MediaWatch: September 1996

Vol. Ten No. 9

The Spin: Both Parties Too Conservative

The networks had big news from the Democratic convention in Chicago: liberals exist in the Democratic Party, and they didn't like President Clinton's decision to sign a welfare reform bill. From both the Republican and Democratic conventions, the networks relayed the same message: the parties had become too conservative.

During the Chicago convention:

  • (1) Democratic delegates, speakers, and candidates were labeled twice as often as the Republicans were in San Diego, although they were labeled as extreme only one-fourth as often;

  • (2) Reporters and anchors posed almost five times as many questions from the left as from the right, a much more liberal questioning agenda than the Democratic convention four years ago; and

  • (3) the controversy over welfare reform dominated the convention story line, while the Democrats' abortion-on-demand stance and exclusion of some pro-life speakers garnered no network mentions in prime time.

As during the Republican convention, MediaWatch analysts watched live prime-time coverage of the Democratic convention for a special daily Media Reality Check '96 newsletter. Analysts watched all ABC, CBS, and NBC prime time coverage, as well as the combined PBS/NBC broadcast and CNN starting at 8 pm Eastern time.



Previous convention studies in 1984, 1988, and 1992 found the Republicans were tagged as conservative or very conservative far more often than the Democrats were called liberal or very liberal, with reporters instead playing up the moderate nature of Democratic candidates and delegates. In 1992, Republicans drew 131 labels, 118 (90 percent) of them conservative; the Democrats had 89 labels, 51 (57 percent) of them moderate or conservative.

In 1996, the Republicans were labeled only 59 times, 46 of them (78 percent) conservative; while the Democrats were labeled twice as often, on 119 occasions, and 75 of those tags (63 percent) were liberal, to only 44 moderate or conservative labels. The Republicans were still four times as likely to be described as extreme as the Democrats -- 16 to 4 -- but the Democrats were never described as extremely liberal in 1992.

ABC (with three moderate/conservative labels and 15 liberal tags) was the network most willing to underline the liberal nature of the party gathered in Chicago, while CBS (8 moderate/conservative, 10 liberal) CNN (13-20), NBC-PBS (15-24), and NBC (5-6) held to a more traditional percentage of moderate labeling. Labeling decreased nightly -- from 40 on Monday, to 35 on Tuesday, to 13 on Wednesday -- and then jumped back up to 31 on Thursday, when the departure of Dick Morris spurred speculation about Clinton's post-Morris ideological positioning.

In 1992, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic platform were never described as liberal. In 1996, Clinton was described as moderate on 28 occasions and liberal on 16 occasions, but almost always as a tactical function of "moving to the left" or "moving to the right." In San Diego, the Republican platform was described as conservative on six occasions; in Chicago, the platform was described as moderate on six occasions.

Some examples of labeling:


As the Republican convention began on August 12, PBS anchor Charlayne Hunter-Gault told former Sen. Howard Baker: "Pat Buchanan said most of his views, most of Senator Dole's views, were consistent with his own, and he cited specifically, affirmative action, and the platform position of illegal immigration. And as you know, Pat Buchanan is on the farthest extreme of the right wing of the party."

CNN reporter Gene Randall declared on August 13: "With me is Phyllis Schlafly, an ardent anti-abortion rights advocate...Do you think the speakers do not reflect the conservatism of the platform?"

CNN's Bob Franken explained the next night: "It's interesting they just had a minute ago a very brief tribute to the Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives. Why brief? Because they are highly, highly controversial. It's the freshmen in the House of Representatives that really gave Bill Clinton the extremist issue, fairly or unfairly."

In Chicago on August 26, ABC's Sam Donaldson explained the Democrats "want to accomplish the same thing the Republicans accomplished -- showing a unified party, even though we know from our survey that these delegates are far to the left of the mainstream just as the Republican delegates were to the right of the mainstream."

That night on CBS, Dan Rather asked Jesse Jackson: "Bill Clinton's been running pretty hard to the right, so far that some Democrats now call him a `Republicrat.' Do you go that far?"

Tom Brokaw put Clinton and Gore in Newt Gingrich territory: "Since 1994 they have slid across the political spectrum to really right of center. And they've got a guy by the name of Dick Morris who's advising them on a daily basis how to be more pragmatic."

Three nights later, Brokaw exemplified post-Morris speculation in asking James Carville: "He was the man who moved him to the right. I know that you had some philosophical differences with Dick Morris. Does this mean that the door has been opened again for those of you who believe that the President probably ought to move a little more left of center?"

Agenda Questions


The bottom dropped out on agenda questions from the right in 1996. In 1992, Republicans were asked 130 questions from the left, while Democrats were asked only 38 from the right. Actually, Democrats were asked more questions from the left (45) than the right (38).

In 1996, network reporters asked Republicans 51 questions from the left, and only six from the right. Thanks to welfare reform, the pattern in Chicago was almost exactly the same: 47 questions from the left, 11 from the right.

In Chicago, ABC asked only two liberal questions and one conservative question, followed by NBC with just three liberal questions and one conservative.

CBS (12 liberal, zero conservative), CNN (13-2), and NBC-PBS (17-7) clearly preferred a menu of questions from the left. Combine both conventions, and the questioning numbers are more stark: ABC (five liberal, one conservative), CBS (20-3), CNN (23-3), NBC-PBS (37-8), and NBC (13-2). Some examples of agenda questions:

  • From the right to Republicans: CNN's Gene Randall asked New York Gov. George Pataki on August 13: "The focus tonight of course is on the keynote speech and that is by Representative [Susan] Molinari, who it's well known favors abortion rights. Do you sense a dissatisfaction on this floor that she will be giving this address?"
  • From the left to Republicans: CNN's Judy Woodruff inquired of Rep. Susan Molinari on August 12: "Leading up to the convention, Bob Dole was running well behind President Clinton with women voters. We look at the statistics of how many women delegates. What, 43 percent in 1992. Only 36 percent of delegates are women this year. What sort of signal does that send the country, you think?"
  • From the right to Democrats: NBC's David Bloom asked James Carville after Hillary Clinton's speech August 27: "I was struck by the fact that she talked about health care and the need for more health care insurance for the unemployed. That's a topic that got her and Bill Clinton into a lot of trouble two years ago. Why would she revisit that tonight?"
  • From the left to Democrats: ABC's Michel McQueen asked former DNC official Lynn Cutler on August 26: "She is comparing her candidate not to perfection, but to Bob Dole. Isn't that right, Lynn -- do the liberals in the party, as you unashamedly describe yourself, feel abandoned by the President this year?"

Controversy: Welfare


The controversy over welfare reform surfaced in prime time on 44 occasions (questions plus comments by reporters), forming the most common basis for liberal analysis. As in agenda questions, ABC (4) and NBC (2) did not dwell very much on the welfare controversy, and NBC-PBS raised it 10 times in a longer time frame. CNN (16) and CBS (9) were most interested in the story.

Tom Brokaw provided the only example found of coming at the issue from the right, even if it sounded like he wished some lesser welfare reform had passed before the GOP takeover of Congress. He asked HHS Secretary Donna Shalala: "I guess the question a lot of us have is why didn't you come up with something of your own two years ago when you had power in the Congress, before Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over, when you knew that Repub -- welfare reform was a high-priority issue for this country and the President was talking about it when he was running in 1992?"

Brokaw also asked a more typical network question: "If you were a poor single mother in a poor rural state in America, without many resources, and you wanted to go to work, you want to do the right things, but there aren't too many jobs for people who have real skills. Wouldn't you be slightly terrified looking into the next two years?"

CBS reporter Ed Bradley questioned far-left Rep. Ron Dellums on August 29: "Congressman Dellums was unhappy when the President signed the welfare bill. I know you saw it not as welfare reform but more as a budget cut. What does he have to do to fix it?" Bradley followed up: "When the President is expected to say tonight that he's going to propose a $3.5 billion jobs program for welfare recipients, is that enough?"

Judy Woodruff pleaded with Hillary Clinton to intervene with her husband in six questions of an August 27 interview: "We were just reminded in that moving film that we saw here of your lifelong work as an advocate for children's causes. And yet, late last week, your husband signed a welfare reform bill that as you know, Senator Patrick Moynihan and other welfare experts are saying is going to throw a million children into poverty. Does that legislation undo so much of what you've worked for over the years?"