Rise and Shine on
How the ABC, CBS and NBC Morning Shows Are
Promoting Democrats On the Road to the White House
By Rich Noyes
MRC Research Director
Executive Summary |
In the coming months, Democratic and Republican
primary voters will gather to choose their nominees for President of the United
States. Unlike most election years, no incumbent is on the ballot this time,
leaving both parties with wide-open nomination contests. The large number of
candidates in each race leaves voters with much to learn about the many
competitors’ biographies, records, stances on issues, and personal character.
But are the broadcast networks providing roughly
equivalent coverage of both the Democratic and Republican races? Or are liberal
journalists giving more broadcast airtime and more favorable coverage to the
leading Democratic candidates, handing that party an advantage going into next
year’s campaign season?
To find out, a team of Media Research Center
analysts examined all campaign stories on the three broadcast network morning
programs from January 1 to July 31, 2007. Compared to cable news, ABC’s Good
Morning America, CBS’s The Early Show and NBC’s Today have a
much larger combined audience — 13.7 million viewers during the first three
months of this year, nine times as many as watch CNN, FNC and MSNBC combined at
the same hours.
Unlike the networks’ evening newscasts, the two-
and three-hour long morning shows can spend far more time delving into a
candidates’ record (Good Morning America, for example, has already hosted
two town hall-style meetings with candidates). And, unlike the networks’ Sunday
morning shows, the three morning shows are not geared toward political junkies,
but rather the everyday voters that campaigns seek to reach. Consequently, the
broadcast morning shows are a prime battleground in the candidates’ competition
for media attention and positive coverage.
Our analysts tabulated the total amount of
coverage given to the two nomination races and each of the candidates, including
all field reports, interviews and brief news items. Then the analysts conducted
a more detailed examination of each interview with either one of the candidates
or a designated surrogate (usually the candidate’s spouse), and tallied the
airtime and whether the questions posed to the candidate represented a liberal
or conservative agenda, or were ideologically neutral.
The results show that all three of the network
morning shows are a favorable media forum for the Democratic candidates, and
more forbidding terrain for the Republicans.
TV’s Morning Shows
Throw Their Spotlight on the Democrats
With Election Day well over a year away, the
presidential campaign has already gotten off to a strong start on the Big Three
morning shows. From January 1 to July 31, MRC analysts tallied 517 campaign
items on the weekday editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s
Early Show and NBC’s Today. About two-thirds of these items (345)
were long segments — either full reports from field correspondents or interviews
with candidates or analysts. The remaining 172 items were relatively brief
discussions of the campaign, mainly short anchor-read news stories.
Overall, the networks
offered nearly twice as much coverage of the Democratic primary race than the
Republican contest. More than half of all campaign segments (284, or 55%)
focused on the Democrats, compared with just 152 (29%) devoted to the Republican
candidates. Another 13 percent (66 stories) contained discussions of both
parties, while 15 stories (3% of the total) focused on a possible independent
candidacy of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While all three networks
gave more attention to the Democrats, ABC’s Good Morning America was the
most tilted, with more than twice as many segments on the Democrats (119, or 62%
of their campaign stories) than on the Republicans (51 stories, or 26% of ABC’s
total). CBS’s Early Show featured Democrats in more than half of their
campaign news (75 stories, or 54%), compared to less than a third that featured
Republicans (44 stories, or 31%). Meanwhile, just under half of the coverage on
NBC’s Today (90 stories, or 49%) featured Democrats, compared to 57
stories (31%) about the GOP.
The skew in favor of the Democratic race has been evident all year. In January,
the networks all excitedly jumped on the announcements that Barack Obama and
Hillary Clinton would join the race, contributing to a total of 52 Democratic
stories that month. In contrast, the GOP contest garnered just five stories that
month, a ten-to-one imbalance.
As the accompanying chart shows, the networks’
inordinate emphasis on the Democratic nomination contest continued in February
and March, with nearly twice as many stories on the Democrats than on the
Republicans. In April, the gap between the two parties actually narrowed, and in
May — thanks to coverage of the first major Republican debate — the networks
actually spent more time on the GOP, though not by much. In June and July,
however, the gap between the two parties once again grew, with Democrats
receiving more than twice as much coverage in July (52 stories vs. 22).
While about one-third of stories focused on more
than one candidate — such as debate stories, or items about a verbal exchange
between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for example — about two-thirds
emphasized a single candidate. Remarkably, all three of the Democratic
frontrunners — Clinton, Obama and John Edwards — were each the subject of more
of these single-candidate stories than each of the three of the Republican
front-runners, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Interestingly, the
networks also aired more stories about the never-declared candidacy of former
Democratic Vice President Al Gore than the actual candidacies of Republicans
Romney and Giuliani.
MRC analysts noted
distinct themes in the coverage each candidate received. In general, they
discovered that the top Democratic candidates have been treated like
celebrities, while coverage of the top GOP contenders has emphasized their flaws
and problems. Here’s a summary of how the top ten candidates have been
Hillary Clinton, President-in-Waiting.
Not only has Senator Clinton received more media attention than any other
candidate from either party (61 stories), hers has been the only campaign where
staffers have been welcomed on the morning shows as substitutes for the
candidate, an indulgence normally reserved for sitting presidents or actual
nominees. The June 28 Good Morning America even featured a lengthy
segment with 10 female staffers, what ABC’s Chris Cuomo touted as "an ABC News
exclusive look behind the scenes at the Clinton campaign, a campaign that’s
making history, not only for women but by women."
When she announced her candidacy in late
January, all three of the morning shows followed up with heavy coverage, more
than for any other candidate’s debut. On January 22, NBC’s Today featured
her campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe while CBS’s Early Show hosted
campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson. CBS’s Joie Chen even suggested that "it might
be easier to get an audience with the Wizard of Oz than steal Clinton’s thunder
The next morning, all three shows featured the
candidate herself, whom ABC’s Diane Sawyer touted as the woman "who has
single-handedly kicked this race into overdrive." CBS’s Harry Smith cast the
Clintons’ scandalous past in the most sympathetic light. "You were under the
glare of the spotlight for eight years," Smith told Clinton. "Many of those days
had to have been horrible. Why go back? Why go back into the middle of the white
hot glare of that light?"
the campaign progressed, the networks were drawn to even the most minor events.
In June, for example, all three morning shows played a goofy campaign spoof
where Bill and Hillary Clinton parodied the last episode of HBO’s The
Sopranos. NBC’s Matt Lauer declared it "a hit" and "clever," while fellow
anchor Meredith Vieira exclaimed she "loved" it. On ABC, correspondent George
Stephanopoulos (once a top aide to the Clintons) called it "effective" in
"showing she’s also a human being who can laugh at herself." And on CBS, Bob
Schieffer called the spot "hilarious," claiming "it’s one of the cleverest
things I’ve seen in a long, long time."
Network analysts refuted the notion that Clinton
is too liberal. "People think she’s a liberal, even though she’s hawkish,"
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews argued on NBC on January 15. Two days later, NBC’s Tim
Russert echoed: "She seems to be yielding the left in the Democratic primary on
the war issue to Senator Edwards, trying to carve out a broad center position."
On February 20, NBC’s David Gregory explored
whether Clinton could win support among conservatives: "Are the Clinton-haters
mellowing?" he suggested, adding how "some conservatives credit Mrs. Clinton
with working to shed her liberal image dating back to her push for universal
health care. They also note her stand on the Iraq war has made her a target for
liberals, not conservatives." Not once in seven months did a network morning
show reporter or analyst label Senator Clinton as a "liberal."
The networks also touted the theme of Clinton’s
"inevitability." On June 18, NBC’s Today led with a segment headlined,
"Is Hillary Clinton Unbeatable?" Co-host Meredith Vieira wondered, "Why is she
doing so well?...Could she possibly be the Teflon candidate?" The following
month, CBS’s Bob Schieffer saw great importance in Clinton’s shot at Obama as
naive. "I think it’s Christmas in July for Mrs. Clinton," Schieffer enthused to
co-host Harry Smith on the July 25 Early Show. "More and more, Harry, it
looks to me as if this is going to be Mrs. Clinton's nomination to lose."
John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards’ Husband.
While former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards ranked second
only to Hillary Clinton in overall coverage (44 stories), the morning shows
seemed more interested in Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, than his presidential
Edwards’ official announcement came in late
December 2006, before our study period began, but like Clinton he was invited to
appear on all three network morning programs. After that, Edwards was
essentially eclipsed by Clinton and Obama, only returning to the spotlight with
the unfortunate announcement in late March that his wife’s cancer had returned.
The network reactions were appropriately sympathetic, with NBC’s Vieira calling
Elizabeth Edwards "a lady of great optimism and true grit."
ABC’s Good Morning
America has been the most favorable to Edwards, uniquely profiling him in
April as he spent a day as a nurse’s aide in a bid to win the endorsement of the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In July, Good Morning America
hosted Edwards for a lengthy town hall meeting on poverty, a total of 38 minutes
of morning show airtime. (The show conducted a similar event with Hillary
Clinton in March, totaling 26 minutes; ABC has yet to host a meeting with a
Despite the fact that Edwards has taken strongly
liberal positions in this campaign, not one network reporter labeled him as a
"liberal" during the seven months we examined.
The network morning shows were more drawn to Elizabeth Edwards than her
candidate husband. Two weeks after her cancer diagnosis was announced, ABC’s
Cynthia McFadden offered a five-minute profile of Mrs. Edwards and her children,
a longer version of which later aired on
Nightline. Then in June, when Mrs. Edwards attacked conservative commentator
Ann Coulter, all three networks quickly booked her as a guest. The questioning
was decidedly friendly. "You decided to get involved with someone who is a
professional provocateur," ABC’s Chris Cuomo told Edwards, suggesting the
candidate’s wife had lowered herself. "Why decide to call in and go toe-to-toe
with someone like Ann Coulter?"
And on July 31, ABC celebrated the Edwards’
wedding anniversary. Co-host Robin Roberts cooed: "We have a very special
picture of the morning. It’s an anniversary party of sorts at Wendy’s. That, of
course, presidential nominee [sic] John Edwards and his beautiful wife
Elizabeth. 30 years. Their 30th anniversary." In case viewers at home were
beside themselves with curiosity, Roberts explained how Elizabeth had a "Frosty
and also some chili as well. He had a cheeseburger." Co-host Diane Sawyer
gushed: "That’s right. And they are going to renew their vows. Happy
Barack Obama, Democratic "Rock Star."
In the race for the network spotlight, the
junior Senator from Illinois was close behind John Edwards, with 41 morning show
segments featuring Barack Obama. The early coverage of his campaign was
effusive. "He’s today the political equivalent of a rock star," CBS’s Gloria
Borger trumpeted on the January 17 Early Show, adding: "An appearance by
Obama looks like a mosh pit." The next day, NBC’s Matt Lauer agreed: "He’s got
rock star buzz around him."
Within days of
Obama’s announcement, the
treating him as a top Democratic frontrunner. On the January 18
Good Morning America, correspondent Claire Shipman suggested Obama and
Clinton were an embarrassment of riches for the Democratic Party,
contrasting Obama’s "fluid poetry" with Clinton’s "hot factor." (See
accompanying video.) A few weeks later, reporter Jake Tapper touted a
Hollywood reception for Obama: "The stars came out for another million
dollar affair, honoring a thin, statuesque idol of color. No, not Oscar —
Obama, Barack Obama." In case anyone missed the point, ABC’s graphic
department grafted the smiling face of Barack Obama onto a picture of a gold
Academy Awards trophy.
his competitors at CBS and NBC, however, ABC’s Tapper was the only network
reporter to attach Obama to the "liberal" label. "Obama has drawn raves for
presenting fairly traditional liberal views as fresh and inspiring," Tapper
noted in a January 17 story.
By summer, the Obama campaign had lost some of
its shine, especially after a series of foreign policy comments that the Clinton
campaign said illustrated the candidate’s naivete. CBS’s Bob Schieffer thought
it showed Obama was too green: "Yes, Barack Obama’s raising money. Yes, he makes
a good impression. But this Clinton machine is now really rolling," he argued on
the July 25 Early Show. But over on NBC’s Today that same morning,
Tim Russert suggested Obama had gotten the better of Clinton: "He punches back
by saying, ‘Hold on! You want naivete? You want irresponsibility? [Naivete] is
voting for George Bush’s war!’"
Yet a few days earlier, when Obama suggested
schools present "age-appropriate" sex education classes to kindergarten
children, only ABC’s Good Morning America mentioned the matter — and then
turned its fire on a Republican candidate who dared challenge Obama. ABC
reporter David Wright did not cast Obama’s comment as controversial, but
suggested former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was a hypocrite for raising
the issue, because "Massachusetts has one of the most progressive sex education
curriculums in the country...[starting] during pre-school." And "as governor,
Romney never sought to repeal Massachusetts’ comprehensive sex education laws."
John McCain, Casualty
of Bush’s War. A favorite of campaign
reporters during the 2000 campaign, the network morning shows have given McCain
more coverage than any of his GOP rivals (31 stories), but only about half as
much as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
But much of McCain’s coverage has emphasized the
sinking nature of his campaign — declining poll ratings and fundraising that has
failed to meet expectations. And while during his last campaign the media
celebrated McCain’s courage for taking positions unpopular with the GOP base
(such as his bill to regulate campaign speech and his opposition to large tax
cuts), this time network reporters suggested McCain’s problem was his failure to
pander on the issue of the Iraq war. (See box.)
"John McCain has lost ground in the polls
because of his support for the Iraq war," NBC’s David Gregory stated flatly on
April 9. "McCain’s candidacy has stalled with his embrace of President Bush’s
Iraq war strategy," his colleague Kelly O’Donnell similarly argued on April 25.
In reality, all of the top GOP contenders share McCain’s support for staying the
course in Iraq; what set McCain apart from the other candidates (and the base of
the party) was his "maverick" history of supporting liberal initiatives (the
trait reporters found so endearing eight years ago), and his vocal support of an
immigration reform bill that most conservatives detested.
While most network reporters did acknowledge the
damage caused by McCain’s immigration stance, they still preferred to insist
that it is the candidate’s hawkish stance on Iraq that has damaged his standing
with rank-and-file GOP voters. "The supreme irony," CBS’s Jeff Greenfield
suggested on July 9, is "that the person most hurt by President Bush’s
unpopularity is the guy who ran against him seven years ago."
Al Gore, Savior of the Planet.
Like Republican Fred Thompson, the ex-Vice
President was not an announced candidate during the seven months we studied, and
unlike Thompson gave no strong sign that he even planned to run. Yet Gore was
featured in 29 network stories casting him as a potential presidential candidate
in 2008, more coverage than most of the actual candidates.
Gore’s coverage consisted of praise for his work on behalf of a liberal
global warming agenda and open pitches for a Gore candidacy. "The toast of the
|in Hollywood is
the talk of the town in Washington," CBS’s Gloria Borger trumpeted after
Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth
won an Oscar. She praised the former VP’s savvy and hipness: "Al Gore is now
considered ahead of his time."
this is a new Al Gore, more confident than ever," NBC’s Andrea Mitchell
argued on March 21. "Some believe Al Gore would be the perfect choice, a mix
of the rock star appeal of Barack Obama and the political experience and
money-raising muscle of Hillary Clinton," NBC’s John Yang enthused on May
On May 30, CBS’s Harry Smith tried
to tease Gore into the race, ending an interview by holding a "Gore 2008"
button up to Gore’s lapel (see accompanying video). Earlier in the year,
Smith had asked businessman Richard Branson, a partner with Gore in an
environmental venture, "Is Al Gore a prophet?" During that February 9
interview, Smith also pleaded with Gore: "Would you not be better off trying
to affect this change from the White House?"
If Gore does wind up joining the 2008 scrum,
the months of flattering network coverage could be seen as a massive
campaign contribution to his liberal cause.
Giuliani, Scandal-Scarred Liberal. In
spite of his frontrunner status, the former New York City mayor has received
surprisingly little coverage, just 26 items. In contrast to the heavy coverage
of Edwards’, Clinton’s and Obama’s announcements, ABC and NBC offered only a
quick anchor brief when Giuliani made it official on CNN’s Larry King Live
in February. Only CBS offered something approaching a full segment that day;
on the February 15 Early Show, Politico.com’s Mike Allen explained
Giuliani’s strategy to co-host Harry Smith. "He’s trying to show that he is
conservative, that he’s not a liberal, without being someone he’s not. That’s a
very tough line."
Interestingly, the networks used the "liberal"
label 12 times to describe Giuliani’s views, particularly on social issues. In
contrast, the entire Democratic field has been termed "liberal" just twice
during the same period (with one label for Obama and another for New Mexico
Governor Bill Richardson).
"Giuliani stands atop the polls not because of
his moderate to liberal social views, but in spite of them," CBS’s Jeff
Greenfield accurately noted on May 11. "Social conservatives don’t trust
Giuliani’s liberal stand on social issues and his past personal behavior," NBC’s
Andrea Mitchell agreed on March 12.
Reporters also delved into discussions of
Giuliani’s personal life. "Does his personal life turn out to be a kind of
Achilles heel?" ABC’s Diane Sawyer wondered on March 30. "He is reportedly
estranged from his children, on his third marriage to a woman we haven’t met
before." A few minutes later, viewers saw a clip of Barbara Walters asking
Giuliani, "Do you think that we have gotten to the point in this country where
divorce, or the number of divorces, is not important in electing a president?"
"Our papers here in New York have been filled
with this stuff about him being estranged from his children. He doesn’t talk to
his daughter," CBS’s Harry Smith suggested on March 5. Referring to Giuliani’s
frontrunner status, Smith wondered, "Once all of this comes out, are
conservatives going to be likely to embrace him?"
But when it came to the Democratic frontrunner’s
dirty laundry, reporters seemed much more hesitant. In a June 4 interview, ABC’s
Chris Cuomo seemed troubled when he heard authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta
describe how the Clintons had decades ago made a pact of ambition, scolding,
"It’s a heavy charge to judge a marriage that way." And ABC’s Claire Shipman on
January 22 dismissed the various Clinton scandals as relevant only to a few
Hillary-haters: "It certainly seems a smaller matter now, but the taint of those
days still drives some anti-Hillary sentiment."
Mitt Romney, Flip-Flopping Mormon.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Democrat John Edwards seem to
occupy about the same tier in their respective parties. Both trail in national
polls by significant margins, but are at or near the top in the earliest states
— Edwards in Iowa, Romney in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet Romney was featured in just 19 morning show
segments, less than half the coverage given to Edwards. Romney has fared best on
NBC, which included an interview on the day he announced his campaign (Matt
Lauer apologized on the air for not being able to fly to Michigan for the
event), and a May 30 "Today on the Trail" segment in which Lauer shadowed
Romney during a New Hampshire campaign swing.
Every profile of Romney included discussion of
his Mormonism, with reporters suggesting voters would reject a Mormon candidate.
"A recent survey found that 38 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they
would have serious doubts about voting for a Mormon," Lauer told Romney on May
30. "Should you just come out with a ‘Kennedy moment’ and say, ‘Look, folks,
here’s the deal. Here’s my faith, here’s what it’s all about, here’s what I
on ABC’s Good Morning America
in April to tout his fundraising success, Romney got hit with the same question
from Robin Roberts: "Many are wondering if you will take a page from former
President Kennedy, who had addressed the nation about his Catholic upbringing.
Do you anticipate doing the same?" Romney griped: "There’s probably not a single
interview I do with you guys that doesn’t raise the issue, so of course we talk
In June, ABC wondered if Romney’s candidacy was
jeopardizing other Mormons. "Fairly or unfairly," ABC’s Dan Harris intoned,
"Romney’s Mormonism is coming in for increased scrutiny. This has some Mormons
nervous about a resurgence of the type of bigotry the church has faced since it
was founded 177 years ago."
Reporters also challenged Romney over his
shifting stance on abortion. NBC’s Lauer confronted Romney on the day he
announced: "It doesn’t take a huge cynic to say, ‘Wait a minute, in 2002 he said
what he said and did what he did because he was currying the favor of liberal
voters in Massachusetts. And now he’s doing what he’s doing and saying what he’s
saying to curry the favor of conservative voters he’s going to need for the
Comparing Romney’s problems to those of Rudy
Giuliani, ABC’s David Wright asserted that "to win the GOP nomination," Romney
"has to get past his own liberal baggage." Wright then played a soundbite from
political analyst Ken Rudin: "The fact is that he ran for Senate in 1994 as
pro-choice, pro-stem cell research, pro-gay rights. When he ran for governor in
2002, he was also liberal on these issues." Wright: "Romney is now running as a
born-again conservative — a tough sell."
Joe Biden, Gaffe Machine.
Delaware Senator Joe Biden, a frequent morning show guest over the years,
received more coverage than the other bottom-tier Democrats (16 stories), but
nothing like the warm reception given to his party’s three frontrunners. Soon
after his announcement, Biden was forced to apologize for calling Barack Obama a
"clean" and "articulate" candidate, comments seen as racially insensitive. "On
Capitol Hill, Senator Biden is known for two qualities — foreign policy
expertise and for talking too much," ABC’s Jake Tapper told co-host Robin
Roberts on the February 1 Good Morning America. "It’s the second one,
Robin, that got him in trouble."
May, CBS’s Bob Schieffer highlighted another Biden remark, this one about
Democrats’ plans to capitalize on the President’s veto of a bill. "We’re going
to shove it down his throat," Biden railed. Schieffer sounded downright
sorrowful: "Although he’s one of the most informed people in the Congress, on
foreign policy especially, he has had this habit of making these boners."
Mike Bloomberg, the Great Liberal Hope.
Amid suggestions that the billionaire mayor of New York City might run as a
self-financed independent, the networks saw great significance in Bloomberg’s
decision in June to leave the Republican Party that he’d joined only to run for
mayor in 2001. "This morning, who needs Washington?" ABC’s Diane Sawyer
exclaimed on June 20. "The hugely popular mayor of New York City ditches the
Republican label and declares independence, asking if other Americans are ready
for a change. Has the presidential race just been thrown a giant curve ball?"
The media boomlet for Bloomberg generated 15
stories in June and July, giving the non-candidate more coverage than many of
the announced contenders. ABC’s Robin Roberts interviewed Bloomberg on the July
24 Good Morning America, where she touted him as "a fiscal conservative
but social liberal who supports gun control and doesn’t take a conservative line
on immigration." She pleaded with Bloomberg: "You’re very passionate about
certain issues. Is there anything that could change your mind and make you run
Fred Thompson, Conservative Actor.
After his name surfaced as a potential, if not
likely presidential candidate, the networks made it clear that they thought
former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson had the potential to win it all.
"[Thompson] has not even declared his candidacy for president, and already he
has vaulted to second place among Republicans in a new poll," ABC’s Jake Tapper
marveled in a June 13 report.
Yet for all of the Law & Order star’s
potential political heft, the networks have spent less time on Thompson (11
stories) than more liberal possibilities such as Gore and Bloomberg. Reporters
generally cast interest in Thompson as a rebuke of the rest of the GOP field.
"There is room because there’s such disappointment among Republicans," political
analyst Amy Walter opined on CBS’s The Early Show back in March.
Alone among the top GOP contenders, network
reporters unequivocally tagged Thompson as a "conservative" four times. On March
12, ABC’s Claire Shipman reported how the "popular conservative" was considering
a presidential bid; over on NBC, reporter Andrea Mitchell saw Thompson as
"against gun control and gay marriage, and just possibly the answer for restless
conservatives." And on the June 13 Good Morning America, ABC’s Tapper
similarly cast Thompson as "the man conservatives see as the answer to their
If and when Thompson takes the plunge, he’s
unlikely to receive a honeymoon from reporters, who’ve already engaged in some
sniping. On May 31, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos recounted "questions about
whether he has fire in his belly, whether he’s been too lazy a
campaigner....[and] about his one term in the Senate, whether it’s a thin record
And on July 10, NBC’s Today relayed
smarmy charges about Thompson’s wife. "At 40, Jeri Thompson is beautiful,
fashionable and 24 years younger than her husband," reporter Michael Okwu
pointed out. "Even the New York Times is wondering, is America ready for
a president with a trophy wife?"
Interviews: Much More Time for Democrats...
Even more than day-to-day news coverage, the
candidates covet invitations to appear on the networks’ morning shows. As
previously noted, the audience for these shows is far larger than the typical
cable show, and the questioning is usually not rigorous, especially compared to
the politically-oriented Sunday morning talk shows.
Campaign strategists are keenly aware of the
value of these appearances, as the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz noted
August 13: "The top candidates have been more receptive to the network morning
shows, where the questioning is often limited to six minutes rather than a
sustained cross-examination about their records."
During the first seven months of this year,
these network morning shows have been far more hospitable to Democrats than
Republicans. MRC analysts analyzed 67 morning show appearances by either an
announced or prospective presidential candidate or one of their representatives.
Of those appearances, two-thirds (43) featured Democrats, compared to just 22
for the Republicans. Potential independent candidate Michael Bloomberg was
When it came to airtime,
the Democratic advantage was even more pronounced. Interviews with the various
Democratic campaigns totaled 275 minutes of coverage, or roughly four and a half
hours. In contrast, the Republicans garnered only 104 minutes of morning show
airtime (1 hour, 44 minutes), a greater than two-to-one disparity. (The two
interviews with Bloomberg totaled just over nine minutes.)
When one looks solely at interviews with the
candidates themselves (excluding their husbands, wives or other spokesmen), the
gap shrinks only somewhat. The Democratic candidates still commanded more than
three and a half hours of airtime (214 minutes), while the Republicans received
just over an hour and a half (97 minutes).
Once again, the networks lavished the most
attention on the three Democratic front-runners, with New York Senator Hillary
Clinton leading the pack with nearly 90 minutes of airtime. Clinton herself
accounted for about two-thirds (62 minutes) of her campaign’s exposure on the
morning shows, but the networks also hosted her campaign chairman Terry
McAuliffe, her spokesman Howard Wolfson, a group of her top female staffers, and
her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The networks gave Clinton’s Democratic rival
John Edwards's campaign more than an hour of airtime this year (65 minutes),
with more than two-thirds (45 minutes) going to the candidate himself (with the
rest going to his wife, Elizabeth). Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s campaign
gained 53 minutes of face time with morning show viewers — 40 minutes for the
candidate, and the rest for his wife, Michelle.
Former Vice President Al Gore was a network
guest eight times, getting more than 48 minutes of airtime. (MRC analysts only
counted interviews in which a potential Gore presidential campaign was
discussed.) Once again, the non-candidate Gore eclipsed the major GOP
candidates, as the networks gave less airtime to the campaigns of former
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (40 minutes) and Arizona Senator John McCain
The networks hosted second-tier Democratic
candidate Joe Biden four times (19 minutes), making him a more visible morning
show presence than GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, who was interviewed three
times (17 minutes). Interestingly, Giuliani has yet to appear on CBS’s Early
Show this year, a show on which Al Gore has appeared four times.
Rounding out the field, potential GOP candidate
Newt Gingrich, and declared Republicans Tom Tancredo and Mike Huckabee have each
been interviewed once this year. None of the other Republican or Democratic
candidates has made an appearance on a network morning show through July 31.
In addition to tallying the airtime each campaign
received, MRC analysts also analyzed the questions posed by their network
interlocutors. In all, the candidates and their surrogates faced 498 questions,
or about seven per interview. Just under half of those questions (228, or 46%)
were about substantive policy issues, with most of the rest focusing on the
politics of the moment, along with some of the notorious softballs that makes
morning television such a desirable venue for candidates.
"Do you have a weakness on the campaign trail,
anything that you have to have with you at all times?" NBC’s Meredith Vieira
asked Senator Barack Obama. "A stuffed animal?" she suggested.
ABC’s Diane Sawyer posed this question to John
Edwards: "Do you listen to an iPod? Does it relax you on the road?"
ABC’s Chris Cuomo probably thought he was going
to gain an insight when he asked Republican Senator John McCain about the
Democratic frontrunners: "Who would you rather see in the White House, Hillary
Clinton or Barack Obama?" McCain just laughed at Cuomo: "I don’t contemplate
When it came to substantive questions,
journalists heavily emphasized liberal talking points over questions that
reflected a conservative agenda. About two-thirds of the substantive questions
(157, or 69%) could be categorized as reflecting either a liberal or a
conservative view. (The remaining 31% were either mixed or neutral.) Reporters
gravitated to a liberal agenda regardless of whether they were challenging a
liberal Democrat or a Republican with more conservative views.
Of the 111 agenda
questions posed to Democrats, more than twice as many reflected liberal
priorities (77, or 69%) as confronted the candidate with a conservative point
(34, or 31%). But while journalists were relatively shy about hitting the
Democrats with conservative questions, they routinely tossed liberal questions
to the Republican candidates. Of the 45 agenda questions posed to the GOP
candidates, 37 of them (82%) were predicated on liberal ideas, compared to just
eight questions (18%) that reflected a conservative agenda. These findings
mirror what MRC found four years ago when it conducted a
similar study of questions to the Democratic candidates on the same morning
shows and found 87 percent based on a liberal agenda, compared to just 13
percent showing a conservative agenda.
As in 2003, the
Democrats were generally subjected to questions that matched their own point of
view. On January 17, NBC’s Matt Lauer cued up Hillary Clinton with a Democratic
talking point on the war in Iraq: "When one U.S. military official said in
Baghdad, quote, ‘We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is
actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn,’ you would agree
"I certainly would agree with that," Clinton
The same day, ABC’s Diane Sawyer also
interviewed Clinton, along with 15 other female U.S. senators. Sawyer sounded as
if she was pitching a Clinton presidency: "Do you believe that if there were
more women presidents in the world, there would be less war?"
The softballs weren’t confined to foreign
policy. Referring to the firing of U.S. Attorneys, NBC’s Vieira on March 15
invited Obama to slam Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "He also says that he
did not know the extent of what his chief of staff was doing with the White
House counsel. If that is true, what does it say about the Justice Department to
When Al Gore was on NBC’s Today on July
5, Vieira treated him as a scientific expert: "Mr. Gore, can you explain some of
the science behind global warming?" She also pleaded with him: "If this is the
number one moral issue, and the President is the key player here, then why
wouldn’t the man whose face is the face of this issue be running for President?"
At the Good Morning America town hall-style meeting on March 26, co-host
Robin Roberts indulged Clinton: "A lot of people feel like they’re rolling the
dice every morning about their health care. They can’t afford it. And two-thirds
— did you realize this? — two-thirds of Americans who do not have health
insurance are working!"
February 5, NBC’s Lauer patted Edwards on the back: "I’ll applaud your honesty.
You basically have come out and said, ‘Look, I want universal health care for
everyone in this country, and I’m going to raise taxes to accomplish it.’
Senator Obama, Senator Clinton also would like to see universal health care.
What’s the main difference in your plan versus theirs?"
Sometimes the Democrats were challenged as not
liberal enough. Reminding Edwards of his multi-million dollar house and work at
a hedge fund, Diane Sawyer put him on the spot during the July 16 town
hall-style meeting: "Can you be among the privileged in this country and really
make a difference in poverty, really in your heart be committed to solving
In a February 22 interview, Vieira hit Edwards
with condemnation from the even more liberal Dennis Kucinich: "He said, quote,
‘We had an audition for President in October 2002,' and that the President must
have, again his words, ‘the clarity of vision, the judgment to make the right
decisions on life and death matters.’ The implication being that those who voted
for the war failed the audition. People like you failed the audition. Do you
agree with that, sir?"
But reporters did press the Democrats to respond
to some conservative arguments. On January 11, Vieira asked the anti-war Obama:
"What if the President is right and, if he were to remove the troops, redeploy
them, that that country, Iraq, would fall into total chaos, we would lose
control of that country? Are you willing to face that possibility?"
In July, ABC’s Sawyer similarly hit Edwards over
his plan to quickly withdraw U.S. troops: "What does that say to the Iraqi
people? Where does that leave them? What if ethnic cleansing begins? Do you send
the troops back in? What do you do?" She followed up: "What is the plan to
control civil war, except going back in?" Edwards replied, "Well, it’s not an
Republican candidates, it was much more common to be forced to respond to
liberal arguments. In a March 28 exchange, ABC’s Chris Cuomo lectured the
pro-surge John McCain on the war in Iraq: "Your friend Senator Hagel calls the
position you were putting forward ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-delusional.’...Do you
have to be looking at Iraq through rose-colored glasses to see progress?"
That same day, CBS’s Hannah Storm also
confronted McCain about Iraq: "Why shouldn’t we have a deadline for pulling out
of Iraq?...The violence and bombings continue and American soldiers and Marines
and Iraqi civilians are dying nearly every day here. Why do you think we’re
Representative Tom Tancredo, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration, ABC’s
Cuomo was contentious. Referring to the defeat of a compromise Senate bill that
would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants, Cuomo demanded to know:
"Why did you feel the need to rip a bill like this down?" The ABC anchor kept up
the hostile tone throughout the interview.
In July, NBC’s Lauer suggested to former
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that conservatism might not matter to GOP
voters: "Let me make sure people know where you stand, pro-life, pro-gun,
anti-gay marriage. If you’re the authentic conservative, why aren’t you being
embraced more in the polls in states that generally embrace conservatives, early
primary states? And why are guys who’ve been questioned about their standing on
certain social issues, like Giuliani and Mitt Romney, why are they leading the
And in an interview with Mitt and Ann Romney,
CBS’s Storm seemed baffled at their opposition to embryonic stem cell research,
even though Mrs. Romney suffers from multiple sclerosis. "The Multiple Sclerosis
Society has been very clear, they say that embryonic stem cell research has the
potential to be used to protect and rebuild the tissues damaged by MS," Storm
told Romney. "Can you explain why you are against federal funding?"
It was rare that one of the Republican
candidates was interrogated from the right, but NBC’s Vieira did challenge
former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani back in January: "How are you going to
get nominated, sir?...You’re pro-choice, pro-gay civil unions, pro-gun control —
not exactly the kinds of positions many Republicans favor."
There’s certainly journalistic merit in
confronting a Republican candidate with liberal arguments, so that potential
primary voters can evaluate the candidate’s ability to explain and defend his
positions. But by tilting their interviews with GOP candidates away from the
conservative issues that matter most to primary voters, while simultaneously
emphasizing a liberal agenda for Democratic guests, the morning shows steered
the debate in both parties toward the left.
That’s great news if you’re a liberal activist
hoping to draw more voters to your side on Election Day. But it’s bad news for
those who expect the networks to cover all sides in a fair and balanced way.
Networks Must Find Their Balance
In spite of the heavy activity seen thus far,
Campaign 2008 is far from over. If history is an accurate guide, the networks
will provide their heaviest coverage of the primary campaigns in January and
February; then a long campaign between the two party nominees will commence,
with the heaviest news coverage of the two party conventions and the fall
Yet the first seven months of
this campaign already provide evidence of a disturbing tilt in network news
coverage. It’s long been established that most of the top network reporters and
other members of the media elite hold mainly liberal policy views and vote
overwhelmingly for Democrats on Election Day. This study shows that the networks
are focusing much more of their time and energy covering the Democratic
nomination race than the Republican contest, and are more frequently opening
their airwaves to the Democratic candidates. Add to that the fact that the
coverage of the major Democratic candidates has been more favorable, and that
the agenda of network news interviews has reflected the liberal priorities of
the Democratic Party, and the case for the networks showing partisan favor in
this election cycle begins to sharpen.
One potential rebuke to this thesis is the
possibility that the skew we have documented is the result of the GOP candidates
shunning the networks, rather than the networks being stingy in opening their
airwaves to the Republicans. If true, however, it would still not explain the
differences in the tone of each party’s coverage, nor would it explain reporters
emphasizing a liberal agenda.
Indeed, if the Republican candidates are more
wary of appearing on ABC, CBS and NBC (and it should be pointed out that all of
the top declared GOP candidates have made multiple appearances on those
networks), what would it be about the networks’ past coverage that has made them
so apprehensive? By their nature, presidential campaigns are publicity-seeking
machines. For a candidate to eschew an opportunity to reach millions of voters
on a given network, it follows that there is some rational basis for believing
that they would not receive a fair shake. The candidates may merely be
recognizing and reacting to the bias we have found.
The broadcast networks have a responsibility to
cover both parties in a fair and even-handed manner — not for the sake of the
candidates, but for the voters. That means giving viewers a chance to hear from
all of the major candidates in interviews, asking them similar questions, and
balancing the day-to-day news coverage to keep both Democratic and Republican
primary voters equally well-informed. It’s obviously going to be a long
campaign. The networks have an obligation to make it a fair campaign as well.
The Media Research Center
325 South Patrick Street
• Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
(703) 683-9733 • www.mediaresearch.org
L. Brent Bozell III,
Brent H. Baker, Vice President for Research and Publications
Richard Noyes, Research Director • Tim Graham, Director of Media
Geoff Dickens, Brad Wilmouth, Scott Whitlock, Justin McCarthy,
Matthew Balan and Kyle Drennen, News Division Analysts
Michelle Humphrey, Research Associate
Kristine Lawrence, Media Archivist • Melissa Lopez, Assistant
Michael Gibbons, MRC Webmaster