Debate debacle: An MMFA review of MSNBC's skewed debate coverage


Although the network's methods were not consistent throughout, MSNBC skewed its coverage of all three presidential debates, as well as the vice presidential debate, to the right. A Media Matters for America review of MSNBC's debate coverage found unbalanced panels featuring known Republican partisans such as Pat Buchanan and Ben Ginsberg without any Democratic counterparts; definitive declarations of victory for the Republican ticket that were dramatically at odds with the consensus throughout the media and through public polling; faulty fact checks and focus groups; unbalanced numbers and order of guests; and numerous individual instances of conservative distortion and misinformation.

Unbalanced panels

The most obvious way in which MSNBC's debate coverage was skewed to the right was the makeup of the panels that provided debate analysis. Either the pre- or post-debate panels for all four debates included former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Republican attorney Ben Ginsberg. Former Republican congressman and host of Scarborough Country Joe Scarborough (R-FL) appeared on every debate panel except for October 8, which he missed because of a bad back.

As MMFA noted before the first debate even began, Buchanan (teamed on a panel with three reporters) criticized Senator John Kerry and forecasted a quick electoral victory for President George W. Bush. Ginsberg, who has provided legal counsel this year for both the Bush-Cheney campaign and the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, consistently spun for Bush during coverage of the debates and even erroneously claimed that the 9-11 Commission "insinuat[ed]" that there were connections between Iraq and 9/11. For his part, Scarborough proclaimed that all viewers who indicated that Senator John Edwards won the vice presidential debate in an online poll must have been "drinking vodka." Then, apparently after silently reading the results of a CBS poll that also showed that Edwards had won, as MMFA noted, Scarborough crumpled up the paper showing the results and threw it away without reporting the outcome.

MSNBC's debate panels did not feature any prominent Democrats or liberals to counter Buchanan, Ginsberg and Scarborough. In fact, many of the other pundits featured in debate coverage were just as adept at providing conservative misinformation. For example, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell distorted Kerry's "much too accommodationist" Iran proposal after the first debate, and then cheered on Vice President Dick Cheney's false assertion during the vice presidential debate that he had never met Edwards. After the third presidential debate, Mitchell criticized a Kerry comment that was critical of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan -- Mitchell's husband -- but neither Mitchell nor anyone else on MSNBC disclosed this conflict of interest. NBC's Meet the Press host Tim Russert also repeated without challenge Cheney's claim that he hadn't previously met Edwards, even though Russert knew it was false. The day after the third presidential debate, MSNBC anchor Randy Meier twice falsely claimed that the "context" around Bush's 2002 remark that he was "not that concerned" about Osama bin Laden showed that he meant that bin Laden should be more concerned about us.

Outlier verdicts for Bush and Cheney

Perhaps as a byproduct of unbalanced panels, MSNBC pronounced several of the debates decisive victories for the Bush-Cheney ticket when the media consensus was that the debate had been a draw or even that Kerry and Edwards had won -- and that media consensus was supported by polling conducted immediately after the debates. While MSNBC joined the overwhelming consensus in declaring Kerry the victor in the first debate, and was much less vocal in determining a winner of the final debate, MSNBC stood alone in declaring the vice presidential and second presidential debates as clear victories for Cheney and Bush, respectively. Two of the five panelists, Mitchell and MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan, did not call the second presidential debate for Bush, but they were overshadowed by Buchanan and Ginsberg to such an extent that MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews declared "Everyone has been very cheerful here in anointing the president the victor here."

Unbalanced number and order of guests

Although MSNBC did not call the third presidential debate for Bush, the channel immediately interviewed numerous Republicans in the minutes following the debate who did just that. As MMFA has documented, four of the first five guests on the program were supporters of President Bush, and the second Kerry supporter was not interviewed until exactly an hour after the debate had concluded (MSNBC interviewed one more Republican than Democrat overall). Fifteen minutes after the second presidential debate ended, Matthews interviewed Bush-Cheney '04 campaign adviser Tucker Eskew. No Democrat appeared until 14 minutes after the Eskew interview ended, when Hillary Clinton was interviewed at 11:11 p.m -- half an hour after the debate ended.

Faulty fact checks and focus groups

NBC and MSNBC, like other channels, also featured "fact check" segments that struck a false "balance" between outright falsehoods by Bush and claims by Kerry that were in many cases accurate (See a summation of them here, here, here, and here). Scarborough provided a faulty fact check of his own on MSNBC on October 5, when he compared Cheney's false debate claim that he has "not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9-11" to a factually correct statement by Edwards that the Bush administration's tort reform plan, "according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, amounts to about half of 1 percent of health-care costs in this country."

After the first presidential debate, NBC and MSNBC presented a flawed focus group that oversampled Republicans. As NBC News White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell reported on the October 1 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, the focus group of "swing voters" in Florida featured four registered Republicans, one independent, and no registered Democrats.

2004 Elections
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