One week from tonight, the five Democratic presidential candidates will meet for their first debate of the 2016 campaign, and at least three of those five will be virtually unknown to TV news audiences, because the networks have covered the Democratic primary campaign as more of a coronation than a real contest.
According to the latest statistics from the Media Research Center’s ongoing tracking of ABC, CBS and NBC’s evening news coverage of the campaign, frontrunner Hillary Clinton has garnered 80 percent of the Democratic airtime since January 1. Her closest announced rival, the socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has received just six percent of the airtime, or about 24 minutes vs. 337 minutes for Clinton.
The other three candidates who will be on stage Tuesday night have barely registered: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has received just one percent of evening news coverage, virtually all of it when he announced in late May. Add up the 19 seconds of coverage given to former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and the 32 seconds given ex-Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, and the two still haven’t received even a single minute of broadcast evening news airtime (these figures include both weekday and weekend broadcasts).
The dynamic of the Democratic race shifted after August 1, when the networks began speculating about an entry by Vice President Joe Biden. Since then, Biden’s possible candidacy has been the subject of 55 minutes of evening news coverage. In the last two months, Biden has received more coverage than any candidate in either party with the exception of Clinton and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.
Prior to August 1, Clinton’s candidacy accounted for 92 percent of Democratic campaign news, vs. five percent for Sanders. In August and September, Clinton’s share has dropped to 67 percent, compared to seven percent for Sanders and 26 percent for the undeclared Biden campaign.
Unlike their treatment of the prominent Republican candidates, the networks have given both Biden and Sanders nearly 100 percent positive coverage. Just 57 seconds of Biden’s coverage — less than two percent — has focused on controversies from his past, such as his propensity for making embarrassing statements.
And, in contrast to the multiple media firestorms over comments from Donald Trump, Biden’s blunders have been discussed gently. “From his touchy-feely side to his blunt straight talk, Biden is also the master of the faux pas,” ABC’s Mary Bruce noted on August 2, without quoting any of the outrageous statements the Vice President has uttered over the years, such as his 2012 comment about Republicans, delivered to a mostly black audience: “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
The only actually negative story about Biden this season came on September 7, when CBS political director John Dickerson relayed on the Evening News that he had “talked to two [Obama] administration officials who worked with him [Biden]. They like him, they think he has talents, but they don’t think he would make a good president. And that’s what makes Democrats wince.”
Coverage of Bernie Sanders has been even more positive, as reporters completely sidestepped the radicalism of the Vermont Senator’s socialist platform (including $18 trillion in new spending, along with much higher tax rates and even more government intrusion in the economy). Instead, the networks talked about his large crowds and rise in the polls, without scrutinizing the candidate’s left-wing agenda.
On July 3, for example, NBC’s Kristen Welker celebrated how “the 73-year-old once self-described socialist is riding a wave of enthusiasm among people who like his populist message.” Two months later, after polls showed Sanders catching Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, CBS’s Nancy Cordes similarly talked about how his “progressive message has thrilled many Democrats, who don’t seem to mind that he calls himself a socialist.”
The only hint of a criticism of Sanders came in a September 10 CBS Evening News story, as Cordes relayed how “Clinton has begun using this subtle dig to remind voters that Sanders considers himself not a Democrat, but a socialist,” followed by a clip of Clinton proclaiming herself “a true Democrat.” But even that story was mostly positive toward the Vermont Senator, as it pointed out that Sanders’ hard-left views were more popular in Iowa than the “moderate” views CBS ascribed to Clinton.
In contrast to the networks’ celebration of Sanders and Biden, just over half of Clinton’s coverage (54%) has focused on the numerous scandals and controversies dogging her campaign, the most prominent of which has been the scandal surrounding her decision to bypass the State Department’s e-mail system in favor of a private server.
But even this coverage has been less hostile than it could have been. Instead of dissecting the details of the scandal itself, most of the coverage has discussed the political toll it has taken on Clinton’s poll standings and the public’s perception of her trustworthiness. In early September, NBC and ABC each provided extensive evening news airtime to interviews with Clinton, seemingly designed to help her put the scandal behind her.
On September 4, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell told Clinton that the scandal had generated “a lot of noise out there,” and asked: “Are you sorry? Do you want to apologize to the American people for the choice you made?” Four days later, ABC’s David Muir gave Clinton a second chance at that question: “As you sit here, millions watching tonight, did you make a mistake?”
Their relatively heavy coverage of Clinton’s scandals hasn’t prevented the networks from simultaneously engaging in softball coverage of the Democratic frontrunner. Back on June 13, as Clinton re-launched her campaign, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell larded her coverage with positive quotes from the candidate’s supporters in the crowd; one man enthused over Clinton’s speech: “As a dad of daughters, it was really beautiful.”
A couple of weeks earlier, on May 27, ABC’s David Muir carved out time for a fawning segment: “We’ve seen the effect the White House can have on a president. People have long joked about the evolving gray hair. Tonight, Mrs. Clinton making a prediction,” followed by a quip from the candidate: “I’ve been coloring my hair for years. You’re not going to see me turn white in the White House.”
So far this year, network coverage of the GOP field has instructed viewers that Republican candidates are embroiled in controversy and espouse extremist views on key policy issues. The current Democratic field is topped by a frontrunner under investigation by the FBI, followed by a socialist with views more radical than anyone ever elected to the presidency.
While it’s fair to say Hillary Clinton’s various scandals are getting significant coverage, the tone is much milder than what would be expected if a top Republican faced similar accusations. And the extremism of the candidate running second in Democratic polls goes far beyond that of any conservative Republican, yet the networks haven’t found even a moment of controversy in any of Sanders’ positions.