Rise and Shine on Democrats
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...And Softer Questions, Too
In addition to tallying the airtime each campaign received, MRC analysts also analyzed the questions posed by their network interlocutors. In all, the candidates and their surrogates faced 498 questions, or about seven per interview. Just under half of those questions (228, or 46%) were about substantive policy issues, with most of the rest focusing on the politics of the moment, along with some of the notorious softballs that makes morning television such a desirable venue for candidates.
"Do you have a weakness on the campaign trail, anything that you have to have with you at all times?" NBC’s Meredith Vieira asked Senator Barack Obama. "A stuffed animal?" she suggested.
ABC’s Diane Sawyer posed this question to John Edwards: "Do you listen to an iPod? Does it relax you on the road?"
ABC’s Chris Cuomo probably thought he was going to gain an insight when he asked Republican Senator John McCain about the Democratic frontrunners: "Who would you rather see in the White House, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?" McCain just laughed at Cuomo: "I don’t contemplate that seriously."
When it came to substantive questions, journalists heavily emphasized liberal talking points over questions that reflected a conservative agenda. About two-thirds of the substantive questions (157, or 69%) could be categorized as reflecting either a liberal or a conservative view. (The remaining 31% were either mixed or neutral.) Reporters gravitated to a liberal agenda regardless of whether they were challenging a liberal Democrat or a Republican with more conservative views.
Of the 111 agenda questions posed to Democrats, more than twice as many reflected liberal priorities (77, or 69%) as confronted the candidate with a conservative point (34, or 31%). But while journalists were relatively shy about hitting the Democrats with conservative questions, they routinely tossed liberal questions to the Republican candidates. Of the 45 agenda questions posed to the GOP candidates, 37 of them (82%) were predicated on liberal ideas, compared to just eight questions (18%) that reflected a conservative agenda. These findings mirror what MRC found four years ago when it conducted a similar study of questions to the Democratic candidates on the same morning shows and found 87 percent based on a liberal agenda, compared to just 13 percent showing a conservative agenda.
As in 2003, the Democrats were generally subjected to questions that matched their own point of view. On January 17, NBC’s Matt Lauer cued up Hillary Clinton with a Democratic talking point on the war in Iraq: "When one U.S. military official said in Baghdad, quote, ‘We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn,’ you would agree with that?"
"I certainly would agree with that," Clinton quickly answered.
The same day, ABC’s Diane Sawyer also interviewed Clinton, along with 15 other female U.S. senators. Sawyer sounded as if she was pitching a Clinton presidency: "Do you believe that if there were more women presidents in the world, there would be less war?"
The softballs weren’t confined to foreign policy. Referring to the firing of U.S. Attorneys, NBC’s Vieira on March 15 invited Obama to slam Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "He also says that he did not know the extent of what his chief of staff was doing with the White House counsel. If that is true, what does it say about the Justice Department to you?"
When Al Gore was on NBC’s Today on July 5, Vieira treated him as a scientific expert: "Mr. Gore, can you explain some of the science behind global warming?" She also pleaded with him: "If this is the number one moral issue, and the President is the key player here, then why wouldn’t the man whose face is the face of this issue be running for President?"
At the Good Morning America town hall-style meeting on March 26, co-host Robin Roberts indulged Clinton: "A lot of people feel like they’re rolling the dice every morning about their health care. They can’t afford it. And two-thirds — did you realize this? — two-thirds of Americans who do not have health insurance are working!"
On February 5, NBC’s Lauer patted Edwards on the back: "I’ll applaud your honesty. You basically have come out and said, ‘Look, I want universal health care for everyone in this country, and I’m going to raise taxes to accomplish it.’ Senator Obama, Senator Clinton also would like to see universal health care. What’s the main difference in your plan versus theirs?"
Sometimes the Democrats were challenged as not liberal enough. Reminding Edwards of his multi-million dollar house and work at a hedge fund, Diane Sawyer put him on the spot during the July 16 town hall-style meeting: "Can you be among the privileged in this country and really make a difference in poverty, really in your heart be committed to solving poverty?"
In a February 22 interview, Vieira hit Edwards with condemnation from the even more liberal Dennis Kucinich: "He said, quote, ‘We had an audition for President in October 2002,' and that the President must have, again his words, ‘the clarity of vision, the judgment to make the right decisions on life and death matters.’ The implication being that those who voted for the war failed the audition. People like you failed the audition. Do you agree with that, sir?"
But reporters did press the Democrats to respond to some conservative arguments. On January 11, Vieira asked the anti-war Obama: "What if the President is right and, if he were to remove the troops, redeploy them, that that country, Iraq, would fall into total chaos, we would lose control of that country? Are you willing to face that possibility?"
In July, ABC’s Sawyer similarly hit Edwards over his plan to quickly withdraw U.S. troops: "What does that say to the Iraqi people? Where does that leave them? What if ethnic cleansing begins? Do you send the troops back in? What do you do?" She followed up: "What is the plan to control civil war, except going back in?" Edwards replied, "Well, it’s not an easy thing...."
For the Republican candidates, it was much more common to be forced to respond to liberal arguments. In a March 28 exchange, ABC’s Chris Cuomo lectured the pro-surge John McCain on the war in Iraq: "Your friend Senator Hagel calls the position you were putting forward ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-delusional.’...Do you have to be looking at Iraq through rose-colored glasses to see progress?"
That same day, CBS’s Hannah Storm also confronted McCain about Iraq: "Why shouldn’t we have a deadline for pulling out of Iraq?...The violence and bombings continue and American soldiers and Marines and Iraqi civilians are dying nearly every day here. Why do you think we’re succeeding?"
Interviewing GOP Representative Tom Tancredo, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration, ABC’s Cuomo was contentious. Referring to the defeat of a compromise Senate bill that would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants, Cuomo demanded to know: "Why did you feel the need to rip a bill like this down?" The ABC anchor kept up the hostile tone throughout the interview.
In July, NBC’s Lauer suggested to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that conservatism might not matter to GOP voters: "Let me make sure people know where you stand, pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage. If you’re the authentic conservative, why aren’t you being embraced more in the polls in states that generally embrace conservatives, early primary states? And why are guys who’ve been questioned about their standing on certain social issues, like Giuliani and Mitt Romney, why are they leading the pack?"
And in an interview with Mitt and Ann Romney, CBS’s Storm seemed baffled at their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, even though Mrs. Romney suffers from multiple sclerosis. "The Multiple Sclerosis Society has been very clear, they say that embryonic stem cell research has the potential to be used to protect and rebuild the tissues damaged by MS," Storm told Romney. "Can you explain why you are against federal funding?"
It was rare that one of the Republican candidates was interrogated from the right, but NBC’s Vieira did challenge former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani back in January: "How are you going to get nominated, sir?...You’re pro-choice, pro-gay civil unions, pro-gun control — not exactly the kinds of positions many Republicans favor."
There’s certainly journalistic merit in confronting a Republican candidate with liberal arguments, so that potential primary voters can evaluate the candidate’s ability to explain and defend his positions. But by tilting their interviews with GOP candidates away from the conservative issues that matter most to primary voters, while simultaneously emphasizing a liberal agenda for Democratic guests, the morning shows steered the debate in both parties toward the left.
That’s great news if you’re a liberal activist hoping to draw more voters to your side on Election Day. But it’s bad news for those who expect the networks to cover all sides in a fair and balanced way.