The Magazine

How Come We're Not on TV More?

The ludicrous complaint of Daschle and Gephardt.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By SAM DEALEY
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HERE'S A GOOD ONE: Liberals are now whining about media bias.

It took the form of an April 12 letter to the heads of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. "We are writing to bring to your attention an issue that has become more pronounced in recent months: the lack of television coverage of press events featuring elected leaders of the Democratic Party," wrote Tom Daschle, the Senate's top Democrat, and Dick Gephardt, the party's top man in the House. "Both of us are hopeful that you will take a closer look at your coverage of live press events and attempt to strike a balance."

Explains Erik Smith, a spokesman for Gephardt: "The issue here is not that they're covering Bush too much on the war on terrorism. The issue is not that we should be getting 50-50 coverage. Both of those are unrealistic." But, he continues, "the White House is getting coverage of lots of events that have nothing to do with the war on terrorism, and there are lots of events on the war on terrorism on the Hill that Democrats are doing."

To back up these charges, Smith says the leaders "commissioned" a "study" from the Democratic National Committee on CNN's coverage. Pie charts and spreadsheets aside, this turns out to be fancy talk for having some low-level staffer slave away at a computer querying the Nexis news database.

According to this research, from January 1 to March 21, CNN's cameras cut to Bush administration events 157 times, and to congressional Democratic events only 7 times. Why pick on CNN, once nicknamed the Clinton News Network by conservatives? They're the only network that posts all of their live-event specials to Nexis, Smith says. But as Daschle and Gephardt note, "anecdotal evidence indicates that Fox News and MSNBC coverage follows the same pattern"--which might have been another clue that something other than bias was at work here.

With some spare time on my hands, I "commissioned" my own study. What it found, after exhaustive tapping at my keyboard, was that the DNC's data are sound, but its interpretation less so.

The charge that CNN "often" covered live White House events on domestic issues, for instance, is wrong. Of the 157 administration events, just 28 (or 17.8 percent, if you want to sound scientific) did not include substantial comment on war-related issues. So what were they about?

Here we approach the larger idiocy of the Daschle/Gephardt letter: It assumes that any coverage is good coverage. But those 28 "domestic" events from the White House were hardly triumphs. There were briefings dominated by the Bush administration's cozy ties to Enron, for example. And then there were events touting Ted Kennedy's education bill, the Freedom Corps, high steel tariffs, and campaign finance reform--events which, frankly, many Republicans and most conservatives would just as soon have had the TV cameras ignore. Smith unwittingly concedes this point when he gripes, "Certainly when Gary Condit was being pursued they found ample time to put our [Democratic] events on cable networks."

Furthermore, while Daschle has been busy, his efforts have largely been behind the scenes, designed to keep issues from coming to the Senate floor and to confine real debates to private offices where not even the C-SPAN cameras reach. Witness, for example, the scuttling of Charles Pickering's nomination to a federal appeals bench by the Senate Judiciary Committee without a floor vote. Then, too, Daschle resisted bringing up contentious issues such as trade-promotion authority, taxation, and energy.

And that's when he's in town. Of the 80 days covered in the DNC study, the Senate convened on just 37. Votes took place on just 26 days, and seven of those don't even really count. There were four Mondays on which the first votes were easy ones cast after 5:30 P.M.; and three Fridays on which the last votes were cast before 10 A.M.

In fact, during this time period, the Senate acted on just two bills--a larded farm bill and campaign finance reform. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, didn't get much TV time.

And while Democratic leaders were covered at seven events, Republican congressional leaders weren't covered by CNN at all. Perhaps Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert should write a letter complaining, too.

Sam Dealey is managing editor of The International Economy, a Washington-based quarterly.