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.