Four years ago, the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows celebrated the “rock star” Democrats running to replace George W. Bush, and no candidate set journalists’ pulses racing faster than Barack Obama. Now, after three years of high unemployment, trillion dollar deficits and an onerous new health care law, how are those newscasts covering Obama’s re-election campaign and the candidates vying to replace him?
To find out, the MRC’s Geoff Dickens and I (with a huge assist from Scott Whitlock, Kyle Drennen and Matthew Balan) examined all 723 campaign segments, including 101 interviews, which aired on the three broadcast network weekday morning programs from January 1 to October 31, 2011, using the same methodology we employed to study campaign coverage on those same programs for the same time period in 2007. Excerpts following the jump; read the full report here. (or download the printer-friendly PDF version)
Covering the Candidates: No Swooning Over Republicans
As might be expected, given the lack of a contest for the Democratic nomination, most of the segments were about the Republican nomination process. Yet of the approximately 60 percent of items that mainly focused on just one candidate, there were more than three times as many segments about President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign (129) than about any individual Republican candidates. (This tally only includes stories that discuss Obama as a candidate, excluding items that dealt with him strictly as President.)
Among Republicans, the most coverage went to Texas Governor Rick Perry (39 segments), followed by Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann (35) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (32). It should be noted, however, that the sex harassment scandal that broke on October 31, the final day of our study period, led to an avalanche of Herman Cain stories on the weekday morning shows, with the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows generating 46 items in just the first week of coverage. If the full week had been included in this study, Cain would have easily outstripped the other Republicans as the target of the most morning news stories.
While in 2007 the morning shows were promoting that year’s top Democrats, this time around, those shows aimed to showcase what they saw as the weakest elements of the Republican field — even as President Obama continued to enjoy some of the same celebrity coverage that helped his campaign four years ago.
Good Morning America, for example, was tickled to see the President quiet a crying baby back in June, “Is President Obama a baby whisperer?” lifestyle anchor Lara Spencer excitedly wondered. “The leader of the free world worked his magic on this munchkin.... Presto, the tot is simply transfixed.”
Obama’s birthday on August 4 was a big deal on all three network morning shows. On NBC’s Today, correspondent Chuck Todd started off his report by joking how, “starting today, assuming he becomes an AARP member, the President can now get some discounts at the movies, at restaurants, at hotels. But unlike most people who turn 50, the birthday celebration was combined with a lavish campaign fundraiser in Chicago.”
And in June, GMA treated the President to a 15-minute softball interview about Father’s Day. Co-host Robin Roberts giggled with Obama about how he could intimidate teenaged boys who might want to date his daughters. Obama chuckled: “I might invite him over to the Oval Office, ask him for his GPA, find out what his intentions are in terms of career....Malia, Sasha, if you’re watching this, I’m just joking.”
As for the Republicans, Newt Gingrich was treated to a wave of hostile coverage of his “baggage” at the start of his campaign, so much so that it became a cliché. “Newt’s biggest problem may be baggage,” ABC’s Jon Karl argued on May 11. NBC’s Matt Lauer agreed the next morning: “A messy personal life that includes two divorces, three marriages and a lengthy affair....There is some baggage that comes with Newt Gingrich.”
The network morning shows held up Michele Bachmann as an extremist and a fact-challenged flake. Just as Bachmann was declaring her candidacy back in late June, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos scolded her about her accuracy: “As you make progress in this campaign, everything you say is going to get more scrutiny. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact has said you have the worst record of making false statements of any of the leading contenders.”
As they did with Bachmann, the networks swiftly moved to brand Texas Governor Rick Perry as an extremist when he joined the race in August. ABC’s Jim Avila was downright scornful when reporting Perry’s stance against onerous environmental regulations: “Unmistakably Texan, unabashedly conservative, Governor Rick Perry does not care about the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is largely produced by humans burning fossil fuels.”
Then in September, CBS’s The Early Show mocked Perry in a weekly cartoon segment about the nomination race, “America’s Next Top Republican.” Cartoonists Josh Landis and Mitch Butler offered their own narration, with Butler noting how Perry “made it legal to hunt wild boar from the air. After all, he’s the kind of governor who would shoot a coyote while he’s out jogging. In fact, he actually did shoot a coyote while he was out jogging.” The crude animation showed a smiling Perry blasting away with an oversized pistol.
Four years ago, the coverage of the Democratic contenders was far less adversarial. Reporters actually swooned over Obama: “He’s today the political equivalent of a rock star,” then-CBS correspondent Gloria Borger trumpeted on the January 17, 2007 Early Show. The next day, NBC’s Matt Lauer agreed: “He’s got rock star buzz around him.”
On the January 18, 2007 Good Morning America, correspondent Claire Shipman suggested Obama and Clinton were an embarrassment of riches for the Democratic Party, contrasting Obama’s “fluid poetry” with Clinton’s “hot factor.” A few weeks later, ABC’s 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 placed Obama’s smiling face atop an image of the gold Academy Awards statue
None of the GOP candidates has received the giddy, celebratory coverage dished out to the Democrats four years ago, or even awarded to Obama this year.
Labeling: “Conservative” Republicans vs. Non-Ideological Obama?
One telling indication of how journalists approach the two camps is their use of ideological labels. At this point in his presidency, few would disagree that Barack Obama is a bona fide liberal, and most political observers would also agree that most of the Republican candidates are principled conservatives.
Yet when MRC analysts reviewed the morning show coverage, they found a wide disparity: 49 instances in which network reporters employed the “conservative” label to describe the Republicans, vs. just one case in which a reporter (ABC’s Jake Tapper) referred to the President as a “liberal.”
Four years ago the networks also refused to identify the virtually unknown Illinois Senator as a “liberal.” Once again, the only morning show label from four years ago came from ABC’s Tapper, who offered this flattering review in January 2007: “Obama has drawn raves for presenting fairly traditional liberal views as fresh and inspiring....”
With this year’s crop of Republicans, however, the networks aren’t being nearly as stingy with the ideological labels. On March 24, ABC’s Jon Karl talked about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann: “They are the queens of the Tea Party. Tough, uncompromising, as conservative as they come....”
Interviews: Helping Obama, Badgering the GOP
Our researchers documented 101 interviews with the candidates and their surrogates on the broadcast morning shows during the first ten months of 2011. Actually, only one candidate was represented in interviews by his spouse or political aides, and that was President Obama. The President and his team appeared 39 times, vs. 62 appearances for the entire GOP field, including potential candidates such as Donald Trump, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee who never joined the race.
Including Obama’s surrogates — First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and political aides David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, and William Daley— the Democrats’ airtime totaled nearly four hours (237 minutes). The combined Republican field drew a total of five and a half hours (330 minutes). That figure drops to just 4 hours, 23 minutes — just 26 minutes more than the Democrats’ total — when interviews with non-candidates Trump, Christie, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani are excluded.
Our analysts counted 104 “ideological questions” — policy-based questions that incorporated either a liberal or conservative premise. Of those, the vast majority (85, or 82%) reflected a liberal policy agenda, vs. just 19 (18%) that highlighted the concerns of conservative voters.
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?” On June 3, CBS’s Erica Hill 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?”
And in September, Hill hit Newt Gingrich for backing the Tea Party: “There’s a feeling by some folks that this very small group of people is starting to control the conversation. Do there need to be more voices at the table, in general, at this point?”
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 in 2007, MRC analysts documented 137 “ideological questions” posed to the Democratic candidates. The breakdown was decidedly to the left: 99 liberal-themed questions, vs. 38 conservative-themed questions, a nearly three-to-one disparity (compared to the more than four-to-one liberal tilt this year).
For example, 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.’”
Lauer similarly promoted the liberal side when he interviewed Hillary Clinton on September 18, 2007, suggesting her health care plan was too pro-industry and not aggressive enough. “Critics are saying that this in some ways is the kind of plan you would have rejected back in 1993,” Lauer scolded. “Have you watered down reform?”
This year, the morning show interviews with Barack Obama were mainly free publicity for the Campaigner-in-Chief, with the President’s appearances coinciding with news events that would cast him in a favorable light. In the days after the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, CBS’s The Early Show, for example, ran two lengthy excerpts from Steve Kroft’s 60 Minutes interview with Obama.
Given the news, no tough questions would have been expected, and none were forthcoming. Instead, Kroft eagerly asked what it was like to be in the Situation Room: “What was the mood?...Were you nervous?...What could you see?...Could you hear gunfire?”
On September 12, NBC’s Today show ran clips of an upcoming interview in which Nightly News anchor Brian Williams genially asked Obama to play pundit on the GOP field. “Did you watch any of the Republican debate?...Mitt Romney, quote, ‘The President’s a nice guy. He doesn’t have a clue how to get the country working again.’ Your reaction?...What do you make of Rick Perry, who is, I guess, the frontrunner?...Tea Party here to stay?”
Journalists posed few ideological questions to Obama. Our analysts found just 12 questions that reflected an agenda — five conservative questions vs. seven liberally-themed questions.
While the Republican candidates were routinely asked about any gaffes or perceived mistakes, NBC’s Ann Curry sat back when, on the June 14 Today, Obama preposterously claimed that ATM machines were a reason why fewer jobs were being created during the current economic recovery: “There are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller.”
Curry failed to recognize the absurdity in Obama’s claim — ATMs have been widely used since the 1980s, and the number of people employed as bank tellers has actually increased during that time, to more than 600,000 in 2008 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not counting the thousands more who are employed in manufacturing, servicing and repairing the machines.
Even worse, once it became clear that Obama had bungled his talking point, neither Today nor any of the other morning shows bothered to mention the ATM gaffe in the days that followed.
While this year’s crop of Republican candidates faced mostly adversarial questions about political topics, President Obama enjoyed the same sort of friendly, personal questions that aided his campaign four years ago.
“The President says the best piece of advice he got from Michelle: that the mark of success comes from having happy and loving children,” ABC’s Stephanopoulos admired on October 4. He asked Obama: “How do you protect them, this time around, when everybody’s saying all these bad things about you?”
Good Morning America’s pre-Father’s Day interview with Obama was replete with soft questions, one sent in via video from a soldier in Afghanistan: “Mr. President, the last two years I’ve missed my Father’s Day with my girls and I wanted to ask you, what would you consider is the most perfect day with your girls on Father’s Day?”
Obama beamed in response: “Well, it’s a great question....”
There’s nothing wrong with exploring these human interest angles, but journalists know that such questions are invaluable to candidates hoping to create a personal bond with voters. Just as in 2007, the morning shows treated Barack Obama like a celebrity, while his potential rivals were treated as merely flawed politicians.
Read the full report, “Still Thrilled by Obama: How the Network Morning Shows Are Trashing Republicans and Trumpeting Barack Obama in Campaign 2012” at www.MRC.org.