Broadcast network news programs devoted significantly more time to lewd behavior from Anthony Weiner, the husband of an aide to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, than to allegations that Donald Trump's campaign CEO engaged in domestic violence and workplace sexual harassment. The outlets treated the Weiner story as a major campaign issue even though Weiner is playing no direct role in the Clinton campaign.
Politico reported on August 25 that Trump’s campaign CEO, Stephen Bannon, “was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness following an incident with his then-wife in 1996.” The charges were later dropped, but the police report says that Bannon’s wife claimed that he “pulled at her neck and wrist during an altercation over their finances, and an officer reported witnessing red marks on her neck and wrist to bolster her account.” BuzzFeed on August 29 reported that Bannon had also been accused of sexual harassment by a co-worker while working as an investment banker in the 1990s.
On August 29, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, announced that she was separating from Weiner following reports that he had sent lewd photos of himself to another woman.
One might think media would focus more on the Bannon story, which involves allegations of criminality against the CEO of a presidential campaign, than on the dissolution of the marriage of a candidate's aide. That was not the case.
ABC, CBS, and NBC devoted more than half an hour of coverage to the Weiner-Abedin story -- roughly 10 minutes for each network -- according to a Media Matters review of their morning and evening news shows (NBC’s Today and Nightly News, ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, and CBS’ CBS This Morning and Evening News) on August 26, August 29, and the morning of August 30. Those same programs devoted only 39 seconds in total to covering either of the Bannon stories, with all of that coverage coming from Good Morning America.
Two of the nation’s leading newspapers for national political coverage, The New York Times and The Washington Post, similarly gave the Weiner-Abedin story more emphasis in their print editions. Both papers devoted 1,400-word front page articles to their separation. By contrast, the Times placed its August 26 story on Bannon’s alleged abuse on page 13, along with a portion of a page 10 August 27 piece and a single sentence of a page 1 August 27 piece. The Post devoted a large portion of a page A04 article on August 27 to the allegation. Neither paper covered the sexual harassment allegation in their respective print editions.
Not only was the amount of coverage uneven, but in its coverage the broadcast news shows repeatedly framed the Abedin-Weiner story as something that could harm Clinton’s campaign as well as recall for voters Clinton’s own marital problems, a frame that wasn’t applied to the Bannon story.
NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell on Today claimed “of course” there would be political fallout for Clinton, connecting the Abedin story to Clinton not having a press conference and suggesting that it would remind voters “about Hillary Clinton's own choices 20 years ago, 19 years ago,” an apparent reference to Clinton’s decision not to leave her husband after he had an affair.
CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell on Evening News said it was “about the last thing Hillary Clinton's campaign needed, a scandal involving the husband of her top aide Huma Abedin.” O’Donnell also asked CBS political director John Dickerson if the story “change[d]” things for Clinton and her campaign.
ABC correspondent Cecilia Vega on Good Morning America noted that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attempted to turn the separation “into a political attack,” adding that Trump “is not holding back, so is the Clinton campaign worried that this will be a distraction for them?” ABC political analyst Matthew Dowd also claimed the story “is a problem for the Hillary campaign” because “independents out there look at it and say, ‘Do we really want to go back to all this again?’”
The Times and the Post’s coverage made the same connection. The Times alleged the Weiner story “threatens to remind voters about the troubles in the Clintons’ own marriage over the decades” and “evokes the debates that erupted over Mrs. Clinton’s handling of the [Monica] Lewinsky affair.” The Post also pointed to “a different ending to the parallel between Bill and Hillary Clinton and each wife’s public embarrassment by the sexual indiscretions of her politician husband.”
The only mention of either Bannon story on broadcast news shows was during Good Morning America’s August 26 edition, which treated Bannon’s alleged spousal abuse as a passing issue. ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl briefly stated that the domestic violence allegation could cause “more turmoil ahead for the Trump campaign CEO,” but he didn't mention any impact on the overall campaign or Trump specifically. ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos also briefly brought up the domestic violence allegations with Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway to ask if Trump was “aware of [the allegation], is he OK with it,” to which Conway claimed ignorance and Stephanopoulos quickly moved on.
The coverage of Bannon’s alleged abuse in the Times and the Post, while given less prominence than its Weiner-Abedin coverage, did mention a potential negative impact to Trump’s campaign. The Times claimed that while Bannon’s appointment was “part of an effort to reset a candidacy that has stumbled with minority and female voters,” Bannon “brings to the post his own bumpy background that includes misdemeanor charges of domestic violence.” In an article the next day, the Times noted the abuse allegation has “created distractions for Mr. Trump’s campaign and raised questions about [Trump’s] management style.” The Post also made the same case in an article that same day. However, none of this coverage, in broadcast or print, noted that the Bannon allegations came on the heels of other women claiming Trump had sexually harassed them in the workplace.