MediaWatch: September 1992

Vol. Six No. 9

Network TV Convention Disparities

Following the pattern established in 1984 and 1988, again this year the networks labeled Republicans more than Democrats and challenged Republicans more than the Democrats with questions from the opposition's agenda. After analyzing prime time network coverage of the July Democratic convention in New York and the August Republican convention in Houston, MediaWatch found:

(1) Republicans were tagged conservative three times more often than Democrats were called liberal. (2) Republicans had to respond to questions from the liberal or Democratic agenda three-and-a-half times more often than Democrats were asked questions from the conservative or Republican agenda. (3) While Democrats were never criticized for their negative tone, network reporters discussed or asked about the GOP's negative tone on 70 occasions.

The study covered all ABC, CBS and NBC evening coverage, the combined NBC/PBS broadcast for 90 to 120 minutes a night and CNN from 8pm to 12am Eastern times. (See the August MediaWatch for more details and quotes from the Democratic convention). The findings:

LABELING. Republicans were tagged with about 40 more ideological labels than were the Democrats. While the Democrats were dubbed moderate more often than liberal by a margin of 51-to-38 labels, Republicans in Houston were described with various conservative labels over moderate ones by a margin of 9-to-1. In total, viewers heard 118 conservative labels vs. 13 moderate ones. No Democrat in New York was ever described as "far left" or "hard left," not even Tom Harkin or Jesse Jackson. Instead, they were called liberal as the ticket and party platform were described as moderate. Tom Brokaw declared: "This is a centrist platform." But in Houston, on five occasions each, CBS and CNN used "hard right" and/or "far right" to describe Republicans.

In New York, the networks labeled the Democrats 22 times the first night. In the first night from Houston, however, the networks used about three times as many labels. ABC and CNN used more labels on Monday in Houston than they did in four nights of Democratic coverage. Overall, ABC issued 12 liberal labels in New York, 30 conservative labels in Houston. In the first night of the Republican convention ABC issued 19 "conservative" labels. Peter Jennings mused it was "very much conservatives night. A very conservative opening prayer" and later noted that Dan Quayle "is very much preferred by the Republican right." At another point, Cokie Roberts found "an extremely conservative convention." Later in the week, Jennings asserted that the convention had "been colored by the party's most conservative elements."

In New York, CBS used 13 labels, five during the first session. The first night for the Republicans: nine labels. Dan Rather claimed it was Pat Buchanan's job "to set a frame of reference around a moral majority right, heavily influenced party." To reporter Bob Schieffer the delegates represented "a very, very conservative group of Republicans." In total, Republicans got tagged 18 times, five of those hard or far right. Dan Rather twice described Buchanan's speech as "hard right." On the last night, August 20, Connie Chung called Dan Quayle's speech "far right" and asked Pat Robertson: "Has the party gone far right enough for you? I mean there's the gay bashing that you brought up. There's some people who think it's gone too far."

In four days of Democratic coverage, CNN attached 22 labels to Democrats, but at no time did CNN label any Democrat "far left." When the GOP gathered, CNN issued 49 ideological labels, five of them "far right." In fact, in the first night from Houston CNN used 25 labels, three more than all week from New York. On Monday from the Republican meeting Candy Crowley announced: "As for what Buchanan has to say, this is really an appeal to the far right." Co-anchor Catherine Crier asked analyst William Schneider whether "the Republicans made concessions to the far right in hopes that the rest f the Republican Party isn't watching." On August 18, William Schneider referred to "staunch conservatives" and to "gung-ho conservatives." The third night, Gene Randall said the platform reflected the "agenda of the religious right." On the last night, Charles Bierbauer recalled Buchanan's speech as being "heavy-handed conservative" and Frank Sesno labeled Buchanan and Bill Bennett as "very hard, far right conservatives."

The two-network NBC/PBS team used more labels in New York than Houston, but while Democrats were called moderate, centrist or conservative the same number of times they were identified as liberal, Republicans were tagged conservative over moderate by 14-to-5. Tom Brokaw said the platform "was hammered together by ...the more conservative elements of this party. In fact, this Republican Party platform takes a right-hand turn on almost every key issue. It is a conservative document."

Lisa Myers observed: "More than one conservative has boasted that this platform is proof that the religious right is alive and well in this party."

NBC's solo broadcast also labeled Republicans less often than the Democrats, but while NBC tagged the Democrats moderate over liberal by 14 to 4, NBC described Republicans as conservative by 12 to 2. "They've also put together here a platform that is very conservative," said Brokaw, "And the explanation is `It's worked in the last three presidential elections, why shouldn't we try it again?' Well, in part, it is a changed world." And NBC's John Cochran explained: "Reagan is a radical conservative and Bush is a moderate conservative."

AGENDA QUESTIONS. The networks posed 130 liberal or Democratic agenda questions to the GOP, but just 38 conservative or Republican questions to the Democrats. (The question count includes statements made by reporters to which other reporters reacted. At the Republican convention, for instance, NBC's John Cochran asserted: "Some of these [family values] issues have racial overtones, such as Bush's support for welfare reforms which penalize single mothers who continue having children.")

Democratic/liberal questions to Republicans outnumbered those from the right by a margin of nearly 8-to-1, specifically, 130-to-17. In contrast, Democrats were asked eight less questions from the right than from the left.

During the Democratic conclave ABC posed eight questions from the left and six from the right. In Houston, ABC posed ten liberal questions to the GOP, but just three from the right. CBS asked five from each side in New York, but Republicans were confronted with 16 from the left and just two from the right. CNN showed a greater disparity: Democrats were asked nine questions from the left and six from the right. But while Republicans were asked three questions from the right, they were met by liberal ones on 34 occasions.

In New York, the joint NBC/PBS broadcast aired one more question from the right than left, but in Houston the network lost all balance, asking questions from the liberal over conservative agenda 56-to-8. During its solo show, NBC challenged Republicans from the left 15-to-1. Democrats were asked ten questions from the left and six from the right.

Some sample questions. A liberal question to the Democrats: Tom Brokaw asked Ann Richards, "Do the poor and the inner cities get left out with this ticket?"

A conservative question to the Democrats: Jeff Greenfield asked Congressman Louis Stokes, "You know the Republicans are going to run against people like you as the cause of the real problems, the evil, big spending, insulated Congress. Isn't that going to resonate a lot with voters?"

Liberal questions to Republicans: ABC reporter Jim Wooten asked a GOP delegate: "Do you really, do you think all that stands between this country and an improved economy and successful war on drugs and poverty is the Congress?" And Greenfield asked an Arkansan: "This convention's clearly going to try to paint Bill Clinton as a super-liberal, but how can a man be elected five times the governor of your state, not exactly a Northeast Harvard-boutique state, and be effectively be painted as a liberal?"

Dan Rather asked Jack Kemp the first night: "But if you cut taxes, isn't that going to drive the deficit even further up, the bond market might collapse?" On Tuesday's PBS/NBC coverage, Maria Shriver challenged HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan: " of those 36 million people [without health insurance], and that number is growing every day, to them that is not good enough. They need health insurance now. So are they better off voting for Bill Clinton if the Congress has this in their hands to have a Democratic President?"

NBC's Shriver talked with California Senate candidates, asking: "But voters do see women as agents of change, and they're asking for change. They don't see guys like you." Along the same line, Rather asked Buchanan: "I hear some talk, and not all of it among Democrats, that you're a kind of walking gender gap. Do you think your speech last night helped President Bush and Dan Quayle with woman voters?"

CNN's Crowley asked Sen. Nancy Kassebaum: "I heard Marilyn Quayle...say `Boy, if only Murphy Brown could meet Major Dad.' I'm wondering what that says to the many families out there that do have single mothers?" And, "It is perceived that the Democrats are actually fighting for middle America, the family. I'm wondering if you think, that with the various permutations that families have nowadays, if the Republicans are actually shoving away those who don't have mother, father, kids and don't do it 'the right way?'"

On Thursday's NBC/PBS broadcast, Shriver told Craig Fuller: "We were talking about family the Republicans saying that as the theme of their campaign, they're really excluding everybody but the people who fit into the traditional nuclear family, the `Ozzie and Harriet' image."

The networks never suggested the Democrats' abortion-on-demand stance might hurt them with Reagan Democrats, but Shriver did ask Charlie Black: "You've shored up the conservative end of your party... But you haven't done yourself any good with the moderates -- the Reagan Democrats. In fact, many people say you've alienated them."

Conservative question to Republicans: ABC's Greenfield asked Pete duPont: "But clearly there was a lot of disaffection from economic conservatives, growth conservatives that this President wasn't pushing that agenda. Suppose he doesn't push it tonight in his speech, is this a matter of just saying 'OK, best of two alternatives'?"

CONTROVERSIES. Like 1984 and 1988, the networks barely mentioned controversies connected to the Democrats as Bill Clinton's draft problems were raised only in passing. Unlike '84 and '88, the networks did not highlight controversies involving the incumbent administration, such as Neil Bush's S&L problem, which was raised once on CBS and NBC/PBS. Instead they concentrated on new controversies.

Exclusion: While the Democrats' decision to not allow pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey to speak in New York garnered only an interview on NBC and an interview and four mentions on CNN, in Houston the abortion debate became a major focus of coverage. On more than 20 occasions network analysts charged the Republicans with trying to exclude people from their party. For example, NBC's Tom Brokaw told Buchanan on Tuesday night: "You gave the impression that if you're not a white, heterosexual, Christian, anti-abortion, anti-environment, you're somehow not welcome in the Republican Party."

CBS never mentioned in prime time how the Democrats suppressed pro-life Gov. Bob Casey's attempt to speak in New York, but in Houston Connie Chung asked Rep. Connie Morella: "Do you think the pro-choice voice has been stifled?"

Negativity: When Jesse Jackson compared Dan Quayle to baby- killing legend King Herod in New York, none of the networks called Jackson's oratory mean or personal. But the networks thumped a steady drumbeat of disapproval of the Republican political attacks. From the often-scorned 1988 campaign methodology to attacks on Mrs. Clinton, the networks suggested to Republicans that they had been too negative with the Democrats on 70 occasions in the four nights of prime time coverage.

CNN's John Holliman asked a roundtable of voters on Wednesday night: "You know, there's been a lot of criticism that the Republicans have been bashing the Democrats fairly big time in this campaign...Have the Republicans been too heavy-handed in being critical of the Democrats?"