Coverage of the Democratic Convention
During their Atlanta convention the
Democrats set out to package presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as a
competent manager and political moderate, not an ideological liberal.
Thanks to the networks, this charade was successful. That's one
conclusion of a MediaWatch Study of ABC, CBS,
CNN and NBC prime-time convention coverage. Analysts reviewed coverage
from July 18-21 from 9:00 PM Eastern (8:00 PM for CNN everyday, for CBS
on July 21) until coverage ended sometime between 11:15 PM and 12
Networks were assessed in six areas: use
of ideological labels to characterize convention attendees; choice of
officials to be interviewed; agenda of questions posed to interviewees;
consistency with 1984 convention coverage; coverage of controversies and
criticisms of Dukakis and/or the Democrats; and the overall educational
value of the broadcasts to the voter. Based upon performance in these
areas, the Media Research Center, publisher of MediaWatch,
issued ratings each night on a scale of one to ten. These final ratings
reflect the total for each network over four days.
NBC: 28 CNN: 27 ABC: 22 CBS: 10
1) LABELING -- Overall, network
anchors, reporters, analysts and commentators almost evenly split 86
labels they attached to the candidates, delegates, those in attendance
or Democrats in general (52 percent liberal, 48 percent moderate or
The networks played along with Dukakis'
game plan to disguise his ideologically liberal record. They
accomplished this in two ways: By hardly ever tagging a
"liberal" label on Dukakis and by describing him as moderate
or "moving to the middle," nearly as often as
"liberal." In 49 and a half hours of coverage the networks
identified him as a "liberal" or "progressive" just
13 times. In other words, viewers only heard Dukakis properly labeled
once every 3.8 hours. Jesse Jackson holds views placing him well to the
left of most liberal Democrats, a fact that did not concern the
networks. Though he dominated coverage for the first two nights, he got
tagged "liberal" just nine times, or once every five and a
half hours. Over half the labels came from NBC which placed him to the
left on five occasions. With fourteen labels, reporters called Bentsen
conservative or moderate more often than they put Dukakis or Jackson on
the other end of the spectrum. Dukakis ended up just where he wanted to
be: holding down the middle between Jackson on the left and Bentsen on
2) INTERVIEWS -- The four networks
aired 112 interviews with Senators, Congressmen, Mayors and Governors
(interviews with Jackson, Dukakis, Bentsen and members of their campaign
staffs were not included). The vast majority (76 percent) came from the
liberal wing of the Democratic Party, such as New York Governor Mario
Cuomo, Walter Mondale, Senators Edward Kennedy, Paul Sarbanes and Paul
Simon and U.S. Representatives Charles Rangel and Tony Coehlo.
Interviews with those from the more moderate wing represented only 24
percent of interviews. Among those: Senators Al Gore, Sam Nunn and
Ernest Hollings, and former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb. CNN gave
airtime to the most moderates, 14 interviews; CBS the least with just
three compared to 19 liberals.
3) QUESTIONS POSED -- The networks
avoided substance as much as possible. The vast majority of 666
questions put those interviewed on the floor or in the booth dealt with
reactions to speeches, the popularity of the ticket or wondering what
Jackson might do. Less than a fourth focused on Democratic or Republican
agenda policy issues.
Among these, a few centered on whether
Dukakis can win back "Reagan Democrats." For example, NBC's
Lisa Myers asked a delegate Wednesday night: "How do you get those
voters back this year?" Nine percent, categorized as Democratic
Agenda, gave convention goers an opportunity to pick up on one of the
party's campaign themes. ABC's Sam Donaldson, for instance, spoonfed
Senator George Mitchell this query: "Will the Iran-Contra issue
have faded or is that going to be an issue this fall?"
Just seven percent challenged Democrats
with probable Republican campaign issues. NBC stood apart from the other
networks for posing Republican Agenda questions. On Tuesday NBC's Chris
Wallace asked Senator Gore: "You campaigned against Dukakis
and your other opponents saying that they were soft of defense. Aren't
Republicans this fall going to be able to use that same argument?"
In an unusual twist, Wallace even followed up with specifics: "The
fact is that Dukakis is still against the MX, still against the
Midgetman; he is still for a ban on flight testing of vehicles."
With one exception, the networks failed to challenge the Democrats on
how they expect to convince voters to support the Democratic ticket
given the booming economy under the Republicans.
Here are sample questions matching the
other categories in the table.
Fall Campaign/Party Unity:
"Are you on board? Are you going to campaign for this ticket? Did
they ask you to?" -- CBS' Lesley Stahl to Mario Cuomo.
"Kathleen, what is so special about this night?" -- NBC's
Chris Wallace to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Thursday night.
Jesse Jackson: "Are you
concerned that Jesse Jackson will do everything he can and that his
people will share the kind of enthusiasm for Michael Dukakis as they do
for him?" -- CNN's Charles Bierbauer to Morris Udall.
4) CONSISTENCY WITH 1984 -- In
1984 ABC and CBS refused to show the Reagan video preceding his
Republican Convention speech. NBC carried it, though warned viewers the
film would "insult your emotions head-on." This year, CBS
remained consistent, not airing either the Jackson or Dukakis videos.
But ABC and NBC carried both without comment.
In 1984, the Republicans tried to run a
"feel good" convention devoid of issues. The networks
repeatedly criticized the Republicans for their lack of candor in trying
to hide their conservative agenda. A study by Professor Bill Adams
showed just how determined the networks were. Looking at just two
networks, CBS and NBC, he found terms like "ultraconservative
platform" and "party of far right conservatives" used to
describe Republicans 113 times. This year the Democrats tried to hide
their true views. The networks on a few occasions complained about the
lack of specifics, but never focused on the Democratic Party's actual
5) CONTROVERSIES IGNORED -- Despite the
fact a "Republican Truth Squad" was on hand in Atlanta, the
networks virtually ignored controversies plaguing Democrats and Dukakis.
CBS and NBC never once mentioned the ethical conduct questions
surrounding House Speaker Jim Wright. ABC briefly raised the issue on
two occasions. While CNN devoted almost five minutes to Wright's
problems before 8:00 PM one night, the cable network only discussed the
issue once during prime-time. Controversies dogging Dukakis in the
months before the convention were also ignored. Viewers heard nothing
about the Dukakis furlough record, prison site controversy or his
consistent record of raising taxes. Doubts about his responsibility for
the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle" were similarly
dismissed. ABC took an uncritical look at the topic twice.
6) VALUE OF COVERAGE TO THE VOTER -- ABC,
CNN and NBC allowed viewers to see only major addresses, ignoring other
podium activity. Those wanting to see anymore had to watch C-SPAN. Of
the major networks, however, CNN and NBC gave viewers the greatest
diversity of views without ignoring major convention events. CBS
reporters spent more time talking among themselves than offering viewers
convention-related information (See the "Janet Cooke Award,"
In the September MediaWatch:
A comparison of Democratic and GOP Convention coverage.
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