As actual voting is set to begin in the 2024 presidential election, a new study by the Media Research Center (MRC) finds the three broadcast evening newscasts’ fixation with bashing Donald Trump has meant both his fellow candidates and substantive policy issues have been shunted to the sidelines.
MRC analysts looked at all coverage of the Republican candidates on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from January 1 through December 31, 2023, including weekends. Among the key findings:
■ In 2023, Trump received 1,192 minutes of evening news airtime, or 79% of all GOP candidate coverage. Top challengers Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley were far behind, with 166 and 35 minutes of airtime last year, respectively.
■ The networks trashed Trump with ferociously hostile coverage: 91% negative, vs. just 9% positive (scroll to read methodology). DeSantis and Haley fared better, but neither received more good press than bad. Coverage of DeSantis was 73% negative vs. 27% positive; Haley’s press was split down the middle: 50% negative and 50% positive.
■ Campaign trail discussion of substantive issues such as the economy, immigration and abortion were buried under an avalanche of media attention to Trump’s legal cases. The evening newscasts devoted 992 minutes to Trump’s various legal problems in 2023, eight times more than was spent on all policy issues combined (121 minutes).
■ All About Trump: From January 1 through December 31, 2023, ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News aired a combined 933 stories that featured or at least mentioned the 2024 Republican nomination contest, with a total airtime of 1,405 minutes.
The vast majority of that coverage went to frontrunner and former President Donald Trump (1,192 minutes). Florida Governor Ron DeSantis received 166 minutes of attention, but most of that (126 minutes) was from January through July; during the final three months of 2023 (October 1 to December 31), DeSantis was seen for a meager ten minutes on the Big Three evening newscasts.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley received 35 minutes of evening news airtime last year, of which 16 minutes came in the past three months. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who has since left the race) was given just 18 minutes of airtime last year, and just four minutes during the most recent three months. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy’s candidacy was virtually invisible: six minutes in all of 2023, just two minutes of which came during the final three months.
The numbers show the media’s obsession with Trump only grew during the year. Overall, the former President accounted for a hefty 79% of all coverage of all of the GOP candidates (including drop-outs) during 2023, but the 231 minutes he received during the final three months of the year equated to an even larger 87% share of the GOP total.
■ They Came Not to Praise, but to Bury Him: As was the case in 2016 and during his entire Presidency, virtually all of the media’s 2023 coverage of Trump consisted of negativity and criticism. Yet while his chief rivals faced much less scrutiny, there was no media goodwill for either Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis last year, either.
To measure good press and bad press, our analysts focused solely on statements from reporters, anchors and non-affiliated sources (see methodology explanation at the end of this article for more detail). In 2023, evening news viewers heard 1,478 negative statements about Trump, vs. just 143 positive statements. That computes to 91% negative spin, on par with the hostile coverage Trump has historically received from these broadcasts.
The networks were nearly as negative towards Ron DeSantis: 103 negative statements, vs. just 37 positive ones, for a spin of 73% negative. Most of anti-DeSantis coverage came early in the year, as detailed in an August NewsBusters report.
While year-end polls showed Nikki Haley surging in New Hampshire, there was little evidence of a boom in her evening news coverage. Haley received the least evaluative coverage of any of the major candidates: just ten positive and ten negative statements throughout 2023. While a 50% positive/50% negative spin score might seem superior to the much more negative coverage of Trump and DeSantis, it’s hardly the kind of Obama-esque positive publicity that candidates desire at the end of a campaign.
■ No Interest in Policy: For voters, the value of a lengthy presidential campaign is to hear the candidates explain how they would deal with the problems of the country if they were to become President. That’s what gives elections meaning, and what gives winning candidates a mandate to act once in office.
But that’s not what voters are getting from the media this time around. By far, the most coverage has accrued to various legal cases surrounding Trump: Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case related to January 6 (290 minutes); Smith’s indictment of Trump for allegedly mishandling government documents (224 minutes); the so-called “hush money” case brought by Manhattan’s Democratic D.A., Alvin Bragg (172 minutes); and the Georgia election case brought by Democratic D.A. Fani Willis (132 minutes).
Each of these cases drew more network evening news airtime than all of the policy discussions involving these candidates in all of 2023 (just 121 minutes). Overall, Trump’s legal cases drew 992 total minutes of coverage last year, eight times more than was allocated to the GOP candidates’ discussion of policy matters.
The most heavily-covered policy issue was race relations (29 minutes, mostly about DeSantis’ record in Florida). Next came abortion (17 minutes), immigration (14 minutes), the economy (just 7 minutes) and the war in Ukraine (7 minutes).
As voting draws nearer, the lack of issue-oriented coverage has gotten more pronounced. From October through December, the evening newscasts offered up just 11 minutes, 24 seconds on policy (the top issue was immigration, with 5 minutes, 24 seconds). During these same months, coverage of Trump’s cases amounted to 178 minutes of evening news airtime.
There’s no question the investigations and indictments of Trump are a big news story. But the media have made the choice to cover those legal issues instead of covering the crucial issues that will face the next President, when they could be giving at least equivalent coverage to both the legal challenges facing the candidate and the policy challenges facing the country.
Elections have always been about the future. But it might be hard for voters to see a clear choice about what lies ahead in the next four years when the dominant media discussion has been about legal dramas rooted in the past.
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.