Watching network morning show anchors interview the Democratic presidential candidates often makes you wonder if you’ve seen tougher interviews on overnight acne-care infomercials. Their questions are often so simple and promotional that you wish they’d just go ahead and wear their "Hillary!" or "Obama ’08" buttons on the set.
There is no pretense of political balance. They are actively rooting for a Democratic victory next year, and they have the power to make a real difference. Notwithstanding their overall loss of audience in the last decade, ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows draw nine times the audience of their cable-news competitors and are geared toward the mostly apolitical mainstream, which makes them an important free-media showcase for presidential hopefuls. A new study shows that if this year’s campaign coverage on the TV morning shows were a primary election, the Democrats would win in a landslide of attention and hyperbole.
Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center assessed all morning-show coverage on the Big Three from Jan. 1 through July 31. In those 517 campaign segments, the networks offered nearly twice as many segments to Democrats as Republicans, a margin of 284 to 152. (Another 66 stories focused on both parties.) When the sample is narrowed down just to interviews with the candidates or their spouses and staffers, the morning shows gave out nearly three times as much free airtime to Democrats (4 hours, 35 minutes) as they gave to Republicans (1 hour and 44 minutes).
ABC’s "Good Morning America" was the worst, with 119 segments on the Democrats to just 51 for the Republicans. And try this for impartiality, ABC-style: The network offered sprawling, positive "town hall" segments to only two presidential candidates so far this year: 38 minutes for John Edwards and 26 minutes for Hillary Clinton.
Hillary’s ABC town meeting was especially scripted, a platform so supportive that a former member of her 1993 health-care nationalization task force just happened to take the microphone to read to her a long softball question about whether she would boldly try, try again to blaze a trail to rescue the uninsured.
Anchor Robin Roberts allowed Clinton to carry on (and on) uninterrupted for almost 18 of her 26 minutes with "the people." During some of these long soliloquies, the former first lady urged viewers to look up her campaign Website. ABC somehow failed to put a toll-free 800 number for Hillary’s campaign on screen to develop the full infomercial effect.
All three Democratic frontrunners received more individual attention than any of the top Republican candidates, with Hillary unsurprisingly receiving the most coverage of anyone, at 61 adoring minutes. The leading Republican was former liberal media darling John McCain, who attracted 31 minutes of coverage, much of it assessing how his campaign was falling apart.
Even Al Gore, a man the morning anchors love so much that CBS’s Harry Smith begged him to put on a Gore for President button, drew 29 minutes on the morning shows this year, giving this unannounced candidate more attention than any announced GOP contender except for McCain.
Rudy Giuliani drew only 26 minutes, and Mitt Romney attracted even less, 19 minutes. Worse still, the Republican segments highlighted problems and controversies, like Romney’s Mormonism and Giuliani’s messy, fractious private life.
By comparison, the babble about Democrats was, and continues to be, embarrassingly giddy. Take ABC’s Claire Shipman describing Hillary and Barack as both "white hot," a diversity-enhanced clash of the titans. Hillary was an "unparalleled star," with a "hot factor" boosted by "her ever-popular husband." But wait, Obama, "with his fairy-tale family, has personal charisma to spare!" Someone needed to urge Shipman to come down off her puffy cloud of hype.
Then there’s the labeling — or better put, the utter lack of it. Not once did network reporters describe Hillary Clinton or John Edwards as a "liberal." ABC’s Jake Tapper once dared to associate the word "liberal" with Barack Obama, but CBS and NBC never did. In an eye-rolling contrast, the three networks did apply the liberal label 12 times to … Rudy Giuliani, who certainly deserves it on the social issues, as did the unanimously pro-abortion, pro-gay Democrats. Except these are the networks, and love means never having to say you’re liberal.
The network morning shows are often attacked for being lighter than air, for ignoring substantive public issues in favor of human-interest stories, celebrity gossip, and food and fashion tips. This study of campaign coverage shows that even in the realm of "hard news," the networks have a problem being equally airy and unchallenging for their audience when "white hot" Democrats grace the set.