MRC Study: TV News Is Trying to Winnow the Field of GOP Candidates
During the past three months, the big broadcast networks have essentially stopped covering most of the GOP presidential candidates, a lack of national news attention that presumably affects the national poll ratings used to determine which candidates are included in televised debates.
On Thursday, the Fox Business Network announced that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would be dropped from Tuesday’s prime-time debate stage because of their low ratings in national polls. Those low ratings shouldn’t be a surprise; from August 1 through October 31, Christie and Huckabee received just six minutes and three minutes of coverage respectively on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, according to a new analysis by the Media Research Center. (See chart for details.)
Ohio Governor John Kasich, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — major candidates who have been included in the first three prime time debates — have been similarly ignored by the networks, each receiving just a scant few minutes of TV news airtime over those same months.
The networks’ lack of coverage may be justified based on the polls, but it can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as candidates who are deprived of news coverage can’t hope to generate new support. Instead of covering the top 10 Republican candidates, or the entire current field of 14 candidates, the networks have now essentially pared down the field to five candidates: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina.
In contrast, from August 1 through October 21, those same networks devoted 110 minutes of airtime to the non-candidacy of Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. If the networks could devote that much airtime to a candidacy that never materialized, it seems reasonable that they could spend more than a few minutes on the major candidates who are actually running this year.
As for the top five candidates still garnering more than incidental coverage from the networks, here’s how they’re being treated:
■ Donald Trump: As he has since his candidacy began in mid-June, the networks continue to award Trump the lion’s share of news coverage, but not by the same percentages as in July and August. Trump’s share of the overall GOP campaign coverage has fallen from an astronomical 71 percent in July and August, to 56 percent in September and 39 percent in October.
The networks continue to pounce on Trump’s politically-incorrect statements, but not with the same energy as in the summer. In July, nearly 80 percent of Trump’s coverage was devoted to controversies such as his inflammatory comments about Mexico sending “criminals” and “rapists” to the U.S., or his statement that tortured ex-Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain wasn’t a “hero.”
In October, the networks highlighted Trump’s suggestion that former President George W. Bush bore responsibility for 9/11 attacks, as well as his comments about Ben Carson’s religion and the “small” $1 million loan he received as a young man to launch his real estate business. But such controversies amounted to just 29 percent of Trump’s overall coverage that month, less than any other month in 2015.
■ Dr. Ben Carson: When the retired neurosurgeon first declared his candidacy in May, the networks gave it just 56 seconds of coverage. The networks began covering Carson more intensively after the first GOP debate; in September and October, Carson received more TV news coverage than any Republican candidate other than Trump.
As they do with Trump, the networks have highlighted what they see as controversial statements from Carson, such as his comments following the Oregon school shooting where he advised potential victims to fight back, and his statement about gun control making Hitler’s Holocaust more likely. Such controversies amounted to 41 percent of Carson’s coverage in October, a higher percentage than any other GOP candidate, including Trump.
■ Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: Bush began the year as the media’s presumed frontrunner, even though his lead in public opinion polls seemed based more on name recognition than strong support. During the first six months of the year, Bush dominated the field with nearly 36 percent of all GOP coverage, far more than any of his competitors.
In July, as the networks turned nearly all of their attention to the new frontrunner Trump, Bush remained the second-most covered candidate, and the one most often-cited as a foil to Trump. In September, however, the networks shifted to emphasizing Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina as Trump’s competitors, and Bush’s share of the coverage fell to fourth.
In October, the networks have again swung their spotlight to Bush, but the new-found attention is over the idea — unfathomable in early 2015 — that the scion of one of the most famous political families in America might soon be forced to end his campaign. “Some are beginning to wonder if Bush’s sputtering campaign is beginning to look like Scott Walker’s, where early momentum faded fast and never recovered,” CBS’s Major Garrett intoned on the October 28 Evening News.
“Is it panic time for Jeb Bush?” NBC’s Lester Holt wondered on the October 29 Nightly News. “Jeb Bush, now forced to answer whether today marks the beginning of the end for his campaign,” reporter Hallie Jackson added a few moments later.
■ Carly Fiorina: The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard announced in May on the same day as Carson, and received similarly minuscule coverage: just 75 seconds of airtime across the three evening newscasts. Even after her break-out performance at the August 6 “happy hour” debate on Fox, Fiorina was barely noticed, garnering just two minutes of airtime in the week that followed, compared to nearly 48 minutes for Trump.
Fiorina’s coverage rose dramatically in September, as she qualified for CNN’s main debate stage, and was on the receiving end of insulting comments from Donald Trump about her looks. In September, Fiorina garnered just over 20 minutes of airtime from the three evening newscasts, or 11 percent of the total given to the GOP race.
Since then, however, the networks seem to have returned Fiorina to the back benches. In October, she received less than three minutes of coverage, most of which was a single NBC Nightly News story on October 5 criticizing Fiorina for taking years to pay back the campaign debt from her 2010 Senate run. (The same story included a five-second acknowledgment that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign also took years to pay off its debts.)
■ Senator Marco Rubio: Rubio, like fellow Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, received full stories on all of the broadcast networks when he declared his candidacy back in April. And, like most of the other candidates, his candidacy was eclipsed by Trump’s during the summer months when Trump was the focus of more than 70 percent of network airtime.
In August, Rubio was the focus of just two percent of all GOP coverage; that grew to four percent in September. In October, however, as the Senator was attacked by Jeb Bush for missing votes in the Senate, he jumped to more than nine percent of overall airtime, ranking fourth. Rubio received high marks for the effectiveness with which he knocked back Bush’s attack.
“The exchange deepened the impression of Rubio on the rise and Bush on the decline,” CBS’s Major Garrett argued on October 29. It remains to be seen whether Rubio continues to receive significant network attention, or if he, like Fiorina, is again overshadowed by Trump, Carson and Bush.
Winnowing the GOP field is the job of rank-and-file Republican voters, not the news media. If the networks are claiming to cover the presidential race “every step of the way,” as one network likes to say, then they need to cover all of the major candidates, such as those who are participating in the prime time national debates.
— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.