On Reconciliation Bill, CNN Aired Horse Race Coverage 11X More than Substance
CNN insists it adequately covers the substance of the “$3.5 Trillion” “social spending” bill, but a survey of three of its major news programs tells a different story.
A Column survey of 12 segments on CNN’s major news shows covering the Reconciliation Bill during the height of the debate reveals that the vast majority—or 91.3% percent—of CNN’s coverage focused on Horse Race over the substance of the bill.
The survey of CNN’s coverage was done in response to an October 18 segment by CNN’s Brianna Keilar which mocked Sen. Bernie Sanders for his claim that “the mainstream media has done an exceptionally poor job covering what is actually in the legislation.” You can watch the segment here:
To offer evidence CNN has covered the substance of the Reconciliation bill, Keilar quickly throws up a dozen screencaps ostensibly showing the outlet doing just this. But Sanders and other progressive critics of mainstream media didn’t say CNN never covered the substance: They claim they did an “exceptionally poor job covering what is actually in the legislation” more broadly––a claim borne out in an analysis of CNN’s coverage.
CNN has millions of dollars at its disposal and could have easily marshaled several of its researchers and reporters to do a robust analysis of its coverage of the reconciliation bill, share these findings using open source means, and prove beyond any reasonable double, that Sanders and other progressive critics were being unfair and lashing out without basis to do so. Instead it just cobbled together 12 screencaps (several of which ran after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Sanders and others started registering complaints about a lack of substantive coverage), simply asserted progressive claims of media bias are outlandish and offensive, and moved on.
But a detailed survey of 12 reconciliation bill segments aired on CNN’s major three news programs––The Lead With Jake Tapper, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, and Anderson Cooper 360––reveals that the network covered Horse Race over substance 11-to-1. Of the 2 hours and 6 minutes of total coverage analyzed, only 10 minutes was dedicated to discussing what was actually in the bill and 1 hour and 55 minutes of airtime was spent on Horse Race. The Column analyzed four segments from each of the three shows and tallied how many total seconds went to discussing what was in the bill versus how many seconds were dedicated to covering the meta––or Horse Race elements––of the lawmaking process: sausage making, speculating about how the bill would play in polls, which Senator “fired back” at which Senator, how much the bill would “cost” “taxpayers,” and any topic of discussion separate from the content of the bill itself.
The details of the survey can be found here, as are links to the segments for one to watch and see for themselves.
The Column argued two weeks ago that U.S. corporate media was doing a poor job covering the substance of the bill, citing several reports from the previous 24 hours. It wasn’t a terribly scientific survey, but meant as a snapshot of one day of coverage at the height of the debate.
Obviously, The Column doesn’t have CNN’s resources, but we were able to do a 12-segment survey of CNN’s coverage from a high point of the debate, the final four days of September. We chose the final four days of September because it was the peak of the public debate on the reconciliation bill, and it occurred before Sen. Sanders and other progressives began working the refs on coverage, complaining about the hollowness of the public debate––thus we feel it’s more representative of the point Sanders was making.
“The Lead with Jake Tapper” fared the worst of the shows. In the four segments covering the bill we surveyed, only 41 seconds of the 28 minutes and 30 seconds total, or 2.3 percent, was used to discuss the substance of the bill. The rest was dedicated to Horse Race with a focus on “progressives vs. moderates” in the Senate framing, tea leaf reading where President Biden stood, and discussions on how a “failure to reach a deal” could impact 2022.
None of the 12 segments dedicated any resources to reporting the potential human stakes of the bill. There were no personal interest stories on seniors unable to afford dental care or hearing aids, no profiles of poor mothers explaining how much they would benefit from having childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, no interviews with poor teenagers on what free community college would mean to them, no detailed analysis of what will happen if the federal government doesn’t begin to meaningfully tackle climate change––nor any discussions or debates about the potential “price tag” of not tackling climate change, estimated to be around $23 trillion globally by 2050.
The bulk of the time the actual substance of the bill was discussed was when Cooper, Blitzer, or Tapper invited progressives such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Bernie Sanders on their programs to discuss the legislation––which, to their credit, is a deliberate editorial choice. With the time they were given, Jayapal and Sanders attempted to get across to their viewers what was actually in the bill and how it could impact the lives of poor, working class people, but spent most of their time responding to Horse Race questions about the process, which Senator stood where, what the expectations were, and what they were willing to gut from the bill.
None of this is to take away from separate messaging failures on the part of the Democrats––for which Keilar lays sole blame for the lack of public outrage over the bill’s stalling. They no doubt exist: President Biden has been largely absent from the bully pulpit and even congressional Democrats send mixed messages about what the red lines of the bill are. But CNN and others in the media reflexively feigning outrage at the suggestion they’ve failed to accurately convey the substantive human stakes of these programs would do well to use the tremendous resources provided by their corporate funders and analyze their actual coverage, not random screencaps of it. It’s not difficult to do, and any sober reading of their coverage over the past weeks would reveal an overwhelming focus on Horse Race over substance. Instead of spending their airtime defensively mocking this manifestly true premise, perhaps CNN could redirect it to doing the thing they're criticized for not doing: meaningfully conveying the human stakes of what’s actually in the bill.