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July 28, 2000

Four Campaigns, Eight Conventions...
But Just One Spin

Compiled By Rich Noyes, Director of MRC's Free Market Project
 and Liz Swasey, MRC Communications Director

     Sixteen years ago, a research team led by George Washington University Professor William C. Adams conducted the first exhaustive examination of the networks’ prime time convention coverage. As Adams later wrote in the December/January 1985 issue of Public Opinion magazine, one reason for studying the networks’ prime time coverage, was that "network news directors have complained that media analysts confine their research to the few seconds [of political news] that appear on the nightly news and ignore ‘what we do when we have more time.’ With two to four hours airing each night, conventions provide an excellent opportunity to examine how network reporters conveyed key political battles of American politics in 1984," wrote Adams.

     Much has changed since those words were written — with the rise of 24-hour cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, the broadcast networks no longer offer "two to four hours" of nightly coverage, for example. But much also remains the same. Although they’re no longer decisive in determining presidential nominees (and haven’t been for at least 30 years), national conventions remain crucial events for introducing the candidates to the public and informing voters about the essential elements of a party’s platform. Conventions matter: the 1988 Republican convention vaulted then-Vice President George Bush to front-runner status over Michael Dukakis, while four years later the Democratic convention propelled Bill Clinton into a permanent lead over Bush.

     The media’s liberal bias has been well-documented by numerous surveys of journalists and countless studies of news coverage, many performed by analysts working for the Media Research Center (MRC). Despite this bias, however, at convention time every four years, conservatives have known they could directly reach the public with their message. While the media as a group have never been sympathetic to the conservative point of view, professional journalists understood that their coverage was never complete and accurate without its inclusion.

     In 1984, Professor Adams found that the networks provided unequal treatment of the two conventions. Correspondents frequently labeled Republican politicians as ideologues, using labels such as "conservative," "right wing" and "far right" much more than they called Democrats "liberal," "left wing" and "far left." In on-air interviews, reporters frequently challenged Republicans with questions drawn from the liberal agenda, but rarely challenged Democrats with conservative questions. "Does healthy adversarial journalism require minimizing topics that are inconvenient for the underdogs?" asked Adams.

     Since 1988, the MRC has applied Adams’s methodology to the networks’ prime time convention coverage. Adams only had enough resources to examine CBS and NBC’s coverage. Fortunately, MRC was able to include ABC and CNN in their studies as well, making them the most complete investigations of convention news ever conducted. Over the course of the past 12 years, more than a dozen MRC analysts scrutinized over 100 hours of prime time programming, painstakingly proving that what Bill Adams found in 1984 wasn’t just a one-time fluke — over the past four campaigns, the networks have consistently been tougher on Republicans than Democrats. 

     The MRC studies examined three main subject areas: agenda of questions posed, use of labels, and coverage of political controversies.

Questions: Leftward, Ho!

     Coverage of all four conventions displayed the same pattern: Republicans who were interviewed by network reporters were usually challenged with questions that reflected Democratic talking points, while Democratic politicians were seldom challenged from the right.

     Here’s how Adams put it in 1984: "It would seem to be good journalism to confront both parties with the strongest arguments of their opposition. Even those who approve the press practice of ‘attacking the front-runner’ must concede one thing: Shielding the underdogs from the issues that help the front-runners results in underplaying, or missing, some of the most influential factors of the campaign."

     In 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan was the obvious front-runner, but in the years that have followed, it’s become clear that Democrats are shielded from tough questions regardless of whether their nominee is the underdog or the front-runner, the incumbent or the challenger.

     1984: Sixteen years ago, a major point of the Democratic campaign was the need for negotiations and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, while Republicans were pushing the need for a strong defense to counter the Soviet military threat. Adams counted 15 questions asked of Republicans that were premised on the need for arms control, compared with only five that challenged the Democrats on the need for a strong defense.

     At one point, Adams reported, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw complained that "There’s been practically nothing said about arms control or a nuclear freeze or the need for some kind of summit to end the madness of the nuclear arms race...." Were Republican national security policies really three times more questionable than those offered by the Democrats?

     Adams also found that absolutely no CBS or NBC reporter questioned any Democrat about any of several key issues that cut in favor of the Republicans that year — among them, the economic boom, the taming of inflation, military success in Grenada. Republicans, however, were confronted 27 times with questions about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and women’s rights, an issue then being used by the Mondale campaign to paint the GOP as extremist.

     1988: As they had four years earlier, reporters frequently played Devil’s advocate with Republicans they questioned. CNN’s Frank Sesno asked a black GOP delegate to defend his ticket on civil rights: "Bush and Quayle opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, or balked on it, and opposed Grove City — two very large, important civil rights bills. How do they overcome that stigma within the minority community?" That was just one of 128 left-leaning questions posed to Republicans during ABC’s, CBS’s, CNN’s and NBC’s prime-time coverage of their convention in New Orleans.

     However, despite the fact that Republicans were attacking Dukakis as a social liberal who was soft on crime and defense, ABC, CBS and CNN rarely raised those issues. To its credit, NBC did force the Democrats to respond to the charges of their opposition that year. Chris Wallace, then with NBC, reminded then-Senator Al Gore that "You campaigned against Dukakis and your other opponents, saying they’re soft on defense. Aren’t Republicans this fall going to be able to use that same argument?"

     1992: At their convention, Democrats were hit with 38 questions that reflected a Republican agenda topic. Jeff Greenfield, then with ABC, confronted Rep. Louis Stokes: "You know, Republicans are going to run against people like you as the cause of the real problems, the evil, big spending, insulated Congress. Isn’t that going to resonate a lot with voters?"

     But the Republicans in Houston were hit with Democratic questions four times as frequently, 130 times. NBC’s Maria Shriver pitched universal health care to HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan: To "one of those 36 million people [without health insurance] — and that number is growing every day — to them, that is not good enough. They need health insurance now. So, are they better off voting for Bill Clinton if the Congress has this in their hands to have a Democratic President?"

     And, "This convention’s clearly going to try to paint Bill Clinton as a super-liberal," ABC’s Greenfield told an Arkansas delegate, "but how can a man be elected five times the governor of your state, not exactly a Northeast Harvard-boutique state, and be effectively be painted as a liberal?"

     1996: Because of severe reductions in broadcast coverage, there were fewer questions four years ago, but the five-to-one ratio was even more lopsided than in either 1988 or 1992. Because of President Clinton’s signing of a welfare reform bill, correspondents were four times as likely to challenge the Democrats from the left than the right.

     At one point, NBC’s Brokaw hit Donna Shalala with liberal arguments against welfare reform: "If you were a poor single mother in a poor rural state in America, without many resources, and you wanted to go to work, you want to do the right things, but there aren’t too many jobs for people who have real skills. Wouldn’t you be slightly terrified looking into the next two years?" ABC’s Michel McQueen similarly asked former DNC official Lynn Cutler whether "the liberals in the party, as you unashamedly describe yourself, feel abandoned by the President this year."

     Republicans were also hit from the left. CNN’s Judy Woodruff informed then-Rep. Susan Molinari that "Leading up to the convention, Bob Dole was running well behind President Clinton with women voters. We looked at the statistics of how many women delegates, what, 43 percent in 1992. Only 36 percent of delegates are women this year. What sort of signal does that send the country, you think?"

     On the second night of the convention, NBC’s Brokaw challenged a convention speaker, a rape victim who was advocating victim’s rights. "This is a party that is dominated by men and this convention is dominated by men as well," Brokaw told Jan License. "Do you think before tonight they thought very much about what happens in America with rape?"

     Conclusion: During every convention cycle, Republicans were far more likely to be confronted with their opponents’ talking points. Incorporating Adams data, Democrats were only one-fourth as likely to be faced with GOP arguments — 109 such questions, compared with a total of 393 Democratic questions asked of Republicans.

Labeling: Republican Extremists vs. Democratic Moderates

     As a general campaign strategy, both political parties covet the label "moderate" — it’s seen as validation of a party’s normalcy and it greatly aids efforts to paint the opposition as extremist weirdos. Yet over the last four cycles, network reporters have helped label the Democratic Party — whether headed by Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale — as moderate, while the Republican Party was invariably branded as an ideological party, regardless of whether the nominee was Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or Bob Dole.

     The disparity in the spin caught by Bill Adams back in 1984 is the most remarkable, if only because the San Francisco convention is now widely regarded (even by reporters) as having been far too liberal for most Americans. But back then, Adams wrote, "both CBS News and NBC News portrayed the Mondale-Ferraro approach as a move to the moderate middle: Dan Rather said Mondale wanted the party back in ‘the middle of the road,’ and he described the Democratic Party’s aim for a ‘centrist approach’ and ‘a rush to the middle.’ He also called Ferraro’s speech ‘pretty conservative.’"

     "Together," Adams reported, "both CBS News and NBC News called the Republican party, its platform, or its dominant leaders by conservative labels 113 times. They called the Democrats by liberal labels 21 times and moderate labels 14 times."

     In 1988, the MRC detected a similar pattern in ABC’s, CBS’s, CNN’s and NBC’s coverage. In a total of just under 50 hours of prime time coverage of the Atlanta convention, Governor Dukakis was called a "liberal" or a "progressive" just 13 times, or about once every 3.8 hours. Republicans were called conservative 182 times, four times as frequently as the Democrats were labeled at their convention.

     CNN’s Mary Tillotson told viewers she smelled a "conservative odor" in the New Orleans’ Superdome where that year’s GOP convention was held.

     In Houston in 1992, Republicans were described with various conservative labels over moderate ones by a margin of 9-to-1. In total, viewers heard 118 conservative labels, compared with 13 moderate ones. On the fourth night of the convention, for example, Connie Chung, then with CBS, provocatively asked Pat Robertson, "Has the party gone far right enough for you? I mean, there’s gay bashing that you brought up. There’s some people who think it’s gone too far."

     That year, the Democrats were more frequently called "moderate" or "conservative" than they were "liberal." The Clinton-Gore ticket and the Democratic platform were never called liberal, only "moderate," "centrist" or "conservative." Tom Brokaw told viewers on the second night that "this party and its platform have moved to the center since the 1988 campaign." Of course, NBC helped portray the Democrats as centrists back in 1988.

     Given this track record, an unusual thing happened in 1996: Democrats were labeled by network reporters as "liberal" more often than Republicans were described as "conservative." The overall coverage promoted the idea that the Clinton administration was filled with centrists who had captured the Democratic Party, a concept that reporters chose to illustrate by labeling individual delegates or officeholders, as when NBC’s Gwen Ifill introduced Rep. Barney Frank as "an outspoken liberal, one of the last few standing." But, compared with earlier conventions, the coverage notably acknowledged that the Democratic Party is home to ideologues.

     Yet even in 1996, reporters were four times as likely to use "extreme" language (such as "far right" or "hard right") to label Republican candidates, speakers, delegates or the platform, compared with their Democratic counterparts. That’s still better than in 1992, when the difference in the two parties was incalculable: Republicans were tagged as extremists 10 times, while Democrats were never so labeled.

     In summary, regardless of their nominee’s views, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be portrayed as "moderates," while Republicans were nearly three times as likely to be portrayed as ideological (459 conservative labels, vs. 179 liberal labels for the Democrats).

Controversies: Separate and Unequal Treatment

     When a candidate or a party become embroiled in controversy, the ensuing media feeding frenzy can affect public perceptions for years. When these controversies — usually ethical or political scandals — are magnified by the hothouse atmosphere that typically surrounds conventions, the media’s influence on public opinion can be magnified many times over.

     In his 1984 research, Bill Adams did not specifically focus on the networks’ coverage of political controversies. Since 1988, the Media Research Center has heavy coverage of controversies surrounding Republican politicians, and light coverage — or no coverage — of similar controversies surrounding Democratic politicians.

     That year, controversy surrounding the military service of Vice Presidential nominee Dan Quayle dominated interviews and journalistic discussion at the GOP convention. Of the 898 questions asked at the Republican convention, almost half of them (438) dealt with Quayle, and 125 specifically concerned the National Guard or Quayle’s connection to lobbyist Paula Parkinson.

     Prior to pouncing on the Quayle story, the networks frequently discussed other Republican controversies, including the Iran-contra affair, the Bitburg cemetery flap, the Beirut bombing, or the so-called "sleaze factor," i.e., alleged corruption of some Reagan administration officials. Many of these controversies had long since faded from the headlines, but reporters had no problems resurrecting them for the convention.

     Yet, Democratic controversies from that year — including charges of unethical conduct by House Speaker Jim Wright, criticism of Dukakis for continuing the policy of furloughing first-degree murderers, running-mate Lloyd Bentsen’s short-lived "Breakfast Club," and the investigation of a high-ranking Dukakis administration official in Massachusetts — yielded little coverage. Apart from Quayle, mentions of Republican controversies outnumbered Democratic scandals 32 to 4; including Quayle, the disparity was an astronomical 190 to 4.

     In 1992, MRC found little more than passing mentions of ethical controversies surrounding Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, but also noted only minor coverage of ethical questions surrounding the incumbent Bush administration. Instead, the networks found controversy in the alleged negativity and exclusiveness of the GOP convention, while giving short shrift to similar Democratic controversies.

     On more than 20 occasions, for example, MRC researchers caught journalists pushing the notion that Republicans were trying to exclude people from their party. For example, on the second night of the convention, NBC’s Tom Brokaw told Pat Buchanan that: "You gave the impression that if you’re not a white, heterosexual, Christian, anti-abortion, anti-environment, you're somehow not welcome in the Republican Party." A month earlier, the Democrats’ decision to bar pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey from speaking in New York garnered only six references: an interview on NBC and an interview and four mentions on CNN.

     Similarly, on 70 occasions the networks suggested to viewers that the Republicans’ ‘92 speech-making had been too negative. On the convention’s third night, CNN’s John Holliman inquired of a panel of voters: "You know, there's been a lot of criticism that the Republicans have been bashing the Democrats fairly big time in this campaign... Have the Republicans been too heavy-handed in being critical of the Democrats?" Yet when Jesse Jackson compared Dan Quayle to the baby- killing King Herod, none of the networks labeled his oratory "mean" or "personal."

     Four years ago, Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived in Chicago under active investigation by an independent counsel for a variety of alleged improprieties, but their scandals received only seven references on ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC over the four nights of the Democratic convention. Reporters did mention Whitewater, but never talked about the FBI files scandal or investigations into Cabinet Secretaries Mike Espy or Henry Cisneros. Yet controversies surrounding GOP figures, such as questions about Elizabeth Dole’s blind trust, were also ignored.

     Instead, the networks focused on a "scandal" where they could hit the Democrats from the left: welfare reform. MRC researchers found 44 references to this controversy, more than six times as many as referenced the Clintons’ personal foibles. At one point, CNN’s Judy Woodruff pleaded with Hillary Clinton to help save the nation’s children: "We were just reminded in that moving film that we saw here of your lifelong work as an advocate for children’s causes. And yet, late last week, your husband signed a welfare reform bill that as you know, Senator [Daniel] Patrick Moynihan and other welfare experts are saying is going to throw a million children into poverty. Does that legislation undo so much of what you've worked for over the years?"

     Coverage of the Democrats’ 1996 convention was remarkable for the scant attention paid to what were even at that time well-established controversies surrounding the incumbent President who would be re-nominated. Eight years earlier, many of the same network personalities gave far more attention to controversies surrounding a Republican President who was leaving office, and many hours more coverage to relatively minor allegations surrounding a Vice Presidential nominee. That’s the sort of double standard that has convinced many conservatives that they just can’t get a fair shake from the predominantly liberal national media.

Recommendations for Fair and Balanced Coverage

Even if it weren’t laughably unlikely, it would be as bad for the public to have a media elite that was constantly pushing a one-sided conservative agenda as it is to deal with the current elite that’s lopsidedly liberal. What’s required is fairness and balance, where both sides can take their ideas to voters and get a fair hearing.

This review of convention coverage shows a pattern of unequal treatment of Democrats and Republicans that’s uncorrelated with any political personality, overriding controversy, or any specific circumstance of any campaign. Old habits are hard to break, of course, but here are a few ways the networks could give viewers more even-handed coverage this summer:

1. Apply same labeling standard to both parties. Either avoid ideological labeling during convention and campaign coverage or, if you feel it is necessary, be sure to hold those involved in the internal battles of both parties to the same standard — especially in applying extreme labels such as "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-liberal," "far right" or "far left," and variants on the word "hard," including "hard-line conservative" and "hard-edged conservative."

This means that if viewers are told that George W. Bush is being pulled out of the mainstream by "hard-line conservatives," reporters should make sure viewers are alerted with equal frequency to how Al Gore is being pulled out of the center by "hard-line liberals" or the "far left of the Democratic Party."

Following this policy will ensure that viewers do not receive a skewed view of how the Republican candidate and his supporters are outside the mainstream while the Democratic candidate and his supporters are portrayed as middle-of-the-road.

2. Play Devil’s Advocate in a Balanced Manner. Confront representatives, activists and candidates within both parties with the strongest arguments of their opponents. On a practical level, this means if Republicans are asked in Philadelphia about how their pro-life position is an extremist view which will turn off suburban women, Democrats in Los Angeles should face an equal number of questions about whether their backing of partial-birth abortion is an extremist position which will scare away moderate voters.

3. Hold Both Parties and Their Candidates to the Same Standard in Raising Controversies. In 1988, network reporters highlighted Republican controversies (such as Dan Quayle’s service in the National Guard) 190 times, but mentioned Democratic scandals (such as Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for murderers) only four times.

This year, if reporters decide to raise subjects such as allegations of past drug use by George W. Bush, two weeks later at the Democratic convention they should spend an equal amount of time on controversies in Al Gore’s past. Similarly, if viewers are told about the controversy over Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University, and reminded of that university’s advocacy of anti-Catholic and racially insensitive views, then equal time should be given in Los Angeles to alerting viewers to Al Gore’s meetings with Al Sharpton and informing them of his record of incendiary racial demagoguing.

4. Don’t Harp on the Negativity of One Party Without Applying the Same Standard to the Other Party. During their prime-time coverage of the two 1996 conventions, network reporters used negative terms like "bash" and "harsh" to describe Republican positions or convention speakers 57 times but, despite several negative speeches attacking Republicans, Democrats were scolded for negativity only seven times.

In just a few weeks, the 2000 conventions will be history. Will the networks be remembered for their fairness and balance, or for their separate and unequal treatment of the two parties?

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