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Cheerleaders for the Revolution

Network Coverage of Barack Obama's First 100 Days

Other Topics: Ethics, the Environment and Embryos

The Obama administration also received substantial coverage on three topics that don’t fit neatly under either the economic or foreign policy categories: the ethics of his administration officials; expanding environment regulations; and the President’s decision to lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. A run-down of how the Big Three networks covered these issues:

Administration Ethics (26 stories): On President Obama’s first full day in office, January 21, all three evening newscasts noted how he signed executive orders imposing stricter ethics rules on his staff, although each folded it into larger stories about Obama’s day. “With five strokes of the pen, Mr. Obama then ordered some tough ethics and transparency rules,” ABC’s Jake Tapper narrated.

CBS’s Chip Reid offered a similar summary, followed by a soundbite from the President: “He signed orders today tightening ethics rules for government employees and gave his new staff instructions on what it means to do government service.”

“It’s not about advantaging yourself,” the President told his staff. “It’s not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. The American people are really counting on us now.”

But moments later on each newscast, the topic was how Obama’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, had failed to pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes. Yet none of the networks suggested a discrepancy between Obama’s plea for higher standards and his continued backing of Geithner. NBC, in fact, promoted the notion that Geithner’s supposedly incredible talent outweighed his ethical lapses:

“During what’s been described as our economic emergency in this country, there is no Treasury Secretary,” anchor Brian Williams fretted. Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell added how Geithner received a “warm reception” and that “there’s plenty of praise for Geithner’s qualifications to run Treasury, but his tax problem is another matter.”

O’Donnell showed no critics of Geithner’s policies, but CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson that same night pointed out that not everyone shared a high opinion of the nominee: “Some of Geithner’s opponents also consider him a chief architect of the failed policies that led to the bailout. But he has many supporters, Katie, and is expected to be confirmed.”

A little more than a week later, Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services, former Senator Tom Daschle, was exposed as failing to pay some of his taxes, too. As they had with Geithner, the networks largely painted the President as an uninvolved casualty. On the February 1 World News, anchor Dan Harris empathized: “Right smack in the middle of this stimulus debate comes an unwanted distraction for the Obama administration.”

The next day, all three evening newscasts outlined Daschle’s “tax problem.” ABC anchor Charles Gibson asked George Stephanopoulos if Daschle’s bid to join the Cabinet was “in peril? Any thought he might take himself out of the running?” Stephanopulos dismissed the concern: “Not on today’s facts, Charlie, I don’t think so....Democrats are going to hold firm.”

Less than 24 hours later, of course, Daschle was gone, with the announcement coming shortly before all three evening news anchors met the President for previously scheduled interviews. NBC’s Brian Williams and CBS’s Katie Couric gave Obama a sympathetic ear, casting the President as a victim of circumstance.

“You lost two nominees, two appointments, today,” Williams noted. “Did that make you angry, I imagine?” He later wondered “How do you prevent the lesson from being that, no matter how lofty the goals of the new guy coming in, Washington wins, in the end?”

2009-02-03-CBS-EN-CouObaCouric struck a similar note: “You campaigned to change the culture in Washington, to change the politics as usual culture here. Are you frustrated? Do you think it is much, much harder to do that than you ever anticipated?”

After Daschle’s demise, the networks stopped making a big deal out of the ethical problems of Obama’s Cabinet nominees. Only CBS mentioned (briefly, on the February 5 Evening News) that Labor nominee Hilda Solis had to pay back taxes; ABC and NBC skipped it. Only the CBS Evening News mentioned (again, very briefly, on March 2) that Obama’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, also had to pay back taxes — ABC’s World News and the NBC Nightly News skipped that, too, although NBC’s Today carried a brief mention on March 3.

But the CBS Evening News completely skipped over the failure of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius — Daschle’s replacement — to pay all of her taxes, even as both ABC’s World News and the NBC Nightly News ran short items on March 31. NBC’s Chuck Todd squeezed it in at the end of a piece about Obama’s trip to Europe, and played down its importance: “This wasn’t a lot of tax money, about $7,000. Senate Democrats say she’ll be confirmed easily.”

The Environment (22 stories): All three evening newscasts provided overwhelmingly positive coverage of Obama’s January 26 decision to allow more state regulation of so-called greenhouse gas emissions and to demand higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and truck, both reversals of Bush administration policy. The networks saw these actions, probably correctly, as indicators that Obama would aggressively use federal regulations to promote a liberal environmental agenda.

“Today, this country’s environmental policy changed dramatically,” NBC’s Brian Williams enthused. “The change in course delighted the President’s audience of long-suffering environmental activists,” CBS’s Chip Reid agreed. “With the President calling for decisive action on cleaning up the air, environmentalists in California are starting to breathe easier,” CBS’s Ben Tracy cheered.

That night, CBS and NBC’s coverage only permitted fans of Obama’s new regulations to supply comments. Only ABC’s Jake Tapper — whose World News story featured mainly Obama supporters — managed to include soundbites from anyone criticizing Obama’s new policies. Talking about the stricter fuel standards, Tapper showed industry analyst Rebecca Lindland make the obvious point that “manufacturers will be forced to pass on the cost of meeting these regulations on to the consumer.” He also found an auto worker in Detroit who mocked the new President: “It was a chicken in a pot for Roosevelt, but it’s like a moped in every garage for Obama.”

Chart5Coverage of Obama’s environmental policies during the first 100 days matched the tone of these early stories. Overall, 78 percent of statements applauded Obama’s more aggressive approach, compared to 22 percent that offered criticism of the need for such measures or the costs of doing so during a severe recession. ABC also found a way to suggest Obama was really a tool of dirty corporations, in an April 21 report (right before Earth Day) criticizing the President for supporting clean coal technology (where carbon emissions are sequestered underground instead of pumped into the atmosphere).

ABC’s Brian Ross juxtaposed Obama’s campaign statements supporting such technology — “Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent” — with the condemnations of far-left environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy. “Clean coal is a dirty lie,” Kennedy complained to Ross, slamming Obama as an “indentured servant to the coal industry.”

But attacks on Obama from the right were rare. When Obama’s EPA took a step towards regulating carbon dioxide — an atmospheric gas required for life on Earth — as a threat to “public health and welfare,” the networks all stuck to the spin of cheering environmentalists. “You can’t see them, but the greenhouse gases that come from your car or the coal burned to make electricity to warm the planet, that, the government says, is a danger to your health and welfare,” NBC’s Anne Thompson obligingly argued.

TextBox8Rather than seek out experts who would offer a contrary view (see text box), the networks swarmed to the professional environmentalists who lobbied for the new regulations. “The EPA’s action signals to the world that we’re changing, it’s a game changer. We’re, for the first time, serious about tackling the global warming crisis,” the National Wildlife Federation’s Joe Mendelson enthused on NBC. The only note of skepticism came from the Chamber of Commerce, whose spokesman suggested intrusive EPA regulation could seriously damage the U.S. economy.

But if the networks had any desire to provide skeptical coverage, they might have questioned the Obama administration’s premise that global warming is a) for real, and b) the result of human beings burning carbon-based fuels. But the networks long ago dropped a balanced approach to the climate change debate, becoming unapologetic advocates for the liberal environmentalist charge that humans will destroy the Earth without radical cutbacks in industrial activity. On this topic, the networks’ bias translated into little skepticism of the Obama administration’s liberal environmental agenda.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research (16 stories): For social conservatives, two of the most significant measures of Obama’s first 100 days concerned his executive orders removing restrictions on federal funding for abortion established by President George W. Bush, and ending the ban on federal funding for research using stem cells taken from human embryos.

The pro-abortion orders, signed January 23, were almost completely ignored by the network evening newscasts, with NBC and CBS offering a single sentence in reports from their White House correspondents. ABC ran nothing that night, but two days later on its Sunday night newscast, the network ran a longer piece portraying Obama as conciliator looking for “common ground” compared to the “fast and brutal” reaction of religious conservatives.

In contrast, those same networks all provided heavy same day coverage of President Bush’s anti-abortion executive orders in 2001, casting them as deeply ideological and highly controversial. Then-CBS correspondent John Roberts claimed Bush “waded into controversy on his first day,” and channeled how “abortion rights activists fear there’s more to come.”

Obama’s overturning of Bush’s policy on funding embryonic stem cell research drew much more attention, nearly all of it positive. “These wondrous, all-purpose embryonic stem cells, the cells which look so promising in the laboratory, will now, finally, be used to treat people,” ABC’s John McKenzie enthused on January 23 as he reported both on Obama’s anticipated action and the start of a clinical trial.

Obama’s announcement came on March 9, but the network evening newscasts began trumpeting the news three days earlier. “Scientists tonight tell us they are overjoyed by the news, saying Monday will be a great day for science and for patients,” ABC’s Lisa Stark cheered on the March 6 World News. After the announcement, Stark’s report included this soundbite from paralyzed researcher Roman Reed: “Under President John F. Kennedy, we were the first to walk on the moon. Under President Obama, the paralyzed will be the first to walk on earth.”

Chart6The evening newscasts ran a total of 38 statements offering an opinion of Obama’s shift in favor of federal funding and the vast majority (82%) saluted his decision, compared with 18 percent who were opposed. Network reporters flocked to patients who believe they might benefit, with far less time for religious conservatives who objected to the ethics of spending tax dollars to destroy human embryos. “For many Americans dealing with chronic illness, the change in government policy could not come soon enough,” CBS’s Katie Couric declared on the March 9 Evening News.

With one exception, the only scientists and researchers interviewed were supporters of using human embryos for research, creating the impression of near-unanimous support from the medical community. “President Obama said exactly what this room full of scientists has long waited to hear,” CBS’s Chip Reid noted on March 9. “The new Obama decision is really putting patients first. It’s putting patients over ideology. It’s going to allow the science to move forward as quickly as possible,” researcher George Daley enthused March 8 on ABC.

The only exception to this trend was CBS’s Kimberly Dozier, who included researcher Dr. David Prentice in her March 7 piece previewing Obama’s decision. Prentice suggested Obama was behind the curve: “Using embryos? Old science, bad health care. It’s the adult stem cells that actually help patients now.”

Writing at U.S. News and World Report, physician (and onetime CBS consultant) Bernadine Healy further explained that recent trials have shown a difficulty in controlling the growth of embryonic stem cells once implanted, leading to “disabling if not deadly tumors” in some patients. “To date, most of the stem cell triumphs that the public hears about involve the infusion of adult stem cells,” Healy added.

Neither ABC nor NBC gave this point of view any airtime as they were praising Obama’s action. As with the other policies of the new President’s first 100 days, the networks seemed incapable of providing even-handed coverage of policies that match the liberal predilections of most of their reporters.