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From the September - October 1988 MediaWatch

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 harsher.

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 3.8 hours.

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 factor."

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 Convention.

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 Democrats.

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 Kennedy.

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 got.

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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