Coddling Democrats & Discrediting Republicans
1) Labeling: During the
Democratic convention, the networks use descriptive labels a total of 86
times. In New Orleans, Republicans were labeled 214 times. At the
Atlanta convention, labels attached to Democrats were split: 52 percent
liberal, and 48 percent moderate or conservative. During the GOP
gathering, 15 percent of labels were "moderate" or
"liberal," while 85 percent were "conservative," or
In a total of 49.5 hours of coverage in
Atlanta, the networks identified Mike Dukakis as a "liberal"
or "progressive" just 13 times, or approximately only every
Reporters lost such self restraint when
it came to the GOP. On 182 occasions in New Orleans, the networks used
the term "conservative," more than four times as often as they
bothered to note the liberal views held by Democrats a month before.
Barraged viewers heard a conservative
label used nearly four times an hour, about once every fifteen minutes.
ABC's Lynn Sherr managed to issue a label six times in the space of just
30 seconds. "This is clearly being seen as a great night for the
conservatives. But, the delegates here are much more conservative than
the country as a whole," Sherr told Senator Thad Cochran on the
second night. "But, it is a very conservative platform Senator and
the country is not that conservative...Do you believe that by moving
toward the right, by staying very conservative, that's the way to keep
the Reagan Democrats in your column?"
The harshest descriptive adjective used
on the Democrats was the term "liberal." But some reporters
were not satisfied just labeling Republicans "conservative."
Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite became quite creative, referring to
"hard right conservatives," "hard rock
conservatives," and "hard right people." CNN's Mary
Tillotson smelled a "conservative odor" in the Superdome.
Other terms used: "the religious right," "far right
wing," and "right flank."
2) Controversies: The
Republicans sent a truth squad to Atlanta hoping to prompt the networks
to cover some of the many controversies plaguing Democrats and Dukakis.
The networks didn't bite, but they didn't need any prompting to
highlight controversies of the Reagan-Bush years.
CBS and NBC never once mentioned the
ethical conduct questions surrounding House Speaker Jim Wright. ABC
briefly raised the issue on two occasions and CNN only discussed the
issue once during prime-time. Controversies dogging Dukakis in the
months before the convention were completely ignored. Viewers heard
nothing about the Dukakis policy or furloughing first degree murderers,
his prison site controversy or criminal investigation of a high official
in his administration. But in New Orleans, the networks had no problem
focusing on Republican controversies such as the Iran-Contra affair,
Noriega, the Bitburg cemetery flap, the Beirut bombing or the
"Sleaze factor." These were highlighted a total of 32 times.
"In this hall tonight you'll hear
nothing of Iran/Contra, or Meese, or Deaver, or Nofziger, or the tragedy
in Beirut," NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw began coverage one night. In
two nights, NBC highlighted the topics 14 times. NBC's Chris Wallace
echoed the Dukakis campaign theme, asking Sen. Alfonse D'Amato
"When George Bush talks about Michael Dukakis' inexperience in
foreign policy, isn't it fair game for Dukakis to talk about Bush's
experience in Panama, his experience in selling arms to the
Ayatollah." Instead of airing the Reagan video the first night,
ABC's Sam Donaldson talked about Bitburg, the "secret scheme to
divert money to the Nicaraguan Contras," and the "sleaze
Questions about Bush's choice of Senator
Quayle as his running mate began as a trickle, but by the third night of
the convention had practically become the sole concern. While no
concrete proof existed about any impropriety in his military service or
his involvement with the Washington lobbyist Paula Parkinson; the media,
nonetheless, allowed the supposed controversies to dominate. CBS, CNN,
and NBC interviews with Quayle focused almost exclusively on the two 14
percent of all the questions -- specifically concerned the issue of the
lobbyist or his National Guard service. On another 33 occasions,
reporters discussed the two controversies among themselves.
But the media held Quayle to a far
different standard than they did his Democratic counterpart, Lloyd
Bentson. The Texas Senator has plenty of interesting things in his
background. Among them: his short lived policy of charging PACs $10,000
just to have breakfast with him. Even though Dukakis is running a
"clean government campaign" and is trying to attract those
"left behind by Reaganomics," Bentsen's huge PAC contributions
because of his Finance Committee role did not stir reporters.
3) Questions posed:
Reporters played devil's advocate at the Republican convention, but
failed to at the Democratic conclave. The Republicans had already
attacked Dukakis as a social liberal who is soft on crime and defense,
but ABC, CBS, and CNN rarely raised these issues. In total, Republican
agenda issues were raised in only 49 questions throughout the Democratic
NBC stood apart from the other networks
by raising Republican concerns to the Democratic delegates. For example,
Chris Wallace challenged Senator Al Gore: "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?"
From day one of the Republican
convention, network anchors and reporters echoed Democratic campaign
themes and demanded Republicans respond. In total, reporters challenged
Republicans on 128 occasions, two and one half times more often they did
Some examples: Tom Brokaw demanded of
Quayle: "You're opposed to abortion in any form. You also have
opposed the ERA, and you're opposed to increasing the minimum wage,
which is important to a lot of women out there. Aren't you going to have
a hard time selling Dan Quayle to the women of this country?" A few
days earlier, Brokaw went to the floor to get the views of three
pro-abortion Congresswomen. CNN's Frank Sesno asked a black delegate one
night: "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?"
4) Interviews: At both
conventions the networks demonstrated a preference for liberals and
moderates when it came to decide who to interview on air. In Atlanta the
four networks aired 112 interviews with Senators, Congressmen, Mayors
and Governors. The vast majority (76 percent) came from the liberal wing
of the Democratic Party, such as Mario Cuomo, Walter Mondale, and Ted
Despite the fact conservatives dominated
the New Orleans convention, at least judging from the number of such
labels the networks issued, less than two-thirds of those interviewed
could be considered conservative. Among the politicians in this
category: Senators Dole, Gramm, and Simpson. Seeking out the other side,
39 percent of those interviewed represented the more moderate or liberal
wings, such as Senator Lowell Weicker, Congressman Silvio Conte, and New
Jersey Governor Tom Kean.
ABC also gave plenty of time to Democrats
to denounce the Republican efforts. Viewers heard from NAACP head
Benjamin Hooks, Dukakis campaign chairman Paul Brountas and even Jesse
Jackson. During the Democratic Convention, a brief ABC appearance by
Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater was the only time anyone from the GOP
5) Value to voter: All
the networks cut away from many major speeches at each convention, but
CBS reporters and analysts spent the most time talking among themselves.
Those wanting to see more had to watch C-SPAN.
CBS consistently refused to show any
candidate videos shown at the conventions. The other three networks
showed both the Dukakis and Bush videos. ABC refused to show the Reagan
video at the Republican Convention, while NBC showed just three minutes
of the 18 minute presentation. In Atlanta, both ABC and NBC ran the
Jesse Jackson video. CNN did the opposite; airing the Reagan video, but
not the Jackson one.
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