MRC Study: Even Before Shutdown, Networks Dumped Most Blame on Conservatives

On Monday morning, Time/MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin explained an obvious political reality to his fellow Morning Joe panelists: “The White House does not have much incentive” to negotiate on the government shutdown, because Democrats expect the liberal news media to hand them a public relations victory. As Halperin put it: “The press is largely sympathetic to their arguments that it’s the House Republicans’ fault.”

In fact, as a new Media Research Center analysis of broadcast network evening news coverage shows, ABC, CBS and NBC spent the two weeks prior to the shutdown almost universally pinning the blame on congressional Republicans, especially conservative/Tea Party House Republicans. By the time the shutdown actually took place on October 1, news audiences had been repeatedly instructed to think about it as a GOP-generated crisis.

From September 17 through September 30, the Big Three evening newscasts ran a total of 39 stories about the possibility of a government shutdown. Our MRC analysts found that a majority of those stories (21) were framed around the idea of Republicans triggering the crisis, compared to four that blamed both sides and absolutely none that put the onus on Democrats’ failure to negotiate. (The remaining 14 stories did not include discussion of blame.)

As explained by network news correspondents, the responsibility for the deadlock lies with Republicans for failing to put aside their opposition to ObamaCare. Talking about the initial House Republican decision to seek defunding of the health care law, CBS Evening News correspondent Nancy Cordes on September 18 said “Speaker Boehner was forced into the risky strategy by his right flank...[a strategy] one Senate Republican described to us today as suicide.”

Two days later, NBC’s Brian Williams argued that “the wheels were set in motion” toward a potential shutdown after “Republicans in the House passed a bill that would keep the government going while killing ObamaCare.” A week later, on the September 27 Nightly News, NBC’s David Gregory zeroed in on “a relatively small group of legislators, you have Tea Party conservatives in the House who don’t want to give up on this ObamaCare defunding fight.”

By Sunday, September 29, after Harry Reid’s Senate had killed the proposal to cut off ObamaCare funding, the networks characterized the much-milder demand for a one-year delay as too radical to consider. According to NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell that night, “Tea Party conservatives held to their risky demand,” while on CBS, Nancy Cordes argued that “House Speaker John Boehner had hoped to dial back this fight, but was urged to press on by conservative Tea Party members.”

The next night, after Republicans had retreated to an even-milder proposal to delay just the individual mandate (the President himself, in July, had ordered such a delay for the mandate on businesses), ABC’s Diane Sawyer presented Obama’s characterization of the situation as reality: “The President expressed outrage that one faction in one House of Congress is ready to bring the entire federal government to a halt.”

But Sawyer’s hyperbole about “the entire federal government” coming to a halt was contradicted by her own correspondent, Jonathan Karl, a few minutes later: “Not everything gets shut down. Troops will continue to get paid, Social Security checks will continue to go out.”

Meanwhile, on that night’s CBS Evening News, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer framed it as a crisis caused by “ultra-conservatives.” According to Schieffer, the question was “will the moderate and more establishment Republicans continue to go along with the ultra-conservatives?...We’re headed to a shutdown unless the moderates in the House revolt.”

As for the rare story that blamed both sides, ABC’s Karl on the September 26 World News juxtaposed Republicans’ “laundry list of demands” with a White House that “has decided not to try” to strike a deal. “Instead of negotiating, they are name calling,” Karl reported. “Today, one of the President’s top aides said of Republicans, quote, ‘What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest.’”

In a White House briefing on Monday, CNN’s Jim Acosta actually confronted spokesman Jay Carney about the tactic of seeming to “taunt Republicans” rather than exploring the potential for a constructive dialogue.

Acosta told Carney: “In the last couple of weeks, Democrats, including the President, have
— and he has not used all of these words, but I’ll throw out some of them that have been used — have referred to Republicans as ‘arsonists,’ ‘anarchists,’ ‘extortionists,’ ‘blackmailers,’ ‘hostage-takers.’...It almost sounds as if this White House is trying to taunt Republicans into shutting the government down.”

If Democratic congressmen, or a Democratic Speaker of the House, pursuing a liberal policy objective, was subjected to similar ridicule or insults from a Republican President or a Republican Senate Majority Leader, you can bet that the networks would have made such language the centerpiece of their coverage.

Instead, the media have chosen to foist all of the blame on conservatives for sticking to their promise to oppose ObamaCare.

Related Study: How the Broadcast Networks Spun the Shutdown Obama’s Way

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.