With the the third Republican presidential debate set for Wednesday, the Big Three broadcast networks have abandoned their coverage of former President Donald Trump’s Republican presidential challengers. Instead, their evening newscasts have assumed the challenger role themselves, pounding the frontrunner with overwhelmingly (93%) negative coverage.
Presidential election campaigns are a time for a party to showcase its ideas, but the networks are also suppressing Republicans’ policy agenda in favor of overwhelming coverage of the legal cases brought against Trump by various Democratic prosecutors. Less than seven percent of the GOP coverage has been about the issues (27 minutes), vs. 320 minutes (77%) spent on Trump’s legal situation.
The Media Research Center analyzed all coverage of the Republican presidential candidates and campaign on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from August 1 through October 31. (Our analysis of coverage from January 1 through July 31 can be found here.) Key findings:
■ TV’s Blackout of Trump Rivals: In the last three months, the Big Three evening newscasts spent 380 minutes discussing frontrunner Donald Trump. That’s 12 times more than his nearest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (30 minutes), and demonstrates how the media are looking past Trump’s GOP challengers to focus solely on the frontrunner.
From January to July, Trump received a whopping 74% of all GOP candidate airtime. That increased to a staggering 87% of all candidate coverage in the last three months. The networks allotted just 14 minutes to former Vice President Mike Pence, and even less to businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (4 minutes each), former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (2 minutes), and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (just one minute).
None of the other candidates received even 60 seconds of airtime during the three months we examined.
The gap was even more pronounced when you focus just on October’s news. That month, Trump garnered 82 minutes of coverage, vs. two minutes for Pence (on the occasion of his October 28 withdrawal from the race) with mere seconds allotted to the other candidates. Overall, Trump received 97% of the coverage of the GOP field in October, as the Big Three pretty much pulled the plug on his challengers.
■ No Issues, Just Democratic Indictments: There’s no way the networks could have avoided covering Donald Trump’s legal issues, but the degree to which they’ve crowded out the normal discourse of presidential campaigns is extraordinary. In the past three months, evening news viewers heard 131 minutes about special counsel Jack Smith’s January 6 case against Trump. Another 112 minutes was spent on Fulton County Democratic D.A. Fani Willis’s case about post-election activity in Georgia, while Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James’s civil fraud case against Trump and his company garnered 46 minutes of airtime.
Along with other cases that received less attention, the evening newscasts devoted a total of 320 minutes to Trump’s legal cases, or 84 percent of all of the former President’s coverage during these months.
Compare that to these same broadcasts’ coverage of 2024 policy issues. Combined, the networks spent a scant 5 minutes, 25 seconds on the GOP candidates’ views on the economy; 4 minutes, 55 seconds on abortion; and 4 minutes 16 seconds on all foreign policy issues combined. Along with other policy areas, viewers heard a total of just 27 minutes of campaign-related coverage of the issues.
And the trend away from substance is getting worse: Looking just at October, the networks devoted 84 minutes to the Republican field, but only about two minutes of that time was devoted to policy: 72 seconds on immigration, and 57 seconds on the candidates’ reaction to the Israel-Hamas war.
■ Blasting Trump With Bad Press: Four years ago, one could argue that the not-so-secret weapon that put Joe Biden in the White House was the media’s unrelenting hostility towards President Trump. From his first months in office in 2017, throughout 2018 and 2019, and during the 2020 election year, the networks assaulted Trump with the most hostile press coverage any U.S. president has ever been forced to deal with.
While the unprecedented attacks from the press seem not to have hurt Trump’s standing with conservative or Republican voters (it probably contributed to GOP voters' negative opinions about the media), the heavy negative coverage undoubtedly damaged his reputation among independent voters and helped energize liberal and Democratic voters to turn out against him.
With the 2024 campaign well underway, history is repeating itself: The networks are once again hitting Donald Trump with the worst press ever faced by a leading politician.
To calculate spin, we tallied all explicitly positive and negative comments about the candidates from anchors, reporters, and non-partisan sources such as experts, voters. (See “Methodology” below.) From August 1 to October 31, we tallied just 41 positive statements about Donald Trump, vs. 511 negative statements, for a negative spin score of 93%. This compares to 90% negative during the first seven months of the year.
In the three months of coverage we examined, there were not enough evaluative comments about any of the remaining candidates to compute a spin score for them. As a group, there were 13 positive comments vs. 12 negative ones — 52% positive coverage — but the networks’ real attitude towards the other candidates was utter indifference.
In a little over three months, Iowa’s Republican voters will start the process of selecting the party’s 2024 president nominee. But a look at campaign coverage so far shows that the networks have already moved beyond the GOP presidential race, ignoring Trump’s challengers to take aim at the frontrunner as they did in 2020.
It’s called “election interference.”
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.