MRC Study: How the Broadcast Networks Spun the Shutdown Obama’s Way

October 17th, 2013 11:02 AM

For millions of Americans, big political contests such as presidential elections and pivotal congressional hearings are still largely witnessed through the lens of ABC’s, CBS’s and NBC’s evening newscasts. According to Nielsen Research, more than 20 million viewers tuned in over the past two weeks for the Big Three’s take on the shutdown drama.

What those viewers heard, according to a just-completed Media Research Center study, was a version of the shutdown story that could easily have emanated from Barack Obama’s own White House. The broadcast networks invariably blamed Republicans for the impasse; spotlighted dozens of examples of how Americans were being victimized; and ran scores of soundbites from furloughed federal workers and others harmed by the shutdown — even as they ignored examples of how the Obama administration and Senate Democrats were working to make the shutdown as painful as possible.

■ Blaming Republicans. MRC analysts reviewed each broadcast network evening newscast from the first day of the shutdown (October 1) through the last night before a deal was announced (October 15). Of the 124 full stories and brief items about the shutdown or the pending debt ceiling deadline, 41 blamed Republicans or conservatives for the impasse, 17 blamed both sides, and none specifically blamed Democrats.

This is an acceleration of the same trend the MRC documented during the two weeks prior to the actual start of the shutdown (September 17 through September 30), when those same broadcasts ran 21 stories blaming Republicans, four blaming both sides, and none blaming Democrats.

Network reporters and anchors repeatedly instructed their audiences to blame Tea Party extremism for the consequences of the shutdown. “This current showdown and this current government shutdown traces its history back to a determined core of GOP House members who are vehemently against ObamaCare and were willing to shut down the government because of it,” NBC anchor Brian Williams asserted on the October 14 Nightly News.

The next night, ABC’s Diane Sawyer similarly explained Fitch’s warning of a possible downgrade of the U.S. government’s AAA debt rating: “A major agency now threatening a downgrade, lowering America’s sterling financial status in the world, and all because hardline members of Congress have brought the U.S. to the brink.”

■ Soundbites. In 15 days, the networks ran soundbites from 23 federal workers (most of them furloughed), 47 individuals whose lives had been hurt by the shutdown, and 56 ordinary citizens condemning the shutdown. While most of the negative opinion was directed at Washington in general, 17 singled out Republicans for blame, vs. only three castigating Democrats, a nearly six-to-one ratio.

On October 1, for example, ABC’s World News used a man on the street to spank conservatives: “I think the whole ‘holding the government hostage of ObamaCare’ is just ridiculous.” The next night, the same network featured a woman scolding: “It’s a crime and most of it is the Tea Party.”

Within hours of the start of the shutdown, the networks championed the plight of furloughed federal workers, who at that point had been out of work for only a few hours. On the October 1 CBS Evening News, furloughed Treasury worker Peter Gamba complained: “It’s a nightmare for me financially. Actually, it causes me a lot of anxiety and stress. I don’t sleep well at night.”

Over on the NBC Nightly News that same evening, reporter John Yang highlighted an EPA worker, Elizabeth Lytle, who had already filed for unemployment benefits. Lytle told NBC: “Right now, I’m terrified. I’m terrified to the point where, okay, what’s going to happen?”

Three days later, when the shutdown was less than a week old, NBC correspondent Miguel Almaguer profiled another out-of-work federal employee: “Wendy Robinson has been furloughed. A single mom with three mouths to feed, today she got her last paycheck. Robinson blames Congress.” Moments later, NBC viewers heard Robinson complaining: “I’m at a loss for words, really, about it because I’m not used to not giving my kids a Christmas.”

Four days out of work, and Christmas is cancelled?

■ Negative Consequences. During the first 15 days of October, the network evening newscasts highlighted 127 examples of ways the shutdown was hurting Americans — from closed national parks and furloughed workers, to children denied medical treatment for life-threatening illnesses and the suspension of death benefits for the families of U.S. soldiers and Marines killed in Afghanistan.

The drumbeat of negative stories cast the shutdown (and, by implication, those responsible) as downright scandalous. NBC’s Brian Williams described the consequences as nearly criminal on the October 8 Nightly News: “All kinds of people are getting cheated out of salaries, benefits, medical treatment.”

Virtually absent from the coverage was any questioning of the Obama administration's tactics in implementing the shutdown. Eight stories talked about the barricading of the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., a site that is normally accessible 24 hours a day. None of the networks questioned why that particular memorial needed to be barricaded.

Similarly, CBS anchor Scott Pelley opened the October 2 Evening News by saying “no one was more lonely on this second day of the partial government shutdown than the President — President Lincoln. His memorial, one of the many national park sites, forced to close.” The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were not off-limits to visitors during the Clinton-era shutdowns, yet none of the networks challenged the Obama administration’s decision to ban the public this year.

All three networks emphasized the tragedy of how furloughs at the National Institutes of Health meant patients with potentially fatal illnesses — including children — would not be admitted to new trials. On October 11, for example, ABC’s Jim Avila highlighted for World News viewers the heart-breaking story of an eight-year-old leukemia victim, Maddie Major, including a soundbite from the girl’s mother, Robin: “It’s the most devastating thing in the world to know that there could potentially be a cure for her, but because of a stalemate in the government, we can’t research those options. It’s mind-blowing.”

Avila then theatrically confronted a Republican congressman, Steve Womack, explaining: “He’s on the House committee that oversees the NIH budget and he voted for the shutdown.” Of course, Republicans never voted “for” a shutdown, but passed a series of bills ensuring continued funding, but with amendments the Democratic Senate rejected. Avila did not similarly put a Democratic Senator on the spot for the failure to fund NIH.

Earlier, on October 3, NBC correspondent Tom Costello showcased how “the mother of an 18-month-old has been told her rare sarcoma could be terminal. But without funding, any new NIH clinical drug trials are on hold.” NBC Nightly News ran three additional stories mentioning the deferral of NIH trials and the gravely-ill patients affected, but never once told viewers the House had voted on October 2 to restore that funding, only to be rebuffed by Senate Democrats.

Indeed, only the CBS Evening News bothered to mention — just once — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s dismissive comment about restoring funding to enable life-saving medicine to resume. On October 2, correspondent Nancy Cordes told anchor Scott Pelley, “Reid was asked if he’d be open to funding cancer research for kids only, and his response was, ‘Why would I do that?’”

For its part, the CBS Evening News on October 7 devoted an entire story to the plight of the “thousands who work for Head Start early education programs” and the families they serve. Correspondent Michelle Miller talked to Danielle Smith, who works for the program in Bridgeport, Connecticut: “I had parents who told me ‘I’m going to lose my job. If I don’t have child care, I can’t go to work.’ They were asking for help and we said — I couldn’t help them.” As the story ended, Pelley reflected: “Real consequences, for real people.”

The next day, the House passed a targeted funding bill that would have immediately restored Head Start. But Pelley’s Evening News never brought that important follow-up to viewers. If the interruption of Head Start’s services was deemed nationally important news, how come the attempt to resume those services was not treated as equally important?

As the shutdown neared its end, the networks’ polls found the American public more critical of the GOP than either Democrats or the White House. While some blame can perhaps be assigned to Republicans’ lack of a unified conservative message, the incessant drumbeat of hostile, and slanted, media coverage surely took its toll as well.