Rise and Shine on Democrats
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- TV's Morning Shows Throw Their Spotlight on the Democrats
- Morning TV Interviews: Much More Time for Democrats...
- ...And Softer Questions, Too
- Conclusion: The Networks Must Find Their Balance
TV's Morning Shows Throw Their Spotlight on the Democrats
With Election Day well over a year away, the presidential campaign has already gotten off to a strong start on the Big Three morning shows. From January 1 to July 31, MRC analysts tallied 517 campaign items on the weekday editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s Early Show and NBC’s Today. About two-thirds of these items (345) were long segments — either full reports from field correspondents or interviews with candidates or analysts. The remaining 172 items were relatively brief discussions of the campaign, mainly short anchor-read news stories.
Overall, the networks offered nearly twice as much coverage of the Democratic primary race than the Republican contest. More than half of all campaign segments (284, or 55%) focused on the Democrats, compared with just 152 (29%) devoted to the Republican candidates. Another 13 percent (66 stories) contained discussions of both parties, while 15 stories (3% of the total) focused on a possible independent candidacy of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While all three networks gave more attention to the Democrats, ABC’s Good Morning America was the most tilted, with more than twice as many segments on the Democrats (119, or 62% of their campaign stories) than on the Republicans (51 stories, or 26% of ABC’s total). CBS’s Early Show featured Democrats in more than half of their campaign news (75 stories, or 54%), compared to less than a third that featured Republicans (44 stories, or 31%). Meanwhile, just under half of the coverage on NBC’s Today (90 stories, or 49%) featured Democrats, compared to 57 stories (31%) about the GOP.
The skew in favor of the Democratic race has been evident all year. In January, the networks all excitedly jumped on the announcements that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would join the race, contributing to a total of 52 Democratic stories that month. In contrast, the GOP contest garnered just five stories that month, a ten-to-one imbalance.
As the accompanying chart shows, the networks’ inordinate emphasis on the Democratic nomination contest continued in February and March, with nearly twice as many stories on the Democrats than on the Republicans. In April, the gap between the two parties actually narrowed, and in May — thanks to coverage of the first major Republican debate — the networks actually spent more time on the GOP, though not by much. In June and July, however, the gap between the two parties once again grew, with Democrats receiving more than twice as much coverage in July (52 stories vs. 22).
While about one-third of stories focused on more than one candidate — such as debate stories, or items about a verbal exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for example — about two-thirds emphasized a single candidate. Remarkably, all three of the Democratic frontrunners — Clinton, Obama and John Edwards — were each the subject of more of these single-candidate stories than each of the three of the Republican front-runners, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Interestingly, the networks also aired more stories about the never-declared candidacy of former Democratic Vice President Al Gore than the actual candidacies of Republicans Romney and Giuliani.
MRC analysts noted distinct themes in the coverage each candidate received. In general, they discovered that the top Democratic candidates have been treated like celebrities, while coverage of the top GOP contenders has emphasized their flaws and problems. Here’s a summary of how the top ten candidates have been portrayed:
Hillary Clinton, President-in-Waiting. Not only has Senator Clinton received more media attention than any other candidate from either party (61 stories), hers has been the only campaign where staffers have been welcomed on the morning shows as substitutes for the candidate, an indulgence normally reserved for sitting presidents or actual nominees. The June 28 Good Morning America even featured a lengthy segment with 10 female staffers, what ABC’s Chris Cuomo touted as "an ABC News exclusive look behind the scenes at the Clinton campaign, a campaign that’s making history, not only for women but by women."
When she announced her candidacy in late January, all three of the morning shows followed up with heavy coverage, more than for any other candidate’s debut. On January 22, NBC’s Today featured her campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe while CBS’s Early Show hosted campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson. CBS’s Joie Chen even suggested that "it might be easier to get an audience with the Wizard of Oz than steal Clinton’s thunder right now."
The next morning, all three shows featured the candidate herself, whom ABC’s Diane Sawyer touted as the woman "who has single-handedly kicked this race into overdrive." CBS’s Harry Smith cast the Clintons’ scandalous past in the most sympathetic light. "You were under the glare of the spotlight for eight years," Smith told Clinton. "Many of those days had to have been horrible. Why go back? Why go back into the middle of the white hot glare of that light?"
As the campaign progressed, the networks were drawn to even the most minor events. In June, for example, all three morning shows played a goofy campaign spoof where Bill and Hillary Clinton parodied the last episode of HBO’s The Sopranos. NBC’s Matt Lauer declared it "a hit" and "clever," while fellow anchor Meredith Vieira exclaimed she "loved" it. On ABC, correspondent George Stephanopoulos (once a top aide to the Clintons) called it "effective" in "showing she’s also a human being who can laugh at herself." And on CBS, Bob Schieffer called the spot "hilarious," claiming "it’s one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in a long, long time."
Network analysts refuted the notion that Clinton is too liberal. "People think she’s a liberal, even though she’s hawkish," MSNBC’s Chris Matthews argued on NBC on January 15. Two days later, NBC’s Tim Russert echoed: "She seems to be yielding the left in the Democratic primary on the war issue to Senator Edwards, trying to carve out a broad center position."
On February 20, NBC’s David Gregory explored whether Clinton could win support among conservatives: "Are the Clinton-haters mellowing?" he suggested, adding how "some conservatives credit Mrs. Clinton with working to shed her liberal image dating back to her push for universal health care. They also note her stand on the Iraq war has made her a target for liberals, not conservatives." Not once in seven months did a network morning show reporter or analyst label Senator Clinton as a "liberal."
The networks also touted the theme of Clinton’s "inevitability." On June 18, NBC’s Today led with a segment headlined, "Is Hillary Clinton Unbeatable?" Co-host Meredith Vieira wondered, "Why is she doing so well?...Could she possibly be the Teflon candidate?" The following month, CBS’s Bob Schieffer saw great importance in Clinton’s shot at Obama as naive. "I think it’s Christmas in July for Mrs. Clinton," Schieffer enthused to co-host Harry Smith on the July 25 Early Show. "More and more, Harry, it looks to me as if this is going to be Mrs. Clinton's nomination to lose."
John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards’ Husband. While former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards ranked second only to Hillary Clinton in overall coverage (44 stories), the morning shows seemed more interested in Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, than his presidential campaign.
Edwards’ official announcement came in late December 2006, before our study period began, but like Clinton he was invited to appear on all three network morning programs. After that, Edwards was essentially eclipsed by Clinton and Obama, only returning to the spotlight with the unfortunate announcement in late March that his wife’s cancer had returned. The network reactions were appropriately sympathetic, with NBC’s Vieira calling Elizabeth Edwards "a lady of great optimism and true grit."
ABC’s Good Morning America has been the most favorable to Edwards, uniquely profiling him in April as he spent a day as a nurse’s aide in a bid to win the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In July, Good Morning America hosted Edwards for a lengthy town hall meeting on poverty, a total of 38 minutes of morning show airtime. (The show conducted a similar event with Hillary Clinton in March, totaling 26 minutes; ABC has yet to host a meeting with a Republican candidate.)
Despite the fact that Edwards has taken strongly liberal positions in this campaign, not one network reporter labeled him as a "liberal" during the seven months we examined.
The network morning shows were more drawn to Elizabeth Edwards than her candidate husband. Two weeks after her cancer diagnosis was announced, ABC’s Cynthia McFadden offered a five-minute profile of Mrs. Edwards and her children, a longer version of which later aired on Nightline. Then in June, when Mrs. Edwards attacked conservative commentator Ann Coulter, all three networks quickly booked her as a guest. The questioning was decidedly friendly. "You decided to get involved with someone who is a professional provocateur," ABC’s Chris Cuomo told Edwards, suggesting the candidate’s wife had lowered herself. "Why decide to call in and go toe-to-toe with someone like Ann Coulter?"
And on July 31, ABC celebrated the Edwards’ wedding anniversary. Co-host Robin Roberts cooed: "We have a very special picture of the morning. It’s an anniversary party of sorts at Wendy’s. That, of course, presidential nominee [sic] John Edwards and his beautiful wife Elizabeth. 30 years. Their 30th anniversary." In case viewers at home were beside themselves with curiosity, Roberts explained how Elizabeth had a "Frosty and also some chili as well. He had a cheeseburger." Co-host Diane Sawyer gushed: "That’s right. And they are going to renew their vows. Happy anniversary."
Barack Obama, Democratic "Rock Star." (With WMV video clip/MP3 audio) In the race for the network spotlight, the junior Senator from Illinois was close behind John Edwards, with 41 morning show segments featuring Barack Obama. The early coverage of his campaign was effusive. "He’s today the political equivalent of a rock star," CBS’s Gloria Borger trumpeted on the January 17 Early Show, adding: "An appearance by Obama looks like a mosh pit." The next day, NBC’s Matt Lauer agreed: "He’s got rock star buzz around him."
Within days of Obama’s announcement, the networks began treating him as a top Democratic frontrunner. On the January 18 Good Morning America, correspondent Claire Shipman suggestedObama and Clinton were an embarrassment of riches for the Democratic Party, contrasting Obama’s "fluid poetry" with Clinton’s "hot factor." (See accompanying video.) A few weeks later, reporter Jake Tapper touted a Hollywood reception for Obama: "The stars came out for another million dollar affair, honoring a thin, statuesque idol of color. No, not Oscar — Obama, Barack Obama." In case anyone missed the point, ABC’s graphic department grafted the smiling face of Barack Obama onto a picture of a gold Academy Awards trophy.
Unlike his competitors at CBS and NBC, however, ABC’s Tapper was the only network reporter to attach Obama to the "liberal" label. "Obama has drawn raves for presenting fairly traditional liberal views as fresh and inspiring," Tapper noted in a January 17 story.
By summer, the Obama campaign had lost some of its shine, especially after a series of foreign policy comments that the Clinton campaign said illustrated the candidate’s naivete. CBS’s Bob Schieffer thought it showed Obama was too green: "Yes, Barack Obama’s raising money. Yes, he makes a good impression. But this Clinton machine is now really rolling," he argued on the July 25 Early Show. But over on NBC’s Today that same morning, Tim Russert suggested Obama had gotten the better of Clinton: "He punches back by saying, ‘Hold on! You want naivete? You want irresponsibility? [Naivete] is voting for George Bush’s war!’"
Yet a few days earlier, when Obama suggested schools present "age-appropriate" sex education classes to kindergarten children, only ABC’s Good Morning America mentioned the matter — and then turned its fire on a Republican candidate who dared challenge Obama. ABC reporter David Wright did not cast Obama’s comment as controversial, but suggested former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was a hypocrite for raising the issue, because "Massachusetts has one of the most progressive sex education curriculums in the country...[starting] during pre-school." And "as governor, Romney never sought to repeal Massachusetts’ comprehensive sex education laws."
John McCain, Casualty of Bush’s War. A favorite of campaign reporters during the 2000 campaign, the network morning shows have given McCain more coverage than any of his GOP rivals (31 stories), but only about half as much as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
But much of McCain’s coverage has emphasized the sinking nature of his campaign — declining poll ratings and fundraising that has failed to meet expectations. And while during his last campaign the media celebrated McCain’s courage for taking positions unpopular with the GOP base (such as his bill to regulate campaign speech and his opposition to large tax cuts), this time network reporters suggested McCain’s problem was his failure to pander on the issue of the Iraq war. (See box.)
"John McCain has lost ground in the polls because of his support for the Iraq war," NBC’s David Gregory stated flatly on April 9. "McCain’s candidacy has stalled with his embrace of President Bush’s Iraq war strategy," his colleague Kelly O’Donnell similarly argued on April 25. In reality, all of the top GOP contenders share McCain’s support for staying the course in Iraq; what set McCain apart from the other candidates (and the base of the party) was his "maverick" history of supporting liberal initiatives (the trait reporters found so endearing eight years ago), and his vocal support of an immigration reform bill that most conservatives detested.
While most network reporters did acknowledge the damage caused by McCain’s immigration stance, they still preferred to insist that it is the candidate’s hawkish stance on Iraq that has damaged his standing with rank-and-file GOP voters. "The supreme irony," CBS’s Jeff Greenfield suggested on July 9, is "that the person most hurt by President Bush’s unpopularity is the guy who ran against him seven years ago."
Al Gore, Savior of the Planet. (WMV video clip/MP3 audio) Like Republican Fred Thompson, the ex-Vice President was not an announced candidate during the seven months we studied, and unlike Thompson gave no strong sign that he even planned to run. Yet Gore was featured in 29 network stories casting him as a potential presidential candidate in 2008, more coverage than most of the actual candidates.
Gore’s coverage consisted of praise for his
work on behalf of a liberal global warming agenda and open pitches for
a Gore candidacy. "The toast of the town in Hollywood is the talk
of the town in Washington," CBS’s Gloria Borger trumpeted after
Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. She praised the former VP’s savvy and hipness: "Al Gore is now considered ahead of his time."
"Supporters say this is a new Al Gore, more confident than ever," NBC’s Andrea Mitchell argued on March 21. "Some believe Al Gore would be the perfect choice, a mix of the rock star appeal of Barack Obama and the political experience and money-raising muscle of Hillary Clinton," NBC’s John Yang enthused on May 18.
On May 30, CBS’s Harry Smith tried to tease Gore into the race, ending an interview by holding a "Gore 2008" button up to Gore’s lapel (see accompanying video). Earlier in the year, Smith had asked businessman Richard Branson, a partner with Gore in an environmental venture, "Is Al Gore a prophet?" During that February 9 interview, Smith also pleaded with Gore: "Would you not be better off trying to affect this change from the White House?"
If Gore does wind up joining the 2008 scrum, the months of flattering network coverage could be seen as a massive campaign contribution to his liberal cause.
Rudy Giuliani, Scandal-Scarred Liberal. In spite of his frontrunner status, the former New York City mayor has received surprisingly little coverage, just 26 items. In contrast to the heavy coverage of Edwards’, Clinton’s and Obama’s announcements, ABC and NBC offered only a quick anchor brief when Giuliani made it official on CNN’s Larry King Live in February. Only CBS offered something approaching a full segment that day; on the February 15 Early Show, Politico.com’s Mike Allen explained Giuliani’s strategy to co-host Harry Smith. "He’s trying to show that he is conservative, that he’s not a liberal, without being someone he’s not. That’s a very tough line."
Interestingly, the networks used the "liberal" label 12 times to describe Giuliani’s views, particularly on social issues. In contrast, the entire Democratic field has been termed "liberal" just twice during the same period (with one label for Obama and another for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson).
"Giuliani stands atop the polls not because of his moderate to liberal social views, but in spite of them," CBS’s Jeff Greenfield accurately noted on May 11. "Social conservatives don’t trust Giuliani’s liberal stand on social issues and his past personal behavior," NBC’s Andrea Mitchell agreed on March 12.
Reporters also delved into discussions of Giuliani’s personal life. "Does his personal life turn out to be a kind of Achilles heel?" ABC’s Diane Sawyer wondered on March 30. "He is reportedly estranged from his children, on his third marriage to a woman we haven’t met before." A few minutes later, viewers saw a clip of Barbara Walters asking Giuliani, "Do you think that we have gotten to the point in this country where divorce, or the number of divorces, is not important in electing a president?"
"Our papers here in New York have been filled with this stuff about him being estranged from his children. He doesn’t talk to his daughter," CBS’s Harry Smith suggested on March 5. Referring to Giuliani’s frontrunner status, Smith wondered, "Once all of this comes out, are conservatives going to be likely to embrace him?"
But when it came to the Democratic frontrunner’s dirty laundry, reporters seemed much more hesitant. In a June 4 interview, ABC’s Chris Cuomo seemed troubled when he heard authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta describe how the Clintons had decades ago made a pact of ambition, scolding, "It’s a heavy charge to judge a marriage that way." And ABC’s Claire Shipman on January 22 dismissed the various Clinton scandals as relevant only to a few Hillary-haters: "It certainly seems a smaller matter now, but the taint of those days still drives some anti-Hillary sentiment."
Mitt Romney, Flip-Flopping Mormon. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Democrat John Edwards seem to occupy about the same tier in their respective parties. Both trail in national polls by significant margins, but are at or near the top in the earliest states — Edwards in Iowa, Romney in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet Romney was featured in just 19 morning show segments, less than half the coverage given to Edwards. Romney has fared best on NBC, which included an interview on the day he announced his campaign (Matt Lauer apologized on the air for not being able to fly to Michigan for the event), and a May 30 "Today on the Trail" segment in which Lauer shadowed Romney during a New Hampshire campaign swing.
Every profile of Romney included discussion of his Mormonism, with reporters suggesting voters would reject a Mormon candidate. "A recent survey found that 38 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they would have serious doubts about voting for a Mormon," Lauer told Romney on May 30. "Should you just come out with a ‘Kennedy moment’ and say, ‘Look, folks, here’s the deal. Here’s my faith, here’s what it’s all about, here’s what I stand for?""
Appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America in April to tout his fundraising success, Romney got hit with the same question from Robin Roberts: "Many are wondering if you will take a page from former President Kennedy, who had addressed the nation about his Catholic upbringing. Do you anticipate doing the same?" Romney griped: "There’s probably not a single interview I do with you guys that doesn’t raise the issue, so of course we talk about it."
In June, ABC wondered if Romney’s candidacy was jeopardizing other Mormons. "Fairly or unfairly," ABC’s Dan Harris intoned, "Romney’s Mormonism is coming in for increased scrutiny. This has some Mormons nervous about a resurgence of the type of bigotry the church has faced since it was founded 177 years ago."
Reporters also challenged Romney over his shifting stance on abortion. NBC’s Lauer confronted Romney on the day he announced: "It doesn’t take a huge cynic to say, ‘Wait a minute, in 2002 he said what he said and did what he did because he was currying the favor of liberal voters in Massachusetts. And now he’s doing what he’s doing and saying what he’s saying to curry the favor of conservative voters he’s going to need for the nomination.’"
Comparing Romney’s problems to those of Rudy Giuliani, ABC’s David Wright asserted that "to win the GOP nomination," Romney "has to get past his own liberal baggage." Wright then played a soundbite from political analyst Ken Rudin: "The fact is that he ran for Senate in 1994 as pro-choice, pro-stem cell research, pro-gay rights. When he ran for governor in 2002, he was also liberal on these issues." Wright: "Romney is now running as a born-again conservative — a tough sell."
Joe Biden, Gaffe Machine. Delaware Senator Joe Biden, a frequent morning show guest over the years, received more coverage than the other bottom-tier Democrats (16 stories), but nothing like the warm reception given to his party’s three frontrunners. Soon after his announcement, Biden was forced to apologize for calling Barack Obama a "clean" and "articulate" candidate, comments seen as racially insensitive. "On Capitol Hill, Senator Biden is known for two qualities — foreign policy expertise and for talking too much," ABC’s Jake Tapper told co-host Robin Roberts on the February 1 Good Morning America. "It’s the second one, Robin, that got him in trouble."
In May, CBS’s Bob Schieffer highlighted another Biden remark, this one about Democrats’ plans to capitalize on the President’s veto of a bill. "We’re going to shove it down his throat," Biden railed. Schieffer sounded downright sorrowful: "Although he’s one of the most informed people in the Congress, on foreign policy especially, he has had this habit of making these boners."
Mike Bloomberg, the Great Liberal Hope. Amid suggestions that the billionaire mayor of New York City might run as a self-financed independent, the networks saw great significance in Bloomberg’s decision in June to leave the Republican Party that he’d joined only to run for mayor in 2001. "This morning, who needs Washington?" ABC’s Diane Sawyer exclaimed on June 20. "The hugely popular mayor of New York City ditches the Republican label and declares independence, asking if other Americans are ready for a change. Has the presidential race just been thrown a giant curve ball?"
The media boomlet for Bloomberg generated 15 stories in June and July, giving the non-candidate more coverage than many of the announced contenders. ABC’s Robin Roberts interviewed Bloomberg on the July 24 Good Morning America, where she touted him as "a fiscal conservative but social liberal who supports gun control and doesn’t take a conservative line on immigration." She pleaded with Bloomberg: "You’re very passionate about certain issues. Is there anything that could change your mind and make you run for President?"
Fred Thompson, Conservative Actor. After his name surfaced as a potential, if not likely presidential candidate, the networks made it clear that they thought former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson had the potential to win it all. "[Thompson] has not even declared his candidacy for president, and already he has vaulted to second place among Republicans in a new poll," ABC’s Jake Tapper marveled in a June 13 report.
Yet for all of the Law & Order star’s potential political heft, the networks have spent less time on Thompson (11 stories) than more liberal possibilities such as Gore and Bloomberg. Reporters generally cast interest in Thompson as a rebuke of the rest of the GOP field. "There is room because there’s such disappointment among Republicans," political analyst Amy Walter opined on CBS’s The Early Show back in March.
Alone among the top GOP contenders, network reporters unequivocally tagged Thompson as a "conservative" four times. On March 12, ABC’s Claire Shipman reported how the "popular conservative" was considering a presidential bid; over on NBC, reporter Andrea Mitchell saw Thompson as "against gun control and gay marriage, and just possibly the answer for restless conservatives." And on the June 13 Good Morning America, ABC’s Tapper similarly cast Thompson as "the man conservatives see as the answer to their presidential prayer."
If and when Thompson takes the plunge, he’s unlikely to receive a honeymoon from reporters, who’ve already engaged in some sniping. On May 31, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos recounted "questions about whether he has fire in his belly, whether he’s been too lazy a campaigner....[and] about his one term in the Senate, whether it’s a thin record or not."
And on July 10, NBC’s Today relayed smarmy charges about Thompson’s wife. "At 40, Jeri Thompson is beautiful, fashionable and 24 years younger than her husband," reporter Michael Okwu pointed out. "Even the New York Times is wondering, is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?"