people knowing what is going on with the Supreme Court.