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Rise and Shine on Democrats

How the ABC, CBS and NBC Morning Shows Are Promoting Democrats On the Road to the White House

Conclusion: The Networks Must Find Their Balance

In spite of the heavy activity seen thus far, Campaign 2008 is far from over. If history is an accurate guide, the networks will provide their heaviest coverage of the primary campaigns in January and February; then a long campaign between the two party nominees will commence, with the heaviest news coverage of the two party conventions and the fall debates.

Yet the first seven months of this campaign already provide evidence of a disturbing tilt in network news coverage. It’s long been established that most of the top network reporters and other members of the media elite hold mainly liberal policy views and vote overwhelmingly for Democrats on Election Day. This study shows that the networks are focusing much more of their time and energy covering the Democratic nomination race than the Republican contest, and are more frequently opening their airwaves to the Democratic candidates. Add to that the fact that the coverage of the major Democratic candidates has been more favorable, and that the agenda of network news interviews has reflected the liberal priorities of the Democratic Party, and the case for the networks showing partisan favor in this election cycle begins to sharpen.

One potential rebuke to this thesis is the possibility that the skew we have documented is the result of the GOP candidates shunning the networks, rather than the networks being stingy in opening their airwaves to the Republicans. If true, however, it would still not explain the differences in the tone of each party’s coverage, nor would it explain reporters emphasizing a liberal agenda.

Indeed, if the Republican candidates are more wary of appearing on ABC, CBS and NBC (and it should be pointed out that all of the top declared GOP candidates have made multiple appearances on those networks), what would it be about the networks’ past coverage that has made them so apprehensive? By their nature, presidential campaigns are publicity-seeking machines. For a candidate to eschew an opportunity to reach millions of voters on a given network, it follows that there is some rational basis for believing that they would not receive a fair shake. The candidates may merely be recognizing and reacting to the bias we have found.

The broadcast networks have a responsibility to cover both parties in a fair and even-handed manner — not for the sake of the candidates, but for the voters. That means giving viewers a chance to hear from all of the major candidates in interviews, asking them similar questions, and balancing the day-to-day news coverage to keep both Democratic and Republican primary voters equally well-informed. It’s obviously going to be a long campaign. The networks have an obligation to make it a fair campaign as well.