Television news coverage was less judgmental than eight years before. Fully 62% of stories about Bush were neutral in tone, compared with 48% eight years earlier. The big change: the percentage of negative stories dropped by half (from 30% to 16%).
It is impossible to know, yet, whether this is because of some change in television or some difference between Bush and Clinton. If television news has a penchant for focusing on gaffes and controversies, however, one thing that is clear is that Bush offered less in the way of such fodder in his early days than Clinton.
Another factor is that Bush did less in the way of made-for-television appearances, staying more behind the scenes and behind the ropes.
One interesting fact is that from 1993 to 2001, television doubled the percent of stories produced around the theme of conflict, from 13% to 25%. This held true at every network, suggesting that television may have made up for the increase in neutrality by offering viewers a "fight" yet to be won.
NBC saw the greatest change in tone. In general, its stories have been much more positive or neutral toward Bush than they were toward Clinton. Only 9% of its stories were negative in tone in Bush's first two months, compared with 42% of its stories of Clinton eight years earlier. The percentage of stories that were neutral surged. (from 40% to 65% in 2001). In turn, its positive coverage increased from 18% for Clinton to 26% for Bush.
In addition to bucking the trend in network TV in the amount of coverage between 1993 and 2001, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer was also decidedly different than that of the other networks in tone.
It was the only network to become less neutral (63% to 58%) in covering Bush than in covering Clinton. (Its favorable coverage grew from 29% for Clinton to 34% for Bush, while its negative coverage declined slightly.)
And in both years, its critical coverage was starkly less than that of the other networks. Just 9% of its Clinton stories were negative in 1993, compared with 30% for networks overall. This year, just 8% of Bush stories were negative, compared with 16% overall.
The Topics on TV
In choosing the topics to cover about each president, the networks significantly cut back on the number of character stories in covering Bush versus what it produced about Clinton (16% compared with 25%). In addition, coverage of domestic policy rose (69% up from 55%), while coverage of the president and foreign affairs, already dwindling on network TV, also declined (to 13% from 16%).
Again the shifts at NBC stood out, putting it much more in line with the other networks by 2001. Its domestic policy coverage more than doubled, from 29% to 70%. Character stories on the network fell from nearly half, 45%, of Clinton coverage to only 17% of Bush coverage, and the president's foreign policy was cut in half, from 18% to 9%.