A study by the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) has yielded some troubling results regarding network news coverage of the Republican candidates for president: frontrunner Mitt Romney "is getting by far the most negative press of the GOP field." The Center monitored 118 stories on the Republican primaries, covering a period from January 1st, through the January 10th primary in New Hampshire, following the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, and the first half-hour of Fox's “Special Report,” which is most like the network news shows in content and presentation. Negative coverage by ABC, NBC and CBS is hardly surprising. But is Fox News part of the anti-Romney club as well?
On what the CMPA is calling "evaluative comments," Romney was the only candidate to receive a majority of negative coverage from all the networks, and the ratio of negative to positive was more than three-to-one. Seventy-eight percent of the time he was panned, versus only 22 percent praise. Other Republican candidates fared far better. Evaluations of Ron Paul were 73 percent positive vs. 27 percent negative. Jon Huntsman generated 71 percent positive vs. 29 percent negative coverage. Rick Santorum’s evaluations were 56 percent positive vs. 44 percent negative. Even firebrand Newt Gingrich garnered 52 percent positive vs. 48 percent negative coverage. The remaining candidates received too few evaluations to be statistically meaningful.
CMPA also noted the differences in coverage by the various networks regarding their evaluations of the Republican candidates as a whole. Fox provided the most even-handed overall coverage, with 52 percent positive vs. 48 percent negative comments, while CBS provided the highest percentage of positive comments on the Republican field, at 57 percent positive versus 43 percent negative. CMPA noted that CBS's totals were somewhat skewed by 89 percent positive ratings given to Ron Paul. (One is tempted to consider that such praise for the candidate consistently occupying last place in the field may have something to do with it.)
Yet even as Fox provided the most even-handed coverage overall, the network's news segment "Special Report" ran negative evaluations of Romney 63 percent of time vs. only 37 percent positive ones. Since, as noted above, Fox took the most even-handed approach to reporting on the Republican field overall, the special animus directed at Romney seems difficult to understand.
Or maybe not. On a December 8th broadcast of the "Morning Joe" show on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough claimed that Fox News host Chris Wallace had little use for the Republican frontrunner. "Chris Wallace has never made a secret of the fact that he loathes Mitt Romney, has never liked him," Scarborough said during the broadcast. "Anybody that knows Chris Wallace at Fox has said the same thing. Chris Wallace, of course, will deny it, and then throw an insult around because that’s what he’s done in the past."
Wallace did of course deny the contention. "You know, some people say, and I will take this advice, don’t punch down," he said. "Don’t respond to folks that are silly and aren’t worthy of a response. It isn’t true. I suspect (Joe Scarborough) knows it isn’t true. I think he’s trying to get into Fox with a network that gets higher ratings than he does. I’ll leave it at that."
Yet Wallace did single out Romney shortly after an interview with former Republican candidate Rick Perry, noting on the air that the former Massachusetts governor was the only Republican candidate he had yet to interview. “We have now interviewed all the major Republican candidates in our 2012 ‘One on One’ series--except Mitt Romney,” Mr. Wallace said at the time. “He has not appeared on this program or any Sunday talk show since March of 2010. We invited Governor Romney again this week, but his campaign says he is still not ready to sit down for an interview.” Romney obliged Wallace on December 18th, sitting down for his first Sunday morning television show appearance in nearly two years. A transcript of the interview can be found here.
The Wallace interview was fairly mundane. The same assessment cannot be made regarding Romney's interview with Fox's Bret Baier last November 29th. Baier honed on in several topics that made Romney uncomfortable, including the resemblance between Romney's Massachusetts healthcare program and Obamacare, his record of flip-flopping, and the fact that New Hampshire's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, endorsed Newt Gingrich for president while suggesting that Romney lacked conviction.
Fair questions? Perhaps. But Baier crossed the line in a subsequent appearance on Fox's “O’Reilly Factor” when he revealed the contents of a private, post-interview conversation with Romney. Baier alleged that Romney complained that his questioning had been “overly aggressive” and “uncalled for." “He was irritated by the interview after we were done,” Baier told O'Reilly. O’Reilly pressed the issue. “How do you know he was irritated? Did he slap you? Or what did he do?” he asked. “Well, he just made it clear at the end of the interview ... He said he thought it was overly aggressive,” said Baier.
Adding to the anti-Romney intrigue at Fox was an incident best described as bizarre. In a video clip showing a picture of six out of the seven Republican candidates heading into the Iowa caucus, the photo appearing above Mitt Romney's name was none other than president Barack Obama. Later in the broadcast, host Megyn Kelly apologized for the error. "We put a graphic on the air, that as it turns out, was incorrect," Kelly explained. She further noted that Obama and Romney are "not the same man, not philosophically, not ideologically, not in any other way, so we apologize for that error."
So why would Fox News be on the anti-Romney bandwagon? A number of theories are possible, but going right to the top of this list is the reality that, despite the endlessly-promoted leftist claims that Fox is a shill for the Republican party, the CMPA study reveals that this is hardly the case. Fox's 63 percent negative bias vs. their 37 positive bias with regard to Romney is certainly less damning than the 78 percent negative vs. 22 percent positive bias demonstrated by ABC, NBC and CBS. But Romney was the only Republican presidential candidate to get a majority negative bias from all of the networks. In other words, when it comes to keeping a newscast free of opinion, Fox is merely less irresponsible than the other three news networks. Perhaps a rabid ideologue might consider the terms "less irresponsible" and "prejudicial" interchangeable. Reasonable people? Not so much.
Why is Romney getting more negative coverage than any other Republican? The simplest explanation was offered by CMPA director and George Mason University professor Robert Lichter. “The media love a horse race and hate a frontrunner,” he contends. That would be all of the media--Fox News included.
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