Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Big Three television networks have used unprecedented midterm election coverage to bash the Republican Party with negative stories, and plenty of them, a study says.

Only 12 percent of election stories that aired on NBC, ABC or CBS were favorable toward Republican candidates, according to a study released yesterday by the District-based Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).

In contrast, Democrats basked in glory. The study found that 77 percent of the news accounts between Sept. 5 and Oct. 22 offered favorable evaluations of Democratic candidates and lawmakers.

“These numbers are pretty striking,” said Robert Lichter, director of CMPA, a nonpartisan researcher of news and entertainment media. “The coverage has become a referendum on Republican leadership. The big question for all three networks is this: Why are the Republicans in trouble and how bad is it going to get?”

While midterms typically garner only tepid interest from broadcasters, the networks have dramatically ramped up their coverage this time around, providing 167 stories during the study period. Only 35 stories had been aired during a comparable time in 2002.

The networks have fixated on a trio of story themes. The CMPA study found that the resignation of former Florida congressman Mark Foley dominated the midterm coverage, producing 59 stories, compared with the war in Iraq, which inspired 33, and national security or the threat of terrorism, which produced 31 stories.

Other issues of potential importance to voters — the economy or redistricting, for example — got short shrift, such topics earning mention in six or fewer stories.

Speculating on voter behavior is also popular on the networks.

“Another big question they ask is this: What is it the public is rejecting, and what are they so angry about?” Mr. Lichter added.

“CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric, for example, said yesterday that 2006 would prove a “wave election, where public dissatisfaction changes the political environment” and “incumbents are washed away.”

On NBC, Brian Williams led a report from Ohio with the phrase, “Could this red state end up going blue?” ABC News’ Jake Tapper also showcased Ohio voters, saying they showed “an extra layer of disillusion with the Republican Party.”

Like negative campaign ads, negative news reports may have a destructive rebound effect on a fickle viewing public.

“For the past week, the mainstream media has run story after story about the nastiness of this year’s campaign ads — perhaps as a way to distract our attention from their own dirty tricks,” observed Stephen Spruiell of National Review Online yesterday.

“Viewers can get sick of negative TV coverage. They consistently rate the news coverage as one of the worst parts of a campaign, specifically citing negative content,” Mr. Lichter said. And its going to get worse in the shrill run-up to Nov. 7.

“The GOP is the story, and they’re caught in an echo chamber,” he added.

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