MediaWatch: March 1996

Vol. Ten No. 3

Clinton Thought He Had It Tough

Reporters don't like ideological labeling, at least when it's applied to them. Last November, Dan Rather told Denver radio host Mike Rosen he hated "to be tagged by someone else's label. I try really hard not to do that with other people, particularly people who are in public service and politics."

So do reporters use labeling in campaign coverage? MediaWatch analysts compared media coverage of the primaries in 1992 with those in 1996. Analysts reviewed evening news coverage of the four networks (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's The World Today and in 1992 World News or Prime News) for 19 days, starting with the Tuesday before the New Hampshire primary.

For 1992, the days studied were February 11-29; in 1996, February 13-March 2, the day of the South Carolina primary. Both were periods when voters and reporters winnowed down the presidential field.

The study found the Democratic candidates or their supporters were labeled "liberal" only four times, none suggesting extremism. In 1996, GOP candidates or their supporters were labeled 73 times, 45 of the labels suggesting extremism. Analysts also looked at campaign controveries. Five stories investigated the finances of Republicans, compared to no investigations of the Democrats. Charges of bigotry by Pat Buchanan were featured in 20 stories.


Reporters used only four liberal labels to describe the Democratic candidates, all in the first two days of the 1992 study period. On February 11, NBC's Andrea Mitchell used two labels, calling Tom Harkin "a pure liberal and proud of it" with "old-fashioned liberal solutions." That same night, ABC's Judy Muller noted: "If Kerrey's health plan strikes some voters as too liberal, his more conservative proposals for dealing with the recession seem to strike a chord with voters trying to make ends meet." The next night, Muller said Harkin calls himself "an unabashed liberal."

Even when the ideology seemed obvious, reporters stressed candidates were not liberal, but part of the mainstream. On February 12, 1992, ABC reporter Chris Bury reported on Jerry Brown: "To those who hear him, Brown's appeal is his idealism, his calls for political reform, universal health care, and environmental activism." Despite that left-wing agenda, Bury underlined: "Some voters seemed surprised Brown did not sound so radical." The closest thing to a Clinton label came from ABC's Jack Smith, who told viewers a week later that Clinton's economic message "runs counter to so much traditional liberal ideology." (Did reporters eschew labeling in 1992? No. Stories during the study period on the 1992 GOP race used the word "conservative" or "from the right" on 77 occasions, with four references to extremism.)

In 1996, Republicans and their voters were labeled on 73 occasions. The networks employed 18 conservative descriptions, six moderate labels, and even four liberal tags (all of them from reporters quoting Buchanan's attacks on his rivals). On the 18th, NBC's David Bloom said Lamar Alexander was "trying to bolster his conservative credentials." But extreme terms were applied on 45 occasions -- all but one to describe Pat Buchanan. (The exception: Bloom called Alexander a "moderate Republican with a radical plan of devolution.") Among references to extremism, 36 used the terms "extreme" or "extremist," but analysts included the terms "ultraconservative," "too conservative" or "out of the mainstream."

CBS led the networks with 19 references to Buchanan's extremism (compared to 12 for CNN, nine for ABC, and five by NBC). On six occasions, CBS underlined their perception of Buchanan's ultraconservatism by referring to the networks' Voter News Service exit poll question asking if Buchanan was too extreme. In a February 18 interview with Sen. Phil Gramm, Dan Rather asked: "There is a perception that Buchanan has around him people with extremist views on race. Do you agree?" On February 25, CBS weekend anchor John Roberts asked CBS consultant Joe Klein: "Some call Buchanan an extremist. Others call him as American as apple pie. What is this fellow's appeal?" Klein replied: "He is both. He is an extremist and as American as apple pie."


Reporters were not interested in the Democratic candidates' finances in 1992, airing no stories during the study period. When Whitewater first came to light on March 8, 1992, NBC aired only one story, eight days later. CBS made a brief mention on the 8th, and then dismissed financial questions on the 16th. Reporter Richard Threlkeld portrayed Whitewater questions as an invasion of Hillary Clinton's privacy. All together, the networks did just five full stories on the Clinton finances in 1992.

In 1996, CBS and NBC combined for five stories in just 19 days touching on Republican candidate finances. NBC investigated the sweetheart deals of Lamar Alexander on February 13, and mentioned them again February 18. CBS investigated the Alexander deals on February 15, then added another look at Honey Alexander's and Elizabeth Dole's financial moves on February 17. On March 2, CBS suggested hypocrisy in Buchanan's stock ownership of Fortune 500 corporations. On February 21, CBS reporter Rita Braver claimed Lamar Alexander had "some financial dealings in his past that might put Whitewater to shame."


Sparked by the disclosure that Buchanan campaign co-chair Larry Pratt spoke at forums shared by white supremacists, the networks aired twenty stories raising the allegation that Buchanan was bigoted against blacks or Jews. CBS reporter Phil Jones concluded: "Buchanan has been talking and writing like this for years. Then, he was on the fringe. Now, he's on the front line and Americans are starting to take a closer look at Pat Buchanan's America." The story count didn't include isolated soundbites, like one voter on the March 2 CBS Evening News: "Buchanan scares me. He reminds me of a little guy over in Germany with a mustache."

In September 1992, Bill Clinton claimed: "Nobody's had a tougher press than I have. No candidate in history has." Some of this year's candidates may beg to differ.