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
Our researchers documented 101 interviews with the candidates and their surrogates on the broadcast morning shows during the first ten months of 2011. Actually, only one candidate was represented in interviews by his spouse or political aides, and that was President Obama. The President and his team appeared 39 times, vs. 62 appearances for the entire GOP field, including potential candidates such as Donald Trump, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee who never joined the race.
President Obama's interviews (all of which were taped pieces, some of which originally had been broadcast on other news programs) were notable for their generally positive and non-ideological approach. His nine appearances totaled nearly 94 minutes, or more than ten minutes apiece. The average length for a segment featuring a Republican candidate was barely half that, just 5 minutes, 19 seconds.
Including Obama's surrogates — First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and political aides David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, and William Daley— the Democrats' airtime totaled nearly four hours (237 minutes).
The combined Republican field drew a total of five and a half hours (330 minutes). That figure drops to just 4 hours, 23 minutes — just 26 minutes more than the Democrats' total — when interviews with non-candidates Trump, Christie, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani are excluded.
Four years ago, the Democrats drew more than twice as much total airtime as the Republicans on the morning shows — nearly six and a half hours for the Democrats vs. barely three hours for the GOP. This time around, even with no primary contest on the Democratic side, the networks are providing the President's team with nearly equal access to the morning news audiences.
Team Obama drew more than three times the airtime of the most visible Republican, Michele Bachmann, whose 71 minutes of morning show airtime was dwarfed by the Obama camp's 242 minutes. Tim Pawlenty was the second most visible, with 42 minutes spread out over nine interviews before he dropped out of the race in mid-August. And during the few months in which he flirted with running, Donald Trump appeared five times for a total of 39 minutes.
As the chart shows, the rest of the Republican field drew roughly the same amount of interview time on the morning shows, ranging from 27 minutes for Rick Perry to 18 minutes for Herman Cain. Omitted from the chart are the candidates who received the least airtime: former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (4 interviews totaling 17 minutes) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (3 interviews, 16 minutes).
Apart from Bachmann, none of the current GOP contenders has received as much airtime as Obama's ubiquitous political spokesman, David Plouffe, who by October 31 had already racked up eight morning show appearances totaling 32 minutes.
Hitting Republicans With a Liberal Agenda: As might be expected, most of the questions posed to the Republican candidates had to do with campaign strategy and personal controversies. But our analysts counted 104 'ideological questions' — policy-based questions that incorporated either a liberal or conservative premise.
Of those, the vast majority (85, or 82%) reflected a liberal policy agenda, vs. just 19 (18%) that highlighted the concerns of conservative voters. Thus, instead of functioning as a surrogate for the Republican rank-and-file voter who probably won't get a chance to question a candidate, TV journalists used their time with the candidates to push a standard liberal agenda.
A central policy issue for many of these interviews was the economy and the growing national debt, and network hosts consistently pressed the candidates for their reluctance to agree on the need for a tax increase. On the April 13 Today, for example, co-host Matt Lauer hit Bachmann: 'Is raising taxes on the table?' before employing liberal rhetoric: 'Why shouldn't the burden be equally shared? Why shouldn't we put some of that burden on the wealthy and corporations?'
Over on ABC's Good Morning America on January 11, co-host George Stephanopoulos seemed appalled by Tim Pawlenty's call for lower taxes to spur economic growth. 'Won't tax cuts increase the deficit?' Stephanopoulos wondered. Pawlenty got hit with the same spin May 23 on CBS's The Early Show, as co-host Erica Hill demanded: 'What about raising taxes? Because, and I bring this up again, you say government money isn't free. At some point, do you have to look at raising taxes, and do people have to pay more for what's needed in this country?'
On June 3, Hill badgered Mitt Romney for his opposition to Obama's huge bailout of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009: 'You also accuse the President yesterday of making the recession worse. But based on what we've seen in the auto industry, weren't you wrong in this case? Wasn't it right for both the auto industry and for the American economy to help that industry?'
And in September, Hill hit Newt Gingrich for backing the Tea Party: 'There's a feeling by some folks that this very small group of people is starting to control the conversation. Do there need to be more voices at the table, in general, at this point?'
A month later, she went after the ex-Speaker again, this time for criticizing the left-wing 'Occupy Wall Street' protests: 'You have had some pretty outspoken words, though, for the folks behind Occupy Wall Street, that you don't think this is a great move, that you don't really see what their point is. Yet, a number of Americans say they're behind it.'
Even Jon Huntsman, the most liberal of the 2012 Republicans, got hit from the left on economic issues. On June 22, NBC's Ann Curry sounded like every other morning show host as she asked Huntsman about the deficit: 'Does that revenue side include raising taxes? Is that off the table to decrease the national debt?'
In that same interview, Curry also admonished Huntsman that his personal wealth would hurt his credibility on the jobs issue: 'You're the son of one of the richest men in America and you, yourself — you're also wealthy — at a time when corporate America is making record profits and not hiring. So what do you say to, especially blue collar workers, who say what they want is a President who knows how to bring jobs back to America?'
Huntsman and Romney were the most likely to face the rare right-leaning question, together accounting for nine of the 19 conservative questions we documented. ABC's Stephanopoulos, for example, grilled Romney about the similarities between his Massachusetts health care plan and ObamaCare back on February 1: 'Why is it right for a state to impose that kind of a mandate and not the federal government?'
On May 20, Stephanopoulos also took aim at Huntsman's decision to take Obama's stimulus funds back in 2009. 'When you were asked about it, you suggested that one of the problems with the stimulus is that it wasn't big enough. Is that what you still believe?' Huntsman responded that his choice would have been for a package with larger tax cuts.
Four Years Ago, Ideologically Friendly for Liberal Democrats: It's not necessarily biased for TV hosts to ask a group of mostly conservative candidates to respond to liberal policy arguments. But four years ago, the same network morning shows did not confront the Democratic field with conservative policy arguments.
Looking at the same time period, MRC analysts documented 137 'ideological questions' posed to the Democratic candidates. The breakdown was decidedly to the left: 99 liberal-themed questions, vs. 38 conservative-themed questions, a nearly three-to-one disparity (compared to the more than four-to-one liberal tilt this year).
For example, on NBC's Today, February 5, 2007, co-host Matt Lauer saluted John Edwards: 'I'm going to — 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.''
Lauer similarly promoted the liberal side when he interviewed Hillary Clinton on September 18, suggesting her health care plan was too pro-industry and not aggressive enough. 'Critics are saying that this in some ways is the kind of plan you would have rejected back in 1993,' Lauer scolded. 'Have you watered down reform?'
A month later, ABC's Dr. Timothy Johnson tried to flatter Clinton during an interview on Good Morning America: 'You have talked eloquently about the need for an electronic record keeping system....' Johnson also attempted to cast opponents of a government-based health system as immoral: 'You have said that providing health insurance for everyone is a moral issue. Do you think the Republicans who are against it are immoral?'
It wasn't just health care — journalists presented the liberal approach when asking the Democratic candidates about the war in Iraq, one of the top issues in that year's campaign. Today's Meredith Vieira pleaded with Barack Obama on January 11, 2007: 'What can you do as a Senator? What are you willing to do to stop the troops from going there?' On ABC later that month, co-host Diane Sawyer hit Clinton as not liberal enough, asking about her vote to authorize the Iraq war: 'Is that your biggest mistake as Senator?'
The network agenda four years ago was reasonably consistent with that of liberal primary voters trying to choose their party's nominee. But this year, conservative voters would have to strain to hear their concerns reflected in these same morning show interviews.
This Year, Few Hostile Questions for Obama: Morning show interviews with Barack Obama were mainly free publicity for the Campaigner-in-Chief, with the President's appearances coinciding with news events that would cast him in a favorable light. In the days after the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, CBS's The Early Show, for example, ran two lengthy excerpts from Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes interview with Obama.
Given the news, no tough questions would have been expected, and none were forthcoming. Instead, Kroft eagerly asked what it was like to be in the Situation Room: 'What was the mood?...Were you nervous?...What could you see?...Could you hear gunfire?'
Weeks later, during the debt talks with Republicans, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley invited Obama to play the victim in an interview later shown on the July 13 Early Show: 'The Republican leader in the Senate said that they can't do business with you — as long as you occupy this house, there will be no deal.' And: 'Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they respected each other, they liked each other, and they got things done.'
On September 12, NBC's Today show ran clips of an upcoming interview in which Nightly News anchor Brian Williams genially asked Obama to play pundit on the GOP field. 'Did you watch any of the Republican debate?...Mitt Romney, quote, 'The President's a nice guy. He doesn't have a clue how to get the country working again.' Your reaction?...What do you make of Rick Perry, who is, I guess, the frontrunner?...Tea Party here to stay?'
Williams also teased an even more obsequious section of the interview to air later that night, telling Matt Lauer: 'I went on to ask him when he's going to channel his inner Harry Truman, as members of his base have been asking....I also asked him about all the people who voted for the man on the poster that said 'Hope.' That answer was illuminating — we'll have that tonight on Nightly News.'
Journalists posed few ideological questions to Obama. Our analysts found just 12 questions that reflected an agenda — five conservative questions vs. seven liberally-themed questions.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos posed two of those from the left, both selected from questions sent in by viewers. In an April 15 interview, he hit Obama with this from Louise Ross of Chester, New Hampshire: 'Why not release at least some of the oil in our reserves before gas reaches $5 a gallon. If that's a rainy day fund, it's pouring out. Give us a break. That's what it's there for.'
In October, he similarly passed along a viewer's plea for the President to tamper with the free market: 'More than 40,000 questions came in online for the President, most expressing anxiety and anger about the economy, including outrage at Bank of America's $5 debit card fee. Vicki Menkel wrote, 'Those are the types of things government should get involved in and put a stop to.' [to Obama] Can you put a stop to that?...Can you stop this service charge?'
Stephanopoulos never passed along a right-leaning question from viewers to the President, but CBS's The Early Show managed to include a conservative-themed question during a May 12 town hall meeting with Obama on the economy. Anna Urman, a small business owner, asked Obama: 'What can your administration do to ensure that any new laws and regulations not only not hurt small businesses, but in fact help them grow and thrive?'
Moderator Harry Smith invited her to expand on her point, which she did: 'As a small business owner, my business's income is my income, so I feel like I'm being taxed higher than somebody, you know, who earns a regular job with the same amount of income?'
During the same event, Obama was also treated to questions from a liberal perspective, including from a self-employed accountant, Bernard Miller: 'My question to you is, you've proposed budget changes to Medicare. I'd like to know how they still would be able to keep the 45-year promise that's been made to the American public.'
While the Republican candidates were routinely asked about any gaffes or perceived mistakes, NBC's Ann Curry sat back when, on the June 14 Today, Obama preposterously claimed that ATM machines were a reason why fewer jobs were being created during the current economic recovery: 'There are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller.'
Curry failed to recognize the absurdity in Obama's claim — ATMs have been widely used since the 1980s, and the number of people employed as bank tellers has actually increased during that time, to more than 600,000 in 2008 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not counting the thousands more who are employed in manufacturing, servicing and repairing the machines.
Even worse, once it became clear that Obama had bungled his talking point, neither Today nor any of the other morning shows bothered to mention the ATM gaffe in the days that followed.
Inviting Obama's Surrogates to Slash the Republicans: Four years ago, the Democratic candidates were often represented on these morning shows by their spouses, campaign managers, strategists or other spokesmen. Having a surrogate speak on behalf of a campaign creates more of a presidential aura, building up the candidate as a potential statesman.
But this year, none of the Republicans has been given a chance to speak through surrogates, although Mitt Romney appeared once with his wife, Ann, on NBC's Today and later appeared with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after the latter's endorsement. Also, back in January, Texas Congressman Ron Paul appeared on Good Morning America with his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
Only the Obama campaign has been represented on the morning news shows by surrogates. Michelle Obama was featured in four softball interviews totaling nearly 35 minutes. NBC's Matt Lauer spent nearly 14 minutes with the First Lady back in February. His hard-hitting agenda included questions about whether the President was using hair dye, and about her role in getting him to quit smoking. 'Was there some tough love at the White House concerning this?' Lauer wondered. 'Is it possible he may be going into the Lincoln bedroom and sneaking a smoke every once in a while?'
Obama's political staff used the morning newscasts to go after the opposition. ABC's George Stephanopoulos made it a habit to bring aboard an Obama spokesman to critique several of the Republican debates. 'Who won last night's debate?' he asked David Axelrod on August 12. Axelrod slammed the candidates for rejecting tax increases: 'Really, what they were doing was pledging allegiance to the Tea Party. They were not willing to accept one more dime of taxes on the wealthiest Americans.'
On October 11, Stephanopoulos invited David Plouffe to critique the newest GOP frontrunner: 'Weigh in on this Herman Cain phenomenon....What do you make of Herman Cain?' Plouffe used the opportunity to hit the entire field: 'All of the candidates... want to let Wall Street write their own rules, huge tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations....'
CBS's Jeff Glor brought Axelrod onto The Early Show October 19: 'What did you think of the debate last night?' Axelrod: 'If you were an American who is worried about jobs or how we restore security for the middle class, there wasn't much in it for you. Herman Cain wants to raise taxes on 85 percent of Americans; Rick Perry thinks we can drill to prosperity; and Mitt Romney thinks we need more and faster foreclosures.'
NBC's Matt Lauer similarly cued up Robert Gibbs on October 27: 'Do you think you'll have a field day against Mitt Romney?' Gibbs mocked: 'I think Mitt Romney is going to have a tough time explaining what Mitt Romney was for in the past and what Mitt Romney is for now.'
Not every question was an open-ended softball. For example, Lauer pressed Gibbs back on August 16 about the President's just-announced intention to submit a jobs plan: 'I was shaking my head thinking, 'Where was this plan a month ago, when we were in the middle of the debt ceiling debate?' What is new here? And why should people believe it's going to work?'
But for the most part, the networks' open-door policy permitted Obama's staff to continuously critique the Republicans, while their own candidate enjoyed a much kinder and gentler experience with the morning shows.
Softballs for Obama, Hardballs for the GOP: While this year's crop of Republican candidates faced mostly adversarial questions about political topics, President Obama enjoyed the same sort of friendly, personal questions that aided his campaign four years ago.
During Mike Huckabee's appearance on Good Morning America in February, George Stephanopoulos painted mainstream Republicans as a engaging in fringe behavior: 'It seems like Republican leaders have the hardest time in the world saying simply and clearly 'President Obama is a Christian and President Obama is a citizen. Get over it.''
He tried the same approach with Michele Bachmann a few days later: 'Can you just state very clearly that President Obama is a Christian and he is a citizen of the United States?' Bachmann told Stephanpoulos: 'I think we should take the President at his word.'
Also that month, NBC's Meredith Vieira took a frosty line with Tim Pawlenty when he appeared on Today, quoting criticisms from Pawlenty's Democratic successor: 'What makes you better equipped to run the nation's economy, if you left your own house in such disarray?'
Before Rick Perry declared his candidacy, ABC was touting his record on job creation. 'Perry has got an almost picture perfect political resume,' ABC's Jon Karl enthused on the August 10 Good Morning America. 'His state is leading America in what might be the most important category, jobs — 220,000 new jobs over just the past year. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the job growth in the United States since President Obama became president have been in Rick Perry's Texas.'
Yet just two months later, ABC's Stephanopoulos was castigating Perry for the same record, painting it as dreadful: 'Your opponents point out that unemployment has doubled during your tenure as governor, and that about 65 percent of the Texas job gains since 2007 are actually government jobs. Is that the model for the country?'
With President Obama, the networks continued to treat him as an honored celebrity, softening his image with lots of questions about his family. Today's Ann Curry asked about the 'family meeting' she imagined before Obama decided to run for re-election: 'Did you ask Michelle and the kids about this at the table?'
Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes interview about the bin Laden raid also included a Michelle angle: 'Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you want to tell somebody? Did you want to tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?'
'The President says the best piece of advice he got from Michelle: that the mark of success comes from having happy and loving children,' ABC's Stephanopoulos admired on October 4. He asked Obama: 'How do you protect them, this time around, when everybody's saying all these bad things about you?'
Good Morning America's pre-Father's Day interview with Obama was replete with soft questions, one sent in via video from a soldier in Afghanistan: 'Mr. President, the last two years I've missed my Father's Day with my girls and I wanted to ask you, what would you consider is the most perfect day with your girls on Father's Day?'
Obama beamed in response: 'Well, it's a great question....'
There's nothing wrong with exploring these human interest angles, but journalists know that such questions are invaluable to candidates hoping to create a personal bond with voters. Just as in 2007, the morning shows treated Barack Obama like a celebrity, while his potential rivals were treated as merely flawed politicians.
In 2004, journalism suffered a black eye when CBS's Dan Rather attempted to sabotage George W. Bush's re-election with phony documents. In 2008, the networks' adoring coverage of Barack Obama became fodder for late night comedians. If the media fail to adhere to the public's expectation for fair and unbiased election coverage in 2012, they will squander whatever credibility still remains.