Heading into the final full week of the midterm election contest, Campaign 2010 is still on track to break records for intensity of coverage on the network nightly newscasts. It has been four weeks since Tyndall Report reported that the 2010 had already attracted more attention than the lackluster midterm races of 1990, 1998 and 2002. Only the two so-called change elections--when partisan control of the House of Representatives switched--were more newsworthy at that time: 1994 and 2006. In the last four weeks, Campaign 2010 has logged an additional three hours of coverage on the three nightly newscasts. So 2006 is already in the rear view mirror. The leaves 1994, the last time Republicans took the Speaker's gavel away from Democrats, yet to be surpassed.    
click to playstoryanglereporterdateline
video thumbnailCBSIraq: combat continues after US troops pull outSecret files reveal torture, civilian deathsDavid MartinPentagon
video thumbnailNBC2010 midterm election trends overviewCelebrity politicians from both parties on stumpChuck ToddWashington DC
video thumbnailABC2010 midterm election trends overviewPessimistic Democrats already play blame gameJake TapperLos Angeles
video thumbnailCBS2010 midterm election trends overviewFloods of anonymous non-profit funds donatedSharyl AttkissonWashington DC
video thumbnailABC2010 House races previewedChairman Barney Frank in unusually close raceJohn BermanMassachusetts
video thumbnailABCDiabetes coverageCDC predict epidemic of blindness, amputationRichard BesserNew York
video thumbnailCBSCholera outbreak in western HaitiTransmitted by crisis in clean water supplyJon LaPookNew York
video thumbnailNBCNPR analyst Juan Williams fired, hired by FOX NewsSupporters call for cuts in federal NPR fundingAndrea MitchellWashington DC
video thumbnailNBCFormer Sen Ted Stevens (R-AK) dies in plane crashDateline docu on pair of surviving passengersAnn CurryVirginia
video thumbnailABCChimpanzee research in Tanzania rain forestsNatl Geographic honors Jane Goodall's 50 yearsDiane SawyerNew York
COVERAGE OF MIDTERMS STILL SIGNALS CHANGE Heading into the final full week of the midterm election contest, Campaign 2010 is still on track to break records for intensity of coverage on the network nightly newscasts. It has been four weeks since Tyndall Report reported that the 2010 had already attracted more attention than the lackluster midterm races of 1990, 1998 and 2002. Only the two so-called change elections--when partisan control of the House of Representatives switched--were more newsworthy at that time: 1994 and 2006. In the last four weeks, Campaign 2010 has logged an additional three hours of coverage on the three nightly newscasts. So 2006 is already in the rear view mirror. The leaves 1994, the last time Republicans took the Speaker's gavel away from Democrats, yet to be surpassed.

Yet even as Campaign 2010 heads for record levels of coverage, what is remarkable is how little hard news the campaign has made. In the most recent four weeks (20 weekdays of newscasts), the midterm campaign has qualified as Story of the Day on only three occasions. On one occasion, for example, Barack Obama began his get-out-the-vote tour of college campuses; on another Sarah Palin kicked off her 30-city tour for the Tea Party Express. On those 20 weekdays, the campaign was chosen as NBC's lead item just three times; ABC and CBS on only two dates.

The rescued miners trapped beneath the Atacama Desert in Chile played a large part in hogging headlines that would otherwise have belonged to politicians--but that is only part of the explanation. As important as this election has the potential to be in shifting the balance of power on Capitol Hill, it is still just a collection of local and statewide races. When news is made on the stump it may turn into headlines on local newscasts. The mission of the national newscasts is more feature-oriented, to provide overview, context and analysis.

So, how have the networks managed to produce angles of national relevance out of the crossfire of hundreds of local races? Too often their solution has been to take the easy route. Too often the celebrity candidate with the outrageous soundbite or the intemperate campaign commercial has qualified for the national spotlight. No surprise, the three most heavily covered Senate races have been in Delaware (36 mins), Nevada (18 mins) and Connecticut (16 mins)--a once-upon-a-time wannabe witch, Man Up! Harry Reid, and an executive who kicks her husband in the balls.

Yet the coverage was not unremittingly trivial. Let's explain how to sort the wheat from the chaff and to offer some links for enlightenment. As usual, as the saying goes, In Todd We Trust (Chuck that is). All others pay cash.

Here are the numbers. Campaign 2010 has now attracted a total of 433 minutes of coverage so far this year. CBS has taken the lead (163 v ABC 133, NBC 137). Of that total, most time has been focused on the Senate, either individual races (167 mins) or the overall contest for control (60 mins). Interestingly, the House of Representatives (68 mins) is still lagging the attention it attracted in the two previous turnover years (167 mins in 1994; 152 mins in 2006). ABC has been more conscientious than its two rivals in taking time to cover individual House races. Here is Jake Tapper on John Spratt's defense of his South Carolina seat; John Berman on Barney Frank in Massachusetts; and Jonathan Karl on the at-large seat in South Dakota.

For the record, the annual totals for previous midterms are as follows: 1990--258 mins; 1994--453 mins; 1998--184 mins; 2002--256 mins; 2006--375 mins.

Considering that the contest for control of the House is taking place nationwide and that Senate races are being held only in selected states, the networks' decision to find the Senate more newsworthy demonstrates how much easier they find it to cover flamboyant celebrities rather than abstract public policies; the clash of personalities rather than ideological, regional and demographic trends. Flamboyant as in…

Christine O'Donnell advertises the fact that she is not a witch.
Rand Paul is accused of worshipping Aqua Buddha by Jack Conway.
Ken Buck equates being gay with being a drunk on Meet the Press.
Joe Miller has his bodyguards handcuff a questioning reporter.
Linda McMahon kicks her husband in the groin on WWE videotape.
Meg Whitman is insulted as a whore by Jerry Brown's aide.

[For the record, NBC's Lee Cowan explained that Whitman-is-a-whore slur thus: Brown's staff had just discovered that she had promised to exempt police pensions from budget cuts in exchange for the police union's endorsement. I say that the term "pander" is routinely used, without controversy, when a politician trades the promise of a favor to an interest group in exchange for its support. So it is clear that there is no problem with using prostitution as a metaphor for the shameless trading of campaign pledges for votes. Whitman's complaint appears to rest on the idea that a politician should never be accused of figuratively selling herself for sex--only of offering to sell someone else]

These examples are plenty of fun but generic invocations of the angry mood on the stump tell viewers little about the substance of the campaign and its consequences for the future. "Anger management is not required or even expected," joked NBC's Kelly O'Donnell. "Beyond political theater there is real anger heading to these midterms," worried NBC's Mike Taibbi. NBC's campaign coverage this year has been the oddest mixture. These correspondents link a series of outrageous soundbites under the lazy rubric "anger." Andrea Mitchell edits a montage of clips of actors in campaign commercials--the so-called hickey blue collar types in West Virginia, the Law & Order character posing as a steelworker in Ohio, the stock photos of threatening undocumented immigrants in Louisiana and Nevada--to set up her punchline: "You would not think there is a shortage of unemployed workers in Ohio." Meanwhile the network's political director Chuck Todd has routinely filed the most concise and lucid analysis, finding insight amid the noise.

Besides these shiny soundbites, Todd, and several other political correspondents, did the more difficult work of trying to explain what is going on in four separate areas. What are the key voter trends that will determine this election? Which public policy issues are driving voters to pick sides and which are irrelevant? What political tactics is each party using to maximize its prospects and minimize its losses? What are the potential future scenarios for the conduct of the federal government?

HOW THE NEWSCASTS REPORT ON VOTER TRENDS It is a rule of thumb that whenever President Barack Obama is presented as the central figure in a Campaign 2010 story by a White House correspondent, we are not going to hear a story about public policy or issues. We are going to be told about demographic trends and get-out-the-vote efforts. CBS' Chip Reid showed us Obama "giving it the old college try" as he tried to energize the Democratic Party's twentysomething base on campus. Later Reid reported on CBS News' poll of voters who supported Obama in 2008: 67% plan to vote Democratic; 8% Republican; 21% uncommitted. ABC's Jake Tapper investigated the party's vanishingly small gender gap: "The women's vote is up for grabs."

The get-out-the-vote effort for another bloc in the Democratic Party's coalition was covered by CBS' John Blackstone. There are nine states in which Hispanic voters make up at least 10% of the electorate. Blackstone reckoned their vote will be decisive in California and Nevada. ABC's Jonathan Karl sliced the problem geographically: "Perhaps no state has swung more dramatically away from the Democrats than Ohio. They are preparing for a bloodbath here…It is hard to imagine the Republicans winning back the House without winning big here in Ohio."

Last month, at the end of the primary season, Tyndall Report pointed out that the Tea Party was the season's leading newsmaker, after its series of insurgent challenges to favorites of Republican Party leaders. Now the networks are conducting their own opinion polls in the run-up to the general election. CBS News' poll found that fully 81% of the Tea Party plans to vote Republican, "overwhelmingly white, male, Protestant and fired up," according to Dean Reynolds. But they are not, apparently, that numerous: ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported that his network's poll measured just 18% of likely voters to be Tea Party supporters. CBS' Ben Tracy used the same 18% estimate in his coverage of the Tea Party Express.

This is how NBC political director Chuck Todd put it: "The Tea Party has been helpful to the GOP in both rebranding the party away from George Bush and giving it a real grassroots component but this Tea Party influence in Republican primaries has put a number of Senate seats in play for Democrats that at this point should be out of reach…Delaware, Kentucky, Colorado, Nevada--and even Alaska."

The bottom line to explain voters' decisions, as far as NBC's Todd is concerned, does not rely on demographic voting blocs or minority ideological factions. Simply, 59% of likely voters believe the country is headed on the "wrong track," according to his network's poll. In 1994 that statistic was 55%; in 2006 it was 61%: "The bottom line--this is a national environment that indicates we are headed to a change election."

HOW THE NEWSCASTS COVER PARTISAN TACTICS The state of the country represents such an adverse environment for Democrats that they actually find consolation in the propensity for that handful of (mostly) Republican candidates to grab wacky headlines. Nowhere are the two conditions as extreme as in Nevada where Majority Leader Harry Reid is defending his Senate seat against Sharron Crazy Juice Angle (the insult is from a Reid ad). CBS' Ben Tracy pointed out that the economy--unemployment plus foreclosures--is more adverse in Nevada than anywhere else; at the same time Angle has more Tea Party support than any other Republican.

CBS' political correspondent Jeff Greenfield found a microcosm for the parties' national tactics in a single Senate race: "It turns out all politics is not local," he concluded after studying the Colorado contest between Michael Bennet, the incumbent Democrat, and Ken Buck, the Tea Party nominee on the Republican line--"an insurgent Republican seeking to tie his opponent to Washington and to an unpopular President; a Democrat seeking independent votes by arguing his opponent is simply too far out of the mainstream." Buck offers inside-the-Beltway gridlock as his campaign pledge.

ABC's Jonathan Karl did the job in the editing room, stringing together soundbites from debates all across the nation. He nailed the emasculating tactics of Tea Party women, the outsider-vs-insider feuding, the way healthcare reform and federal deficits are explained--and the routine E-word used by Democrats in response. Check out the videotape then see what a good job Karl did by playing CBS' Tracy on the Reid-Angle debate.

CBS' Greenfield summed up their tactic thus: "Convince the voters that this election is a choice" rather than a referendum on the achievements of the last two years. NBC's Chuck Todd called it the "strategy of using controversial statements or background of specific Tea Party nominees…to paint the entire Republican Party as out of the mainstream."

What about campaign finance? All three networks examined the impact of anonymously-funded, non-profit, issue-advocacy groups. CBS' Nancy Cordes reported that Democratic groups are being outspent five-to-one: "Republicans argue they are just taking the playbook written by and other Democratic groups…and putting it on steroids." Her colleague Sharyl Attkisson filed a Follow the Money feature that ticked off the United States Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, founded by Republican operative Karl Rove, as even bigger spenders than the largest labor unions: "Political observers have watched with delight or horror--but certainly awe…For the first time in a midterm, outside groups are outspending the official Democratic and Republican parties."

In the "horror" category, include NBC investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. He complained about opened floodgates "for a whole bunch of non-profit groups that nobody has ever heard of…a return to seven-figure donations…as many as $20m-plus checks have come in from hedge fund moguls…really a return to the days before Watergate, the wild west days, no restrictions, secret money."

By the way, ABC's Jake Tapper picked up on accusations that the anonymously-donated tens of millions of dollars being spent on anti-Democratic advertising by the Chamber of Commerce may include contributions from foreign businesses. "No foreign money is used to fund our political activities," the Chamber told Tapper. Tapper asked rhetorically: "Is there any proof that foreign money is funding political ads or activities?" He answered the question himself. "No." A few days later, Tapper returned to the Democratic complaints about the anonymity of the millions being raised against them by quoting this taunt from Rove's American Crossroads: "We have raised $14m since the President and the DNC began attacking us, by far the biggest ten days of fundraising we have ever had."

HOW THE NEWSCASTS PRESENT CAMPAIGN ISSUES Those Senate races with the flaky soundbites and the flamboyant ads may be getting a disproportionate share of the coverage. That does not mean that there are not normal, level-headed, partisan contests taking place where the choice is framed as competing public policy ideologies--not a referendum on a candidate's stability.

CBS' Chip Reid took us to the Patty Murray-Dino Rossi contest in Washington State. She runs on her support for economic stimulus, health insurance reform and federal funding for local defense industries; he wants lower taxation, a smaller federal government and no more earmarked spending. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell covered another non-outlandish race, in Wisconsin, between incumbent Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson, a plastics tycoon from Oshkosh: "Spending millions of his own money on his campaign Johnson says he got in the race to repeal healthcare reform. Feingold is the only Democrat in the country running a campaign ad that touts his Yes vote." CBS' Dean Reynolds found the same clean demarcation: "Johnson opposes the new healthcare law as European style socialism; Feingold is its champion. Johnson opposes the stimulus; Feingold voted for it."

You would not know it--because neither candidates nor correspondents can bring themselves to use the straightforward terminology of Economics 101--but the two parties actually have a clear, sincere disagreement about the virtues of Keynesian remedies in the face of a shortfall of demand in the macroeconomy.

What should the federal government do in the aftermath of a recession, when consumers are trying to pay off debt and businesses are loath to invest with so many potential customers unemployed? Should it ramp up short term borrowing to prevent more layoffs and to pay for hiring to build infrastructure for the long term? If this election is about anything it is about that. If Republicans prevail that will represent a repudiation of such demand-side solutions to the unemployment crisis. ABC's Jonathan Karl offered a gem of a soundbite from Sarah Palin, that vividly presents the anti-Keynesian case: "Porkulus, stimulus, yes right! Shovel-ready projects, my Astroturf! Yes right, we know what they were shoveling--and it was not asphalt!" Karl did not present any pro-Keynesian rebuttal, let alone one with such rhetorical flair.

This is how NBC's Ron Mott summarized the Senate race in Florida, quoting Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, the frontrunning Republican nominee: "If you think the stimulus is a good idea; if you think Obamacare is a good idea; if you think runaway debt is a good idea--then I am probably not your candidate." Only the third policy is a dubious proposition on Rubio's part. The first two clearly delineate the difference between Democrats and Republicans. On the third issue, time will tell whether a Tea-Party-inflected GOP will manage to restore the balanced budgets that George Bush inherited, and then frittered away, from Bill Clinton.

NBC's political director Chuck Todd came up with a subtle explanation about why this election can be seen as a referendum on healthcare reform: "The bad economy has set the national mood but healthcare is the rhetorical weapon of choice for Republicans. They use it to tie Democrats to Obamacare or to make a point on government overreach or even to say it is the reason why businesses are not creating jobs." Todd revisited the issue when debaters pledged repeal in Florida and Georgia: "While healthcare is perhaps the most heated debate topic it is still the economy that is viewed as the top issue in our new poll. On healthcare the rhetoric may be clear but the public's views on it are very nuanced--and nuanced is something politicians do not do well 13 days before an election."

What other policy disputes have been worthy of mention during the last four weeks of campaign coverage? Afghanistan (not mentioned). Global Warming (just once, by pro-carbon Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia). Illegal immigration (regionally, in California and Nevada). War on Drugs: in the last four weeks there has not been a single report on California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.

HOW THE NEWSCASTS PREVIEW THE POLITICAL FUTURE Confronted with so much loose talk about voter anger, CBS anchor Katie Couric decided to convene a series of focus groups to sample the vox pop of jus' folks. Her American Voices traveled to Ohio to sample the fallout from unemployment, to Pennsylvania to gauge the mood of independent swing voters, and to Massachusetts to listen to once-enthusiastic twentysomethings on campus. "Hope is fading. Frustration is growing. Everyone is saying these midterm elections are about anger. Are you angry?"

Well, not so much…"concerned"…"these things happen"…"I would not say the wrong direction," Couric was told in Ohio. "I am not out for revenge"…"I am out for solutions"…"I want results," they volunteered in Pennsylvania. There the independents called for partisans to put the people first and do what is best for their country. What about the Tea Party? "Another voice from the fringe"…"absolutely terrorizing"…"the Inflammatory Party." NBC political director Chuck Todd consulted his network's polling one last time and found a different set of voices from those Couric convened. He found rigid ideologues (57%) more popular than cross-partisan compromisers (34%): "We are going to have a very polarized Congress. The Democratic caucus is getting more liberal; the Republican caucus getting more conservative."

"The returns are not even in yet and Democrats are looking for explanations as to why things have gone so wrong," reported ABC's Jake Tapper as he summarized their premature blame game. He picked up on three contradictory theories: Democrats did not have the guts to be proud of their accomplishments; they ran on a record full of base-pleasing liberal causes instead of a focus on unemployment; corporate special interests had excessive influence with third-party spending on campaign ads.

Unfortunately Tapper offered no analysis as to which mix of those theories hits the nail on the head.