Four years ago, the Big Three broadcast evening newscasts tried to destroy Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign with historically negative press coverage. This year, those newscasts are doubling down, with coverage that is even more hostile to the Republican. Meanwhile, his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is enjoying mostly positive coverage and a friendly media that’s virtually ignoring all topics — such as the scandal swirling around his son, Hunter — that might harm his prospects.
For this study, the MRC analyzed all coverage of President Trump and former Vice President Biden on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from July 29 through October 20 (including weekends). This is the same time period examined by the MRC four years ago, in advance of that year’s election.
This time around, it’s obvious that the networks are pouring their energy into confronting and criticizing the President, not equally covering both campaigns. During the twelve weeks we examined, Trump received 839 minutes of coverage, compared to just 269 minutes of airtime for Biden, a three-to-one disparity.
Even more lopsided, our analysts found ten times more evaluative statements about Trump than Biden: 890 comments about the President, of which 822 (92.4%) were negative, vs. 68 (7.6%) that were positive. Note that these totals do not include statements about the candidates’ prospects in the campaign horse race (i.e., standings in the polls, chances to win, etc.), nor does it include partisan statements from the candidates or their surrogates.
[There’s a full description of our methodology at the end of this article.]
If Trump’s coverage seems nightmarishly negative, Biden’s media profile might be a dream-come-true for a presidential nominee, especially one favored in the polls. Out of 91 evaluative comments, Biden benefitted from 60 positive statements, vs. only 31 that were negative, adding up to a sunny 66% positive good press score.
The three evening newscasts have been relentlessly negative throughout Trump’s presidency. From Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, through October 20, 2020, our analysts have tallied 16,755 evaluative comments, 90.5% of which (15,161) have been negative. While the topics have shifted from the Russia-collusion investigation to Ukraine and impeachment to this year’s coronavirus pandemic, the networks’ hostility has been incredibly consistent.
And compared to his campaign four years ago, Trump has been bludgeoned with 32 percent more negative comments (822 this year, vs. 623 in 2016), while Biden has enjoyed 65 percent fewer negative comments than Hillary Clinton faced in 2016 (31 for Biden, vs. 145 for Clinton). Trump’s coverage during these same weeks in 2016 was 91% negative, compared to 92% this year, while Biden’s overall press score was substantially more positive than Clinton’s (79% negative for Clinton, vs. 66% positive for Biden).
The topics tell the story: Trump’s coverage during these crucial 12 weeks has been dominated by the coronavirus (424 minutes — 284 minutes spent on policy and 140 minutes on the President’s own diagnosis), his comments about mail-in voting (87 minutes) and the ongoing protests in major American cities (63 minutes). Notable controversies include The New York Times’ reporting on Trump’s apparently stolen tax returns (23 minutes), and the hotly-disputed Atlantic story about the President supposedly calling U.S. war casualties “suckers” and “losers” (19 minutes).
The newscasts are airing practically nothing about controversies that could jeopardize Biden’s lead in the polls. Topping the list: the former Vice President’s age and health, with 10 minutes, 33 seconds of coverage — a tiny fraction of the airtime devoted to President Trump’s health following his coronavirus diagnosis (140 minutes).
The criticism that Biden and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, would pursue left-wing policies outside of the mainstream was given a mere five minutes, 43 seconds of airtime over the past 12 weeks, or barely two percent of the Democrat’s total coverage. The ticket’s refusal to disavow the far-Left’s scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court with additional liberal members received even less attention from the networks: just three minutes, 53 seconds.
The renewed allegations of corruption involving both Joe Biden and his son, Hunter — spurred by e-mails first reported by the New York Post — had spawned only five minutes, 19 seconds of evening news coverage as of October 20, all of it on CBS.
And even that coverage was organized around defending the former Vice President, as correspondent Nancy Cordes on October 15 dismissed the story as “having all the hallmarks of information laundering,” while the next night reporter Paula Reid scolded the President for “going after Joe Biden and his family with dubious accusations.”
The broadcast networks are merely the tip of the liberal media iceberg, of course. But during the Trump presidency, we’ve seen the broader media landscape pivot from presenting a largely news-based product (with a bias, to be sure), to a hair-on-fire opposition that celebrates its rhetorical excess as if it was a virtue. Watch:
But the basic premise of our democracy is that voters are presented the facts about both sides, and then make up their own minds based on their own values and their own views of the candidates. What we’ve seen in this campaign, and over the past four years, is the establishment media choosing to abandon its traditional role and become combatants on behalf of liberal politicians.
When supposed news coverage becomes so tilted against one party in favor of another, it fails in its core mission to serve voters. Regardless of who wins next week’s election, the news media will be in desperate need of reform.
METHODOLOGY: For this report, MRC analysts reviewed every mention of President Trump and former Vice President Biden from July 29 through October 20, 2020, including weekends, on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. To determine the spin of news coverage, our analysts tallied all explicitly evaluative statements about Trump or Biden from either reporters, anchors or non-partisan sources such as experts or voters. Evaluations from partisan sources, as well as neutral statements, were not included.
As we did in 2016, we also separated personal evaluations of each candidate from statements about their prospects in the campaign horse race (i.e., standings in the polls, chances to win, etc.). While such comments can have an effect on voters (creating a bandwagon effect for those seen as winning, or demoralizing the supports of those portrayed as losing), they are not “good press” or “bad press” as understood by media scholars as far back as Michael Robinson’s groundbreaking research on the 1980 presidential campaign.