The immigration bill crafted by U.S. senators and White House negotiators behind closed doors may have been Topic A on talk radio over the past few weeks, but after heavy positive coverage of the “landmark” deal on May 17 and 18, ABC, CBS and NBC provided surprisingly little airtime to the hot debate.
MRC’s Matt Balan and I examined the broadcast networks' morning and evening news coverage from May 17 through June 8. We found just 73 stories (36 full reports and 37 brief items) totaling 104 minutes, or one percent of available airtime.
Nearly half the coverage (45%) aired May 17-18 as the deal was introduced, after which the issue virtually disappeared. The CBS Evening News, for example, ran no stories from May 22 until June 7, when Katie Couric read a brief item on the bill's imminent failure.
The three evening newscasts — ABC's World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News — broadcast 54 minutes of coverage, about 3 percent of their airtime. The networks’ morning programs — ABC's Good Morning America, CBS's Early Show and NBC's Today — gave the immigration issue less than 50 minutes of airtime, or about 0.6 percent of their programming.
Too Good to Be True? When it was announced, the networks greeted the deal as good news. "This is a giant step towards immigration reform," ABC's Martha Raddatz exulted on World News May 17. On the same broadcast, reporter Kate Snow was even more enthusiastic: “Millions living in the U.S. without documents tried to come to terms today with a plan that would make the invisible no more....In Los Angeles today, home to an estimated one million undocumented workers, advocates said the benefits would be enormous....There is a sense in the immigrant community that this deal is almost too good to be true."
Over on the CBS Evening News that same night, reporter Sandra Hughes profiled an illegal immigrant working as a housekeeper. "Knowing she has a chance to become a legal citizen makes her happy to the point of tears," Hughes championed, but presented the proposed $5,000 penalty as an onerous burden. "It's a lot of money to ask for to process the paperwork to become legal," the maid dubbed "Susie" complained.
And on the NBC Nightly News, reporter George Lewis emphasized complaints that the bill was too strict: “Some immigration activists worry that the path towards citizenship in the Senate proposal might bust up families....Critics say the Senate proposal will just guarantee a continued source of cheap labor.”
Reform vs. Amnesty. On 47 occasions, reporters matter-of-factly used the positive adjective "reform" to describe the Senate bill, as opposed to “so-called reform,” or “what proponents tout as a major reform.” On the May 18 Early Show, for example, CBS’s Russ Mitchell called it the “landmark immigration reform bill.”
But when discussing the bill’s amnesty provisions, reporters distanced themselves from the term. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on June 8 referred to “conservative Republicans who thought this program was amnesty,” and CBS’s Jim Axelrod on May 21 spoke of “what critics call amnesty.”
Only twice did reporters refer themselves to it as "amnesty." Interviewing the World Policy Institute’s Michele Wucker, an advocate of giving illegal immigrants “community ID cards” on the May 19 Today, NBC’s Campbell Brown challenged Wucker’s claim that the vast majority backed granting legal status to those already here: “If you look at the polls, the country’s pretty evenly divided, with more than 50 percent saying that they do not support the amnesty, the President’s proposal that’s on the table right now.”
And when ABC's Chris Cuomo called it "amnesty" on the June 8 Good Morning America, he meant it to sound positive. "The [poll] numbers are in favor of giving some type of amnesty to these people. Isn't that the humane solution? Why are you so adamantly opposed to it?" Cuomo challenged GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Real Border Security? Most reports (75%) uncritically described the bill as one that "would toughen border security," rather than merely “hoped to improve security.” One of the exceptions came May 18, when ABC's Diane Sawyer actually challenged co-sponsor Ted Kennedy: "All that is being done is adding 300 miles of fence to a 2,000 mile border....How is this gonna stop more illegal immigrants from coming in?"
Cost to Taxpayers. The costs of illegal immigration were mentioned just twice. In his May 22 commentary on CBS's Early Show, Lou Dobbs revealed how "Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation estimates the net cost to our government and taxpayers could be more than $2.5 trillion over the next two decades."
The only network news report on the subject came May 27, when NBC Nightly News reporter Robert Bazell used a small hospital in Arizona, as a case study: "The cost of treating non-citizens forced the Copper Queen [Hospital] to close its obstetrics unit....Nationwide, undocumented immigrants cost the nation $6 billion a year for health care."
The networks' sympathies were easy to spot. On June 8, ABC's Charles Gibson suggested the bill's defeat "makes you wonder...if our political system is really equipped to attack and solve the big problems." The networks' paltry coverage makes one wonder if they are still equipped to adequately cover big debates like immigration, or if that job has already been yielded to energetic talk radio.