Over the past four weeks, as the broadcast networks have covered the House leadership contest, reporters have gone out of their way to relentlessly paint House Republicans, especially the Freedom Caucus, as ideologues who are outside the American political mainstream.
From September 25 to October 23, MRC analysts reviewed all 82 ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news stories about John Boehner’s resignation as House Speaker and the race to succeed him. CBS provided the most coverage (31 stories, totaling 54 minutes of airtime). NBC was next (30 stories, 38 minutes), followed by ABC, which aired just 21 stories (24 minutes) on its morning and evening newscasts during this period.
In these stories, MRC analysts documented how network reporters assigned a whopping 106 ideological labels to House Republicans — either to individual members of Congress, or factions within the GOP.
Overwhelmingly, the networks used “conservative” tags to talk about Republicans. Fully 98 percent of these labels (104) talked about “conservatives” or those “on the right;” just two referred to either “moderate” Republicans or a “mainstream” Republican (that would be Representative Kevin McCarthy, according to ABC’s Martha Raddatz on the September 27 Good Morning America).
One-third of the conservative labels (35) painted the targets as somehow extreme: “far right,” “hardline,” “very conservative” or “ultra-conservative.” Such deliberate labeling is designed to stigmatize conservatives, casting them as outside-of-the-mainstream ideologues, as compared to their (usually unlabeled) adversaries.
The media’s repeated labeling of conservatives as outside-the-mainstream is something that liberals don’t have to face. There were no such labels of any House Democrats during the four weeks we reviewed, and a Nexis search of the network morning and evening news shows found only one American politician, Vermont socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, has been called “far-left” this year.
Back on the April 30 edition of Good Morning America, ABC’s Jonathan Karl called Sanders a “73-year-old grandfather with that unruly white hair and far left political views....” And earlier this month, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell suggested Hillary Clinton “could go after him [Sanders] for being too far left to lead the party in the fall.”
Congressional Democrats and the White House were never referred to as “hardline” in their positions. Indeed, the closest thing to a reference to a “hardline” Democrat came back on May 6, when NBC’s Miguel Almaguer said on Today that Hillary Clinton was “drawing a hard line between herself and her Republican rivals” on the issue of illegal immigration.
And there have been absolutely no references this year to any “very liberal” or “ultra-liberal” Democratic politicians.
The slanted labeling of Republicans began almost as soon as Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his resignation. On the September 25 Nightly News, anchor Lester Holt said Boehner quit because of “a challenge from members of the far right of his party.”
The next morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, reporter Mary Bruce told her audience that Boehner had “clashed with unruly hardline conservatives.” On CBS This Morning: Saturday, the network’s senior political editor Steve Chaggaris said “hardline Tea Party conservatives” were “threatening [a] government shutdown in the Planned Parenthood fight.”
After Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy ended his bid to replace Boehner, ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl on Good Morning America said McCarthy had “failed to win over the group of far-right House conservatives.” On CBS that same morning (October 9), congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes said McCarthy had been opposed by “the same 40 hardline conservatives who wanted to unseat the current Speaker, John Boehner.”
On the CBS Evening News that night, CBS Face the Nation host John Dickerson opined about a potential bid by Representative Paul Ryan to become Speaker: “The reason he wouldn’t want this job is that he is more like [Boehner and McCarthy]....He is not like the ultra-conservatives.”
Reporters regularly portrayed conservatives as an obstacle to be overcome. On the October 11 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Kristen Welker noted how “even some Republican hardliners” had agreed to support Ryan if he decided to run.
On the October 19 CBS This Morning, Nancy Cordes wondered if “these 40 or so hardline conservatives [will] make a lot of demands” on Ryan. That night on the CBS Evening News, Cordes reported that Ryan was not willing to “horse trade with those 40 or so very conservative members called the House Freedom Caucus.”
Two days later on Good Morning America, ABC’s Tom Llamas said Ryan was demanding the support of Republicans “including the far-right members of the party.” That night, ABC’s David Wright described the Freedom Caucus as “Tea Party members who bedeviled Speaker John Boehner.”
The next day, Today co-host Savannah Guthrie pronounced the Freedom Caucus “the hardliners in the House.” (See text box for additional examples.)
According to its mission statement, the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives stands for “limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law.” While the group has clearly generated a debate among conservatives about specific political tactics, there’s nothing radical about the group’s obviously mainstream conservative positions.
Network reporters also assured audiences that, despite the misgivings of some conservatives, there is no reason to doubt Paul Ryan’s conservative credentials. On the October 9 Today show, NBC’s Willie Geist said Ryan was “highly respected among conservatives and Republicans on the Hill.” Then on the October 21 Evening News, CBS’s Cordes insisted Ryan “should be a conservative’s dream Speaker.”
The media’s one-sided use of labels to attempt to marginalize conservatives is well-documented (see here, and here, and here). But it’s rarely been as egregious as it has during this past month, as network reporters uniformly cast conservatives as the cause of “chaos” in the House of Representatives.