The big issue for Obamacare has long been how many people would enroll. When the deadline finally hit, broadcast news networks parroted the administration’s claims and raised few concerns about heavily spun results.
Breaking from a long silence over Obamacare , ABC, CBS and NBC declared “victory” for the now “unrepealable” Affordable Care Act but ignored problems with enrollment numbers 90 percent of the time. In fact, a Rand Corporation survey found that 1.4 million previously uninsured people gained insurance and that didn’t even factor in who had actually paid for their plans.
The networks devoted a total 34 minutes and 32 seconds on Obamacare and the administration’s claims that 7.1 million people enrolled. But raised questions about those numbers only 10 percent of the time – just 3 minutes and 25 seconds – in the week and a half following the deadline.
Since the Obamacare exchanges opened  on Oct. 1, 2013, the Obama administration has predicted millions of enrollees would buy health insurance on the exchanges. The deadline for enrollment was March 31. On that date the administration declared victory, making the claim that there were 7.1 million enrollees  in the Obamacare exchanges.
While this 7.1 million number appeared initially impressive, there were many doubts about its accuracy. Conservatives such as Breitbart  and liberals such as the Huffington Post  challenged the numbers. For example, the administration did not clarify how many of those enrollees actually paid for their plans or how many were previously uninsured.
While reporting on this deadline, the networks hyped Obama’s “victory” in hitting its enrollment target. On April 1, Obama gave a speech at the White House touting the success. That night, on “World News,” ABC’s White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl compared it to “a victory celebration.” Karl added that, “This is the best day that Democrats have had” in regard to healthcare reform.
CBS’ White House Correspondent Major Garrett went on April 1’s “Evening News” saying the enrollment figures “gave President Obama a reason to celebrate.”
The networks also asserted that the Obamacare debate was over. Anchor Diane Sawyer, on April 1’s “World News,” quoted Obama saying Obamacare is “here to stay.” NBC’s White House Correspondent Chuck Todd agreed on March 31’s “Today” that the enrollment success “means the law is unrepealable.”
The networks’ insistence on pushing the enrollment “success” was particularly troubling, given that they largely ignored Obamacare during 2014. Between January 1 and March 24, the networks’ evening shows spent less than 1 percent of air time on Obamacare . Since the deadline, however, the networks heavily covered both the deadline and Obama’s “victory” speech in 14 stories that week.
The Obamacare deadline was a very strange time for the networks to resume their reporting on the Affordable Care Act. With consistently changing deadlines, many analysts have dismissed the official deadline as political theater.
The Heritage Foundation’s Senior Research Fellow in Health Policy Studies, Edmund Haislmaier dismissed the deadline as “entirely political” and “meaningless.” He continued to say the deadline’s hype was “all about politics and bragging.”
Despite constantly promoting the White House’s success, the networks barely delved into the details of these enrollment numbers. In fact, they spent only 10 percent of the time even asking questions about the numbers, much less trying to answer these questions.
The closest they came to answering how many people paid their premiums was to dismiss the question with a generous estimate.
For example, Todd on NBC’s March 31 “Today,” laughed off the notion that many hadn’t paid their premiums, calling it a “myth” that is “not as true as some would hope it would be.” He then claimed that more than 80 percent of enrollees had paid for their insurance.
If this figure were accurate, of course, it would translate to 1.4 million fewer people gaining insurance than the White House reported.
Todd’s assessment repeated the number asserted that same morning by Ezekiel Emanuel , a prominent architect of the Obamacare law. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe on March 31, Emanuel said “about 82, 83 percent of those people have paid” but he assured viewers that the insurance companies would make people pay.
But preliminary numbers did not look as positive as either Todd or Emanuel’s assessments. Forbes reported a RAND Corporation study  that found that 1.4 million exchange enrollees were previously uninsured.
This amount dwindles further when taking into consideration who had actually paid. The Daily Mail (UK) reported another RAND Corporation estimate  that only 858,000 enrollees paid for their policies and were previously uninsured.
American Enterprise Fellow Marc Thiessen, writing an editorial for the Washington Post , made an even more critical argument against the enrollment hype. Thiessen urged readers to compare enrollment figures with the number of people who lost insurance from changing requirements due to the Affordable Care Act.
Thiessen wrote “Recall that between 5 million and 6 million Americans lost their health plans because of Obamacare last fall.” According to Thiessen, many enrollees were forced into the subsidized exchanges from canceled private insurance plans, making the 7 million number even less meaningful.
Methodology: The MRC’s Business and Media Institute watched each ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening show that discussed Obamacare between Monday, March 31 and Wednesday, April 9. Each segment was timed, and BMI also timed each discussion of questions concerning the enrollment numbers.
— Sean Long is Staff Writer at the Media Research Center. Follow Sean Long on Twitter.