No Obama Softballs: MRC Study Finds Morning TV Hits GOP Candidates With Hostile Liberal Agenda

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 MRC’s Geoffrey Dickens and I 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.

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.

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Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes is the Senior Editor for Newsbusters