In less than two weeks, voters head to the polls in midterm elections that seem certain to yield strong Republican gains, if not outright control of the U.S. Senate. Such a political sea change is big news, but a new Media Research Center study finds that, in contrast to their enthusiastic coverage of the 2006 midterms when Democrats made big gains, the Big Three broadcast evening newscasts are all but ignoring this year’s political contests.
MRC analysts studied every election story on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from September 1 through October 20 in both 2006 (the midterm election in George W. Bush’s second term) and 2014 (the equivalent election under President Barack Obama). Even in a changing media landscape, Big Three evening newscasts are a principal news source for more than 23 million viewers, beating all of their broadcast and cable competition.
Our analysts found that, when Democrats were feeling good about their election prospects eight years ago, the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC’s World News aired a combined 159 campaign stories (91 full reports and another 68 stories that mentioned the campaign). But during the same time period this year, those same newscasts have offered a paltry 25 stories (16 full reports and 9 mentions), a six-to-one disparity.
Amazingly, since September 1 ABC’s newly-renamed World News Tonight has yet to feature a single mention of this year’s campaign, let alone a full story. In contrast, eight years ago ABC’s World News aired 36 stories that discussed that year’s midterm campaign, including a weekly Thursday night feature that then-anchor Charlie Gibson promised would look at the “critical races.”
Back then, the elections were a major news topic; this year, a regular viewer of ABC’s evening newscast would have no indication that any were even taking place.
CBS and NBC have scarcely been more comprehensive. In 2006, CBS aired a total of 58 evening news stories that discussed the campaign, while NBC Nightly News aired 65 stories. This year, those numbers have fallen to just 14 and 11 as of October 20, declines of 76% and 83%, respectively.
In 2006, with Democrats poised to make big gains, the broadcasts eagerly touted their midterm coverage. On the September 20, 2006 NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams hyped how his broadcast was beginning “a special series that will take a close look at some of the most interesting races in these upcoming midterm elections.”
This election season, Nightly News did not air its first full report on the election until Sunday, October 12. Except for a single full story on October 14 about the Kentucky Senate race (how the Democratic candidate refused to say if she had voted for President Obama), NBC Nightly News has thus far this fall provided no in-depth coverage of any specific races or candidates — merely short mentions of individual contests.
The network blackout of this year’s campaign began long before the Ebola outbreak dominated newscasts after the September 30 diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas. The evening newscasts included just 12 stories about the campaign in September, vs. 13 such stories during the first 20 days of October.
And it’s not as if the Ebola story precluded substantial political coverage — in 2006, the networks also found time to cover major stories, including the war in Iraq and North Korea’s first atomic test, without bypassing politics.
Eight years ago, there was no escaping the negative news for Republicans. Not only were polls projecting a major swing to the Democrats, but a scandal involving Florida Representative Mark Foley received major attention from all three network evening newscasts. Of the 159 network evening news stories that fall, nearly two-thirds (103, or 65%) conveyed either mainly bad news about Republican candidates, or mainly good news about the Democrats, vs. just seven (4%) conveying the opposite message. (The remainder were either neutral or mixed.)
“With scandals, the war, and the President with low approval ratings, this is a very difficult environment for Republicans to run,” CBS’s Gloria Borger opined on the October 17 Evening News. The next night, October 18, NBC Nightly News led their broadcast with poll results that Tim Russert said were making Republicans “very, very nervous,” including a big lead for Democrats in the generic congressional ballot (52% vs. 37% for the GOP).
This week, NBC conducted a similar pre-election poll that found a five-point edge (49% to 44%) for Republicans in the generic ballot, comparable to the six-point edge they had going into the 1994 elections in which they seized control of both the House and Senate. But so far, the NBC Nightly News said nothing about this poll or the bad news it contained for Democrats.
This fall, estimates from the New York Times and Washington Post (as of October 21) place the odds of a Republican takeover of the Senate at between 66% and 93%, and Democrats have been encumbered by a myriad of Obama administration failures including the botched ObamaCare rollout, the Bowe Berghdahl prisoner exchange, the long delay in confronting ISIS, the Secret Service scandal and the fumbling of the Ebola response.
But Democrats have not faced the unrelentingly negative coverage that Republicans confronted eight years ago. From September 1 through October 20, our analysts found ten evening news stories (40%) contained mainly bad news for Democrats or mostly good news for Republicans, while seven (28%) emphasized bad news for Republicans or good news for Democrats.
Back on October 5, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote about the “striking” similarities between the two midterm elections: “Like Bush, this is the second midterm election of Obama’s presidency. Like Bush, Obama is not at all popular nationally....Like Republicans in 2006, the fate of Democratic control rests in the hands of a handful of incumbents...who sit in states that, at best, swing between the two parties and, at worst, are firmly Republican at the presidential level.”
It wasn’t biased for the networks to sift through polls and predict bad news for Republicans eight years ago. But now that the party labels are reversed, those same networks are showing their bias by giving so much less airtime to the bad political news for Democrats this year.