For most Americans, the 2012 presidential campaign will be experienced on television, and voters will evaluate the candidates based on their performances at televised debates, daily news coverage, and in long-form interviews. Even with all of the changes in the media landscape over past several years, the most-watched regular forums for candidate interviews are the broadcast network morning news programs — NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America, and CBS's The Early Show, with a combined weekday audience of more than 13 million  as of the second quarter of 2011.
But how fairly are those broadcasts treating the candidates, and how well are the network morning show hosts serving Republican primary voters who must decide which candidate will oppose President Obama next fall? To find out, the Media Research Center analyzed all 53 weekday morning show interviews with either potential or declared Republican candidates from January 1 through September 15, and compared the results with our study of the same programs' treatment of the Democratic candidates during the same time period from four years ago.
The results show a clear double-standard:
By a 5-to-1 margin, ABC, CBS and NBC morning show hosts employed an adversarial liberal agenda when questioning this year's Republican candidates.
Four years ago, Democratic candidates faced questions that tilted more than two-to-one to the left, a far friendlier agenda for liberal politicians.
In 2007, Democratic candidates were frequently tossed softball questions. This year's interviews with Republicans have been much more caustic, with few chances for the candidates to project a warm and fuzzy image.
Four years ago, top Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were given massive donations of airtime by ABC in the form of 'town hall' meetings on Good Morning America. None of this year's Republican contenders have been given a similar opportunity.
Details of the MRC's study:
Little Airtime for the GOP Frontrunners: By late summer, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney led the Republican field, but neither garnered very much face time with the networks' morning show audiences. Romney was featured in just three interviews — one each on ABC, CBS and NBC — while Perry, a relatively late arrival to the race, appeared just twice for a total airtime of nine minutes — on NBC and CBS back on September 6 to talk mostly about the wildfires in his state.
The leader of the pack was Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who was featured in 14 morning show interviews totaling more than 71 minutes (see chart). The runner-up was former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who — despite the visibility gained from nine interviews totaling 42 minutes — never rose beyond single digits in the national polls and dropped out after a disappointing third-place finish in the August 13 Iowa straw poll.
Getting nearly as much attention as Pawlenty was billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who flirted with a candidacy back in March and April. Trump was featured in five interviews totaling 39 minutes. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman also appeared five times for a total of nearly 26 minutes, with Romney rounding out the top five with 21 minutes.
A potpourri of other candidates were also given a chance to reach the relatively large audience watching the networks' morning news shows: Texas Congressman Ron Paul (3 interviews, 17 minutes); former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (3 interviews, 14 minutes); former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (2 interviews, 10 minutes); and businessman Herman Cain (2 interviews, 7 minutes).
The networks also granted airtime to potential candidates former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (11 minutes and 5 minutes, respectively), while NBC twice interviewed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about his potential as a presidential candidate.
In 2007, Networks Flocked to Democratic Frontrunners: Four years ago, those same morning shows highlighted the frontrunners in the Democratic race. Hillary Clinton snagged the most airtime, with 10 appearances totaling 71 minutes (coincidentally, the same amount of time the GOP's only female candidate, Michele Bachmann, received this year). Then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama was featured in 11 interviews (52 minutes), followed by John Edwards (5 appearances, 47 minutes); former Vice President Al Gore, touted as a possible candidate in early 2007 (8 appearances, 43 minutes) and then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden (6 appearances, 28 minutes).
Clinton and Edwards benefitted from relatively massive donations of airtime from ABC's Good Morning America, which featured both candidates in lengthy (and friendly) 'town hall' style events. None of this year's Republican candidates has been given a similar chance for an extended interaction with voters on network television.
Four years ago, the Democrats' spouses and top advisors were also frequent guests, giving a presidential aura to the candidates. Surrogates for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards were interviewed a total of 15 times from January 1 through September 15, giving each campaign additional opportunities to push their message.
So far this year, none of the Republican candidates' spouses or surrogates has appeared without the candidate, although Romney's wife, Ann, was included alongside her husband in NBC's May 31 profile, and ABC spoke to both Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul, on January 5.
Another difference: While most of the Republican field's lower-tier candidates (Huntsman, Paul, Santorum, Gingrich and Cain) have all had multiple chances to reach voters on the network morning shows, that opportunity was denied the Democratic also-rans in 2007. Of the second-tier candidates four years ago, only Joe Biden had received numerous TV appearances through mid-September 2007, while then-Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel had none by this time four years ago.
Hitting the Candidates With a Liberal Agenda: As might be expected, most of the more than 400 questions posed to the Republican candidates this year had to do with early campaign strategy and tactics and basic biographical details. But our analysts counted 98 "ideological questions" — policy-based questions that incorporated either a liberal or conservative premise.
Of those, the vast majority (81, or 83%) reflected a liberal policy agenda, vs. just 17 (17%) that highlighted the concerns of conservative voters. Thus, instead of functioning as a surrogate for the Republican rank-and-file voter who probably won't get a chance to question a candidate, TV journalists used their time with the candidates to push a standard liberal agenda.
A central policy issue for many of these interviews was the economy and the growing national debt, and network hosts consistently pressed the candidates for their reluctance to agree on the need for a tax increase. On the April 13 Today, for example, co-host Matt Lauer hit Bachmann : "Is raising taxes on the table?" before employing liberal rhetoric: "Why shouldn't the burden be equally shared? Why shouldn't we put some of that burden on the wealthy and corporations?"
Over on ABC's Good Morning America on January 11, co-host George Stephanopoulos seemed appalled  by Tim Pawlenty's call for lower taxes to spur economic growth. "Won't tax cuts increase the deficit?" Stephanopoulos wondered. Pawlenty got hit with the same spin May 23 on CBS's The Early Show, as co-host Erica Hill demanded : "What about raising taxes? Because, and I bring this up again, you say government money isn't free. At some point, do you have to look at raising taxes, and do people have to pay more for what's needed in this country?"
Hill (June 3) also badgered Mitt Romney for his opposition to Obama's huge bailout of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009: "You also accuse the President yesterday of making the recession worse. But based on what we've seen in the auto industry, weren't you wrong in this case? Wasn't it right for both the auto industry and for the American economy to help that industry?"
Even Jon Huntsman, the most liberal of the 2012 Republicans, got hit from the left on economic issues. On June 22, NBC's Ann Curry sounded like every other morning show host as she asked Huntsman about the deficit: "Does that revenue side include raising taxes? Is that off the table to decrease the national debt?"
Curry also suggested  to Huntsman that his personal wealth would hurt his credibility on the jobs issue: "You're the son of one of the richest men in America and you, yourself — you're also wealthy — at a time when corporate America is making record profits and not hiring. So what do you say to, especially blue collar workers, who say what they want is a President who knows how to bring jobs back to America?"
Huntsman and Romney were also most likely to face the rare right-leaning question, together accounting for nine of the 17 conservative questions we documented. ABC's Stephanopoulos, for example, grilled Romney about the similarities between his Massachusetts health care plan and ObamaCare back on February 1 : "Why is it right for a state to impose that kind of a mandate and not the federal government?"
On May 20, Stephanopoulos also took aim  at Huntsman's decision to take Obama's stimulus funds back in 2009. "When you were asked about it, you suggested that one of the problems with the stimulus is that it wasn't big enough. Is that what you still believe?" Huntsman responded that his choice would have been for a package with larger tax cuts.
Four Years Ago, a Liberal Agenda for Democrats: It's not necessarily biased for TV hosts to ask a group of mostly conservative candidates to respond to liberal policy arguments. But four years ago, the same network morning shows did not confront the Democratic field with conservative policy arguments. Looking at the same time period, MRC analysts documented 118 "ideological questions" posed to the Democratic candidates. The breakdown was decidedly to the left: 83 liberal-themed questions, vs. 35 conservative-themed questions, a more than two-to-one disparity (compared to a five-to-one liberal tilt this year).
While network hosts are taking an adversarial approach with this year's conservatives, they were much more agreeable with the policy stances of liberal Democrats four years ago. For example, at ABC's "town hall" meeting featuring Hillary Clinton on March 26, 2007, co-host Robin Roberts set Clinton up  to tout her signature issue: "A lot of people feel like they're rolling the dice every morning about their health care. They can't afford it. And two-thirds — did you realize this? — two-thirds of Americans who do not have health insurance are working."
On NBC's Today, February 5, 2007, co-host Matt Lauer saluted John Edwards: "I'm going to — I'll applaud your honesty. You basically have come out and said, 'Look, I want universal health care for everyone in this country, and I'm going to raise taxes to accomplish it.'"
While the economy has been the central issue this year, the war in Iraq was the key policy debate in early 2007, and the networks frequently pushed the candidates to be even more active in opposing the Bush administration. "At what point do you say, 'Enough's enough, Mr. President. Now I will use the purse strings,'" Lauer beseeched Clinton on the January 17, 2007 Today.
A few days earlier (January 11), Lauer's co-host Meredith Vieira pleaded with Barack Obama: "What can you do as a Senator? What are you willing to do to stop the troops from going there?...Would you support Senator [Ted] Kennedy's resolution that would force the President, really, to go to Congress before authorizing any troops to be sent there?"
Not all of the liberal questions were softballs. Hillary Clinton was pressed often on her support for the Iraq war resolution in 2002. 'When you say you've taken responsibility, Senator, once again — is that the same thing as saying, "I made a mistake by voting for the war'?" NBC's Meredith Vieira asked Clinton on the January 23, 2007 Today. Over on ABC that same morning, co-host Diane Sawyer demanded to know: "Is that your biggest mistake as Senator?"
The network agenda four years ago was reasonably consistent with the agenda of liberal primary voters trying to choose their party's nominee. This year, conservative voters would have to strain to hear their concerns reflected in these same morning show interviews.
Softballs vs. Hardballs: Another difference between the networks' treatment of the Democrats in 2007 and this year's crop of Republican candidates — the tone of the questioning is far more adversarial this year. The Democratic front-runners four years ago were indulged with friendly questions aimed at creating a personal bond with voters.
ABC's Diane Sawyer greeted Hillary Clinton on January 23, 2007 with a clip of her husband during the 1992 campaign saying their slogan "might as well be, 'Buy one, get one free.'" Sawyer enthused to Clinton: "Is that your slogan this time around, 'Buy one, get one free ?'" In June, ABC's Kate Snow brought together a team of Clinton campaign operatives to tout their boss. "What does she do behind closed doors that would surprise us?" Snow wondered. "Is she a practical jokester? Does she play practical jokes?"
In May 2007, NBC sent Meredith Vieira to New Hampshire to follow Barack Obama around for the day. "Do you have a weakness on the campaign trail, anything that you have to have with you at all times? Stuffed animal?" (Obama answered that he liked "a certain brand of green tea.") Vieira kept up the softballs: "When your head hits the pillow tonight in Iowa, will you fall fast asleep, or will your mind be racing about the next day?...Do you dream of the White House?"
Embarrassing as it might be in retrospect, ABC's Sawyer also fawned over the Edwards' marriage  in a July interview: "You have a 30th wedding anniversary coming up, the two of you....Have you gotten the present, yet?....Is it going to be Wendy's again?" She later asked the candidate: "If you have one fellow Democratic candidate you could take with you if you were stranded on a desert island, who would it be, and why?"
This year, only NBC's May 31 profile of Mitt Romney came anywhere close to striking such a familiar, personal tone. Correspondent Jamie Gangel asked Romney: "Do you have an iPod?...What kind of music is on your playlist?...What's the last book you read?" Upon hearing that Romney liked the "Twilight" series, Gangel wondered: "Do you like vampires?"
Romney replied: "I don't like vampires personally. I don't know any."
Apart from that interview, the questioning has been strictly business-like, and occasionally caustic. In March, NBC's Matt Lauer asked Rick Santorum if it was fair to brand him an "ultra-conservative  on social issues." During Mike Huckabee's appearance on Good Morning America in February, George Stephanopoulos painted mainstream Republicans as a engaging in fringe behavior: "It seems like Republican leaders have the hardest time in the world saying simply and clearly 'President Obama is a Christian and President Obama is a citizen. Get over it.'"
When she appeared on ABC in late June, Stephanopoulos characterized Michele Bachmann as a flaky liar : "The Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site, PolitiFact, has said you have the worst record of making false statements of any of the leading contenders." And NBC's Meredith Vieira took a frosty line  with Tim Pawlenty when he appeared on Today back in February, quoting criticisms from Pawlenty's Democratic successor: "What makes you better equipped to run the nation's economy, if you left your own house in such disarray?"
It's not necessarily unfair to pose such tough questions to presidential candidates — indeed, they should be able to respond to hardball questions and defend their views and their records in office. But there's an obvious double-standard with the networks' tone towards these Republican candidates, vs. the much friendlier approach they took with the 2007 Democratic contenders.