CyberAlert -- 09/11/1996 -- Final Report on 1996 Television Network Convention Coverage

Front cover of the September 11, 1996 report: | Best and Worst, from page 2 of the 15 page report

One item today: Wednesday morning at 10am the MRC will hold a press conference with MRC Chairman L. Brent Bozell to release our final Media Reality Check 96 report on TV network coverage of the conventions. C-SPAN should be there to tape the press conference, so you may be able to see it Wednesday night.

Below are the front page summary and page 2 explanation of the best and worst networks and reporters. If you'd like to get the entire 15-page report which includes tables, graphs and network by network examples of labeling, agenda questions and the disparity in the highlighting of negativity, please send an e-mail to me: (or reply to this e-mail address but I may not see it until Wednesday night). Tell me either your address and we'll snail mail it, or your fax number. Or, call me at (703) 683-9733.

Front cover of the September 11, 1996 report:

Final Report on 1996 Television Network Convention Coverage:
TV Analysts Label Democrats Twice as Often, But Fire Liberal Questions
Both Parties Too Conservative for the Networks

Alexandria, VA -- The television networks substantially increased the number of labels they applied to Democrats during their 1996 convention over 1992, but at both the Republican and Democratic conventions this year the networks demanded answers to a barrage of questions from the left. For Republicans gathered in San Diego, GOP intolerance on abortion was the issue. For Democrats convened in Chicago, going too far to the right on welfare reform became the media focus. Adding up both questions and statements made by reporters to one another, abortion or exclusion of pro-choice voices were raised as an issue 55 times in San Diego, while viewers heard about welfare reform 43 times in Chicago.

After producing a daily Media Reality Check '96 newsletter during the August political conventions, the Media Research Center's (MRC) news division staff organized its analysis of prime time coverage into this special 15-page report. This analysis covers ABC, CBS, CNN (starting at 8pm ET), NBC and the joint NBC/PBS broadcast.

Key findings:

  • Democrats labeled liberal more often than Republicans tagged conservative. Studies of the 1984, 1988 and 1992 conventions found Republicans labeled much more frequently than Democrats. In 1992, the MRC determined the networks applied 118 conservative labels during the GOP conclave, but just 38 liberal labels during the Democratic gathering. This year, Republicans were tagged 59 times (13 moderate, 30 conservative, and 16 more extremist terms), but Democrats were labeled 119 times (44 moderate, 71 liberal and four more extremist terms).

    In Chicago, Bill Clinton got 28 moderate labels and captured about half as many liberal tags with 16. In San Diego, the networks focused most of their labeling on conservative delegates and speakers as Bob Dole went largely untagged -- three moderate and two conservative labels. The Republican platform was never called moderate and the Democratic platform was never described as liberal. See page 3 for a summary table and graph, pages 6-14 for examples.

  • Convention attendees pummeled with questions from the left side of the political spectrum. On 51 occasions in San Diego Republicans were hit with questions from the left, especially about intolerance and abortion, but they heard just six inquiries from the right. Two weeks later instead of questioning Democrats from the right, the networks posed 47 from the left, the vast majority on how many Democrats opposed President Clinton's decision to sign the welfare reform bill, but just 11 questions from the right. In this area the networks have grown more biased. Four years ago, while the GOP got the same treatment, hearing 131 questions from the left compared to 17 from the right, Democrats got a more even going over with 46 questions from the left and 38 from the right. See page 4 for a table and graph, pages 7-15 for examples.
  • Republicans blamed repeatedly for displaying a negative tone, but Democrats go unscathed despite some pretty vitriolic speeches. In San Diego the networks characterized Republicans with terms like "negative," "harsh," "strident" or "mean" or described GOP speeches as an "attack," 34 times. Democrats were hit with the negative descriptions just six times during their convention, but even in Chicago Republicans got hammered more with 23 references to GOP negativity. In 1992, the networks questioned the Republican tone as too negative 70 times, but never once raised the subject against Democrats at their convention. See page 5 for a summary table and examples of the contrast.
  • Controversies such as Whitewater and Travelgate barely acknowledged. The Clintons are under active investigation by an independent counsel, but the networks made only seven references to Democratic scandals. NBC and the joint NBC-PBS broadcast aired two mentions; ABC, CBS, and CNN, only one. Topics never mentioned: the FBI files scandal, the Iran-Bosnia scandal, and the special counsel investigations of Cabinet members such as Henry Cisneros and Mike Espy. Controversies about Republicans, such as questions about Elizabeth Dole's blind trust, were also ignored.

Best and Worst, from page 2 of the 15 page report:

Best Network: ABC News

Posed the fewest ideological questions at both conventions, had the least disparity in blaming the parties for being too negative and, given the amount of airtime, were the most willing to identify Democrats as liberal.

Worst Network: CNN
Failed to take advantage of their added airtime to offer viewers something beyond just more of what the other networks showed. CNN had the greatest disparity in the agenda of questions posed, with 23 from the left to just three from the right.

Best reporters

  • Sam Donaldson, ABC News: In San Diego he refrained from gratuitous attacks on the Republicans for being too intolerant. In Chicago, on the first day of the convention, Donaldson offered a balanced appraisal of the party delegates, noting that the Democratic delegates "are far to the left of the mainstream just as the Republicans were to the right of the mainstream." In the midst of hoopla over Bill Clinton's speech, only Donaldson realized that while he gave a "great speech," the "record shows that the next day he may give a different speech, change his mind, trim it a little bit, do something else."
  • Lisa Myers, NBC News: One of the few reporters to pose questions from both the left and right. In San Diego, she asked Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from the right about how she "has generally opposed efforts to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants, particularly education and health benefits. Why would hardworking American taxpayers pay for people who are here illegally?" Then she asked her about how people who saw her speech "found it too negative. They didn't particularly like the degree to which you attacked the President. In retrospect, do you think you went too far?" On the first night in Chicago, Myers quizzed a delegate about whether liberals or New Democrats control the party.
  • Brian Ross, ABC News: Although CNN's Brooks Jackson appeared early in prime time with stories on corporate contributions and union influence, ABC's Ross deserves recognition despite the fact his pieces did not air in prime time. In a series of World News Tonight stories, Ross went after the big money contributors to both parties. Ross raised unique issues, such as "the giant media corporations...very much in the middle of the mix." In San Diego he noted that "the ABC hospitality suite was a lobbyist's dream." In Chicago he looked at one big donor: "His name is Arthur Coia, who despite being president of a labor union the FBI says has long been controlled by the Mafia...has become one of the Democrats' top money people."

Worst reporters:

  • Maria Shriver, NBC News: Seemed baffled why a rape victim would have anything to do with the GOP and her interview with Hillary Clinton following the First Lady's address was more like two old friends sharing tales of their suffering than a dispassionate interview. Just after Jan Licence addressed Republicans about victim's rights, Shriver asked her: "But why [speak] at a Republican convention? So many people have said that they don't think this ticket, or perhaps this party, is supportive of women's issues. Why make this stand here?" Shriver's interview with the First Lady assumed Mrs. Clinton had been unfairly attacked by Republicans. Shriver posed questions like, "This has been a difficult couple of years for you. Did that applause, the way you've been treated here, the way people have been reacting to you, kind of make it all go away?" And, noting GOP criticism of her book, Shriver wondered, "How did that affect you when you heard about that?"
  • Judy Woodruff, CNN: In San Diego she demanded that Republicans explain why there weren't more female delegates, but in Chicago instead of challenging Democrats on the appeal of their pro-partial birth abortion stand, she worried about welfare reform going too far. Woodruff peppered Mrs. Clinton with six welfare questions, all from the left. She pleaded with her to stop it: "Eleanor Roosevelt, whom you admire, mentioned her again just now, said that much of the time she kept her disagreements with the President to herself in private, but there were times that she felt it was important to disagree publicly. Does there ever come a time with you, and if not welfare reform, then what?"
  • Tom Brokaw, NBC News: Found Republican speakers threatened to be perceived as too mean, took a pot shot at Ronald Reagan, and portrayed Republicans as insensitive to rape, but praised the speaking power of Democrats. In San Diego he warned that the GOP knows "it has to lower the threshold of perceived meanness on the part of the country." In Chicago, after Jesse Jackson's speech which attacked conservatives, he admired how his words grew "out of a very deep passion." Brokaw did at least mention Whitewater in Chicago, but after the moving tribute to Ronald Reagan in San Diego he took this swipe: "Ronald Reagan will have to learn how history will judge his time in office -- the deficits, the Iran-Contra affair." At the GOP conclave he told rape victim Jan Licence: "This is a party that is dominated by men," so, he wondered, "do you think before tonight they ever thought about what happens in America with rape?"

-- Brent Baker