Four Campaigns, Eight Conventions...But Just One Spin

Executive Summary

In 1984, Professor Bill Adams found that the networks provided unequal treatment of the two conventions during their prime time coverage. Correspondents frequently labeled Republican politicians as ideologues, using labels such as "right wing" and "far right" much more than they called Democrats "left wing" and "far left." In on-air interviews, reporters frequently challenged Republicans with questions drawn from the liberal agenda, but rarely challenged Democrats with conservative questions.

Since 1988, the MRC has applied Adams’s methodology to the networks’ prime time convention coverage. Adams only had enough resources to examine CBS and NBC’s coverage. Fortunately, the MRC was able to include ABC and CNN in their studies as well, making them the most complete investigations of convention news ever conducted. Over the course of the past 12 years, more than a dozen MRC analysts scrutinized over 100 hours of prime time programming, painstakingly proving that what Bill Adams found in 1984 wasn’t just a one-time fluke — over the past four campaigns, the networks have consistently been tougher on Republicans than Democrats.

1. During every convention cycle, Republicans were far more likely to be confronted by reporters with their opponents’ talking points. From 1984-1996, Democrats were only one-fourth as likely to be faced with GOP arguments — 109 such questions, compared with a total of 393 Democratic questions asked of Republicans. 

2. Regardless of their nominee’s views, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be portrayed by network reporters as "moderates," while Republicans were nearly three times as likely to be called ideological (459 conservative labels, vs. 179 liberal labels for the Democrats). 

3. The networks gave much more coverage to controversies surrounding Republicans than Democrats. In 1988, for example, reporters highlighted Republican controversies (such as Dan Quayle’s service in the National Guard) 190 times, but mentioned Democratic scandals (such as Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for murderers) only four times. 

Even if it weren’t laughably unlikely, it would be as bad for the public to have a media elite that was constantly pushing a one-sided conservative agenda as it is to deal with the current elite that’s lopsidedly liberal. What’s required is fairness and balance, where both sides can take their ideas to voters and get a fair hearing.

Here are four recommendations for more even-handed coverage: Apply same labeling standard to both parties; confront representatives, activists and candidates within both parties with the strongest arguments of their opponents; hold both parties and their candidates to the same standard in raising controversies; and don’t harp on the negativity of one party without applying the same standard to the other party.