ABC Offers Most Slanted Coverage; Raises Nixon, Blames Bush for Partisan Battles...

While CBS News coverage of the State of the Union speech showcased the bombast of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the ABC News coverage was the most hostile to Bush and conservative policies with its analysis delivered through a liberal prism. Anchor Elizabeth Vargas began the evening by emphasizing Bush’s low approval rating fueled by “an inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and the indictment of a high ranking White House official and, of course, growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.” She resurrected Watergate as she highlighted how Bush’s 42 percent approval level “is the worst for a President entering his sixth year in office since Watergate hammered Richard Nixon." Charles Gibson noted that Bush “tries to unite,” but then painted Democrats as victims of Bush deceit as he stumbled through an adage which many have mocked Bush for once messing up: “A lot of Democrats feel this has not been a uniting President. They have gone down that road before trying to work with the President, and of course the old expression is, ah, ‘Fool me once, ah, shame on you. Fool me more than once, fool me twice or ten times, shame on me.'”

Following the speech, Vargas noted how Bush had offered an “olive branch” to Democrats. That prompted Gibson to again suggest that Bush is more to blame for partisan fighting: "Yes, he did. And you wonder if he had done this four years ago, five years ago, if indeed there might have been greater comity in the city of Washington, greater cooperation in the city than there has been so far through the Bush presidency." Gibson also relayed the odd analysis, from ABC’s political team, that of 62 paragraphs in the speech, “48 could have been given verbatim by President Bill Clinton.” Dr. Tim Johnson, a “single-payer” advocate, complained that on health care Bush “was just...tinkering with the system that is basically broken.”

Of the broadcast networks, ABC uniquely highlighted the Spanish language Democratic response from LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Vargas relayed how he “blamed the Bush administration's, quote, ‘reckless policies for increasing the national debt, the number of uninsured Americans, including 39 percent of Latinos, and the number of failing students and the ranks of the poor.'" As if one Democratic response were not enough. (Transcripts follow.)

Some highlights from ABC’s 9-11pm EST coverage on Tuesday night, January 31:

Before the State of the Union speech:
Elizabeth Vargas: “After what is by most accounts the most difficult year of his presidency, many would say undoubtedly the worst, the President has seen his approval ratings sag, in part due to high gas prices and an inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and the indictment of a high ranking White House official and, of course, growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.....Getting back to the President's approval ratings, Charlie, this has been a tough year for him. The latest ABC poll shows his approval rating now at 42 percent, which is the worst for a President entering his sixth year in office since Watergate hammered Richard Nixon.”

Charles Gibson: “Yes, and other polls actually have him lower than 42 percent. And you expect in a speech like this, when your polls are low, that perhaps he worries about his political base, and a President is more likely to reach out to the other party and try to find some avenue of bipartisanship in a speech like this when he is having trouble. He tries to unite, but of course a lot of Democrats feel this has not been a uniting President. They have gone down that road before trying to work with the President, and of course the old expression is, ah, ‘Fool me once, ah, shame on you. Fool me more than once, fool me twice or ten times, shame on me.’ so it’s an interesting thing to watch tonight as to how much he does reach out to the Democrats in the Congress, and how many applause moments there will be from the Democrats. There’ll be plenty from the Republicans. The question is: Will the Democrats find something to like in this. They may like some of the generalities that the President talks about, but of course the specifics then get a little tougher when they get into actually writing legislation.”

Shortly after the speech:
Vargas: “He reached out many, many times to the Democrats, and reached out with an olive branch on many occasions, repeatedly expressing that he wants everybody's advice, he wants to work with them, he says, to get these things achieved. The question, of course, being whether or not Democrats will be able to embrace and accept the olive branch. Charlie, it was remarkable how many times he did, in fact, reach out.”

Gibson: “Yes, he did. And you wonder if he had done this four years ago, five years ago, if indeed there might have been greater comity in the city of Washington, greater cooperation in the city than there has been so far through the Bush presidency.”

A bit later:
Gibson: “I just got something from our political staff, our political people, who were trying to gauge the speech in terms of is it very partisan Republican or not? And as a measure of how much President Bush was rhetorically reaching out, they estimated, this is their analysis, but it is interesting, of the 62 paragraphs in the speech, they came to the conclusion that 48 could have been given verbatim by President Bill Clinton. So interesting that there is a different tone, perhaps, from the President this time.”

Following Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s Democratic response:
Vargas, over brief video of the Mayor: “This year, in addition to the Democrats’ response from Governor Kaine of Virginia, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles offered a response in Spanish that was broadcast on Spanish language channels. Mayor Villaraigosa is another rising star in the Democratic Party, elected in May of 2005. He’s already been on the covers of many newsweeklies. The Mayor was speaking from his residence in Los Angeles and he stressed the best days for this country are ahead, saying let's talk about the real state of the union. Villaraigosa blamed the Bush administration's, quote, ‘reckless policies for increasing the national debt, the number of uninsured Americans, including 39 percent of Latinos, and the number of failing students and the ranks of the poor.’ He said Democrats want to fix those problems and end what he calls ‘the culture of corruption’ in government.”

Around 10:45pm EST, Dr. Tim Johnson got a chance to lament:
“He was just talking about tinkering with the system that is basically broken. I wish the President, or for that matter any politician, would be courageous enough to step up to the plate and say we've got a real problem with our system or non-system in this country. After all, we spend about twice as much per person on health care in this country as any other industrialized country. Yet we have 45 million insured [meant “uninsured”], and we rank 37th in life expectancies, 41st in infant mortality. We’ve got a mess on our hands. And all of the politicians, Bush, talk about is a little bit of tinkering here on the edges. We need to say we’ve got a fundamental problem. We have to change the system.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center