How 385 stories can tell you next to nothing about whom to vote for
Coverage in the early phase of a presidential campaign is critical, since many voters are still weighing their choices and making decisions at this point. As FAIR pointed out 16 years ago (Extra!, 6/92):
Candidates need to receive attention in order to recruit supporters and raise money. Voters need a full and balanced presentation of each candidate’s proposals and record in this early stage of the process; after the field has been “winnowed,” it may be too late.
To see how this year’s coverage was shaping up, FAIR studied primary election coverage on the nightly broadcast network newscasts (ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News) in the six weeks leading up to February 5, often referred to this year as “Super-Duper Tuesday,” when 24 states held primaries or caucuses.
We coded each story according to seven news frames—Issues, Campaign Analysis/Strategy, Biography, News, Polls/Voter Mood, Human Interest/Local Color and Media/Advertising—noting the frame that dominated the segment, as well as any other frames that were included. (Many stories, especially “Campaign Notebook”-style pieces, touched on a number of different frames in a short period of time.)
From December 26, 2007, until February 5, 2008, the three nightly newscasts aired a total of 385 news stories about the election. This averages out to more than nine news stories on the election per night on network TV. With that kind of saturation, you’d think that the coverage would not only touch on the horse race and polling, but would shed light on policy platforms, economic plans, foreign policy goals and other substantive differences among what was then a wide-open field of candidates. You’d think that, after viewing or reading 385 news stories, you’d come away well-informed and ready to participate in a democracy.
But, unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
Campaign Analysis/Strategy dominated the coverage FAIR examined, appearing in 333 of the 385 stories overall (86 percent). It was the dominant frame in 252 stories (65 percent), and it was the only frame in 79 stories (20 percent). In other words, one in five stories in this sample touched only on the “how” of getting elected.
It’s not that campaign coverage should be devoid of analysis and strategic concerns; who’s ahead and why is of legitimate concern to voters, and this type of story can be informative and illuminating. But the emphasis on this type of reportage mostly provides news consumers with a lot of insignificant “insights,” like the January 2 CBS story “Hillary Clinton Needs Supporters to Show Up to Caucus.” So which candidates didn’t need their supporters to caucus?
A January 3 ABC report titled “Campaign Expectations: Democrats and Republicans” was another example of strategy coverage run amok. “No one is confidently predicting victory” in Iowa, John Edwards “needs momentum,” Barack Obama’s campaign is “confident that they can compete,” and, most enlightening, “Hillary Clinton would certainly prefer to win in Iowa tonight.”
“Voters say they would like to see more coverage of the candidates’ positions on the issues and less coverage of which candidate is leading in the latest polls,” the Pew Research Center (3/6/08) found. “More than three-quarters of the public (78 percent) would like to see more coverage of the candidates’ positions on domestic issues and 74 percent would like to see more coverage of foreign policy positions.”
At first glance, our findings would indicate that voters were getting what they wanted, with issues being present in 41 percent of the stories, a higher percentage than polling (31 percent). But FAIR found that mentioning issues didn’t mean they were substantively discussed. Issues were the dominant frame in just 5 percent of stories; in other words, only about one story in 20 was mainly about what candidates proposed to do if elected.
The leading media issues in this period of the campaign were the economy, the Iraq War and immigration. This dovetails, in the first two cases at least, with contemporaneous polling, which found Iraq and the economy were the most important issues to voters of both major parties (AP, 1/12/08).
But when these issues were present in a story, they were more often than not referred to in passing, usually in relation to polling. Rare was the story that actually explained where a particular candidate stood on the economy, the war or anything else.
Indeed, even when an issue such as the economy was the dominant frame of a story, it was seldom seriously examined. Instead, the networks focused on the political strategy behind courting voters concerned about the economy, reporting that “Mike Huckabee sounds like a populist” (CBS, 1/10/08) and “John McCain is trying tough love” (ABC, 1/12/08).
Take ABC’s January 14 report, “It’s the Economy; Close Race,” for example. “The economy has emerged as the overwhelming issue,” anchor Charles Gibson began. “All the Republicans are saying they’ll try to create new jobs. But can they?”
The set-up seemed to promise an examination of the candidates’ economic plans. Instead, the segment offered mostly platitudes, like “Michigan’s best days are ahead of them” (McCain) and “I will not rest until Michigan has come back” (Romney).
Interestingly, halfway through the piece, reporter John Berman bemoaned the prevalence of platitudes, saying: “While the candidates are overflowing with sympathy for Michigan, they are not overflowing with specifics.”
While Berman may have been correct that the candidates weren’t offering up many specifics on the campaign trail, they all had economic plans readily available on their websites. Rather than just reporting relatively meaningless statements, ABC could have done voters a favor by reporting just how the Republicans planned to help the economy. Some of their plans were quite extreme, such as Mike Huckabee’s proposal to “replace the Internal Revenue Code with a consumption tax,” which he detailed on his website.
A few stories did attempt to lay out at least the barest details of economic policy positions, such as a January11 NBC report that noted Clinton’s plan for “$70 billion in housing and energy assistance for low-income home owners,” and reported that Rudy Giuliani “proposed lowering corporate tax rates and capital gains taxes, costing trillions.” CBS’s “Republicans and Democrats Differ on Tax Issues” (1/10/08) was also notable; it was one of the few stories in the sample where you’d even find the terms “deficit,” “payroll deductions” and “minimum wage.” But overall, the networks failed to provide more than sketchy details of the candidates’ economic positions, despite the economy being raised as an issue in 91 stories.
Nevertheless, compared to the coverage of other prominent issues, coverage on the economy was by far the most informative. How the press dealt with the candidates and the Iraq War was even more vapid.
Though the Iraq War had largely disappeared from the news during this time frame, often replaced by incessant campaign coverage (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 12/15/07), polls continued to show the war as one of the most important issues on voters’ minds (AP, 1/12/08). But the network newscasts’ treatment of the war’s role in the campaign largely centered on personal conflict and, again, political strategy, not actual plans the candidates may have had about our military occupation there.
During a campaign appearance on his wife’s behalf on January 7, Bill Clinton uttered a sentence that ended up dominating the Democratic primary—or at least the coverage—for weeks. Referring to Obama’s claim to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, the former president said (NBC, 1/8/08): “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
NBC (1/13/08) reported that Bill Clinton “used the dismissive term” to “attack Barack Obama’s positioning on the war,” and that he “challenged Obama’s anti-war credentials” (1/21/08). But despite the fact that the remark popped up 17 times in the next four weeks as the Bill Clinton vs. Barack Obama media story took off, the networks did remarkably little to put it in context.
“The point I was trying to make is there’s really no difference between his voting record and Hillary’s on Iraq,” Clinton was quoted (ABC, 1/12/08) as saying on an unnamed “black talk radio” show. It’s an interesting suggestion, one that might have served as a jumping-off point to really compare not only Hillary Clinton’s and Obama’s voting records, but their plans for Iraq if elected. Yet ABC decided instead to punt and let Clinton’s assertion stand alone.
In fact, we didn’t learn much about any of the Democratic candidates’ positions on the war. We learned that Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the use of force in 2002, which Obama criticized her for (CBS, 2/1/08); we learned that Dennis Kucinich was “an outspoken critic of the war,” but not until after he withdrew from the race (NBC, 1/24/08); and we also learned that Obama thinks Pakistan “pose[s] a greater danger to world security . . . than Iraq ever did” (NBC, 12/27/07), which gave us a little insight into his foreign policy, but no concrete information.
Remarkably, in the 55 stories that raised the Iraq War as an issue, the networks made no mention of any of the Democrats’ plans for troop withdrawal or their stances on the troop “surge.” Both of those topics, however, provided much fodder for the coverage of the leading Republican candidates.
John McCain is “surging in part because the ‘surge’ in Iraq, which he has long supported, has shown signs of success,” ABC reported on January 2. The “progress in Iraq . . . put new life into the John McCain campaign,” CBS reported (1/29/08).
The supposed success of the troop “surge” became a lens through which to view the McCain turnaround, but his plans for what happens next weren’t covered. Rather, his “ownership” of the war issue in the media left viewers with very little specific information.
As for troop withdrawal, it became a point of contention between Romney and McCain, with McCain accusing Romney of supporting a “timetable,” Romney denying he did, McCain saying Romney “should apologize to U.S. troops” (NBC, 1/26/08) and Romney firing back that McCain should apologize for distorting his original remarks (ABC, 1/28/08). Like Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment, the back-and-forth generated lots of heat but little light in the press.
The day-to-day reporting from the trail wasn’t the only campaign coverage lacking in its discussion and presentation of issues. Reports from candidate debates, which have the potential to shed light on the issues and policy differences discussed, instead presented the debates as sport.
We learned that Clinton “really came out and hammered Barack Obama pretty hard” in a New Hampshire debate (NBC, 1/13/08); that the two resumed “a verbal brawl” on January 21 in a “downright rancorous” (ABC, 1/22/08) debate in South Carolina that “got very personal, very rough very quickly” (NBC, 1/22/08); weeks later at a Los Angeles debate, they “were on their best behavior” (ABC, 2/1/08), a spectacle of which NBC (2/1/08) said “Miss Manners would have been proud,” replete with “gentlemanly chair holding” and “friendly elbow hugs.”
On the other side of the aisle, we learned that the Romney campaign was “trying to turn the withering attacks”—later referred to in the same piece as a “gang-tackle”—from a January 5 New Hampshire debate “into a political positive” (ABC, 1/6/08); that the Republican confab on January 24 was “gentlemanly” (NBC, 1/25/08); and that Romney and McCain “squared off in a testy exchange” (CBS, 1/31/08) filled with “colorful combat” (NBC, 1/31/08) on January 30 in California.
What was lacking from the debate coverage was the substantive policy arguments that were often discussed, such as the small—but important—differences among the Clinton, Edwards and Obama healthcare proposals.
Names and numbers
We also wanted to see how much coverage was given to the various candidates—and non-candidates—by the evening network newscasts. To do so, we counted how many times each candidate appeared on World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. An appearance was tallied each time a candidate was mentioned, had a soundbite or interview, or had a campaign ad included in the newscast.
FAIR found the candidates were put into a relatively clear three-tier system by the networks; we’ll call them high-, medium- and low-visibility candidates. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney fell in the high-visibility category; John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson fell in the medium-visibility category; and Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul and Bill Richardson fell in the low-visibility category. (Some candidates, including Democrat Mike Gravel and Republican Duncan Hunter, received no coverage at all during the study period.)
The coverage of low-visibility candidates was scant, ranging from seven to 22 appearances. The case of Kucinich was typical: He appeared only seven times, with four of those reporting on his exiting the race. Which leaves us to wonder: Why report on someone dropping out if you never acknowledged he was running in the first place?
Republican Ron Paul is another interesting example from the low-visibility category. He appeared only 10 times over the six-week period, even though he raised extraordinary amounts of cash, which is typically a strong predictor of media attention. More significantly, Paul performed well, despite being banned from a Fox News debate in New Hampshire (Boston Globe, 12/29/07) and neglected by the press. He finished 6 percentage points ahead of Rudy Giuliani—and only 3 behind McCain—in the Iowa caucuses, came out ahead of Fred Thompson in the New Hampshire primary and finished second—behind Romney—in the Nevada caucuses.
So what did the networks deign to tell their audiences about Paul? Not much, really. ABC reported that he was a “libertarian,” without explaining what that might entail (12/30/07); that women at a famous Nevada brothel were “pimping for Paul” (1/19/08); that he was “battling it out for second” in Nevada (1/19/08); and that his supporters helped propel Mike Huckabee to victory in West Virginia (2/5/08).
CBS reported (2/5/08) that Paul was leading Huckabee in a New Hampshire poll; and noted (1/4/08) that he “tapped into the digital world most successfully, raising more than $6 million from online supporters in one day in December,” before adding “he doesn’t have a single delegate.”
NBC mentioned him just once (2/1/08), as one of the last four candidates remaining in the GOP race, in a piece about how the Republican base was coping with McCain’s status as front-runner.
There was an additional politician who stood out in the low-visibility category: New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Despite consistently denying he had any intention of running, the networks couldn’t stop themselves from reading the tea leaves, resulting in 21 Bloomberg appearances, more than all but one of the other low-visibility candidates. ABC, CBS and NBC were likely following the lead of the agenda-setting New York Times, which spilled an extraordinary amount of ink on the will-he-or-won’t-he drama of a potential Bloomberg run (CJR.org, 2/28/08).
Medium-visibility candidates John Edwards and Mike Huckabee both played similar roles in the coverage: the third wheel. Despite Huckabee’s Iowa victory and Edwards’ second-place finish there, the networks never really caught on, preferring to stick with the front-runners they’d chosen (though they did have to discard a few “chosen ones,” like Thompson and Giuliani—Extra!, 3-4/08). Huckabee had 503 appearances, while Edwards clocked in with 392.
Edwards received the most coverage at two junctures: in the run-up to Iowa and when he and his wife “finally gave up their quest” (NBC, 1/30/08) on January 30. In the middle, there was little discussion of Edwards, except the occasional story wondering if he should drop out (NBC, 1/18/08; ABC, 1/26/08) and dismissive personal details: e.g., he was a “millionaire trial lawyer” (CBS, 1/30/08) who “once spent more than 400 bucks on a hairstylist” (CBS, 1/23/08).
Typical of the coverage of Edwards was a December 31, 2007 report from CBS. After leading the report by noting “the latest poll shows John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a statistical dead heat” (getting 24, 23, and 22 percent, respectively), anchor Harry Smith tossed to reporter Jim Axelrod, who said, “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a dog fight.” The piece then detailed those two campaigns for the next 298 words, with no mention of Edwards until the last line, when he was called “the Democrat who may well have the most momentum right now.”
In the high-visibility category, there was little difference between the four candidates’ total tallies, with Romney (904), McCain (931), Clinton (992) and Obama (1,204) all relatively close to one another, especially when compared with the rest of the field. The average number of appearances for a high-visibility candidate (1,008) is more than three times as many as the average number for medium-visibility candidates (299), and a whopping 72 times as many as the average number for low-visibility candidates (14). While the number of candidate appearances will of course fluctuate in relation to performance, the disparity found here is appalling.
As has been noted many times before, the early stage in the campaign is no time to limit the public’s exposure to any particular candidates, no matter what the polls—often driven by exposure in the first place—are saying. This should be a time when the American people are introduced to all of the candidates, and, more importantly, all of their ideas about how to run the country.
Unfortunately, this study shows that, yet again, this didn’t occur on network TV news.
As FAIR noted in 1992 (Extra!, 6/92), the ideas covered in a primary campaign are often more significant than the candidates: “The primary and caucus season is a chance to generate awareness and discussion of questions that matter. The reduction of this process to a winner-take-all horse-race represents a lost opportunity for public education and for the discourse and debate vital to democracy.”
In this 2008 primary season, at least on network TV news, the press dropped the ball again. Considering all of the pressing issues facing the country, from the Iraq War to expanding executive power to an ongoing financial crisis, this was truly another opportunity lost.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Rep. Ron Paul dropping out of the race on March 6. While he did release a video on that date declaring that “victory in the conventional political sense is unavailable in the presidential race,” he was still campaigning as of May 20.