The Bush campaign was often described by TV evening news shows as tilting toward the "far right," but when John McCain made that charge, he wasn't described as "liberal" or going "to the left."
MRC news analysts surveyed evening news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, FNC's Fox Report, and CNN's The World Today (and WorldView on weekends) for coverage of George W. Bush in the days after the South Carolina primary (February 20 to 28), and stories on John McCain in the days after his attack on religious right leaders (February 28 to March 6).
In the Bush coverage, evening news reporters or anchors referred to Bush tilting toward the right on 15 occasions. Of those 15, nine described tilts to the "far right," "hard right," or "too far to the right." But not one evening news report described John McCain's attack on the religious right as "liberal" or "going to the left." MRC news analysts provided the network breakdown:
ABC analyst Jessica Anderson identified three instances of Bush tilting to the right. For example, on February 21, John Yang asserted: "After veering to the right in South Carolina, Bush came to this inner-city community center to return to his theme of compassionate conservatism." On the 29th, Linda Douglass explained that McCain attacked Pat Robertson as "part of an effort to reach out to moderates and independent and Democratic voters."
CBS analyst Brian Boyd discovered CBS was the most aggressive user of extreme conservative labels, employing "hard right" and "far right"on four occasions. On the 24th, Eric Engberg claimed, "The support of far right organizations ignited Democrats and independents who fueled McCain's win." McCain's attacks on Robertson and Falwell drew no labels, as Rather declared, "McCain gives leaders of the religious right holy Hell while Bush tries to mend fences with Roman Catholics."
NBC analyst Geoff Dickens found three instances of Bush tilting to the right, and one to the extreme right. On February 21, Tim Russert announced, "Bush wanted to win this nomination viewed as the compassionate conservative without having to tilt right." A week later, Anne Thompson cited: "Aides describing the assault as the defining moment in McCain's campaign, aimed at moderate Republicans....The goal: To tie George W. Bush to the extreme right."
CNN analyst Paul Smith found two extreme-right references to Bush ("too far to the right" or "farther and farther to the right"). After McCain's attack, CNN suggested he "continues to aggressively court Democrats and independents."
FNC analyst Brad Wilmouth noted Fox only referred to Bush tilting right on the 28th. Carl Cameron reported on "John McCain trying to drive George W. Bush to the right and distance himself from Christian conservatives." Shepard Smith asked if Bush was "a captive of the right."
If past campaigns are any indication, this pattern will continue, with TV reporters suggesting Bush has to move away from a "far right," as Gore comfortably appeals to "moderates and independents." Will journalists be fair, or will Gore's consultants echo McCain aide Mike Murphy and rely on their "base in the media"? - Tim Graham