With the presidential primary season in full swing, prime-time cable and broadcast evening news coverage of the economy focused on the candidates' policy priorities in the second half of 2015. News coverage of economic inequality fell considerably after hitting an all-time high in the first half of the year.
On the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, PBS remains the gold standard for coverage of campaign finance reform while other broadcast networks show room for improvement, according to a Media Matters review of their evening and Sunday news shows over the past 16 months. While coverage of the subject has increased across the board, with CBS in particular showing a substantial increase, a sizable fraction of the increase is due to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raising the issue in interviews on Sunday programs, rather than proactive efforts by journalists to cover campaign finance reform.
Donald Trump didn't announce his candidacy until mid-June of last year, but still managed to be covered as the second biggest news story for all of 2015 on the network evening newscasts.
Between ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, Trump's campaign captured 327 minutes of airtime, according to television news analyst Andrew Tyndall (ABC: 121, CBS: 84, NBC: 122 minutes, respectively). That figure doesn't include the network newscasts' coverage of the Republican debates, which garnered an additional 123 minutes of airtime.
Context: ABC's evening news broadcast produced almost as much Trump coverage last year as it did for the Ebola panic in 2014.
How does Trump's 327 minutes compare to other candidates this year and to coverage for previous campaign cycles? Trump's figure is off the charts. Over the last decade, the networks' evening newscasts have never showered a presidential campaign with the kind of attention they gave Trump one year before the White House vote even takes place.
More context: Trump received 327 minutes of evening network airtime one year before the general election campaign. In 2012, during the general election campaign, President Obama's re-election run garnered just 157 minutes of airtime.
Trump has famously had to spend very little money on his campaign to date, in part because of the orgy of free media he receives in the form of news coverage. Media Matters recently calculated that, thanks to over 24 hours of Trump interviews Fox News hosted between May and the end of 2015, the conservative cable channel provided the Republican with nearly $30 million in free media.
Last year, the Republican frontrunner received nearly three times as much coverage as the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton: 327 minutes for Trump, compared to 121 minutes for Clinton (ABC: 35, CBS: 24, NBC: 62.) Note that the controversy over Clinton's personal emails last year received 88 minutes of airtime, while the Republican-fueled Benghazi story grabbed 29 minutes. That means the network newscasts devoted nearly as much time to emails and Benghazi in 2015 as they did to Clinton's entire campaign.
As for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Media Matters previously highlighted that from January through November, ABC World News Tonight dedicated just one minute to the Sanders campaign, an astonishing oversight. For Tyndall's final, year-end tally, ABC bumped that one minute up to four minutes. Sanders received a total of 20 minutes of network newscast coverage in 2015, compared to Trump's 327.
Combined, the Republican field of candidates, and their debates, received 701 minutes of airtime, compared to 248 minutes for Democrats in the field.
But note that a big chunk of that Democratic tally, 73 minutes, was set aside for political speculation surrounding Vice President Joe Biden, who decided not to run. So in terms of Democrats who entered the race and who participated in the debates, the network evening news total for 2015 was 175 minutes, compared to 701 minutes for Republicans, or a 526-minute gap.
With the networks setting aside so much time for Trump, other areas of news were cut back. (i.e. There's a finite number of minutes for each newscast.) According to Tyndall, "Foreign policy received less than half its average annual coverage; domestic policy barely more than half." Specifically, economic news last year received the least amount of coverage in 28 years.
The Beltway media have been crowing a lot about the unfolding "Trump phenomenon." Guess who played a crucial role in creating it?
From the December 20 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
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Does that ratio seem out of whack? That's the ratio of TV airtime that ABC World News Tonight has devoted to Donald Trump's campaign (81 minutes) versus the amount of TV time World News Tonight has devoted to Bernie Sanders' campaign this year. And even that one minute for Sanders is misleading because the actual number is closer to 20 seconds.
For the entire year.
That's the rather stunning revelation from the Tyndall Report, which tracks the various flagship nightly news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC. The Report's campaign findings cover the network evening newscasts from January 1 through the end of November.
The results confirm two media extremes in play this year, and not just at ABC News. The network newscasts are wildly overplaying Trump, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support, while at the same time wildly underplaying Sanders, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support. (Sanders' supporters have long complained about the candidate's lack of coverage.)
Obviously, Trump is the GOP frontrunner and its reasonable that he would get more attention than Sanders, who's running second for the Democrats. But 234 total network minutes for Trump compared to just 10 network minutes for Sanders, as the Tyndall Report found?
Andrew Tyndall provided the breakdown by network of Sanders' 10 minutes of coverage, via email [emphasis added]:
CBS Evening News: 6.4 minutes
NBC Nightly News: 2.9 minutes
ABC World News: 0.3
But how can they be? ABC News, for instance, clearly devoted more than 20 seconds to covering the Democratic debates, which featured news of Sanders, right?
As Tyndall explained to me, the number "counts stories filed about the Sanders campaign or from the Sanders campaign. Obviously he is mentioned in passing in other coverage of the Democratic field overall, specifically his performance in the debates."
So in terms of stand-alone campaign stories this year, it's been 234 minutes for Trump, compared to 10 minutes for Sanders. And at ABC World News Tonight, it's been 81 minutes for Trump and less than one minute for Sanders.
Other Tyndall Report findings:
*Trump has received more network coverage than all the Democratic candidates combined.
*Trump has accounted for 27 percent of all campaign coverage his year.
*Republican Jeb Bush received 56 minutes of coverage, followed by Ben Carson's 54 minutes and Marco Rubio's 22.
Did you notice the Bush figure? He's garnered 56 minutes of network news coverage, far outpacing Sanders, even though he is currently wallowing in fifth place in the polls among Republicans. And you know who has also received 56 minutes of network news compared to Sanders' 10? Joe Biden and his decision not to run for president.
Meanwhile, I can hear supporters of Ted Cruz complaining that based on Tyndall's analysis, the Texas Republican has only received seven minutes of coverage this year and look where he is in the polls. That's a fair point. But also note that Cruz has only recently risen in the primary polls, whereas Sanders has been a solid second for many, many months. (A new poll this week shows Sanders leading the New Hampshire primary.)
Close observers of trends in network news might also say ABC's paltry Sanders coverage isn't surprising considering the network's flagship news program has recently backed off political coverage, as well as hard news in general.
From the Washington Post this summer:
"World News" devoted half as many minutes to Washington stories as CBS did during the first four months of the year, and about 40 percent less than did NBC, according to Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the networks' newscasts through his eponymous newsletter.
In perhaps a first for a national newscast, "World News" no longer has a full-time correspondent reporting on Congress. Such stories are handled on an ad hoc basis by reporter Jonathan Karl, whose primary beats are the White House and political campaigns.
In this case though, that explanation doesn't work because while World News Tonight might be shying away from news out of Washington, D.C., Tyndall's analysis shows ABC has produced more campaign coverage this year than CBS Evening News; 261 minutes vs. 247 minutes for CBS.
Look at that ABC number again: 261 minutes devoted to campaign coverage this year, and less than one minute of that has specifically been for Sanders. How does that even happen?
So no, Sanders didn't get virtually ignored this year by World News Tonight because the show's cutting back on campaign coverage. Sanders got virtually ignored by ABC because there was a conscious decision to do so.
And before anyone suggests ABC has somehow been in the pocket of the Clinton campaign and that's why Sanders got slighted, note that World News Tonight has set aside roughly the same amount of time this year to cover Republican-fed controversies surrounding Clinton's email and details about the Benghazi terror attack, as it has to cover Clinton's actual campaign.
Any way you look at it, 81:1 is a ratio that means there's something very wrong with the campaign coverage.
Image via Marc Nozell via Creative Commons License
A Media Matters analysis of the three months of broadcast evening news' coverage of Hillary Clinton following her 2016 presidential campaign launch found that there were more than twice as many segments covering Clinton's use of a personal email server than there were of her more than a dozen announced policy proposals and positions.
If you feel like the 2016 presidential campaign, starring celebrity Donald Trump, has already produced mountainous media coverage, you're right. According to a new study of network evening news campaign coverage by broadcast news monitor Andrew Tyndall, ABC, CBS, and NBC have devoted a total of 504 minutes to covering the story in 2015. At this point in the 2007 race, 462 minutes had been dedicated to the race, compared to just 277 minutes given to the contest in 2011, according to Tyndall.
To date, Republican coverage far outweighs that of the Democratic primary, 338 minutes to 128 minutes.
But what's most telling about the number crunching is how broadcast newscasts have covered Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The findings back up claims from supporters of both candidates who insist the press is a) utterly obsessed with the Clinton email story and b) not giving Sanders his due.
The Clinton campaign has received a good deal coverage this year, garnering 82 minutes in network news time. That's second only to Trump (a staggering 145 minutes), and well ahead of the next most-covered candidate, Jeb Bush (43 minutes). Here's what's so noteworthy, though: ABC, CBS, and NBC have dedicated almost the exact same amount of airtime to her campaign (82 minutes) as they have to covering the Republican-fed controversy surrounding Clinton's old secretary of state emails this year (83 minutes).
So for the network newscasts, the Clinton email story has proven to be just as important as the entirety of her campaign. Talk about newsrooms having skewed priorities. To date, the email story has produced no proof any kind of lawbreaking by Clinton, yet the network newscasts have absolutely devoured the story and turned it into one the year's big news events.
More from Tyndall on the Clinton coverage:
CBS has found the e-mails more newsworthy than the candidacy (31 mins vs 19); NBC has focused more on the candidacy than the e-mails (42 mins vs 26); ABC has treated them roughly equally (e-mails 25 mins vs candidacy 21).
As for Sanders, his campaign has barely even registered on the broadcast evening news this year, generating just eight minutes of coverage. By comparison, Mitt Romney's decision last winter to not run for president generated just as much coverage as Sanders' entire 2015 campaign, which has been crisscrossing the country for the last four months.
Meanwhile, Sanders' coverage is getting dwarfed by Bush's, which doesn't make a lot of sense. According to the polls, Sanders is running strong in Iowa and New Hampshire and polling at approximately 25 percent nationally. By contrast, Bush is polling very poorly in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and is polling nationally at around ten percent.
Obviously, with many more Republican candidates in the field it's harder to post a big national number. But still, it's hard to look at the polling data and understand why Bush has received more than five times as much network newscast coverage as Sanders.
Also, note that the Vermont Democrat's campaign has received the same amount of broadcast news time as Gov. Chris Christie, who's polling at around three percent and in seventh place among GOP candidates.
In the month since he announced his bid, Sanders' coverage seems to pale in comparison to comparable Republican candidates who face an arduous task of obtaining their party's nomination. The reluctance is ironic, since the D.C. press corps for months brayed loudly about how Hillary Clinton must face a primary challenger. Now she has one and the press can barely feign interest?
As the campaign progresses, there's plenty of time for network newscasts to shift some of their relentless focus off the Republican race and do more to cover the Clinton campaign (not the partisan controversy), and give Sanders his fair share.
Broadcast evening news programs were once again virtually silent on congressional Republicans' attempt to restrict women's access to reproductive health care by pushing an extreme 20-week ban through the Senate. The same outlets ignored a GOP-controlled House vote on a similar bill in May.
Broadcast evening news programs entirely ignored Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign finance reform proposal, instead continuing to focus on speculation about Clinton's email use and poll numbers, according to a Media Matters review.
Cable and network TV news devoted more segments to coverage of economic issues during the first half of 2015 compared to the last six months of 2014, an increase driven by heightened public interest in the debate over economic inequality and a flurry of economic policy proposals from nearly two dozen 2016 presidential candidates.
Broadcast evening news programs on ABC, NBC, and CBS completely ignored likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's questionable delay in announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC. Despite increasing scrutiny of a strategy that "tests the legal definition of [a] candidate," the nightly news programs have devoted zero coverage to the matter since The Associated Press (AP) first reported on it in April.
Although there have been several major campaign finance stories this year, so far the media has paid significant attention only to one: the retired postal worker from Florida who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn to raise awareness about the need for reform -- and the coverage has barely noted his motivations.
On April 15, Doug Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn "to save our democracy," as he wrote in The Washington Post, because "91 percent of Americans see the corrosive influence of money in our political system as a problem that demands attention." Hughes continued:
It is clear these issues will be among the most important in the 2016 election, when every candidate for any office needs to answer one simple question: Which approaches to reducing money's corrupting influence on our democracy do you support? Journalists, especially at the local level, need to ask tough questions, then report the truth and let people decide.
Sadly, most Americans don't know about [campaign finance reform] solutions or how to engage. That's why I chose civil disobedience, taking 535 stamped letters and my message to the seat of power where the problem is. Big money is a threat to our democracy just as security threats are.
Hughes is right -- according to Bloomberg, "spending by candidates, parties and outside groups and individuals" in the run-up to the 2016 election "may approach $10 billion." Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have relaxed Watergate-era campaign finance reform laws, it's easier than ever for an elite few to exercise disproportionate influence in the democratic process.
Hughes' landing was marginally successful in getting some media coverage of campaign finance reform in the days following. A Media Matters analysis of the network evening news broadcasts and the Sunday political talk shows found 17 total segments dedicated to Hughes and the gyrocopter landing. But other than a discussion on the April 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, none of the Sunday shows or evening news broadcasts dedicated any substantive coverage to the message behind Hughes' protest. Understandably, most of these segments focused on the security issues raised by the fact that Hughes was able to fly undetected into the District of Columbia's no-fly zone, rather than his reasons for his flight in the first place.
Broadcast nightly news programs have remained silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) over the past three months of weekday programming, even as Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to grant President Obama authority to finalize the terms of the massive trade deal. The coverage blackout continues a trend extending back to 2013.
On May 12, the Senate plans to vote on legislation that would grant "fast-track" trade promotion authority to Obama as he attempts to complete negotiations among the 12 member nations that comprise the TPP. "Once Congress grants a president trade promotion authority, lawmakers have the ability to vote up or down on a final trade agreement, but they forfeit the right to amend the deal or filibuster it," The New York Times explained.
Debates over the merits of the deal itself and of granting the president trade promotion authority have erupted among Democratic and Republican members of Congress, but coverage of the negotiations has been largely absent from evening news programming on the major broadcast networks.
A Media Matters analysis of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News from August 1, 2013, through May 10, 2015, found that the programs completely ignored the trade negotiations and related policy debates. Only PBS NewsHour devoted substantive coverage to the TPP, with 14 total segments:
Coverage of the TPP among major cable outlets has been similarly one-sided. Since August 1, 2013, MSNBC has mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 124 evening and primetime segments, the overwhelming majority of which (103) came during The Ed Show. Fox News trails far behind with just 12 mentions of the TPP over that time period, 10 of which have come since February 1, 2015. CNN has been almost completely absent from the discussion, registering only 2 mentions of the trade negotiations:
During his speech at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25, President Obama invited comedian Keegan-Michael Key to reprise the Comedy Central bit in which Key plays Luther, Obama's "anger translator." What followed was highly amusing -- but also quite revealing of the President's frustration with how the media covers climate change.
As he spoke to an audience of thousands of journalists, media executives, politicians, and celebrities, Obama began the sketch by emphasizing that "we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day." That line provided an opening for Luther to piercingly mock Fox News' fearmongering that "Sharia law is coming to Cleveland" and CNN's "wall-to-wall Ebola coverage." He even landed a few good one-liners about Ted Cruz and Hilary Clinton as they pursue contributions for their presidential campaigns.
But the skit took a noticeable turn when Obama told the media-heavy crowd that "we do need to stay focused on some big challenges, like climate change." After Luther joked that drought conditions have made California "look like a trailer for the new Mad Max movie up in there," it quickly became apparent that Obama needed no assistance from his anger translator to spell out how the media and climate change deniers in Congress are failing to take this threat seriously:
OBAMA: I mean, look at what's happening right now. Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it's a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day and instead of doing anything about it, we have elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate.
LUTHER: Okay, Mr. President. Okay, I think they've got it, bro.
OBAMA: It is crazy! What about our kids! What kind of stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible, bull--
Luther cut Obama off before he engaged in any presidential profanity, but the President had already gotten his point across. As a less angry Obama put it in June 2014, "the media doesn't spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future."
CBS Evening News falsely claimed that "19 other states" have laws similar to Indiana's controversial new "religious freedom" law -- but as both NBC Nightly News and ABC World News pointed out, the state's new legislation is different in its effects, in part, because the state lacks protections for sexual orientation.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) on March 27, providing a legal defense for individuals and business owners who cite their religious beliefs while discriminating against LGBT people.
On the March 30 edition of CBS Evening News, Adriana Diaz reported on the backlash following the passing of the measure, claiming in a March 30 report that "19 other states have similar laws" to the religious freedom law signed by Pence in Indiana" and that "many were passed before gay marriage laws swept the nation."
But as both NBC and ABC explained during their evening news reports on the newly passed measure, Indiana's "religious freedom" law differs in effect from those passed in several other states because the state lacks protections for LGBT people. As Gabe Gutierrez explained on NBC Nightly News, although 19 other states "have similar laws," Indiana's "is different, in part because there is no statewide non-discrimination law here protecting sexual orientation." On ABC World News, network reporter Gio Benitez also pointed to the lack of protections, reporting that "business owners who want to deny services to gay and lesbian couples" may be able to, unlike the situation in other states "with similar laws in place."
Indiana's RFRA is also much broader than the RFRAs that have been passed in other states, both because of its expansive definition of a "person" and its criteria for determining who can invoke RFRA as a defense in a legal dispute. As the ACLU of Indiana noted, these differences make Indiana's RFRA "virtually without precedent." Even Fox News anchor Brett Baier dismissed the comparison between Indiana's law and other laws across the country.
This post has been updated for clarity.