Campaign 2020 is being covered in a completely different fashion from any other recent Presidential election campaign.
Compare the first seven months of 2020 with the first seven months of the previous eight election years (measuring electoral coverage on the broadcast television networks' weekday nightly newscasts starting in 1988) and a radical departure from normal protocols reveals itself.
A disappearing act is what has happened. In the face of the overwhelming dominance of the news agenda by the coronavirus pandemic, network coverage of the quadrennial rituals of electoral politics has been decimated.
Through the end of July, the three nightly newscasts (ABC, CBS & NBC combined) devoted a total of 368 minutes to the Presidential campaign during 2020. In an average campaign year, that total has been 1,417, almost four times as much.
The networks' ritual celebration of democracy lies in tatters. Ritual, here, is used advisedly: the predictable nature of the set piece events of the election season allows television news once every four years to enact its celebration, assigning vast resources to the spectacle of the campaign, whether the underlying events happen to be newsworthy or not.
The set pieces of the campaign -- the primary season, the Vice-Presidential selection, the nominating conventions, the debates, and Election Day itself -- determine the highlights of coverage. The daily drumbeat is supplied by the Boys-On-The-Bus tradition of following the candidates on the stump. The networks add the clout of backroom resources with their opinion polling operations and the result-calling projections.
At the end of 2019, it seemed as though the networks were set up for business as usual for a campaign year. Their volume of penultimate-year coverage was absolutely in line with previous cycles in which an incumbent was running, meaning that only one of the two parties was gearing up for a primary contest: 2019 logged 398 minutes, more than 2003, 1995 and 1991 (167 mins, 294 mins, 146 mins respectively) but less than 2011 (790 min).
But then the pandemic hit. Actual breaking news supplanted set-piece traditions. Of the 31 weeks of the year so far, the coronavirus has been the nightly newscasts' Story of the Week in 21 of them. Campaign 2020 has been the week's Top Story only twice: the weeks of the Democrats' Iowa caucuses and their New Hampshire primary, in both of which Joe Biden suffered defeat. Biden's subsequent path to the nomination has been all-but invisible.
Compared with the 368 minutes devoted to all aspects of Campaign 2020 in the first seven months of the year, the coronavirus has logged 2,744 minutes, fully one third of the entire newshole. Besides Iowa and New Hampshire, the only other non-COVID Stories of the Week have been the assassination of Iran's General Qasem Soleimani (twice), the impeachment trial of Donald Trump (twice), the death of Kobe Bryant (once) and the protests against police brutality following the chokehold killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis (three times).
Speaking of President Trump: when an incumbent runs, the nightly news covers him two ways, both as a candidate in his own re-election campaign, and as the president exercising the powers of his office. So it is normal for overall campaign coverage to be slightly lighter in re-election years, since the resources that would normally be devoted to the campaign beat are in part redirected to the White House beat. In the first seven months of the eight previous campaign years, coverage averaged 1,139 minutes with an incumbent running (with a low of 834 minutes in 1996) compared with 1,695 minutes with an open seat (with a high of 2,153 minutes in 2008).
Even as coverage of the coronavirus has clearly eclipsed both the Biden candidacy and Trump's re-election campaign, it turns out that it has also marginally sidelined Trump's oversized media presence, writ large, candidate-and-president combined.
Despite his in-person conduct of afternoon White House briefings on the coronavirus, despite his central role as defendant in the Senate impeachment trial, Donald Trump has had a somewhat diminished overall presence on the nightly newscasts compared with 2019. Last year, the three networks featured a Trump soundbite (on any topic whatsoever, governmental, campaign-related, or human interest) an average of 187 times each month. In the first seven months of 2020, that monthly average fell 15% to 160.
Donald Trump broke annual records four years ago for coverage of his campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton: he attracted 1,144 minutes in total, more than doubling her 506. Yet in the midst of the greatest crisis of his Presidency, even as he gears up to make his pitch for re-election, Trump suffers a diminished presence on the nightly news. And the campaign contest overall amounts to a mere afterthought.
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