Election Watch: The April Release

April 15, 1996

CONTACT: Bob Mulligan
APRIL 15, 1996
(202) 223-2942


Television coverage of the 1996 presidential race has too much bite and not enough meat, according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) on behalf of the John and Mary Markle Foundation. The study found highly negative coverage of the campaign process, along with heavy but misleading coverage of the horse race. NBC was the most negativistic network for campaign news, but CBS’s Eric Engberg was the most negativistic campaign reporter.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) is conducting a scientific content analysis of election news for the Markle Presidential Election Watch, a project of the non-partisan John and Mary Markle Foundation. This report covers 573 election stories broadcast on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows from January 1 through the March 26 California primary. Results will be updated throughout Campaign 96. Future Markle Election Watch reports will examine the performance of candidates and voters as well as the news media. Election Watch director, Dr. Bruce Buchanan will compare these findings to the results of the new Princeton Survey Research Associates Poll in its analysis of voter reaction to the presidential primaries to be released early next month.

CAMPAIGN CYNICS? Out of more than one thousand on-air evaluations of the campaign and the candidates, nearly three out of four (74%) were negative or critical. NBC was the most negativistic network with 77% negative judgements, but CBS (75% negative) and ABC (70% negative) were close behind. (These figures include all statements of praise or criticism by reporters and non-partisan sources. They exclude all sound bites from the candidates and all assessments of the horse race.)

Among individual reporters, we calculated the average number of negative judgements per story, as well as the percentage of negative comments. By this measure CBS’s Eric Engberg was the most negativistic campaign reporter, with 4.5 disapproving comments per story, 87% negative overall. For example, Engberg complained, “the Forbes campaign treats Iowa as just another piece of political property that’s up for sale” (2/2); he derided Forbes’ “wackiest flat tax promise” (2/8); and he castigated New Hampshire for being socially regressive and unrepresentative, concluding sarcastically, “But hey, Live Free or Die’.” (2/19) Next in line behind Engberg were NBC’s Bob Faw (3.7 criticisms per story, 87% negative comments overall), NBC’s Lisa Myers (2.8 per story, 86% negative) and CBS’s Bob Schieffer (2.4 per story, 79% negative).

The most upbeat reviews of the campaign (54% positive) came in stories reported by NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Ironically, the most balanced tone came from a commentator: CBS’s Joe Klein offered a 50-50 mix of positive and negative observations. No network correspondent featured as many as one positive comment per story or 40% positive comments overall.

Comments about the candidates’ policies and proposals ran two to one negative. Judgements of their campaign trail conduct were even harsher — over four to one negative. Every major candidate got more bad press than good press; evaluations of Steve Forbes’ flat tax proposal were 62% negative, and 85% of sources rejected Pat Buchanan’s trade policies. For example, Lisa Myers referred to Forbes as “Malcolm the Mudslinger” (1/30) and later complained, “None of the nine candidates … has inspired voters.” (2/11) ABC’s John Cochran commented, “Most of [Dole’s] appearances have been as flat as his native Kansas.” (2/19) And CBS’s Phil Jones asked rhetorically of Pat Buchanan, “With some of these views, is he the one the Republican party really wants for 96?” (2/19)

The campaign process got even worse press — 92% negative comments from sources and reporters. Over 200 separate soundbites criticized either the candidates’ paid commercials or the campaign’s general tone. Bob Schieffer complained, “And on and on it goes, like a dog chasing its tail…. Any serious discussion of the issues is lost in this maw of Yes you did,’ and No you didn’t.'” (2/12) By contrast, a previous Markle Report (2/26) found that the candidates’ actual speeches and TV ads were more positive and substantive than news reports suggested. But 100% of those voters who were quoted in news stories expressed dissatisfaction with the field of candidates. CBS’s Bob McNamara concluded, “The campaign has left many voters as cold as the weather.” (2/9)

CALLING THE RACE (WRONG) TV news focused on each candidate’s viability rather than his policies. Out of 3,537 comments about the candidates, 54% concerned their electability, 17% their campaign trail behavior, and only 15% their positions on policy issues. So for every soundbite on a candidate’s policies, the networks aired three soundbites on his election prospects.

But reporters rated the prospects of losers Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan above those of eventual nominee Bob Dole. From Jan. 1 to March 4 (Junior Tuesday), when Dole virtually clinched the nomination, reporters’ comments were 79% positive on Forbes’ chances and 76% positive on Buchanan’s, compared to only 62% positive for Dole.

For example, Lisa Myers described Dole’s three-percent winning margin in Iowa as an “anemic victory” that left him “weaker and more vulnerable than he ever imagined.” (NBC, 2/13) Eight days later, Tom Brokaw declared that Buchanan’s one-percent New Hampshire victory margin “makes him the man to beat in the GOP field… for impact, it was a landslide.” (NBC, 2/21)

According to CMPA Director Robert Lichter, “Voters turn to TV news to learn about the candidates and their policies. But reporters tell them more about where the horse race stands than what the candidates stand for. Worse, network negativism breeds contempt for the election process.”

The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) is a nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization. CMPA uses scientific content analysis to study how the media cover major news stories. More complete results of the current Markle Presidential Election Watch will appear in the March/April issue of Media Monitor, the Center’s newsletter.

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