Broadcast evening news programs on ABC, NBC, and CBS completely ignored likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's questionable delay in announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC. Despite increasing scrutiny of a strategy that "tests the legal definition of [a] candidate," the nightly news programs have devoted zero coverage to the matter since The Associated Press (AP) first reported on it in April.
Although there have been several major campaign finance stories this year, so far the media has paid significant attention only to one: the retired postal worker from Florida who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn to raise awareness about the need for reform -- and the coverage has barely noted his motivations.
On April 15, Doug Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn "to save our democracy," as he wrote in The Washington Post, because "91 percent of Americans see the corrosive influence of money in our political system as a problem that demands attention." Hughes continued:
It is clear these issues will be among the most important in the 2016 election, when every candidate for any office needs to answer one simple question: Which approaches to reducing money's corrupting influence on our democracy do you support? Journalists, especially at the local level, need to ask tough questions, then report the truth and let people decide.
Sadly, most Americans don't know about [campaign finance reform] solutions or how to engage. That's why I chose civil disobedience, taking 535 stamped letters and my message to the seat of power where the problem is. Big money is a threat to our democracy just as security threats are.
Hughes is right -- according to Bloomberg, "spending by candidates, parties and outside groups and individuals" in the run-up to the 2016 election "may approach $10 billion." Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have relaxed Watergate-era campaign finance reform laws, it's easier than ever for an elite few to exercise disproportionate influence in the democratic process.
Hughes' landing was marginally successful in getting some media coverage of campaign finance reform in the days following. A Media Matters analysis of the network evening news broadcasts and the Sunday political talk shows found 17 total segments dedicated to Hughes and the gyrocopter landing. But other than a discussion on the April 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, none of the Sunday shows or evening news broadcasts dedicated any substantive coverage to the message behind Hughes' protest. Understandably, most of these segments focused on the security issues raised by the fact that Hughes was able to fly undetected into the District of Columbia's no-fly zone, rather than his reasons for his flight in the first place.
Broadcast nightly news programs have remained silent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) over the past three months of weekday programming, even as Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to grant President Obama authority to finalize the terms of the massive trade deal. The coverage blackout continues a trend extending back to 2013.
On May 12, the Senate plans to vote on legislation that would grant "fast-track" trade promotion authority to Obama as he attempts to complete negotiations among the 12 member nations that comprise the TPP. "Once Congress grants a president trade promotion authority, lawmakers have the ability to vote up or down on a final trade agreement, but they forfeit the right to amend the deal or filibuster it," The New York Times explained.
Debates over the merits of the deal itself and of granting the president trade promotion authority have erupted among Democratic and Republican members of Congress, but coverage of the negotiations has been largely absent from evening news programming on the major broadcast networks.
A Media Matters analysis of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News from August 1, 2013, through May 10, 2015, found that the programs completely ignored the trade negotiations and related policy debates. Only PBS NewsHour devoted substantive coverage to the TPP, with 14 total segments:
Coverage of the TPP among major cable outlets has been similarly one-sided. Since August 1, 2013, MSNBC has mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 124 evening and primetime segments, the overwhelming majority of which (103) came during The Ed Show. Fox News trails far behind with just 12 mentions of the TPP over that time period, 10 of which have come since February 1, 2015. CNN has been almost completely absent from the discussion, registering only 2 mentions of the trade negotiations:
During his speech at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25, President Obama invited comedian Keegan-Michael Key to reprise the Comedy Central bit in which Key plays Luther, Obama's "anger translator." What followed was highly amusing -- but also quite revealing of the President's frustration with how the media covers climate change.
As he spoke to an audience of thousands of journalists, media executives, politicians, and celebrities, Obama began the sketch by emphasizing that "we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day." That line provided an opening for Luther to piercingly mock Fox News' fearmongering that "Sharia law is coming to Cleveland" and CNN's "wall-to-wall Ebola coverage." He even landed a few good one-liners about Ted Cruz and Hilary Clinton as they pursue contributions for their presidential campaigns.
But the skit took a noticeable turn when Obama told the media-heavy crowd that "we do need to stay focused on some big challenges, like climate change." After Luther joked that drought conditions have made California "look like a trailer for the new Mad Max movie up in there," it quickly became apparent that Obama needed no assistance from his anger translator to spell out how the media and climate change deniers in Congress are failing to take this threat seriously:
OBAMA: I mean, look at what's happening right now. Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it's a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day and instead of doing anything about it, we have elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate.
LUTHER: Okay, Mr. President. Okay, I think they've got it, bro.
OBAMA: It is crazy! What about our kids! What kind of stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible, bull--
Luther cut Obama off before he engaged in any presidential profanity, but the President had already gotten his point across. As a less angry Obama put it in June 2014, "the media doesn't spend a lot of time covering climate change and letting average Americans know how it could impact our future."
CBS Evening News falsely claimed that "19 other states" have laws similar to Indiana's controversial new "religious freedom" law -- but as both NBC Nightly News and ABC World News pointed out, the state's new legislation is different in its effects, in part, because the state lacks protections for sexual orientation.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) on March 27, providing a legal defense for individuals and business owners who cite their religious beliefs while discriminating against LGBT people.
On the March 30 edition of CBS Evening News, Adriana Diaz reported on the backlash following the passing of the measure, claiming in a March 30 report that "19 other states have similar laws" to the religious freedom law signed by Pence in Indiana" and that "many were passed before gay marriage laws swept the nation."
But as both NBC and ABC explained during their evening news reports on the newly passed measure, Indiana's "religious freedom" law differs in effect from those passed in several other states because the state lacks protections for LGBT people. As Gabe Gutierrez explained on NBC Nightly News, although 19 other states "have similar laws," Indiana's "is different, in part because there is no statewide non-discrimination law here protecting sexual orientation." On ABC World News, network reporter Gio Benitez also pointed to the lack of protections, reporting that "business owners who want to deny services to gay and lesbian couples" may be able to, unlike the situation in other states "with similar laws in place."
Indiana's RFRA is also much broader than the RFRAs that have been passed in other states, both because of its expansive definition of a "person" and its criteria for determining who can invoke RFRA as a defense in a legal dispute. As the ACLU of Indiana noted, these differences make Indiana's RFRA "virtually without precedent." Even Fox News anchor Brett Baier dismissed the comparison between Indiana's law and other laws across the country.
This post has been updated for clarity.
In 2014, PBS NewsHour provided far more climate change-related segments and interviewed far more climate scientists than the nightly news programs at ABC and NBC, while also outperforming CBS. Additionally, like CBS Evening News, PBS NewsHour managed to avoid airing any segments that provided a platform for climate science deniers, whereas NBC Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight both featured a segment in which a guest either denied that climate change is occurring or questioned the scientific findings of the National Climate Assessment.
Although it airs for twice as long as its broadcast network counterparts, PBS NewsHour's number of climate segments and scientists more than made up for this difference, particularly in comparison to ABC's World News Tonight. PBS NewsHour, which runs for 60 minutes, aired 45 reports last year that covered climate change. By comparison, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight, which are each 30 minute programs, aired 22, 14, and 11 climate-related reports in 2014, respectively. PBS NewsHour's 45 climate-related reports were a substantial increase over 2013, when the program aired 35 such reports.
PBS NewsHour also provided scientific perspectives in climate change stories more often than any of the other major networks, interviewing or quoting 27 scientists over the course of the year. In comparison, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News interviewed or quoted 11 and 7 scientists, respectively, while ABC's World News Tonight interviewed or quoted just two scientists.
Scientists lent their insight on a range of topics on PBS NewsHour, providing perspective on landmark reports on climate change, describing the impact of climate change on wildlife habitats, and illustrating how climate change is already having an impact on communities in places as disparate as Alaska and Florida. For example, in a two-part special on climate change's impacts in Alaska, PBS NewsHour interviewed paleoclimatologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and ecologists to detail how climate change is threatening local wildlife and a centuries-old way of life for many Alaskans.
The recent announcement by NOAA and NASA that 2014 was the warmest year on record should serve as the starkest reminder yet that climate change is an issue deserving of mainstream media coverage. The networks' nightly news programs -- and ABC's World News Tonight in particular -- would do well to follow PBS NewsHour's lead by improving the quality and quantity of their climate change coverage.
The total coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox continued to increase for the third consecutive year, according to a Media Matters analysis, yet still remained below the level seen in 2009. Coverage on the networks' Sunday shows reached a six-year high after a group of senators demanded they provide more coverage of the issue, but the Sunday shows still infrequently interviewed scientists.
Coverage of the economy on weeknight television news shows during the last six months of 2014 continued to focus heavily on policies meant to boost job creation and economic growth, but discussions overwhelmingly lacked input from actual economists. Additionally, a Media Matters analysis uncovered a relative decline in the number of segments promoting the conservative media myths that Obamacare and increasing the minimum wage hurt the labor market.
This January marks the fifth anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that expanded the idea of "corporate personhood" by ruling that the First Amendment protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Network news coverage of its legal impact, however, has largely ignored how the Supreme Court continues to aggressively expand the decision.
This expansion of corporate rights has wide-ranging consequences, even outside of the context of campaign finance deregulation. The court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for example, seemed to embrace the idea that corporations are capable of morally objecting to contraception coverage, co-opting yet another constitutional right -- that of religion -- that had previously been reserved for people, not businesses.
In terms of election law, the conservative justices further dismantled campaign finance restrictions in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down aggregate campaign donation limits and allowed wealthy donors to contribute money to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties. The court will hear yet another campaign finance case on January 20 called Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar, which could strike down a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting money from donors -- a rule that was put in place in response to a serious corruption scandal that resulted in the resignations of four Florida Supreme Court justices.
Yet despite the cascade of decisions from conservative justices intent on dismantling campaign finance regulations and rewriting corporate rights -- and the majority of Americans who support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United -- the media have largely underreported this story.
Here are four graphics that illustrate this failure.
Major network newscasts have given almost no coverage to an upcoming Supreme Court case that will decide whether judicial candidates can personally solicit campaign donations -- despite the risk of corruption.
On January 20, the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which a candidate for an elected county judge position -- Lanell Williams-Yulee -- sent out a fundraising letter that she signed herself. As in the majority of states, judicial candidates in Florida are prohibited from sending out this kind of direct solicitation to prevent the appearance or risk of corruption. Instead, they are required to set up separate campaign committees to send out fundraising requests on their behalf. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Williams-Yulee, who was ultimately reprimanded and fined. Williams-Yulee is now arguing that the ethical rule restricting her ability to ask for donations is an unconstitutional restriction of her free speech, an extension of the argument validated by the conservative justices in Citizens United and its progeny.
This case gives the conservative justices of the Supreme Court yet another chance to roll back restrictions on campaign finance -- which they have steadily gutted since 2010's Citizens United decision allowing millions of dollars to flood the federal election system. Most recently, the court struck down aggregate campaign limits in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, making it easier for wealthy donors to contribute to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties.
Yet a Media Matters analysis of Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) as well as nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) reveals just one segment that covered the Williams-Yulee case since it was appealed to the Supreme Court -- the October 2 edition of PBS NewsHour.
Media coverage of an omnibus spending bill that rolled back key financial services regulations ignored the amount of money the financial services industry spent helping elect members of Congress in 2014. In fact, the industry lobbying to eliminate the regulation spent $436 million on federal candidates during the midterm elections.
ABC's World News Tonight pushed the myth that building the Keystone XL pipeline could create up to 40,000 jobs. In fact, the pipeline is expected to create as few as 50 permanent jobs.
During a November 18 report on the failed Senate vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, World News Tonight anchor David Muir stated that "many argued it could have created thousands of American jobs." ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl added that "the jobs estimates range from 4,000 to 40,000 jobs. Proponents say it not only creates jobs, but it could lead to energy independence."
But PolitiFact has classified similar claims that the construction of the pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs to be "mostly false," because a vast majority of the jobs would be temporary, and it "does not amount to tens of thousands of full-time jobs in the most common sense of employment." According to PolitiFact, "the State Department estimates the operation of the pipeline will only create 35 permanent, full-time jobs and 15 temporary contractors" once construction is complete.
The pipeline would also do little for "energy independence." Much of the oil that would be carried by the pipeline is slated for export, and U.S. imports of oil would be minimally affected by the supply that would flow through the pipeline.
ABC World News Tonight with David Muir was the only one of the three broadcast evening newscasts to ignore the Obama administration's announcement supporting net neutrality. NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News both covered the story.
President Obama issued a statement on Monday asking the Federal Communications Commission to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality." Obama asked the FCC to put into effect "bright-line rules" that would prevent Internet providers from blocking access to services, throttling Internet speeds or forcing one service to be prioritized over another. He also asked for providers to have to be more transparent in how their services operate.
A Media Matters study on the coverage of key policy issues in nightly news' midterm election broadcasts finds that 65 percent of network news segments that dealt with the midterm elections failed to discuss the policy issues most important to the American people.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is criticizing the major news networks' lack of coverage of big money in politics, saying he is "disappointed, but not surprised ... that the networks barely covered the issue."
Sanders' press release comes after a recent Media Matters study found that the subject of campaign finance reform was hardly reported on by either the major networks' evening news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News) or their Sunday talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press). These news programs also largely overlooked the Senate's proposed (and ultimately filibustered) constitutional amendment that would have restored Congress' ability to regulate political spending after the conservative justices of the Supreme Court gutted bipartisan campaign finance law in 2010's Citizens United v. FEC and this year's McCutcheon v. FEC.
Although most of the networks seldom covered the issue, PBS NewsHour, on the other hand, set the standard and broadcast numerous in-depth segments on campaign finance reform, big money in politics, and the Supreme Court decisions that have invited billions of dollars to flow into the federal election system. In fact, PBS NewsHour offered more campaign finance coverage than the other networks combined.
In response to these findings, Sanders called on the media to dedicate more coverage to what he called "the single most important issue facing our country today" and suggested that the networks' insufficient coverage has contributed to the decline of Americans' confidence in the media:
"I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the study's finding that the major networks barely covered the issue of money in politics," said Sen. Bernie Sanders. "There is a reason why confidence in the American media is declining," he added. "More and more people say the media is not paying attention to the issues of real importance to the American people. This study confirms that."
The study found that each network devoted less than single minute per month to talking about campaign finance reform. "To my mind," Sanders said, "the single most important issue facing our country today is that, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, we are allowing billionaires to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who will represent the wealthy and powerful rather than the needs of ordinary Americans. This is an issue of enormous consequence."
Sanders cited a recent Gallup poll that found Americans' faith in television news and newspapers is at or tied with record lows. The findings continued a decades-long decline in the share of Americans saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers or TV news.