April 13, 2002
The Democrats are getting fed up with watching President Bush on television.
In an unusual letter to the heads of the three cable news networks, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) complained about "the lack of television coverage of press events featuring elected leaders of the Democratic Party."
At the same time, the Bush White House "has received an extraordinary level of attention and coverage of their events," said the letter sent yesterday to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson and MSNBC President Erik Sorenson.
The lawmakers are taking the issue so seriously that they asked the Democratic National Committee to study CNN's coverage. From Jan. 1 through March 21, the letter said, CNN carried 157 live events involving the Bush administration, or 96 percent, and seven involving elected Democrats, or 4 percent. They said anecdotal evidence suggests a similar pattern at Fox and MSNBC.
Privately, Democratic officials said party activists often complain that Daschle and Gephardt aren't doing much because the two men are rarely seen on cable newscasts.
While Republicans sometimes grumbled that the cable networks were lavishing too much coverage on President Bill Clinton, the decision by the Democratic Party leaders to air their gripes reflects a growing degree of frustration as the midterm elections approach.
The networks shouldn't use a "stopwatch," they wrote, but "we are concerned that cable news coverage tilted toward the White House muffles the voice of the Democratic Party."
"Every time the president opens his mouth, he's covered live," said Erik Smith, Gephardt's spokesman. "Every single utterance from the White House on domestic policy gets treated with equal importance and equal relevance to the war on terrorism. You have Democrats on the Hill doing things relevant to the war on terrorism that should at least be considered for coverage ."
Said Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle's spokeswoman: "We're not saying we want equal, exact, balanced coverage. We understand an administration gets more coverage than a party only partly in the majority." But while White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's briefings are covered live, she said, "Daschle holds a dugout [meeting with reporters] almost daily and they don't get covered."
Phil Griffin, an MSNBC vice president, said that "the people dictating foreign policy are in the White House. Unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans got the White House and they're in charge. We did that with the Clinton White House as well. If you've got the White House you're going to get the attention, especially at a time like this."
Contrary to the Democrats' perception, Griffin added, "we're not taking every Bush speech."
CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said his network, "like all news organizations, makes decisions about its coverage based on the stories of the day. In covering a war at home and military action overseas, it is necessary to cover the administration making the decisions, regardless of political party."
A Fox News spokeswoman declined to comment.
The networks' usual tilt toward the party in the White House intensified after Sept. 11, when they switched to "America at War" mode and began regularly covering briefings by Fleischer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other administration officials. The DNC study cites such news events as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Jordan's King Abdullah meeting reporters, and a news conference by Vice President Cheney and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
All this has left the Democrats feeling neglected, and worried. On March 20, Daschle and Gephardt said, the cable channels ignored their press briefings, even though the House was voting on the Republican budget and the Senate was moving toward passage of campaign finance reform. That same day, the networks carried live appearances by the president, Laura Bush, Fleischer and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.