Cheerleaders for the Revolution

Network Coverage of Barack Obama's First 100 Days


2009-02-24-Obama3After last November’s election, observers were split about how Barack Obama might govern as president. One camp believed that the new President was a pragmatic realist who would seek a centrist approach — disappointing his most liberal supporters, perhaps, but maximizing his personal political clout.A second group, including many conservatives, believed Obama was, in fact, the deeply liberal ideologue that his resume as a community activist and his past associations suggested. With solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, conservatives feared the Obama era would be a treacherous time for the principles of limited government and free markets.

One hundred days into Obama’s presidency, the debate is over. The President has now signed the most expensive spending bill ever passed by Congress; asserted government control of major banks and automobile manufacturers; diverted billions of tax dollars to individual mortgages; proposed a massive new role for government in health care; sought punishing taxes on the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels; and submitted a budget plan that would explode the national debt to more than $20 trillion over the next ten years — even as he preposterously claimed that he did not believe in big government.

So how have journalists reacted to this audacious liberal agenda which, if fulfilled, would inevitably push the United States away from our traditional free market system and towards a European social democratic system? A Media Research Center analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of President Obama’s first 100 days in office (January 20 through April 29) shows network reporters have failed as watchdogs, raising few doubts about Obama’s agenda and showering every major policy initiative with positive press. While the networks have covered the President’s individual policy choices, reporters have failed to focus on the massive shift away from the free market that they collectively entail. Reporters never once described his actions as “socialist,” nor sought experts to debate whether that correctly describes Obama’s overall agenda. Indeed, TV reporters never once even used the term “liberal” to describe Obama’s approach, arguably the most left-leaning in American history. Instead of presenting a debate about Obama’s dramatic policy direction, network correspondents all but ignored conservative policy experts who disagreed with the President’s direction.

For this report, MRC analysts examined all 982 broadcast network news stories about President Obama and his administration from Inauguration Day, January 20, through his 100th day in office, April 29. ABC’s World News ran the most stories (366), followed by the NBC Nightly News (315 stories) and the CBS Evening News (301). More than half of these stories (546, 55%) were full reports or interview segments that focused directly on the President or his administration; the rest were divided between brief, anchor-read items (182) or stories that contained a substantive mention of the administration, but did not focus on the President or his team (254).

Table1Not surprisingly, the main policy focus was the state of the economy and the various economic-related measures proposed by the administration. Nearly half (46%) of all Obama stories featured discussion of the economy, while about one-fourth (27%) discussed an aspect of foreign policy. A few policy issues that involved neither economic nor foreign policies — mainly stem cell research, the environment and ethics of administration officials — also drew significant coverage during the first 100 days. Table 1 shows the top policy areas featured in stories about the Obama administration during this period.

While not the focus of this report, the networks also broadcast dozens of stories that treated the new President and his family as pop culture celebrities. First Lady Michelle Obama, for example, was the focus of 34 stories, all of which struck a promotional, positive tone (and more than half of which aired on the NBC Nightly News). The First Family’s adoption of a puppy was chronicled in 12 stories, or more than were focused on the President’s education policies (9 stories). While these stories contained no substantive policy discussion, their highly positive approach certainly added to the public relations glow that surrounded both the President and his administration during the policy battles of the first 100 days and beyond.