MediaWatch: June 1995

Vol. Nine No. 6

GOP Candidates: Far Right, Anti-Choice, Draft-Dodging, Abrasive, Ethically Challenged

1991 Collaborators, 1995 Eviscerators

The day that Phil Gramm became the first to toss his hat into the ring for the 1996 GOP nomination, February 24, Richard Berke wrote in The New York Times: "The only time you are assured flattering news coverage is on the day you announce and on election night -- assuming you win."

To see if the first part of this adage applied to both Republicans and Democrats, MediaWatch analysts compared network coverage of announcements by GOP candidates this year, to the coverage received by Democrats when they announced in 1991. The study looked only at evening news announcement and profile stories on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN World News, and in 1995, also CNN's Inside Politics.

There were 29 stories introducing the six major candidates (Clinton, Kerrey, Harkin, Tsongas, Wilder, and Brown) for the Democratic nod in 1991, and 40 stories on the eight current GOP candidates (Gramm, Alexander, Dole, Buchanan, Keyes, Lugar, Specter, and Dornan). Almost a third of the labels applied to Republicans were extreme labels such as "far right," while Democrats were never tagged as extreme; reporters were 20 times more likely to identify Republicans' position on abortion; lack of military service was never mentioned in 1991, but seven 1995 stories mentioned Republicans who hadn't served; and reporters were more than three times as likely to question public and private conduct of Republican candidates.

Ideological Labels. Of 58 labels found in this year's Republican coverage, 51 (88 percent) depicted the candidates and the party as either conservative or in terms even further to the right. Terms such as "far right" accounted for 18 tags, or almost a third of all labels.

On February 24, CBS reporter Linda Douglass alleged: "For years, critics have called Gramm an extremist." On March 30, CBS's Eric Engberg introduced Sen. Arlen Specter as a "pro-abortion rights moderate willing to fight what he calls the Republican ultraconservative fringe." ABC's Jim Wooten claimed Lamar Alexander has "moved far and fast from the center of his party to a conservatism that makes him almost indistinguishable from the others." On April 13, CNN's Gene Randall proclaimed Bob Dornan came "from political stage far right."

In 1991, 16 of 23 labels (70 percent) characterized the Democrats or their party as liberal. But eight of the liberal labels applied to Tom Harkin. CNN's Randall described Sen. Bob Kerrey as "a populist, liberal enough to challenge Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Kerrey would also compete with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton for his party's moderate center." Clinton drew no liberal labels: NBC's Lisa Myers characterized Clinton as being "driven less by ideology than by what works...Name a problem, Clinton probably has a solution." Wilder was twice called a "fiscal conservative." No one referred to Harkin or Jerry Brown as "far left" or even "left."

Abortion. Suggesting a pro-life position hurts the GOP, reporters this year identified Republicans' position on abortion more often than the uniformly pro-abortion Democrats in 1991 by a margin of 20 to 1. CNN's Jeanne Meserve explained the advantage of a pro-choice position with a CNN poll on Inside Politics March 30: "The latest CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll should encourage Specter....better than 6 of 10 said they would support a candidate who favors current abortion laws."

Military. Mentions of Republicans' military record outnumbered those of Democrats in 1991 by a margin of 16 to 6. Seven Republican profiles disclosed a lack of service; no reporters mentioned that any Democrats lacked military service, including Clinton's draft avoidance. Five of the six stories in '91 highlighted Kerrey's and Wilder's decorated war records. But ABC's Jim Wooten proclaimed on February 24: "Gramm has not been a paragon of consistency...He urged Texans to reject a Democratic candidate because he hadn't been in the military. Neither was Gramm."

Temperament. Reporters this year mentioned the temperament of the candidates more often than they did in 1991 by a margin of 11 to 3. While NBC's Andrea Mitchell did call Harkin "an angry man waging a campaign of class warfare," CNN's David French also touted him as "well known for his rousing stump speech-es." This year, the networks cast all 11 references to GOP candidates in a negative light. On the February 23 Inside Politics, Bruce Morton claimed that Gramm was "too abrasive, sometimes just plain mean." ABC's Jim Wooten warned on April 10 that Dole will "be closely watched for signs that he is still quick to bristle." CBS's Douglass said on April 13: "Dornan doesn't state his opinions, he spews them."

Public or Private Lives. Questions about the public or private conduct of Republicans surpassed those of Democrats by 7 to 2. CNN led the way with four references to the past conduct of GOP candidates, two of them full-length first-day expos‚s.

Brooks Jackson ended a lengthy piece on Gramm's vacation home and the S&L owner who helped him build it: "Gramm may now be the first Senator cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee twice on the same question." He then alleged: "This looks, looks, I stress looks, worse for Gramm than the original Whitewater allegations did for the President." Four days later, Jackson explored how Alexander became a millionaire: "Nothing illegal here....But the sheer size of his deals makes Hillary Clinton's commodities profits look like a widows and orphans fund."

Reporters scrutinized Specter for what Eric Engberg alleged on March 30: "He enraged many women during the Clarence Thomas confirmation fight by attacking Anita Hill."

In an April 12 profile Gene Randall disclosed that Dornan's entry "coincides with his 40th wedding anniversary. The irony: Sallie Dornan filed and then dropped four separate divorce actions against her husband between 1960 and 1976. She told the Los Angeles Times she lied about charges of physical abuse and that the real problem was her own addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs." The playing field had changed. When Clinton included in his 1991 announcement speech that his marriage "has not been perfect or free of difficulties," Randall wondered "Why did Clinton even say that much?"