Unbalanced Election Coverage on Networks?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Oct. 11, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: An ABC News internal e-mail leaked out Friday, in which the network's political director urged that ABC News not necessarily hold the Kerry and Bush campaigns equally to account for their alleged distortions about each other.

The memo said the Kerry camp was a lesser offender, while the Bush camp was trying to destroy Kerry in part by distortions. Which raises the question of what kind of coverage ABC News and the other broadcast networks have been giving this campaign?

For answers, we turn to Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (search), which studies such matters.

Hello, Bob. Welcome.


HUME: Now, you've been studying the recent coverage, debate coverage in particular. Tell me about the studies that you've been doing and how you're doing them.

LICHTER: Well, we've work with a group called Media Tenor (search), a media monitoring organization. What they do is every single statement after the debates when the spin patrols come on, the network do their instant analysis and...

HUME: Right. And so you're talking about the post debate coverage, in which independent analysts, who with the networks, and offer their comments. Plus the comments that are from the debate site, where partisans of each candidate are being allowed to have their say, right?

LICHTER: Exactly. If Hillary Clinton (search) comes on and says the president has been consistent but consistently wrong...

HUME: Right.

LICHTER: ... they say that's a negative comment on his performance.

HUME: Right.

LICHTER: George Pataki (search) comes on and says the president hit a home run — these are actual examples, it's positive comment. We add them all up. And as a result, we can say how did the overall portrait of who won, who lost, who did better, look on each of the various broadcasting cable networks.

HUME: Now, you did this with the first debate the Cheney debate, the second presidential debate, correct?

LICHTER: Well, the first and second presidential debates. Not the vice presidential.

HUME: OK. So we're talking here about the two debates that have been held so far between Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush. And so you — and what you do is you make a judgment as to what's positive and what's negative?


HUME: So if a guy says well, the president wasn't really good but he was better than the last time, how do you deal with that? Neutral?

LICHTER: No. That would be one negative and one positive. The president wasn't really good, but he was better than he was the last time.

HUME: So that's...

LICHTER: Two statements.

HUME: So you get a one and — you get a one on each side then.

LICHTER: Yes. You've set up a scoring system in advance. And you actually make sure that independent individuals, looking at the material separately, come to the same conclusions. Or you change your scoring system. That's called "reliability." It's a — it's social science discipline that is recognized as a science.

HUME: So you're doing — you're telling me that you've done something that is — that is socially scientifically valid here. Is that right?


LICHTER: I'm afraid so. I'm a...

HUME: Tell me...

LICHTER: I comment on social science...

HUME: Tell me what now based on — now — included in this study are: CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, and their broadcast coverage that you mentioned and the aftermath. Plus, what? FOX News, CNN?

LICHTER: Right, that's it.

HUME: OK. So you've got five basic outlets you're studying. What have you found?

LICHTER: What we found is a big difference between the broadcast networks on the one hand, and the cable networks on the other. If you take ABC, CBS and NBC, combine the two debates, you find that over two out of three comments about Kerry...

HUME: Now, let's look at this chart that we've got up there now.


HUME: On Bush, it was 45 positive, 55 percent negative. Kerry: 69- 31, overwhelmingly positive for Kerry. Majority of negative on Bush.


HUME: On cable?

LICHTER: On cable, it looks much more balanced. Bush: 53 percent positive, 47 negative. Almost 50-50. Kerry, a little better: 57 positive, 43 negative. I'd say that's about as close to balanced as you're going get. So what you get is the broadcast networks give you a picture of Kerry as the winner. And this was true for both debates individually. And also for both individually — debates, FOX and CNN had pictures of both men as pretty equal. And...

HUME: Well, it — and actually, though, they showed that Kerry did better...

LICHTER: Yes. Kerry did a little better.

HUME: But not by much. And Bush did much better among the cable channels than he did, it appears, on the broadcast networks, right?

LICHTER: A little better. The main...

HUME: Right. Well, 45 — 53-47 is a lot better than 45 —55.

LICHTER: Yes. But the main thing really is, is Kerry. You know, it's up nearly 70 percent positive compared to the low 50s. That's a huge jump. Basically it's Kerry looks great on the broadcast networks, Bush looks pretty bad. Bush looks OK; Kerry looks a little better on cable. But it's pretty balanced.

But it's a big difference. It's one guy wins as opposed to maybe one is a little better.

HUME: Right. Now, what — does this account for any way by the fact that the cable channels stay on longer, perhaps? And broadcast — I mean how much of their coverage — they're on 24 hours. How much of the coverage are you taking into account in the aftermath of the debate?

LICHTER: Yes. No, this was just the instant analysis. And actually...

HUME: You mean like it was from 9:00 to 10:30 in both cases. Half an hour afterwards, is that what you're talking about?

LICHTER: Yes. And actually, it was almost the exact same number of evaluations. It ended up about 250 cable evaluations, 250 broadcast evaluations.

HUME: So are you surprised by these findings?

LICHTER: Yes. I was a little surprised. You know, usually you would think journalists looking tat same material would come to similar conclusions. but it's a reminder that people differ. Their perceptions differ. And that's why we don't have "Pravda." You don't have one truth. You have different versions. And you have to look at different versions to come to your own opinion.

HUME: Bob Lichter, good to have you, sir. Thank you very much.

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