The Campaign Spot

The Nightly News’ Curious Disinterest in the Midterm Elections

The Newsbusters guys chuckle at a CNBC discussion of the lack of network news coverage of the midterm elections, compared to 2006.

The Media Research Center watched the network news broadcasts and counted up the news stories:

When Democrats were feeling good about their election prospects eight years ago, the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC World News aired a combined 159 campaign stories (91 full reports and another 68 stories that mentioned the campaign). But during the same time period this year, those same newscasts have offered a paltry 25 stories (16 full reports and 9 mentions), a six-to-one disparity.

The Newsbusters guys take issue with CNBC Washington correspondent John Harwood’s explanations, including the claim that “this is an election where there isn’t a dominant issue, you’ve got a whole bunch of little issues.” But this fall’s news cycle hasn’t really had a bunch of little issues; it’s had two really big ones with lots of different daily developments: the Ebola outbreak and then the U.S. beginning (and continuing) air operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, along the blame game over whether the administration underestimated ISIS. Both of those can be covered outside of a campaign context, or within it . . . 

The simplest, and most likely, explanation is that the networks are eager and excited to cover elections when Democrats are expected to win and much less interested and easily distracted when Republicans are expected to win.

That having been said, there are one or two non-ideological explanations too.

First, the network news broadcasts may be a lot more light and fluffy feature stories these days compared to eight years ago. Last night’s NBC News broadcast featured “thousands of shelter dogs in need of new homes and families, and the armies of volunteers helping to get them there.” Hey, everybody loves footage of puppies.

Second, the 2006 wave election changed the House and the Senate, changing the dynamic of Washington from a Republican president working with a Republican Congress to a Republican president working with a Democratic Congress. Because this year is going to leave us with a Democratic president and a Republican House — and probably, although not yet certainly, a Republican Senate — the dynamic will change less dramatically. A lot of voters on both sides of the political divide feel that the stakes aren’t particularly high.

Andrew Ross Sorkin offers the theory “there’s not an interesting candidate in this whole situation”? That explanation isn’t particularly compelling. Joni Ernst isn’t interesting? Harvard Iraq veteran Tom Cotton isn’t interesting? Cory Gardner’s not interesting? Scott Brown trying to win two senatorial elections in two different states in a four-year span isn’t interesting?

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