Networks Obsess Over Polls, Limit Substantive Coverage

     The last week before the 2008 Presidential Election gave the broadcast networks one more opportunity to give viewers real information on the candidates’ economic proposals, but instead they obsessed over polls and horse race coverage by nearly 8-to-1.

     Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 3, the three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – aired “horse race” campaign stories and referenced polls a total of 101 times. Compared to just 13 segments offering substantial analysis of the candidates’ policy proposals, the networks covered the horse race and polls nearly eight times as often as they covered the issues.

     The networks aired 65 stories on the “horse race” of the campaign. The segments told viewers where the candidates campaigned and echoed tired talking points by showing clips from stump speeches. But they didn’t offer in-depth analysis of how either candidate’s proposals would affect the economy or other issues important to voters.

     Broadcasts referenced polling information 36 times, reinforcing the point that McCain had a “tough road,” but only offered 13 analytical stories.

     Even ABC “World News” anchor Charles Gibson seemed to tire of the poll obsession by the Nov. 3 broadcast, when he noted that, “Polls, they are what they are. It's the vote that will count tomorrow.” But that reality didn’t stop the networks from covering the day-to-day surface-level stories and polls.

     ABC’s “World News” presented the most even ratio – just under 5-to-1 – with 11 poll stories, 18 horse race stories and six in-depth reports, including interviews with the presidential candidates.

     The CBS “Evening News” offered a 9-1 ratio to viewers. The network was the most obsessed with polls, citing them 16 times along with 21 horse race stories and four analytical segments.

     NBC’s “Nightly News” aired more than 11 times as many horse race and polling segments than substance reports, concluding the week with 26 stories on the horse race, nine references to polls and only three in-depth pieces.

     The Business & Media Institute analysis did not include reports on Nov. 1 because they were pre-empted in many markets by football.

‘Our latest tracking poll’

      Rather than taking time to analyze proposals and explain how they would affect the economy, the networks spent the week before Election Day updating viewers on the very latest in polling data.

     Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, Ill., told ABC anchor Charles Gibson on Oct. 29 that “national polls at this point don’t matter.” But the networks insisted on reporting them anyway.

     Gibson himself seemed to vent a little about all the polls being reported. On the Nov. 3 “World News,” he suggested the latest polling data might not surprise voters. “People are very aware of the polls,” Gibson said. “Polls, they are what they are. It's the vote that will count tomorrow.”

     Nonetheless, Gibson’s show that night featured four references to polls and eight horse race stories – with no in-depth policy analysis. “We have the results of our latest four-day tracking poll,” Gibson announced early in the show.

     On Nov. 3, NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams called the “brand new” NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll “the last best snapshot of voting trends as we head into tomorrow.”

     The same night, CBS “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric announced the latest CBS News poll showed the race “tightening some,” with Obama still in the lead.

     The reports – 36 in the week leading up to the election – reinforced the perception that McCain is a long-shot opponent to Obama, whose liberal proposals the media have supported during the campaign, according to the recent BMI Special Report, America 2012.

Horse race coverage

     CBS aired a handful of segments featuring its political analyst Jeff Greenfield and his electoral map. He dutifully explained how difficult it would be for McCain to win enough Electoral College votes to win the election.

     “He has to throw the Hail Mary. He has to hold out from the bunker. He has to convert the 7-10 split,” Greenfield told anchor Katie Couric Oct. 29. “You pick the cliché, but it’s a tough road for John McCain.”

     A segment on the “Nightly News” Oct. 28 purported to be “in-depth,” but merely examined North Carolina as a possible swing state. The normally Republican stronghold presented challenges for McCain as a “raging battle ground,” according to reporter John Yang.

     “No Democratic presidential candidate has won North Carolina since 1976,” Yang reported. “But this year Barack Obama’s campaign has worked hard and spent freely to change the dynamic, aggressively registering black voters and waging a massive campaign to get supporters to the polls.”

     But Yang didn’t provide an “in-depth” look at how Obama’s proposals were influencing voters, or what those proposals would do to the economy or to voter’s checkbook balances.

     On Nov. 3, all three networks’ extended “Election Eve” coverage noted that Democrats could be poised to gain a veto-proof supermajority in Congress. All three networks mentioned the possibility and gauged the probability of such an event by counting toss-up states. But none of them analyzed the ramifications of a one-party supermajority in Congress, especially if the same party controls the White House.

     ABC and NBC combined on Nov. 3 to name five different states as a “key,” “hugely important” “indicator” of how the election would end. ABC focused on Pennsylvania and Ohio while NBC named Virginia, Florida and Missouri. The reports focused on get-out-the-vote efforts and last-ditch campaign stops, but didn’t examine the policy issues important to voters in those states.

Attempts at substance

     All three networks combined aired only 13 in-depth stories over the week, analyzing issues of importance to voters that will affect the economy – such as health care and cap-and-trade. Even more, they missed opportunities to offer more analysis and real information.

     ABC “World News” made the most attempts to inform viewers, airing six segments examining issues, mostly in interviews with Obama and McCain.

     In an interview with Obama Oct. 29, Gibson pressed the candidate on his class warfare rhetoric and his support for “spreading the wealth around.”

     “In recent months you have hammered at the wealthy and CEOs and Wall Street and greed, talking about taxing the wealthy to benefit lower and middle income people,” Gibson said. “Isn’t that a kind of classic old time class warfare?”

     Gibson raised Obama’s famous comment to Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” The anchor asked the candidate to explain what he meant by the comment, which opponents said amounted to the socialist principle of redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

     The Oct. 31 “World News” featured an interview with McCain. Gibson asked McCain about his early plans for advisers and cabinet members and pressed him on his charge that Obama’s tax plan amounts to socialism.

     Other network anchors didn’t take the same opportunity with the candidates. A portion of NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams’ interview with Obama aired Oct. 30. Instead of focusing on issues of importance, Williams asked Obama how he would “tailor your message” in the final days of the campaign. He also asked Obama why it took so long for former President Bill Clinton – whose wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama defeated in a contentious Democratic primary – to join him on the campaign trail.

     In another portion of the interview aired Oct. 31, Williams again ignored substantive policy issues, instead asking Obama about the hardship of trying to lead an “anonymous” private life while campaigning for president.

     “How have you reacted to this?” Williams asked of media intrusion into Obama’s visit to his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. “I guess it’s part of the contract you make when you run in such an extended campaign, but, the human in you, and the husband and father and grandson must want to just bust out sometimes, or disappear, if you can’t go for a walk like that?”

     Two late segments on NBC’s Nov. 3 “Nightly News” did give viewers a final look at what the next president’s administration will look like. Correspondents Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory reminded viewers of the two candidates’ priorities, and of the questions surrounding the likelihood either would meet their goals with heavily Democratic Congress.

     CBS “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric continued her series of “presidential questions” during the week. But instead of asking questions that would encourage McCain and Obama to explain their approach to important economic issues, Couric asked softball questions.

     She asked the candidates about the last time they had fired an employee. And she asked about their favorite books – hardly the kind of informative interviews voters can use in determining who would make the best president.

Lack of substance – a problem all year

     The last week of campaign coverage was frustratingly similar to the networks’ coverage of the presidential campaign throughout 2008. Economic issues are top in voters’ minds in the midst of financial turmoil, but on five major issues related to the economy, the media failed to offer in-depth coverage.

     Instead, according to the BMI Special Report America 2012, the media supported liberal proposals on five major issues: carbon cap-and-trade, ethanol subsidies and mandates, government spending, health care and taxes.

     By and large, the networks promoted the anti-free market cap-and-trade proposals put forth by both candidates. And they continued a trend of failure in connecting government mandates and subsidies for the ethanol industry that have contributed to higher food prices in American grocery stores and more severe food crises in poorer nations.

     The networks went after McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on earmark spending, but virtually ignored the more than $1 billion in earmark requests Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, have made in the last three years.

     Journalists endorsed government-controlled health care, downplaying or ignoring the benefits of allowing patients more control over their insurance. Reports ignored the high costs and inefficiency of government-run coverage, and exaggerated the problem by reporting the inflated statistic suggesting 45 million or more people are without coverage.

     Finally, the media embraced Obama’s class warfare rhetoric on taxes, demonizing tax relief for the wealth as a “cost” to the government.