Good news: Network TV learned from 2016 debacle, embraced substance in 2020

Report confirms U-turn

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Covering an unparalleled campaign season set amidst a global pandemic and an incumbent president committed to attacking free and fair elections, network television evening newscasts broke with tradition in 2020. According to tabulation produced by Andrew Tyndall, a longtime network news analyst, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News election coverage largely shunned campaign distractions and instead focused on the voting process.

"The Tyndall Report has monitored the nightly newscasts' coverage of each quadrennial election cycle since 1988," he recently wrote. "Never before in any of the previous eight elections has so much attention been paid to the threats to a free and fair vote, nor to the efforts to secure the vote against any disruption."

Of course, the networks have never before covered a president who lobbed relentless threats to undermine free and fair elections, so it stands to reason the focus this year would be unique. To the networks' credit though, they treated the topic as hugely important. And they helped educate voters.

This represents a welcome U-turn from 2016 when Tyndall's analysis found that the same nightly network news programs drastically cut back on policy coverage — on what a Hillary Clinton or Trump presidency would look like — in order to gorge themselves on email "scandal" coverage.

Here's what Tyndall found for 2020:  

• During the final two months of the run-up to Election Day, the weekday newscasts of the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC combined) devoted more than three hours (186 minutes) to the conduct of the election. Is that a lot? During the previous eight election cycles combined, going back three decades, the three network newscasts devoted just 148 minutes in total to that same issue.

• In terms of the networks newscasts, NBC aired the most coverage of election threats, with 75 minutes, followed by 57 minutes from CBS and 54 minutes from ABC.

• The free and fair election reports focused on key warning signs: fears of continued foreign interference; cyber sabotage of voting machines and databases; failure of on-time delivery of mail-in ballots; rejecting legitimate ballots based on fraud allegations; worries about the health and safety of voting during a pandemic, and how that would impact the voting and counting process.



Not surprisingly, Tyndall found that in a pandemic year when Covid-19 was the biggest story in many years, network campaign coverage was drastically scaled back — 969 total minutes were aired by ABC, CBS, and NBC. That's compared to the normal White House election cycle of between 2,500 and 3,500 minutes.

Trump's campaign in 2020 received just a fraction of the network news attention that it did in 2016, when television news showered him with an outlandish amount of time and interest. For that campaign, he logged more than 1,000 minutes of nightly network news coverage. This year, "the Trump Campaign attracted a scant 112 minutes on the three nightly newscasts," the analyst reports. Even for an incumbent running for re-election, Trump's coverage was greatly diminished in 2020, because of all the pandemic news. (Biden's campaign suffered a similar scaling back compared to previous White House challengers.)

This year's network focus on election substance couldn't have been more different than 2016. Through most of that election season, World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage:  

• ABC: 8 minutes, all of which covered terrorism.

• NBC: 8 minutes for terrorism, LBGT issues, and foreign policy.

• CBS: 16 minutes for foreign policy, terrorism, immigration, policing, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tyndall found the networks devoted no campaign coverage to the candidates’ positions on trade, healthcare, climate change, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, or deficits.


Those numbers represented a staggering retreat from issues-oriented campaign coverage. Twelve years ago, when both parties nominated new candidates for the White House, the network newscasts devoted 220 minutes to issues coverage, compared to only 32 minutes in 2016.

It used to be a hallmark of presidential campaign reporting; outline what candidates stand for, describe what their presidency might look like, and compare and contrast that platform with his or her opponents. i.e. What would the new president’s top priorities be on the first day of his or her new administration?

Why so little substance coverage four years ago? Combined, the three network newscasts slotted 100 minutes for reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails while she served as secretary of state, compared to 32 minutes for policy positions. The networks didn't have enough time to cover the Clinton emails and substance, so they chose the emails.

A 2016 study released from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy confirmed that during the week of the Democratic national convention, just four percent of Clinton news coverage centered on all her policy and issues. Twice as much coverage that week was about her emails.

Thankfully in 2020, we saw a news correction. It’s interesting that when the campaign press focuses on substance, the Democrat wins.

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Here's a welcome Washington Post headline, "Biden plans immediate flurry of executive orders to reverse Trump policies":

He will rejoin the Paris climate accords, according to those close to his campaign and commitments he has made in recent months, and he will reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. He will repeal the ban on almost all travel from some Muslim-majority countries, and he will reinstate the program allowing “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country, according to people familiar with his plans.

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Laura Marling, "Strange Girl"

The seventh album from British singer-songwriter Marling arrived last this summer. “Strange Girl'“ is a ramped up, infectious, and nearly perfect acoustic pop offering.

“The girl in this song is an amalgamation of all my friends and I, and of all the things we’ve done,” Marling recently explained. “There’s something sweet about watching someone you know very well make the same mistakes over and over again. You can’t tell them what they need to know; they have to know it themselves. That’s true of everyone, including myself.”