When political scientists compare populism and elitism, they could certainly find a test case in the new Arizona law on immigration enforcement. While Rasmussen found 70 percent of Arizonans favored the crackdown on illegal aliens, and new national media polls found majority support as well, ABC, CBS, and NBC denounced the popular will as short-sighted and discriminatory.
From April 23 to May 3, the top three television networks offered viewers 50 stories and interview segments on their morning and evening news programs. The tone was strongly hostile to the law and promotional to the "growing storm" of left-wing protesters: 37 stories (or 74 percent) were negative, 10 were neutral, and only three were positive toward the Arizona law's passage - 12 negative stories for every one that leaned positive. Stories were much kinder and sympathetic to illegal aliens than they were to police officers. Cops were potential abusers of power. Entering the country illegally was not an abuse of power. It was portrayed as an honorable step by the powerless.
The soundbite count was also slanted, with 92 quotes against the law and only 52 in favor. The pro-law numbers, however, included many soundbites of Arizona public officials defending themselves against liberal charges that they were racists or in favor of racial profiling.
Opponents of the law didn't even have to speak English to be quoted sympathetically. In a May 3 CBS Evening News story, Katie Couric fretted "many" illegals "no longer feel welcome." Reporter Kelly Cobiella focused on the story of non-English-speaking Manuela Quintana, who decided to move to Colorado. Cobiella cued up the mother of ten to deny she was a criminal: "'No,' she says, 'a criminal is someone who kills. I just want to work.'" Over video of the kids piling into an SUV, Cobiella concluded: "The family packed up before dawn today and headed north to Colorado. Manuela says she's lost hope in this state. She thinks she'll find it again in another."
By contrast, law enforcers were the bad guys. On Sunday morning, April 25, ABC Good Morning America host Bill Weir chided Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a well-known enforcer of immigration law, "With this new law, will you ramp it up?...Will you grab people on street corners?"
While an earlier MRC special report found 44 percent of stories on the Tea Party movement suggested they were dangerous or fringy, none of the Arizona stories ever labeled protesters as "liberal" or on the left. They were often cast in neutral terms as "human rights activists" or "Latino activists."
While several stories forwarded outrage from the Mexican government over the Arizona law, none of the network stories mentioned the hypocrisy: Mexico has a stricter immigration-enforcement regime on its southern border than America does. As with sympathetic media coverage of large amnesty rallies in 2006, none of the stories allowed anyone to suggest it was improper for illegal aliens to petition the government whose laws they're breaking or cancel out the votes of law-abiding citizens.
Civility wasn't necessary. While the harshest Tea Party activists were scorned by the networks for any suggestion President Obama was a "Nazi," on 11 occasions these same networks unquestioningly forwarded smears that proponents of the Arizona law were like Nazis or Civil War-era slaveholders. NBC's Andrea Mitchell used these slurs from liberal comedians to demonstrate how Arizona was becoming a "laughingstock."
Violence was downplayed. Only one ABC story reported violence by the protesters (in a "mostly peaceful" protest), and only one CBS story mentioned vandalism (smearing refried-bean swastikas on the state capitol building). There were only two references to the murder of rancher Robert Krentz, and four to the shooting of a deputy in Pinal County, all four in larger celebrations of May Day marches.
Viewers would assume protesters were in the majority. ABC Saturday anchor David Muir touted May Day protests on World News. "Angry backlash from coast to coast. Huge rallies across this country tonight against that new controversial immigration law."
Real poll numbers were not important. The networks were very reluctant to note that the Arizona law was popular: only five stories mentioned that the protesters were on the losing side of public opinion, where almost 90 percent of those polled by CBS consider illegal immigration a serious problem. It's a stunning contrast, then, that 74 percent of the stories channel the view of a tiny minority. When pressed, Americans suggested to pollsters they're sympathetic toward the poverty of illegal aliens and concerned about race-based harassment. But the Big Three TV networks demonstrated no professional appetite for neutrality or civility on this conflict.