MediaWatch: September 1996

Vol. Ten No. 9

A Stunning Contrast on Negativity

In 1992, the networks questioned the convention's tone as too negative 70 times during the GOP convention, to zero at the Democratic convention. This year, analysts again searched for questioning of negative tone (such as the use of words like "attack" or "bash"), and found a similar tilt.

At the GOP's San Diego convention, prime-time TV analysts noted excessive Republican negativity 34 times, to one NBC reference to Clinton "pummeling" Dole in TV ads. In Chicago, the networks suggested excessive GOP negativity again on 23 occasions, to only six for the Democrats. In total, the networks had a negativity gap of 57 to 7.

GOP Convention. On August 13, keynoter Rep. Susan Molinari said: "Americans know that Bill Clinton's promises have the lifespan of a Big Mac on Air Force One." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison remarked earlier: "America -- it's time to wake up to President Clinton and his high-taxing, free-spending, promise-breaking, Social Security-taxing, health care socializing, drug-coddling, power- grabbing, business-busting, lawsuit-loving, UN-following, FBI- abusing, IRS-increasing, 200-dollar-haircutting, gas-taxing, over-regulating, bureaucracy-trusting, class-baiting, privacy- violating, values-crushing, truth-dodging, Medicare-forsaking, property-rights-taking, job-destroying friends."

Network Reaction: On NBC, Tim Russert warned: "I think the speech by Senator Hutchison of Texas is dangerous, Tom, because she uses words that could be interpreted by some people as mean." Lisa Myers asked Hutchison: "Do you think you went too far?" Tom Brokaw worried that the party knows "it has to lower the threshold of perceived meanness" in the country.

On CBS, Dan Rather announced Hutchison was "expected to hit President Clinton, rhetorically, with everything short of a tire tube." CBS's Bob Schieffer told Sen. Hutchison: "I must say, it's Attack Dog Hutchison tonight."

CNN's Judy Woodruff announced: "Well, they said it was going to be a Clinton-bashing night at the Republican convention." Bernard Shaw replied: "And the bashing will continue when the keynote speaker, Susan Molinari, steps up there."

Democratic Convention. From the podium in Chicago on August 27, Jesse Jackson proclaimed: "President Clinton has been our first line of defense against the Newt Gingrich Contract, America's right-wing assault on our elderly, our students, and our civil rights."

Mario Cuomo charged: "The Republicans are the real threat. They are the real threat to our women. They are the real threat to our children. They are the real threat to clean air, clean water, and the rich landscape of the end, Bill Clinton spells hope and the Republicans spell disaster." The next night, Al Gore proclaimed Republicans "want to give free reign to lobbyists for the biggest polluters in America to rewrite our environmental laws, allowing more poison in our air and drinking water."

On August 29, Sen. Ted Kennedy used the same literary device that caused Hutchison to be bashed for negativity, in this case describing the Republican platform: "It is the radical wish list of the education-cutting, environmental-trashing, Medicare- slashing, choice-denying, tolerance-repudiating, gay-bashing, Social Security-threatening, assault-rifle-coddling, government- closing, tax loophole-granting...minimum wage-opposing Republican majority..."

Network Reaction: Dan Rather said of Jesse Jackson: "Mrs. Clinton received a ringing defense during what was clearly the most stirring speech of the convention so far."

Oozed Brokaw: "The old lion has not lost its roar. There are very few speakers left in America who can switch on a hall like Jesse Jackson. He has done it so many times in the past. He began tonight in more muted tones, but of course it's almost irresistible for him, and it grows out of a very deep passion."

Russert added: "The crowd is letting loose a little bit because the philosophy of Jesse Jackson is something they very much ascribe to, and by him bridging the gap and endorsing Bill Clinton so wholeheartedly, it's a plus for Bill Clinton."

"Convention rhetoric has not been much better than it was tonight, particularly with Jesse Jackson," exclaimed CNN's Ken Bode. CNN reporter Bob Franken asked Andrew Cuomo about his father: "You really are a fan of his speaking style. It's amazing, isn't it?"

ABC's Jim Wooten noted wistfully of Cuomo: "That old-fashioned voice, full-throated, fierce, raising the rafters...a glimpse of conventions past, when liberals were still the lions of the party, and rhetoric roared."

When Gore accused the Republicans of advocating pollution, CBS reporter Bob Schieffer mysteriously insisted it was the opposite of nastiness: "This was an old-fashioned political speech, the kind of speech that politicians used to give before politics turned so nasty with all those commercials on television."

On Kennedy, Brokaw came out of the speech on NBC/PBS: "Still in full voice after all these years in the United States Senate. The proud champion of the liberal cause, addressing this convention hall once again as he does every four years."

Bode observed: "You need a partisan speech, one that puts it to the other party. You get it at any convention. Ted Kennedy does it as well as anybody could do it. Elder statesman of the party. Eloquent."