It’s no secret that television news has long been addicted to public opinion polls; decades ago, all three broadcast networks decided to partner with an influential newspaper (ABC News with the Washington Post; CBS News with the New York Times; and NBC News with the Wall Street Journal) to sponsor their own regular surveys for use in their political coverage.
That’s why it’s so extraordinary that polling news has practically vanished from the Big Three evening newscasts in 2014 as President Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled and the public opposes defining administration policies like ObamaCare. Just last Thursday, for example, Gallup found Obama’s approval rating at a record low of 38 percent, yet none of the three broadcast networks bothered to mention this on their evening or morning newscasts.
Such coverage is in stunning contrast to how those same newscasts relentlessly emphasized polls showing bad news for George W. Bush during the same phase of his presidency. Media Research Center analysts reviewed every reference on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts to public opinion polls from January 1 through August 31, 2014, and from the same time period in 2006. Eight years ago, the networks aired 124 evening news reports which cited public opinion polls about either President Bush’s overall approval rating or his handling of specific policies. In 2014, those same broadcasts produced only nine reports which mentioned public opinion surveys related to President Obama.
>> This study was featured on the September 8 edition of FNC’s Your World with Neil Cavuto, where MRC President Brent Bozell discussed it with guest host Stuart Varney (watch video). <<
In Bush’s case, the networks routinely highlighted his falling approval ratings to illustrate his political weakness, and regularly cited polling data showing public disapproval of policies such as the Iraq war. This year, even as President Obama has suffered his own political meltdown, the networks have spared him from such coverage.
■ Presidential Job Approval: This year, the three broadcast networks have conducted 15 polls asking people to rate Barack Obama’s performance as President; 13 of those showed at least 50% of the public now disapproving of how Obama is handling his job. Yet the Big Three evening newscasts have essentially ignored their own polls, plus the dozens of others conducted by news organizations and universities that are commonly cited in routine political coverage.
So far this year, there have been only two citations on an evening newscast of President Obama’s national job approval rating. “Obama has the lowest average approval rating of any President after five years in office,” correspondent Jon Karl announced on the January 28 edition of ABC’s World News. Seven months later on the August 31 edition of the CBS Evening News — a Sunday evening on a holiday weekend — political director John Dickerson opined that Democrats are facing a tough midterm election because the President’s “approval rating is just above 40%.”
For its part, the NBC Nightly News has failed to report Obama’s overall approval rating during the first eight months of 2014, despite having conducted five nationwide polls on the subject.
(While not discussions of Obama’s approval rating, on the January 26 edition of ABC’s World News, anchor David Muir noted a poll showing “just 37% believe the President has the ability to make the right decisions for the country.” A month later, CBS’s Scott Pelley told viewers that his network’s latest poll found “59% say they’re disappointed” with Obama’s presidency.”)
In contrast, the broadcast networks conducted 23 different polls during the first eight months of 2006 that asked respondents to rank President Bush’s job approval. But the evening newscasts referred to Bush’s national job approval rating 52 times between January 1 and August 31 of that year, citing their own polls and surveys conducted by other organizations, as well as general characterizations of how the public regarded Bush’s presidency.
During the first eight months of 2006, network journalists variously described President Bush’s poll numbers as “sagging,” “sinking,” “falling,” “plummeting,” “grounded,” “mired,” “battered,” “rock bottom,” at “stunning lows” and “stuck at an all-time low.” The video embedded below shows just a small percentage of this coverage:
“The country is in a sour mood,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos announced on January 31, 2006. “The President’s approval rating is at 42%, ten points below where it was last year.”
“In the history of our polling you, you’re at a low number,” NBC anchor Brian Williams told the President in an April 27, 2006 interview, asking: “Does this weigh on you?”
A few weeks later, then-ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas touted at the top of her newscast: “A new ABC News poll finds Americans’ satisfaction with their President is at a 25-year low.”
On May 18, 2006, NBC’s David Gregory claimed that Bush’s “poll ratings are now similar to Richard Nixon’s when he resigned the presidency.” He then showed a clip of himself confronting the President: “Do you think it’s possible that, like Nixon and Watergate, that the American people have rendered a final judgment of disapproval on you and your war in Iraq?”
This year, President Obama has faced no such coverage — no drumbeat of dour adjectives to describe his low approval ratings, and no obnoxious questions from network correspondents pleading for the President to participate in the drafting of his own political obituary.
■ Handling of specific policy areas: So far in 2014, only four evening news reports have mentioned how the public rated President Obama’s handling of specific issues or policy areas. NBC on June 18 noted how a majority disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, while CBS on June 10 mentioned that a majority disapproved of the President’s exchange of five top Taliban prisoners for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
But both ABC and CBS on January 29 noted how a majority supported Obama’s position on increasing the minimum wage. “The White House thinks this will be a political winner,” CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes told anchor Scott Pelley. “According to the most recent CBS News poll, Scott, 72% of Americans believe it’s a good idea to raise the minimum wage.”
During the corresponding time period in the Bush presidency, the networks mentioned the public’s rating of how his administration was handling specific policies in 90 evening news stories. On 63 occasions (70% of the time), the networks cited polling data that showed the President on the wrong side of public opinion on issues ranging from universal health care, the Dubai ports deal, embryonic stem cell research, immigration, gas prices, the economy and his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Hurricane Katrina was not only a natural disaster, but also a political disaster, most notably for President Bush,” ABC weekend anchor Dan Harris asserted on August 25, 2006.
On 18 occasions, the networks reported good news for the President — mostly on his handling of the war on terror and the NSA surveillance program. “The White House might welcome a debate over domestic spying,” NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell suggested on May 7, 2006. “Polls show most Americans support it as a weapon in the war on terror.” Another nine reports discussed poll results where the public was split down the middle.
■ Iraq vs. ObamaCare: Undoubtedly, the war in Iraq was the initiative most associated with George W. Bush’s presidency, so it’s no surprise that the networks talked about public opinion regarding Iraq more than any other specific policy area. From January 1 through August 31, 2006, evening news correspondents mentioned polls about the President’s Iraq policy in 33 stories, all making the point that the public had rejected Bush’s approach.
“Every poll shows public support for the war is slipping,” CBS anchor Bob Schieffer intoned on March 20, 2006. “Everything President Bush says and does is seen through the filter of Iraq, and the American people are judging it a failure,”ABC’s George Stephanopoulos agreed on May 16 of that year, underscoring how ABC’s own poll showed “59% call the war in Iraq a mistake.”
“Recent polls show that more than half of Americans questioned believe it was a mistake for the US to invade Iraq and less than a third approve of the President’s handling of the war,” CBS’s Bob Orr highlighted during a May 29, 2006 report. About ten weeks later, Orr’s colleague Jim Axelrod made the same point: “Nearly two-thirds of Americans now say the war in Iraq has not been worth what it’s cost in dollars and lives; 57% say the war is going badly....”
The policy initiative most associated with President Obama is his 2010 health care law, yet not one of the networks have cited any polling this year to show the public’s continued disapproval. In late April, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found a ten-point gap between those who approved of the law (36%) and those who disapproved of it (46%), but the NBC Nightly News did not mention those findings.
But on the May 2 edition of Nightly News, fill-in anchor Lestor Holt read an apparently more-newsworthy finding from the same NBC survey: “In 1999, just 21% said someone in their household had a tattoo. That figure has since doubled to 40%.”
In May, a CBS News poll found an even bigger majority (54%) in opposition, vs. just 41% who supported the law, but the CBS Evening News was silent. Since then, polls sponsored by Fox News, CNN, Gallup, Quinnipiac and Bloomberg have all found majorities of between 52% and 59% rejecting the health care law, yet none of these polls have been mentioned on any of the three network evening newscasts.
As the public has soured on Barack Obama’s presidency, the media are no longer exhibiting the embarrassing, thrill-up-their-leg Obamamania that defined their coverage of the 2008 campaign and much of the President’s first term.
But that doesn’t mean that journalists at the Big Three are not skewing the media environment in Obama’s favor. Just as the networks have downplayed or ignored Obama scandals that would have been big news during a Republican administration, reporters are quietly aiding the President by essentially ignoring scores of polls showing how he’s lost the public’s support.
There was nothing unfair or inaccurate about the networks’ intensive coverage of polling during the Bush years, but the media’s steady drumbeat of bad polls reinforced what was, for that White House, a hostile political environment, and solidified that President’s lame-duck status.
The networks could be covering President Obama exactly as they covered President Bush eight years ago — down in the polls, an albatross to many in his party, with the public opposed to his signature policy — but they’re not. That’s an obvious favor to this President, and yet another example of how the media’s liberal bias skews the news.