Last year, Democrats posted their best midterm cycle win since Watergate, flipping 40 seats in the House as part of a sweeping blue-wave pushback against Trump. Yet the three major television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, devoted less than half as much airtime covering the 2018 resistance midterm cycle as they did covering the GOP's big tea party-assisted House win in 2010 under President Barack Obama.
Last year, during Trump's first midterm election cycle, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News aired 274 minutes on the topic, according to monitoring done by television news researcher Andrew Tyndall, who recently emailed his annual findings to followers. But during Obama's first midterm election cycle in 2010, the same network newscasts aired an astounding 666 minutes when tea party activists rallied against the Democratic president and helped the GOP take control of the House.
The networks just weren't that enamored with Democrats last year. For instance, World News Tonight spent more time covering Hurricane Florence in South Carolina (68 minutes) than it did covering the entire midterm election cycle (67 minutes), which Democrats dominated.
The snubbing appears to be part of a long-running trend, where the networks are far more keyed into midterm cycles when Republicans do well, compared to when Democrats score big wins. Indeed, the tea party findings once again seem to confirm that so many Beltway news cycles revolve around a very simple premise: What are Republicans angry about today?
Note that, since 1990, Democrats have posted their two best midterm wins in 2018 and in 2006. During those two years, the networks aired a combined 649 minutes of election coverage, according to Tyndall. By contrast, the networks aired a stunning 1,110 minutes in the Republicans' two best midterm cycles, in 1994 and in 2010.
It's true that, numerically, Republicans picked up more House seats in 1994 and 2010 (117) than Democrats did in 2006 and 2018 (71), but some of that is because of increased gerrymandering over the last decade by Republicans, which has made it harder for political parties to flip seats. Still, there's no question that the amount of time devoted to those four signature midterm campaign cycles should have been relatively similar. But it wasn't even close.
That's because the press went bonkers producing coverage of the GOP's so-called Contract With America in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president (453 minutes), and the tea party uprising under Obama (666 minutes). In both instances, the press played a key role in hyping Republicans’ claims and helping them turn the midterm cycles into national referendums.
How big are those numbers, 453 minutes and 666 minutes, respectively? According to Tyndall, the most-covered news story on the network evening newscasts for all of 2018 was the nomination and then bruising confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. For that, the networks set aside 426 minutes of coverage. Yet that's still less than the amount of time the networks devoted to the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans won big.
It really is amazing to look back and see how the political press in America absolutely showered the tea party with nonstop coverage after Obama was elected. The newly elected Democrat had just won a historic landslide victory. Yet the D.C. press corps almost immediately—within weeks of Obama being inaugurated—decided that loudmouth Republican critics represented the real story in American politics. Fox News' unabashed marketing and promotion of the anti-Obama tea party movement helped the Republican allies create even more headlines.
Recall that the tea party movement was born on CNBC, when reporter Rick Santelli started ranting about Obama on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange, warning viewers the new Democratic president was steering the country toward a Cuban Castro-like economy. CNBC then hyped the clip incessantly ("Shot Heard Around The Word"/"Santelli's Manifesto"), while NBC led its evening newscast the night of the rant with a clip of Santelli, announcing his rant had struck a "populist" chord. (It hadn't: Polling at the time clearly showed that most Americans supported Obama’s plan to stem foreclosures, which is what Santelli had railed against.)
One other example of how the network newscasts often pay less attention to midterm cycles that favor Democrats came in 1998. That year, the networks produced a paltry 158 minutes of election coverage. The punch line is that the networks were so busy burying Clinton with impeachment and Monica Lewinsky coverage that they didn't have time left to pay attention to the fact that Democrats used the GOP's and the media's ceaseless scandal hysteria to actually win seats in the House, an almost unheard-of accomplishment for a party in power whose president is serving his second term. In 1998, the three networks aired an almost unimaginable 1,931 minutes of Clinton sex scandal coverage, according to Tyndall, but just 158 minutes on the Democrats' victorious midterm election cycle. That year, CBS Evening News produced just 50 minutes of midterm coverage, compared to a staggering 662 minutes of CBS White House scandal reporting.
When the Democratic Party scores historic midterm election wins, it ought to be treated by the media in the same way as the GOP is when it does.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.