Still Thrilled by Obama
Table of Contents:
- Executive Summary
- Covering the Candidates: No Swooning Over Republicans
- "Conservative" Republicans vs. Non-Ideological Obama?
- Interviews: Helping Obama, Badgering the GOP
Together, the broadcast networks aired a total of 723 campaign segments on the three morning shows, less than the 797 segments produced during the same period four years ago. About three-fifths of this year's items (437) were long segments — either full reports from field correspondents or interviews with candidates or analysts. The remaining 286 were relatively brief discussions of the campaign, mainly short anchor-read news stories.
Coverage of the presidential campaign has picked up considerably since the end of the debt ceiling talks in early August. Through the end of July, the network morning shows had aired just 362 stories this year (an average of about 50 stories per month), compared to 517 through the same period four years ago. Yet since August 1, the rate of coverage has more than doubled, to 120 stories per month (361). Four years ago, the networks generated only 280 campaign stories from August through October.
As might be expected, given the lack of a contest for the Democratic nomination, most of the segments were about the Republican nomination process. Yet of the approximately 60 percent of items that mainly focused on just one candidate, there were more than three times as many segments about President Barack Obama's re-election campaign (129) than about any individual Republican candidates. (This tally only includes stories that discuss Obama as a candidate, excluding items that dealt with him strictly as President.)
Among Republicans, the most coverage went to Texas Governor Rick Perry (39 segments), followed by Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann (35) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (32). Rounding out the field, Mitt Romney was the focus of 26 segments, followed by Herman Cain (23), Jon Huntsman (13), with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum bringing up the rear with eight segments apiece. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was the focus of 14 morning show segments before he dropped out of the race in August.
Significant airtime went to three potential candidates who never actually entered the Republican race: Sarah Palin (50 segments), Donald Trump (27) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (27). Palin's tally, in fact, eclipsed that of all of the actual candidates. (These numbers only include stories/segments about these individuals as potential candidates.)
So why did Perry, Bachmann and Gingrich lead the field in coverage? The key reason seems to be that the network morning shows chose to highlight negative stories about each of those candidates. Similarly, both Palin and Trump were on the receiving end of largely skeptical stories, too, with Trump's story count inflated by negative coverage of his baseless public doubting of Obama's birth records.
NOTE: The sex harassment scandal that broke on October 31, the final day of our study period, led to an avalanche of Herman Cain stories on the weekday morning shows, with the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows generating 46 items in just the first week of coverage. If the full week had been included in this study, Cain would have easily outstripped the other Republicans as the target of the most morning news stories.
While in 2007 the morning shows were promoting that year's top Democrats, this time around, those shows aimed to showcase what they saw as the weakest elements of the Republican field — even as President Obama continued to enjoy some of the same celebrity coverage that helped his campaign four years ago.
Still Getting Thrilled By Obama: Compared to four years ago, there's not as much gooey celebrity coverage of Obama this year, but there is some. Good Morning America, for example, was tickled to see the President quiet a crying baby back in June, 'Is President Obama a baby whisperer?' lifestyle anchor Lara Spencer excitedly wondered. 'The leader of the free world worked his magic on this munchkin.... Presto, the tot is simply transfixed.'
As they did four years ago, the morning shows had a real warm spot for Obama's family. In a typical softball segment on the October 12 Today, Al Roker asked Michelle Obama about eating healthy food and exercising: 'You got a campaign coming up, you got to hit the trail, how do you work those things in when you're traveling like that?...Do you have to get in shape to go out and campaign?...Do you have to motivate the President and the girls, or are they fairly self-motivated when it comes to this?'
Obama's birthday on August 4 was a big deal on all three network morning shows. On NBC's Today, correspondent Chuck Todd started off his report by joking how, 'starting today, assuming he becomes an AARP member, the President can now get some discounts at the movies, at restaurants, at hotels. But unlike most people who turn 50, the birthday celebration was combined with a lavish campaign fundraiser in Chicago.'
The tone was similar on ABC's Good Morning America, where White House reporter Jake Tapper cracked: 'They say 50 is the new 40.' Tapper ended his story about Obama's big campaign fundraising by observing that, in spite of his graying hair, Obama 'is still the youngest person running for President in 2012.'
And in June, GMA treated the President to a 15 minute softball interview about Father's Day. Co-host Robin Roberts giggled with Obama about how he could intimidate teenaged boys who might want to date his daughters. Obama chuckled: 'I might invite him over to the Oval Office, ask him for his GPA, find out what his intentions are in terms of career....Malia, Sasha, if you're watching this, I'm just joking.'
Publicizing Newt Gingrich's 'Baggage.' At the start of his campaign, Newt Gingrich was treated to a wave of hostile coverage of his 'baggage,' so much so that it became a cliché. As CBS analyst John Dickerson announced on the March 3 Early Show: 'The personal baggage is considerable.' A few weeks later, as the former Speaker readied his announcement, Dickerson's CBS colleague Jan Crawford recited the same line, telling viewers Gingrich has 'some personal baggage.'
'Newt's biggest problem may be baggage,' ABC's Jon Karl echoed May 11. NBC's Matt Lauer agreed the next morning: 'A messy personal life that includes two divorces, three marriages and a lengthy affair....There is some baggage that comes with Newt Gingrich.'
Four years earlier, the networks did not draw such attention to the baggage former First Lady Hillary Clinton brought to her candidacy. Leaving aside her husband's infidelities, journalists could have highlighted Mrs. Clinton's suspicious $100,000 windfall in cattle futures, her involvement in the shady land deal known as Whitewater, or her testimony to the federal grand jury investigating what was known as the 'Travelgate' scandal, which special prosecutor Robert Ray determined was 'factually false.'
Instead, the networks worked to help Hillary discard the 'baggage' of her past scandals, so she would not be burdened by voters' 'preconceptions.' On The Early Show, CBS's Harry Smith commiserated with Clinton in a January 23, 2007 interview: 'Can you be able to sit in the living rooms of people in Iowa or in town meetings in New Hampshire and get your message across, past the press, past the preconceptions?' The journalist empathized: 'Whitewater, Travelgate, the impeachment process — you were under the glare of the spotlight for eight years, and many of those days have to have been horrible. Why go back? Why go back into the middle of the white hot glare of that light?'
Michele Bachmann, Flame-Throwing Flake: As for Michele Bachmann, the network morning shows held her up as an extremist and a fact-challenged flake. On NBC's Today on June 27, just as Bachmann was about to officially enter the presidential race, correspondent Kelly O'Donnell declared that 'step one' for the Minnesota Congresswoman was 'redefining [her] public image' by 'turning down the flame-thrower persona.'
The next day, O'Donnell highlighted a trivial mistake Bachmann made in claiming that the actor John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa. 'Iowans will tell you John Wayne was born 150 miles away in Winterset — details that fit a pattern of factual errors that hurt Bachmann.' To bolster the point, O'Donnell included a soundbite from Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza: 'Those kind of gaffes will catch up with her, and they're more meaningful and will get more attention because of her status.'
Over on ABC that same morning, co-host George Stephanopoulos scolded Bachmann about her accuracy: 'As you make progress in this campaign, everything you say is going to get more scrutiny. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Politifact has said you have the worst record of making false statements of any of the leading contenders.'
Stephanopoulos then used his airtime to dispute Bachmann's statement that the Founding Fathers 'worked tirelessly' to end slavery: 'Now, with respect, Congresswoman, that's just not true. Many of them, including Jefferson and Washington, were actually slave holders. And slavery didn't end until the Civil War.'
While the networks worked themselves up over Bachmann's inaccuracies, a check of PolitiFact that day showed the site had piled even more corrections of statements made by President Obama — 39 statements ranked 'barely true' and 49 branded 'false,' including more substantively relevant statements about the budget and taxes. Yet a Nexis search showed none of the morning shows had ever used PolitiFact to challenge any of Obama's assertions.
Rick Perry vs. The Safety Net: As they did with Bachmann, the networks swiftly moved to brand Texas Governor Rick Perry as an extremist when he joined the race in August. NBC's Chuck Todd, on the August 15 Today show, dutifully relayed the White House spin: 'The Obama team has been taking comfort in the fact that they believe this Republican race is moving to the right, that it's a race to the right. And they take comfort in that.'
Three days later, Good Morning America correspondent Jim Avila was downright scornful when reporting Perry's stance against onerous environmental regulations: 'Rick Perry's Texas pours more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than any other state in the country....Unmistakably Texan, unabashedly conservative, Governor Rick Perry does not care about the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is largely produced by humans burning fossil fuels.'
On the September 7 Today, NBC's Tom Brokaw similarly cast Perry as an extremist: 'He describes Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. He said that the Supreme Court is an oligarchy with a two-thirds vote. He talked about secession.'
The following week, CBS's The Early Show mocked Perry in a weekly cartoon segment about the nomination race, 'America's Next Top Republican.' Cartoonists Josh Landis and Mitch Butler offered their own narration, with Butler noting how Perry 'made it legal to hunt wild boar from the air. After all, he's the kind of governor who would shoot a coyote while he's out jogging. In fact, he actually did shoot a coyote while he was out jogging.' The crude animation showed a smiling Perry blasting away with an oversized pistol.
After hearing that Texas has created more jobs than any other state, Landis scoffed: 'Texas is also one of the worst-off states when it comes to poverty, health insurance, and education. The duo included a soundbite from liberal Texas journalist Paul Burka, who caricatured Perry: 'He would turn back the clock. He would take America back to where there was basically no safety net. I don't think he believes in the safety net.'
The Rest of the Pack: Mitt Romney, who ranked as either the frontrunner or a close second in most national polls this year, drew a smaller share of the coverage, ranking behind candidates like Bachmann and Perry who joined the race much later. Much of the discussion of Romney's campaign consisted of segments about the various debates, stories that did not specifically focus on the former Massachusetts governor.
Even on the day of Romney's official announcement, the networks chose to split their coverage with a Sarah Palin event that was also being held in New Hampshire. On the June 2 Good Morning America, ABC's John Berman suggested the emphasis on Palin would help Romney: 'It might make the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, seem like a more safe, a more secure, a more reasonable candidate.'
Then in October, the networks jumped on the statement by a Perry supporter that Romney's Mormon religion was a 'cult,' casting it as another embarrassment for Perry even though he quickly stated that he disagreed with the remark. 'The race for the Republican nomination has taken an ugly turn,' ABC's Jon Karl rebuked.
But back in March, Karl's Good Morning America actually celebrated an anti-Mormon musical produced by the same duo behind Comedy Central's irreverent South Park cartoon. 'It was brilliant,' ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper enthused, but warned: 'If you're easily offended or religiously devout, especially Mormon, I would stay away.'
Our study period ended on October 31, the first day of what turned out to be a network feeding frenzy over anonymous accusations that Herman Cain sexually harassed an employee while heading the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Through the end of October, Cain had been the focus of just 23 network stories, most after he won a Florida straw poll in late September, catapulting him to the top of the field in many polls.
At that time, the media's conventional wisdom saw no hope for Cain — four days after he won the straw poll, CBS's Erica Hill asked the candidate if he planned to quit the race: 'Most people would say, 'Look, you may have something people respond to, but your chances of actually getting that nomination, pretty slim.' So why stick with it then?'
Even before the harassment stories, Cain was already receiving a skeptical review from the morning shows. NBC's Michael Isikoff on October 21 seized on the fact that Cain's campaign was buying and distributing the candidate's book: 'That means profits for Cain himself, and could run afoul of campaign laws, say watchdog groups.'
Network journalists were also sour about Cain's signature tax reform plan, emphasizing its potential to shift some of the tax burden to lower income families rather than its potential to boost economic growth. NBC's David Gregory asserted on the October 26 Today: 'The problem is, this does help the rich. It hurts a lot of the poor and the middle class.' On October 12, ABC's George Stephanopoulos made the same assertion to Cain himself: 'Independent analysts have looked at this plan as well, and they say this would be a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, a real tax increase for the poor and middle class.'
Four Years Ago, Swooning Over the Democrats: Four years ago, the coverage of the Democratic contenders was far less adversarial. Reporters actually swooned over Obama: 'He's today the political equivalent of a rock star,' then-CBS correspondent Gloria Borger trumpeted on the January 17, 2007 Early Show. The next day, NBC's Matt Lauer agreed: 'He's got rock star buzz around him.'
On the January 18, 2007 Good Morning America, correspondent Claire Shipman suggested Obama and Clinton were an embarrassment of riches for the Democratic Party, contrasting Obama's 'fluid poetry' with Clinton's 'hot factor.' A few weeks later, ABC's Jake Tapper touted a Hollywood reception for Obama: 'The stars came out for another million-dollar affair, honoring a thin, statuesque idol of color. No, not Oscar — Obama, Barack Obama.' In case anyone missed the point, ABC's graphic department placed Obama's smiling face atop an image of the gold Academy Awards statue.
In May 2007, NBC sent Meredith Vieira to New Hampshire to follow Barack Obama around for the day. 'Do you have a weakness on the campaign trail, anything that you have to have with you at all times? Stuffed animal?' (Obama answered that he liked 'a certain brand of green tea.') Vieira kept up the softballs: 'When your head hits the pillow tonight in Iowa, will you fall fast asleep, or will your mind be racing about the next day?...Do you dream of the White House?'
In 2007, the networks went along with the campaigns' publicity gimmicks. All three morning shows played a goofy campaign spoof where Bill and Hillary Clinton parodied the last episode of HBO's The Sopranos. NBC's Meredith Vieira exclaimed she 'loved' it, while CBS's Bob Schieffer called the spot 'hilarious... one of the cleverest things I've seen in a long, long time.'
NBC's Today show followed candidate Obama in August 2007 as he spent the day posing as a home health care worker as demanded by the SEIU labor union. 'Mr. Mom, he's not. But on a day after some big rallies and high-priced fundraisers, Barack Obama seemed genuinely at home,' correspondent Lee Cowan warmly reported. A few weeks later, NBC's Andrea Mitchell similarly touted Clinton's day spent shadowing a nurse. Back at the nurse's home for dinner, Mitchell cooed, '[Hillary] pitched right in. She was clearing the table, washing the dishes....She got her hands wet.'
None of the GOP candidates has received the giddy, celebratory coverage dished out to the Democrats four years ago, or even awarded to Obama this year.