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Networks Diss Dems, Favor Tea Party

A new study shows media coverage of the midterms is overwhelmingly negative—but the Tea Party is getting more flattering coverage. Howard Kurtz reports on a breakdown of the broadcasts.

10.20.10 4:48 PM ET

Q. Which political party has been getting the best treatment on network news?

A. None. Journalists, apparently, don’t like any of them.

Now that’s fair and balanced.

In a study of the three evening newscasts during the midterm election season, comments about Republicans were 31 percent positive and 69 percent negative. Ouch.

Can we chalk that up to liberal bias? Not quite. For the Democrats, the comments were 32 percent positive and 68 percent negative.

The amorphous Tea Party, interestingly enough, fared slightly better, with 37 percent positive evaluations and 63 percent negative—though hardly cause for celebration.

The study was done by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and an advance copy was provided to The Daily Beast. Researchers looked at opinions offered on the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and ABC’s World News from January 1 through Labor Day.

The findings may reflect the media’s negative bias, which even most of its practitioners don’t dispute, or the nature of this political season.

“The coverage is as angry and sour as the electorate,” says Robert Lichter, director of the media center, which is affiliated with Virginia’s George Mason University. And that, he says, can affect public attitudes: “The media can unwittingly intensify the negativity of the voters by complaining about the election.”

Democrats do fare better than Republicans when it comes to on-air assessments of the policies they favor, but again, there’s nothing to brag about. Democratic candidates drew 28 percent favorable evaluations on this score, compared with 17 percent for Republican candidates, the study says.

Which brings us to the horse race. On that track, it was a blowout win for the Republicans, obviously reflecting the conventional wisdom that this is a big GOP year. Republican candidates drew 73 percent positive assessments of their chances of winning, Democratic candidates just 33 percent. With that kind of analysis, perhaps there’s no need to actually hold the vote.

Bush campaign strategist turned ABC analyst Matthew Dowd, for instance, said that “Democrats are at risk because the people… don’t want the incumbents in Washington and they represent more of those.” ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl opined that “Republicans now have a shot… to win back control of the Senate, something that was unthinkable.”

The contrast with 2008, when Lichter and other researchers found Barack Obama drawing twice the positive coverage of John McCain, is striking. “Maybe the media are suffering from the same hangover as a lot of Democrats,” Lichter says. “They had a great, positive story and covered the heck out of it two years ago, but all the hope and change seems to have been drained out of the coverage.”

“Maybe the media are suffering from the same hangover as a lot of Democrats…all the hope and change seems to have been drained out of the coverage.”

Two themes dominated the network broadcasts. There were 43 discussions of the economy, while 22 centered on voter anger. No other subject was even close, with health care generating seven discussions and illegal immigration six. So James Carville’s old slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” rings as true in 2010 as in 1992—but this time it’s working against the Democrats.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.