TV news coverage of the 2024 campaign has been dominated by the legal cases brought against the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. Yet even though these cases are taking place in the obviously partisan environment of a presidential election, an examination of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage finds the networks rarely identified even elected Democratic prosecutors as “Democrats.”
■ 97.9% of stories FAILED to identify Special Counsel Jack Smith as selected by Democratic Attorney General Merrick Garland;
■ 88.4% of stories FAILED to identify Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg as a Democrat;
■ 93.3% of stories FAILED to identify Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis as a Democrat.
■ ABC’s World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News NEVER labeled Bragg or Willis as Democrats.
Between January 1 and August 31, former President Trump received a total of 894 minutes of coverage on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. The vast majority of this time (772 minutes, or 86% of Trump’s total coverage) was consumed by the various legal cases against him. Topping the list: the Florida documents case (215 minutes), the federal case into Trump’s post-2020 election activities (190 minutes), the Manhattan “hush money” case (172 minutes) and the Georgia election case (106 minutes).
Yet even as these legal dramas dominate the political discourse, the networks have strained to present the prosecutors as non-partisan actors — even those who ran and won their offices as Democratic partisans. Here’s a rundown of how the networks have downplayed the partisanship of the former President’s legal adversaries so far this year:
■ Special Counsel Jack Smith: Both of the federal investigations of Trump actually began under Democratic Attorney General Merrick Garland. The investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents began in March 2022; the following month, the Justice Department launched its probe of Trump’s post-election activities. Each was well underway before Garland tapped Smith to take over in November 2022, after Trump declared he was running for the 2024 Republican nomination.
Between January 1 and August 31, the two cases were mentioned or discussed in a combined 326 evening news stories. More than half of those (179, or 55%) mentioned Smith by name or by his “special counsel” title. Yet just seven of these stories (2.1%) bothered to remind viewers that he was an appointee of a Democratic administration, and no reporter or nonpartisan expert ever framed this as a partisan conflict of interest.
[This, of course, contrasts with the networks’ treatment of Clinton-era independent counsel Ken Starr. Upon Starr’s appointment by a panel of judges in August 1994, then-CBS anchor Dan Rather suggested he could be regarded as “an ambitious Republican partisan backed by ideologically-motivated, anti-Clinton activists and judges from the Reagan, Bush, and Nixon years.” For five years, the media cast Starr as a partisan operative until he stepped down from the investigation in October 1999.]
Fifty of the 316 Smith stories (15.3%) did include comments from Trump or other Republicans asserting that the prosecutor’s actions reflected a partisan pro-Biden agenda. On the June 10 NBC Nightly News, for example, reporter Garrett Haake included a soundbite of Trump blaming his indictment in the documents case on “the Biden administration’s weaponized Department of Injustice.”
But over on CBS, reporters flatly dismissed the idea that the Biden DOJ could have a partisan agenda. “The Justice Department does operate independently,” anchor Norah O’Donnell asserted on the June 9 Evening News. On June 14, correspondent Robert Costa said it was “false” to claim the DOJ had a political agenda: “Former President Trump continues to falsely claim that President Biden is directing cases for the Justice Department...”
■ Manhattan (New York) District Attorney Alvin Bragg: The so-called “hush money” charges against Trump were brought in April by Manhattan’s D.A. Alvin Bragg, who ran and won office as a Democrat in 2021. During his campaign, Bragg frequently reminded voters how in an earlier case he had successfully sued the Trump Foundation, promising: “I know how to follow the facts and hold people in power accountable.”
Between January 1 and August 31, the “hush money” case was mentioned or discussed in 129 evening news stories, more than half of which (77, or 59.7%) mentioned Bragg by name or by title. Yet only fifteen of these stories (11.6%, all on NBC) told viewers that Bragg is a Democrat. While the D.A.’s party affiliation is undisputed, ABC’s World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News never once called Bragg a Democrat, while NBC Nightly News conveyed this information in fifteen of the 49 stories that mentioned the case, less than one-third of their coverage.
“The charges from the Democratic D.A. largely uniting Republicans,” NBC’s Haake explained on the April 3 Nightly News.
Bragg also prosecuted the Trump Organization on tax charges. Since January 1, the evening newscasts aired seven stories about that case, one of which (on ABC) mentioned Bragg by name. None labeled the D.A. as a Democrat.
■ Fulton County (Georgia) District Attorney Fani Willis: Like Bragg, Willis won her job as a Democrat after defeating the previous Democratic D.A., Paul Howard, in the 2020 primary. Since January 1, the networks have aired 90 evening news stories on her investigation of Trump; more than half (56, or 62%) have referred to her by name or by title.
Yet only five of these evening news stories (just 6.7%) told viewers that Willis is a Democrat. Once again, ABC and CBS refused to state this undisputed fact, while NBC included this essential information in only six of their 29 stories, just one-fifth of their coverage.
“The former President has argued that Willis, a Democrat, is pursuing a partisan investigation,” NBC reporter Blayne Alexander told viewers on August 14.
■ New York Attorney General Letitia James: James is a twice-elected Democrat who has made no secret of her plans to target Trump. “We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well,” she proclaimed to NBC News in a December 2018 interview a month after her first election.
James is currently pursuing a civil fraud case against the former President, two of his sons, and the Trump Organization. Since January 1, the evening newscasts aired six stories about the case, all of which mentioned her by name. Yet none — zero — bothered to tell viewers she was a Democrat.