TV's Campaign '16 News: An Avalanche of Trump Coverage, Not Much for Others

August 4th, 2015 9:05 AM

There are currently 17 declared candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but viewers of the three broadcast evening news shows this year have mainly heard about just two of them: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and New York businessman Donald Trump.

And even though Trump received virtually no TV news attention until he officially declared on June 16, he’s received far more network news coverage in just the last six weeks than Bush has received all year.

Media Research Center analysts reviewed every ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from January 1 through July 31, including weekends, and tallied all discussion of each declared or prospective GOP presidential candidate. They found that the Big Three have devoted a combined 116 minutes to coverage of Trump’s campaign, far more than the 72 minutes garnered by the Bush campaign.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a distant third, with 28 minutes of airtime. Other major candidates, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio all received less than 20 minutes of airtime on the three network evening shows. [See chart.]

In fact, Trump’s campaign has received more total coverage than Christie, Walker, Paul, Cruz, Rubio, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — combined.

MRC analysts reviewed all 209 evening news stories that discussed the GOP nomination race from January 1 through July 31, including 138 full reports, plus 40 anchor-read news briefs and 31 mentions of either the GOP contest or candidates in stories devoted to other topics. If a story discussed more than one candidate, analysts tallied the precise amount of each candidate’s coverage by separately analyzing each individual statement in the story and assigning the time appropriately.

While coverage of Trump far exceeds that of the other GOP candidates, it’s somewhat misleading to say that the networks’ emphasis on Trump has come at the expense of the other candidates. MRC’s analysis shows Trump’s candidacy has sparked the networks to increase their attention to a Republican race that had previously been receiving only light news coverage.

From January through May, network coverage of the GOP race averaged only about 25 minutes per month, despite Bush’s active campaigning and a number of top tier candidates officially entering the race. In June, the month when Trump joined the fray, that shot up to 64 minutes; in July, the network coverage reached 115 minutes — most of it devoted to Trump and the various controversies associated with his candidacy.

The heavy coverage of Trump has also been largely critical. More than half of the evening news airtime focused on Trump’s inflammatory comment about illegal immigrants from Mexico (40 minutes of airtime, or about 34% of Trump’s coverage) and his apparent belittling of Senator John McCain’s war record (28 minutes, or 24% of the coverage). Other negative controversies (general complaints about his rhetoric, his spats with other candidates) accounted for another 14 percent of Trump’s total airtime (16 minutes).

While the NBC Nightly News has showered the most attention on Trump (62 minutes, more than ABC and CBS combined), their correspondents have also doled out the harshest commentary. On June 17, for example, NBC’s Chuck Todd tagged Trump “a late-night joke,” “the proverbial skunk at the garden party,” and “a political streaker.” A month later (July 18), after Trump’s comments about John McCain, Todd said Trump “will smear anyone or anything if they criticize him.”

On July 21, NBC correspondent Kasie Hunt said “when Trump announced, he got a bigger boost in coverage than any other candidate,” while Todd that night rued how Trump’s campaign was “sucking up all the oxygen and attention” away from candidates like Scott Walker and John Kasich.

Actually, the tone of the coverage makes it clear that the networks aren’t trying to “boost” Trump. And there’s no rule forbidding the networks from producing stories on more than one candidate, if more than one candidate is making news that day.

In fact, Trump’s candidacy is getting the lion’s share of TV news attention because of the daily editorial decisions made by the various broadcast networks. And it’s the networks — not Trump — who since January 1 have minimized the coverage of other top-tier candidates such as Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee.