TV’s Distorted GOP Primary Race: Three-Fourths Trump, 90% Negative

August 21st, 2023 8:01 AM

Going into this week’s GOP presidential debate, broadcast evening news coverage of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has overwhelmingly been dominated by former President Donald Trump, with the remaining GOP candidates garnering just a tiny fraction of the attention given to the frontrunner.

The vast majority of Trump’s coverage (90%) has been negative, and heavily focused on the legal allegations made against him by Democratic prosecutors and the Biden Justice Department. But the networks’ coverage of Trump’s top GOP opponent, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was nearly as bad (78% negative), suggesting a media hostility that extends beyond Trump himself to other Republican candidates and their conservative policy positions. Details:



■ Candidate Coverage: Trump Swamps the Field: As we did the last time there was an open GOP primary eight years ago, Media Research Center reviewed every ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from January 1 through July 31, including weekends, and tallied all discussion of each declared or prospective GOP presidential candidate. At this point in 2015, Trump had amassed 116 minutes of coverage, far more than the 72 minutes garnered by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (then regarded as the leading establishment candidate).

Looking at the same time period this year, Trump has received a staggering 664 minutes of evening news coverage — more than five times that of Ron DeSantis (126 minutes), and ten times that of former Vice President Mike Pence (63 minutes). Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott received 17 and 12 minutes of airtime, respectively; none of the other candidates received even 10 minutes of airtime during the seven months we examined. [See chart.]



Eight years ago, the networks were seen as overemphasizing Trump when he received 37 percent of the total airtime devoted to the field of GOP candidates. This year, the networks have given Trump twice as big a share (74%) of the overall coverage, leaving all of the other candidates to fight over the remaining scraps of airtime.


■ TV Slams Trump With Mostly Negative Coverage…: Trump’s coverage, however, has mostly been about the high-profile legal cases brought against him. Topping the list: special counsel Jack Smith’s classified documents case, which had received 208 minutes of evening news airtime as of July 31. Those broadcasts spent 170 minutes on Manhattan Democratic District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s charges involving “hush money” payments, while Smith’s charges involving January 6 received 91 minutes of airtime.

Adding in the other cases, Trump’s legal challenges totaled 565 minutes of evening news airtime, or 85 percent of all of the former President’s entire coverage so far this year. The networks’ coverage of these cases was extremely hostile to Trump: 94 percent negative, vs. just six percent positive. Since these cases so dominated TV’s Trump news, his overall coverage (all topics combined) was virtually identical: 90 percent negative, compared to just 10 percent positive. (See the methodology explanation at the conclusion of this article.)

In contrast to the networks’ 90 percent negative coverage, an Economist/YouGov survey conducted in early August found 76 percent of Republicans gave Trump a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” rating.



■ …But DeSantis Whacked With Bad Press, Too: The evening newscasts allocated 40 minutes to Governor Ron DeSantis’s battle against the “woke” agenda in Florida, including new rules on how schools should present information on matters related to race and sexual identity, and his subsequent legal battles with the Disney corporation. The evening newscasts were just as lopsidedly negative here as they were with Trump’s courtroom battles: 92 percent negative vs. eight percent positive.

But the “woke” agenda made up only about one-third of TV’s DeSantis coverage, and the remainder of the governor’s coverage was more balanced: 58 percent negative, vs. 42 percent positive. Overall, the evening newscasts treated DeSantis to 78 percent negative coverage — hardly favorable, but not as preposterously lopsided as their coverage of Trump.


■ Less Media Hostility for Mike Pence: The only other candidate with a significant amount of coverage was former Vice President Mike Pence. More than half of Pence’s coverage was devoted to just two controversies: the classified documents found at Pence’s home in January (14 minutes), and January 6 (27 minutes).

The networks’ spin on Pence’s documents case was split evenly: 50 percent positive, 50 percent negative evaluations. The negative press came early on, as news of the discovery of documents was accompanied by earlier soundbites of Pence telling ABC anchor David Muir flatly that he “did not” take any classified documents when he left the White House. In early June, however, that coverage turned positive — reflecting the Justice Department’s decision to close its investigation without any charges.

When it came to January 6, the network spin on Pence was neutral; the former Vice President was portrayed merely as a witness and a Trump critic. Yet because of their overwhelming focus on Trump’s legal problems, January 6 was the single biggest topic in Pence’s coverage as well, eclipsing much of the rest of his candidacy.

Overall, the networks’ spin on Pence was negative, but not lopsidedly so: 57 percent negative, vs. 43 percent positive. None of the other candidates received enough evaluative coverage to even calculate percentages.


■ Virtually No Coverage of Important Policy Issues: Almost completely missing from TV’s GOP campaign news: any significant coverage of traditional policy issues. Apart from the “woke” issues linked to Florida’s DeSantis, only four policy areas received as much as three minutes of airtime (out of 820 total minutes of coverage):  abortion (11 minutes), illegal immigration (8 minutes), the war in Ukraine (6 minutes) and gun rights (3 minutes). The candidates’ views on the economy, inflation, jobs, the national debt, trade or other foreign policy issues received mere seconds of airtime, or none at all.

Eight years ago, the rap on the media was that it was so focused on a single celebrity candidate (Trump), the coverage deprived GOP voters of a real choice. This time around, TV’s obsession with Trump is far more intense, which means that if rank-and-file Republicans are interested in comparing the candidates, they’ll need to rely on events such as Wednesday’s debate — not the daily drumbeat of Trump courtroom developments that dominate ABC, CBS and NBC’s agenda.


METHODOLOGY:  We calculated the spin of the GOP primary candidates by tallying all clearly positive and negative statements from non-partisan or unaffiliated sources — in other words, reporters, anchors, voters as well as Republicans not linked to any of the campaigns. We excluded evaluative comments from the GOP candidates, their campaign staffs and identified surrogates, as well as all Democratic sources. In this way, we could eliminate the partisan back-and-forth of the campaign, in order to isolate the spin being imparted by the networks themselves. It also excludes “horse race assessments” about the candidates’ prospects for winning or losing.