CNBC's Harwood Reacts to MRC Study, Excuses Media Silence on Midterms

On Thursday's Squawk Box on CNBC, host Joe Kernen cited the Media Research Center's latest study showing the Big Three network evening newscasts have barely noticed the anti-Obama midterm election of 2014 but provided wall-to-wall coverage in 2006: "...they breathlessly reported the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill in the anti-Bush election of 2006....the coverage of this current situation, 6 to 1 disparity. There were 159 stories about the Democrats taking over in 2006. There have been 25 on the Big Three this [year]."

The business network's chief Washington correspondent John Harwood quickly tried to dismiss the finding and excuse the press for not doing its job: "Well, look, I don't know what data they were using for that....2006 was an election where you had a dominant overriding issue, and that was the Iraq war. Which was extremely controversial, in everybody's face. This is an election where there isn't a dominant issue. You've got a whole bunch of little issues."

Kernen pushed back: "It seems pretty big all of a sudden, though....even Iraq is back, right? ISIS." Harwood replied: "Yeah, but it's not back the way it was in 2006."

Harwood grasped for more spin to defend NBC, ABC, and CBS:

The other thing that I think it doesn't account for necessarily is that I think all of the net – much of the media is less interested in Washington at this moment because Washington has been stuck for a couple of years. You've got an election with a diffuse agenda. And also, a lot of resources have moved online to digital reporting rather than a broadcast. So that could account for some of it.

Fellow co-host and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin attempted to offer another theory: "What happens if I were to argue there's not an interesting candidate in this whole [2014] situation?"

Kernen challenged him: "Who in 2006? Well, I mean, which name are you talking about that was big then?" After a long awkward pause, Sorkin uttered: "Let me think." Kernen concluded: "Nevermind."

Here is a transcript of the October 23 exchange:

6:36 AM ET

(...)

JOE KERNEN: I have to ask you two questions. You – I like Paul Bedard, you probably don't like him. Paul Bedard, you-

JOHN HARWOOD: Yeah, sure.

KERNEN: I think he's great. Anyway, is Media Research Center, is that a right-wing?

JOHN HARWOOD: Uh-huh.

KERNEN: Oh, it is, okay. So I don't know whether this is true or not. But the point that they say is, the nation's Big Three TV networks, of which we own one of them here, in 2006, they breathlessly reported the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill in the anti-Bush election of 2006. They've done analysis this time and CBS, NBC, and ABC, the coverage of this current situation, 6 to 1 disparity. There were 159 stories about the Democrats taking over in 2006. There have been 25 on the Big Three this [year]. Is that – is that a real criticism?

Thank you for doing it. And you, as a straight-down-the middle guy – you're taking that – you're looking at me like I'm not yanking your chain.

HARWOOD: You just told the truth. I'm not going to argue with you when you tell the truth.

KERNEN: So does that – okay, as a straight-down-the-middle guy, does this bother you? Is it fair?  

HARWOOD: Well, look, I don't know what data they were using for that. It doesn't – there are a couple of things that I would point out. One, 2006 was an election where you had a dominant overriding issue, and that was the Iraq war. Which was extremely controversial, in everybody's face. This is an election where there isn't a dominant issue. You've got a whole bunch of little issues. You know, Democrats are trying to use the war-

KERNEN: It seems pretty big all of a sudden, though.

HARWOOD: Well, the outcome could big.

KERNEN: Even Iraq – even Iraq is back, right? ISIS.  

HARWOOD: Yeah, but it's not back the way it was in 2006.

BECKY QUICK: Although I will say, what about the last time, when it was a vote on ObamaCare? I thought there was a lot of coverage that time around. To your point, when there was a single issue-

HARWOOD: Well, of course, there was a fever – there was a fever in 2010...

QUICK: When the Democrats lost.

HARWOOD: ...given where the economy was, where the deficit was, where the – passage of ObamaCare. So that got – that got significantly more amount of coverage. The other thing that I think it doesn't account for necessarily is that I think all of the net – much of the media is less interested in Washington at this moment because Washington has been stuck for a couple of years. You've got an election with a diffuse agenda. And also, a lot of resources have moved online to digital reporting rather than a broadcast.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: You think that-

HARWOOD: So that could account for some of it.

SORKIN: What happens if I were to argue there's not an interesting candidate in this whole situation?

HARWOOD: Well, in any midterm election, you're talking about candidates who are much, much, much smaller than in a presidential.

SORKIN: Yeah, but occasionally there are people who have sort of large – either they have larger ambitions themselves or they're – sort of they're these larger than life...

KERNEN: You had a chance to knock off Mitch – you had a chance to knock off-

SORKIN: These larger than life characters.

KERNEN: No, no, no. You had a chance to knock off Mitch McConnell and it's not being [covered].  

HARWOOD: It's hard – even within a state, it's hard for a Senate candidate to command huge attention.

SORKIN: To break out.

KERNEN: Who in 2006?

SORKIN: No, I'm not-

KERNEN: Well, I mean, which name are you talking about that was big then?

[LONG PAUSE]

SORKIN: Let me think.

KERNEN: Nevermind.  

QUICK: I would say the Mitch McConnell thing hasn't even gotten that much attention.

(...)

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