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From the August 1988 MediaWatch

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 midnight.

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 conservative).

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 the right.

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.

Floor Events/Reaction: "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 liberal agenda.

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," page 5).

In the September MediaWatch: A comparison of Democratic and GOP Convention coverage.


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